Wednesday, June 25, 2014

No Such Thing as a Simple Suicide

This morning I read some heartbreaking news about a man who attended my same high school and college, someone I used to crush on every time I saw the bright blue sparkle of his eyes as I passed him in the hall. He was smart, athletic and a self-made millionaire, but most importantly he was a precious member of his family. Andrew Stern committed suicide this past Sunday in California. He had been amicably separated from his wife, model Katie Cleary, and they were in the midst of divorcing. Despite marital issues,  his family was aware of Andrew's longtime struggle with depression ( My heart goes out to his loved ones.

The community I grew up in wasn't the kind that wanted to discuss the mental struggles of its youth. While Andrew died at 40, most adults with depression likely suffer from its beginning in their youth. Researchers are now finding that depression begins in childhood or adolescence ( Since graduating, I've gotten to know various classmates who I always thought were just super shy, but in truth, it was a cover for depression that they simply didn't feel comfortable discussing. I hear their stories, and it breaks my heart because I think how much we each needed a friend back then.

I waltzed my own dance with depression and anxiety from a young age, not getting help until I was in college. It's hard to describe, but our community was almost too perfect from within to declare mental defects. I certainly couldn't wear the scarlet D on my lapel while living and going to school there. It was easier to hide it, although the more I hid it, the more it overwhelmed me. By the time I got help, I felt like a snowball that had started the size of a marble, and ended up the size of a boulder.

My hometown was a great place to grow up, just so long as you didn't admit any imperfections while doing so. It was almost as though the perfection of the community had an inverse effect on the youth. The harder one tried to be perfect, the harder it was not to crumble under the pressure. It became obvious that things weren't so perfect when one of our guidance counselors committed suicide my sophomore year. It was like the air was made out of shards of glass, and with every step our hearts and souls were cut and scratched, bleeding sorrow everywhere. I believe she meant it to be a simple way out of whatever emotional and physical turmoil she was living in, but there is NO such thing as a simple suicide.

I learned this first hand on May 1999 when I was on the front porch of my grandma's home. My Uncle Don, also living there, walked into his bedroom and swallowed a .357 magnum. It took his life in the blink of an eye, but the pain that remained continues to haunt my family up until this day. Don was so lost and desperate that a gunshot must have seemed a very instantaneous way to exit the life he obviously hated living. What he may or may not have realized was that there is never a true moment of peace for those left behind. Family and friends may try to wax on that they've found peace in the years that have passed, but it's never that simple. There is always a memory, a smell, a picture of that person no longer living, and it's an eternal puzzle why they left. It's never simple.

It's too bad that mental illness carries with it such a negative stigma, because it's truly no different than any other illness. I write this, though, knowing that I don't take all the medication I'm supposed to take for my own depression and anxiety. There's something about it that I can't describe. It's as if I'm trying to prove to the Universe that I can get by without it. Sort of like training wheels! I want to ride my bike without training wheels, even if I do end up riding into a parked car.

Mental illness is like one of those fun houses at the Fair. It looks like a house on the outside, but everything inside is distorted, and it's subjectively screwed up to the person going through it. Medication and therapy can help the distortion, but the person has to be open to it. My uncle wasn't open to it, and I'm pretty sure that's why he's in an urn rather than at family gatherings. I say this after admitting my own aversion to it taking all my medicine, but somehow we need to work as a community, as a culture so that those who struggle emotionally can get the help they need rather than the grave they think they want.

I pray that the family of Andrew Stern finds comfort in each other and in the memory of the great man their son was during his years here on Earth. May God bless them all in their time of healing.