WWB INSIGHT: The Many Faces of Suicide and the Elephant in the Room We Don’t Want to Miss…

Jun 11, 2018 by

WWBINSIGHT2018LC

 

                  “The universe offers you three things that money cannot buy:  
                                                              joy, love, and life.” 

                                                          ~Matshona Dhiliway

 

This was a very tough week for our culture. Two high-profile celebrated people committed suicide within days of each other. If you somehow missed the news this past week, both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain hung themselves to death. This sad news once again shocked so many of us, because from the outside looking in we perceived these individuals to be successful, wealthy and having it all. No matter how many times we are told money and success can’t buy you happiness, we still think “Why would they want to kill themselves, they had everything”. We also can’t imagine how they could leave their loved ones behind. The obvious triggers connected with suicide, are drugs, alcoholism and untreated clinical depression.  Having worked in the mental health field earlier in my career, I had a very close up look at people who somehow survived their own suicide attempts. Contrary to the popular idea we hear about mentally ill people being a danger to society, they are far more likely to harm themselves and in fact do.

My first experience with suicide was my father who was not living with me at the time. I was very young when he jumped off a commuter ferry-boat while it was cruising at full speed. Fortunately he survived but he never escaped his mental anguish. I only found out about it because a very insensitive school teacher said to me at 6 years old “I read in the newspaper the unfortunate story about your father, and so sorry for his accident.” I ran home confused and frightened to ask my mother what my teacher meant. My poor Mom had to find a way to explain suicide and the complexity of mental illness to a six-year-old child.”

What I successfully took away was that he was sick and very sad. I later came to understand from my father himself that he was not committing suicide but rather running from his demons in his head. They were terrorizing his mind and he just wanted them to stop. This is the horrible effects of mental illness. Before actual suicide attempts, many people suffering will self medicate with alcohol and drugs to drown out the disruptive symptoms of their mental illness. My father never attempted suicide again but he suffered most of his life in terrible agony from his untreated mental illness. Most of his family would not or could not recognize he was sick because mental illness was seen as weakness rather than a health condition that could be treated and managed. Escaping terror is just one face of suicide…

The next encounter I had with suicide was much later in my college years. Now a psychology major for the obvious reasons, I was doing my internship at a psychiatric center on the adolescent unit of a state hospital. I was working the night shift and a young 13-year-old girl was admitted to the unit after an attempted suicide. She had attempted to commit suicide by jumping off the fire escape of her apartment. After being hospitalized and healing from her physical injuries the doctors established she was in a deep depression. She was hospitalized to protect her from herself. Of course you ask, how can a 13-year-old be in a deep depression? My simple answer is life can be cruel and when experienced alone and isolated it can be very scary. Why do you think gangs are so appealing to young teens?  It’s an alternative to feeling alone and scared. Many young teens on this psychiatric unit had serious diagnosis’  like Schizophrenia, Borderline Disorder, Manic Depression ( now called Bi-Polar Depression) and even Autism. There were also violent teens with behavioral problems on the same unit.

The young white girl I was assigned to was different. She didn’t have a typical clinical diagnosis but rather a real case of depression brought on by life’s cruel unbearable experiences. Why was she depressed so much that she chose to kill herself at 13? I read her chart before meeting with her in a padded room where I found her sitting on the floor, head hung down in her lap distraught and silent. Her psychiatric medical chart told me the following. Her mother was an addict and had a baby. The mother left and abandoned the baby infant at the apartment for hours and days at a time with this 13-year-old girl. The baby had to be fed, so the 13-year-old decided to breast feed her younger sister when she could. She had been keeping this whole experience a secret to the outside world while also trying to protect her new baby sister from her mother. The girl’s mother would come home strung out and angry and physically abused the 13-year-old girl.

The case notes were just unfathomable and yet  many social workers will tell you they see worse than this on a daily basis. The young girl suddenly thrust into motherhood and who had never been really mothered herself was living like this for the first two years of her baby sister’s life. The stress, the pressure and lack of any support system began to take its toll.  She was becoming depressed, despondent and hopeless. She could not see a way out of this life she was living with her addict Mom. She had become a Mom to her baby sister and when her mother came home drunk and hurt the baby, the young girl felt responsible for her baby sister and felt she had failed. And remember, not only was the baby neglected but this barely teen girl had been neglected herself for many years prior to the baby sister being born. Suicide did not suddenly just happen. She was living in a pressure cooker.

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls;
the most massive characters are seared with scars.”

~ Kahil Gibran

This 13-year-old child was protecting the baby from her Mother and she wasn’t always successful. She felt tremendous guilt for not being there for her baby sister when she had to show up for school. I don’t have to go on with the dark details for you to understand. This girl had every reason to be depressed. What she didn’t have was a way out of the personal hell she was living in. She wanted to escape and ending her life seemed like the only way. Hopelessness and exhaustion is another face of suicide.

After reading her chart, I walked into that padded room with this 13-year-old who at the time was just 6 years younger than myself. I decided there were no words I could offer. I told shared my name and I sat quietly next to her. She asked if she could leave and I told her I wasn’t able to do that for her right now. I said gently ” I understand why you want to leave but what if we just sat together for a while.” I wasn’t trained to say this, I just understood she was in pain and intuitively knew she needed to feel her pain safely. So I put my hand on her shoulder, and when I did, she broke down and began to sob uncontrollably  in my arms. She cried a river for quite a long time. She felt my presence free of judgement, free of needing her to say anything. I just let her cry and hold on to me while she did. I will never forget this experience for my entire life. What’s haunting is I understood this wounded soul on so many levels. While I didn’t have that same horrific experiences as her, I understood what it was like to hold on to too much at a young age and to feel very alone. I too wanted a safe place to lay down my pain, and I knew exactly what she needed. We give what we need and sometimes heal a little ourselves in the process.

As I went on to work in the mental health field, I later was a Supervisor for a mental health agency. I was assigned to ‘homes’ where mentally ill people lived while they were transitioning from the hospital to the real world. The agency provided apartments and professional support systems while these individuals worked at putting their life back together. We called them clients not patients. I felt empowered in this job because I was helping people get well. Something I was never able to do for my Dad.

Our clients were on medications for their conditions and they had to learn to be responsible for taking their meds, and to generally learn to take care of themselves again. One of the adults I monitored had her Master’s Degree in Fine Arts. She was intelligent and an amazingly talented artist but had attempted to kill herself with a razor on more than one occasion. When I made visits, it was so hard to see this bright women with all this potential in such a dark state. She was diagnosed with Major Depression which is a very serious illness that can end in suicide more often than not. Many authors have written memoirs about their suffering of clinical major depression and describe how it completely debilitated their every day functioning. They talked about feeling the depression physically, emotionally and mentally. They literally can’t get out of bed. It’s dark, very dark. Many of us have experienced depression on some level usually related to a life event like divorce or losing a loved one to death. Depression isn’t totally bad. We are human beings and we need to grieve. But a clinical depression can overtake you in a gripping way and paralyze your life.

When you think about this heavy dark existence it is not hard to understand why a person would want to get out and escape this sentence called life. Keep in mind my client got herself through Grad school and yet she tried to kill herself many times. She had the scars to show it and here she was bravely trying to give life one more chance and learn to live with her illness. She may never be completely symptom free but she could survive this condition with medication and a very good support system. She attempted suicide once again while I was working there. Somehow I was spared from finding her, she had waited until she was approved to visit her family. I don’t know if she is alive today, I can only hope she kept up the good fight. Despair is another face of suicide.

        ” I want to be seen, to be understood deeply
         and to be not so very lonely ~Jodie Foster

Today we are learning a little more about Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. They are another face of suicide that seems to be fueled by our ‘driven to success’ culture. The last couple of years has been riddled with many talented people who have chosen to end their lives. I can list them all but you remember. Robin Williams was the most shocking because this was the man who made us laugh and who seemed to possess great empathy for people suffering. Robin gave to us what he so desperately needed himself. Even his choice of acting roles seemed to tell us what he was needing and struggling with.

I can’t speak authoritatively to why Kate or Anthony took their lives. I am learning what you are learning about them. Kate has been reported to be struggling with depression for over five years. In one article I read her sister said she had bipolar disorder which includes terrible plunges into deep depression much like a person who suffers from Major Depression. The difference is the depression is accompanied by episodes of mania as well. She was also very career driven. Both were having difficulty with the loneliness that came with their seemingly overnight success. Futility is another face of suicide.

Anthony Bourdain had a complicated history with drugs and seemed at least on television to be drinking fairly regularly. He was also very driven once he made up his mind to be successful. Success and money are often substitutes for love. It is possible their parents didn’t give them the love they needed but it is also equally possible they just never learned how to love themselves and forgive themselves for not being perfect. If our sense of self is constructed of very narrow possibilities, how are we to live in this world whole and together?  When we don’t love ourselves, we are either good or bad, weak or strong, successful or failed, loving or selfish. The truth is we are all those things at any given moment in our lives and sometimes all at once. We are human, multi-dimensional and not perfect. We can be a mix of all these things and still be loved. We don’t hold ourselves to some impossible standard of perfection because we know once we are off that pedestal it is a very long way down. Many people with deep self-esteem issues lack self-love and compassion and are very hard on themselves. To compound this affliction, they are often very alone. Their work or passion keeps them from having a real loving relationship with others. They don’t have someone who might tell them on a bad day “You are loved, and even if you have failed or fall off the wagon you are still loved.” This unconditional love is what we all need to survive in this world.

Our culture today is addicted to perfect image and appearances. We crave and value the superficial trappings of Hollywood fame even though we see countless human beings suffer in their ‘roles’ as celebrities or millionaires. It’s not that success and money are bad, it’s what we give up to get them and what we believe we will receive if we acquire them. “No matter where you go, there you are”, is very deep wisdom because having this understanding will determine your happiness. Your sense of self needs to be solidly intact before you have success, money and celebrity. Marilyn Monroe is your classic tragic story of someone who desperately needed to be loved and was superficially loved for all the wrong reasons. Our culture loved her for her image which she constructed for us, but this image was not truly her. How terribly lonely and tragic she was. Today’s selfie world on social media has millions of more people trying to do the same thing. How sad is that?

 

“Intimacy is being seen and known
for the person you really are.” ~ Amy Bloom

 

The elephant in the room is unconditional love. It’s what we all need to survive in this world. Love is right up there with water and oxygen. We especially need to be able to recognize how important love is for a healthy civilized society. Sociologist are already talking about the break downs in our society. Family systems and village communities are eroding and we are becoming more isolated. Technology has ultimately created a less intimate world for we humans to live in, and emotional intimacy is where love lives and thrives.

Love is not a lofty romantic state of being that comes and goes but rather a tenderness and vital life source we all need to live healthy. The danger of not recognizing this life-sustaining need is we can die of self-loathing. Self loathing can either drive you to hurt yourself or drive you to project your pain on to others. It is unforgiving and destructive. ‘Love is the answer’ is not just a platitude or a quote from very wise prophets, it is the elephant in the room we keep ignoring. We should teach love and compassion, give it, share it and experience it through the intimate connection we have with ourselves and each other. As the author Richard Bach once wisely said “The opposite of loneliness is not togetherness. It is intimacy.” We first have to have intimacy with ourselves so we can begin to let others in to love us. The alternative is an empty place inside that can never be filled, and where enough will never be enough.

 

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Anatomy of a Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Oct 18, 2012 by

October is Breast Cancer Prevention Month.  A month where we see lots of pink ribbons and fund raisers of all kinds to support the fight against breast cancer.  In the past I participated in a few 5K runs to support breast cancer fund raising organized by one of the largest beauty companies in the world.  I would go for my mammograms regularly (beginning at age 28) as I was told I needed to go every year because my grandmother died of breast cancer.  Year after year I received a clean bill of health.  I embraced health and wellness practices so I didn’t let the worry of  cancer enter my safe psyche.  “It won’t happen to me”  I said to myself  because I am healthy…

 

It is part of self preservation to sometimes keep scary and uncomfortable subjects at a distance. I was only a year old when my grandmother died of breast cancer. Despite later learning about my grandmother’s breast cancer I had made some internal decision that I had more of my Dad’s genes (I looked like him) and I wouldn’t end up with breast cancer. Did I take the BRCA gene test to substantiate my beliefs? Well no–not until I was diagnosed with an early stage breast cancer called DCIS just last year.

My personal journey with cancer takes more than a blog post to really share what I’ve learned from my cancer experience.  Today I attempt to share a short story that may help you understand what it is like to receive a breast cancer diagnosis and maybe even confuse you a little.  I say confuse because cancer still is the wild, wild west to the medical community.  As much as we fight, research, and raise money,  we still don’t have a definitive cure or magic vaccine to prevent cancer they way we would like to.  But visit this very good site for the best defenses we do know about. http://www.breastcancerfund.org/reduce-your-risk/breast-cancer-prevention-month/

Beyond inherited genes, why do some of us get breast cancer and others do not?  One of my best friends blurted out these words when I told her I had breast cancer, ” Who could believe, YOU the health nut ends up with cancer!”.   If you think she was shocked–I was really transported to another realm of disbelief.  I had cancer free x-rays year after year after year! I felt no lumps!  Why me and why now?  We always ask why when we hear the word cancer and we want desperately to blame something.  I am here to say that it could have been a number of things that caused my cancer but I don’t really know what specifically did.  What I do know definitively is living a healthy lifestyle reduces your chances of many diseases and you also feel good on a daily basis.  Other than this bout of cancer I am relatively healthy.  So please don’t give up eating apples!

This is not a story about pain although there was a good share of that.  I had two lumpectomies. First surgery to remove microscopic cancer cells defined as cancerous and called DCIS.  The second surgery one month later because I was told they didn’t know if they got it all and had to go back in to make sure. “A common practice” they told me.  After the second surgery I was told I was free of cancer but the recommendation was to undergo radiation for 8 weeks ( 5 days a week) to make sure the cancer never returns.  Making this decision was difficult because remember I was diagnosed with this early stage of cancer which literally looked like tiny specs on my x-ray.  Tiny specs! A wonderful inspiring book to read about cancer is  “Crazy Sexy Cancer” by Kris Carr.  It really demystifies so many of the “myths” you hear about cancer.  The author has gone on to be a respected wellness guru and really shares her passion for healthy lifestyle. Visit her site at http://kriscarr.com/


After laboriously researching my type of cancer I made a treatment decision based on my radiation oncologists last words after a long overwhelming two and a half hour consultation. He said “Laura it is basically your decision. It really depends on how much of a gambler you are. If you don’t do the radiation there is a 20% chance your cancer will return. If you do the radiation you can eliminate that worry.” At first I thought but hey there is an 80% chance I won’t get cancer! I can live with that! But then there was my family history. So the next nerve racking step was I took the BRCA gene test. And guess what? The childhood unscientific hunch I had about having my Dad’s genes was true because I tested negative for the BRCA gene. Now you would think I was home free and I could walk away from this cancer nightmare and never look back. Well…

Not exactly.  I was told by various specialist that while I don’t seem to have the BRCA gene I still may have inherited other cancer genes.  I now thought about what my doctor said about gambling and it hit home.  I realized I was still young and really didn’t want to undergo treatment ever again.  They also said if cancer returned they would have to remove the whole breast next time around.  Can you see the threats building? Can you feel the fear smoldering beneath my calm rational exterior?  Slowly but surely that 80% chance of not getting cancer again disappeared and it became all about “securing peace of mind”.  I wanted the security of knowing it would never come back.  I made up my mind to do the radiation treatment. 

In just one year since my surgeries and treatment I have learned so much about breast cancer and cancer in general.  What I am learning sometimes makes me doubt my treatment decisions because there is currently a lot of  arguments among medical scientist about over treating the early stages of cancer.  But I can’t do anything about this now.  I did what I thought was best for me at the time. 

I said to my docs as I underwent my treatments, ” Just three years from now, I bet they will have learned so much about this early stage of cancer and some other woman won’t have to make the same choices I did. I’m envious of those woman.” I also read an incredible book by Siddhartha Mukherjee called Emperor of all Maladies– A Biography of Cancer. It gave me perspective because ten years ago they might have just gone ahead and did a total mastectomy on me. Bye bye breast because of a few specs on an x-ray.  I suppose I am very lucky!

 

Overkill  is a literal word when it comes to treating cancer.  We should always question things and do what is right for our own particular circumstances.  My surgeon recommended a mastectomy before I even took the BRCA gene test.  Really? Yes she did!  Thank god I had a defense mechanism button that clicks on to a “stay cool” setting when I encounter “threat”.  Had my fear taken over–I might have lost my breast.  My radiation was a crap shoot in gambling terms and the chemo suggestion was communicated to me like this, “Many women like to be totally sure they have killed all the cancer so they choose to do chemo as a back up to the radiation.”  Back up?

Just Trust Yourself and You will Know How to Live…

All I can say is to be careful of the herding mentality.  “Everyone is doing it”  is not a good enough reason to decide on chemo or any other treatment.  I said “no thanks” to chemo and I’m glad I did.  This doesn’t mean if I was at another stage of cancer I would have made the same decision.  My story is just that–it is my personal story.  It’s  not a template for anyone to model yet we all look to each other  for guidance.  This isn’t an amazing “I beat cancer” story but probably a more common story of  many women like myself who face cancer diagnosis and muddle through a very traumatic experience.

Maybe this is not a story about cancer but a story about inner strength.  Sometimes the scary trials in life teach us things about ourselves and we do somehow muddle through.  I’ve learned what I can control and what I can’t.  I’ve learned what it means to be really vulnerable.  I also lost my youthful sense of invincible immortality.  The biggest lesson for me was–no matter how many people I talked to, and how much I read, I ultimately knew inside what was best for me.  The renown poet Goethe said wisely “Just trust yourself and then you will know how to live”.  So I gratefully live…trusting I will somehow always find my way.

Trulyherself,
Lauroly

 

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