I am hereby calling out all the garbage I have been seeing on social media and in the news regarding mental illness and suicide. Why? Because it's ignorant, misinformed, and downright dangerous for people who this very moment might be contemplating ending their lives.
When news broke about fashion designer Kate Spade dying by suicide yesterday, so did my heart. As someone who has dealt with mental health problems and has gone through prolonged periods contemplating my own end in this way, I knew how dark it must have been for her. I don't ever pretend to know exactly how someone feels, whether they are happy, sad, or any other emotion, but I certainly can empathize with feeling like there is no way out. In those times, for me, I believed that the pain I was drowning in would never end. My dreams had been dashed. It was like someone had set fire to the roadmap I had drawn for my future. I could not see how my life would ever be okay. Suicide seemed not just like the most favorable option - it often felt like the only option.
I have been through several dismal epochs that evoked suicidal ideation, the most recent of which followed the death of my beloved husband Patrick to brain cancer in 2015. I was diagnosed with PTSD six months after he died after suffering from severe depression, panic attacks, extreme avoidant behavior of people and places that reminded me of him and his illness, nightmares, and reliving his death and the days leading up to it as flashbacks. These were only some of the symptoms I was dealing with related to my mental health. On the physical side, my chronic pain was inflamed so severely that I underwent surgery on my elbow and my back in 2016, with several other operations recommended; I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis; I had serious migraines almost daily. You get the picture. Oh, and my cat died of cancer. Throw some salt on the wound, why don't you.
I was not at all in denial of the severity of what I was going through. I had been in therapy weekly since two weeks before Patrick's death. I was active the recovery program that had helped me maintain my sobriety for many years. I sought spiritual counsel whenever and wherever I could. For a long time, I was on medication for anxiety and depression. I was engaged in every possible activity that I could think of to treat my mental and physical illnesses. I had the love and support of my friends and family. I had a good job as a lawyer and I was trying so very hard to be okay.
And yet, every single day I wanted to kill myself.
In the day and a half since the news about Ms. Spade broke, I have been hearing the ever-so-convenient narratives that suicide is the most selfish act one can possibly do; that it comes from a place of not caring about your loved ones; that it is somehow a moral failing by someone who is bereft of God; et cetera, et cetera. I feel a genuine rage brewing inside of me every time I see one of these ill-conceived anecdotes. While I cannot speak for the departed and have no delusion that I can vouch for everyone with mental illness who has been visited by these thoughts, in my experience there is absolutely nothing selfish about suicide. It is, in fact, the complete opposite. While I knew that the people in my life would experience sadness and loss, I truly believed that they and the rest of the world would move on and be better off without me. I felt like a terrible burden. I was ashamed of my constant struggle in and out of bouts of depression. I was embarrassed that I had to repeatedly go on short-term disability because I could not keep up with the rigors of my job. I looked at the mass of financial debt from my student loans and saw no way out, particularly given my inability to consistently work. In my mind, suicide would not have been an act of selfishness, but instead an act of desperation, with no motive other than making the pain end.
The other frustrating part of this news cycle is the immediate need to find someone to blame. Reports are coming out that she and her husband had been planning to file for divorce. Critics are immediately theorizing that her husband mistreated her, or somehow drove her to this. I believe this is another terrible side effect of our death-phobic society, namely that we always have to pin liability on someone when there is a tragedy. I get it, because I did it when Patrick died. I blamed myself for not getting him into a clinical trial, for not noticing signs of illness sooner, for honoring his request to stop treatment when he decided he'd had enough. The truth is, however it arrives, death eventually comes for us all. We would do a lot better to recognize the tremendous shock and loss that her family is going through than to entertain our sick and useless instincts to assign fault. Blaming her husband is no more true or useful than blaming her.
When someone is injured in a car accident or has been diagnosed with cancer, most people are quick to offer condolences and help. Not so with often invisible mental illness. If one is brave enough to admit such suffering, she is often met with blank stares, awkward silence, and changing the subject. We are told to stop wallowing in our grief. It is suggested that all we have to do is exert our willpower, and - POOF! - all will be fine. We are not able to take time off of work to heal because of deadlines and quotas. Most people don't know where to go to get help. People who are in marginalized and under-served communities have no resources for mental health because it is one of the least prioritized medical issues. Although there have been some improvements over the years, the stigma about mental illness strongly persists. Then, someone dies by suicide and we are all shocked. There is no understanding that the person was sick. Instead, people speak in hushed tones at the funeral, speculating about who is responsible instead of celebrating the life of someone who was invariably so much more than the way she died.
To those of you who have not been touched directly by mental illness, consider yourself fortunate because almost everyone has at least some attenuated connection. Instead of obsessing over the details of someone's suicide, try to exercise compassion for everyone involved. Hold space for the pain of those who are grieving.
If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, please consider reaching out for help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Most importantly, know that you are not alone. I have been within seconds and inches of ending it all, and I consider it mostly luck that my fate has so far turned out differently. It is never too late to get help, until it is.
My heart goes out to Ms. Spade's husband, daughter, family, and all those who loved her.
Lisa O'Leary is a lawyer, cat mom, widow, sports enthusiast, advocate for the unheard, truth seeker, soul searcher, meditator, and consciousness practitioner who is actively engaged in quieting down the mind to allow the song to play. Her years living with chronic pain and illness, as well as her mental health challenges, make her a formidable opponent to anyone or anything who seek to destroy her pursuit of truth and light.