The first week of December, a young Minnesota mother died by suicide. The effects of her death rippled through my FaceBook feed, particularly impacting the breastfeeding, attachment parenting, and ECFE communities.
I read some of the details of her story, how she leaves behind two young boys. Here is my confession: My first reaction was, “How could she do that to her children?”
This response is not helpful.
Let’s change the story. A youngish man, say 46 years old – I’m taking creative license with “young” – a youngish man lives with his spouse and children in a modest home in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis. He works in the facilities management department of the neighboring hospital. (I think this week it’s called the University of Minnesota Medical Center, West Bank.) He doesn’t visit the doctor much, but gets his annual flu shot. He considers himself to be “pretty healthy” and doesn’t worry a whole lot about the extra 10-15 pounds that he’s carrying around.
One day, this man is out shoveling snow. He experiences sudden crushing chest pressure and keels over dead on his sidewalk.
We say, “Oh no! What a terrible tragedy! How can we support his family in their time of need?” We do not say, “How could he do that to his children?”
Or how about the 35-year-old woman who was diagnosed with diabetes at age ten? She manages her blood sugars well with the assistance of an insulin pump. She follows her doctor’s recommendations to the best of her ability. One summer day, she’s barefoot on the beach of Lake Nokomis and steps on a piece of broken glass. It’s a small piece, and initially she doesn’t even notice the injury due to the peripheral nerve damage from her diabetes. She goes about her life and several days later, she takes off her socks at night and sees some drainage on the cotton. She inspects her feet and discovers an infection in one of her toes. Her family doctor examines the situation, removes a shard of glass, and prescribes an appropriate antibiotic. Forty-eight hours later, she is admitted to the hospital with cellulitis. Despite the best efforts of modern medicine, she subsequently dies of overwhelming sepsis.
We do not say, “How could she do that to her children?”
Chest pressure is a symptom of heart disease. Streaky skin redness and swelling are symptoms of cellulitis.
Thoughts of suicide are symptoms of mental illness.
Without treatment, heart disease can lead to sudden cardiac death due to acute myocardial infarction. Without treatment, and sometimes even with treatment, cellulitis can lead to overwhelming sepsis and death.
Without treatment, mental illness can lead to thoughts of self-harm and to death by suicide.
Let’s put it another way:
Heart disease : Fatal MI Mental Illness : Suicide
People who have personally experienced mental illness know that when you’re feeling bad, when you’re standing at the bottom of the pit, or lying in a fetal position in the toxic sludge at the bottom of the pit, it’s hard to be your most rational self. It’s hard to say, “Hey Self – remember all those coping strategies you’ve been working on for, literally, years? Remember that appointment you have tomorrow with your therapist? Remember all those friends who love you and would walk through fire to pull you out of your Hell?”
There’s a biological explanation for this. In times of stress, our bodies are programmed to revert to the basic responses of fight or flight. We don’t stand around evaluating our options when a semi is barreling down on us. “Hm – According to physics, I need to move exactly 1.25 feet per second in a westward direction in order to avoid being pancaked.” Our cerebral cortices go “off-line” and our bodies simply react. That’s a good thing when a semi is barreling down on us.
During a mental health crisis, our bodies perceive extreme stress, and higher-level information processing is simply unavailable. Off-line. No measured reasoning, no rational planning for the future, no weighing of pros and cons.
Suicide is an eternal flight response.
My heart breaks for the children of the woman who died earlier this month. I send my love to all those touched by her life and her story.
To everyone who experiences mental illness, please know this: I love you. You are loved. You are a treasured light on this earth. We, your community, will help you out of the pit. We don’t expect you to climb out entirely on your own. You are not alone. We will walk with you through the valley of the shadow. Just cry out, whimper if it’s all you have left in you. Tell us you need help and We Will Help You.
I love you. You are loved.
And to those who enjoy good mental health – how can you shine your light into someone else’s darkness? How will you help them escape the pit? And by the way, I love you, too.