On the train in to the city this morning, I received a call from a friend. He was calling to share a piece of bad news. A mutual friend of ours had died. The train went underground as I began to ask for the what and the how details. The last thing I heard on the other end before I lost the signal was that our friend had committed suicide.
News of the death of a friend is never an easy thing to hear. Death by suicide is even more difficult; what is it that brings a person to a state where they feel the only solution to the problem is to remove themselves from the equation?
I call this man a friend, but I can’t say that I knew him well or for a long time. Most of the time, when I meet someone new, I have no real, immediate sense of whether we’ll form a connection over the long term. Rarely would I say I “hit it off” with someone, but he was one of those people. He was warm, easy-going, and unpretentious, but also well-spoken, thoughtful, and with an amazing breadth of life experience. He was married to the same person for 30 years, seemed to be reasonably secure financially, and to most people around him, appeared to be enjoying the life he’d been given. But fairly recently, he had suffered a nervous breakdown and a possible depression, from which he seemed to have recovered.
But what do we really know of the minds of others? We don’t even know our own minds.
I think most of us see someone who seems generally similar to ourselves (upbringing, socio-economic standing, life opportunities, etc.), we figure they must be like us, generally speaking (walks like a duck, talks like a duck, …). We find it difficult to fathom that something could be so wrong in their inner life that they would nurture serious thoughts of ending their own existence. So if they don’t say anything about it, we might have no reason to suspect anything is wrong. But what happens when someone does express that they’re having those thoughts? I suspect for many of us, it’s so contrary to our natural sense of self-preservation, we don’t really know how to react. “Oh c’mon, cheer up! It can’t be that bad.” “It will pass. You’ll get over it.” or “How could you feel that way? You have so much to live for!”
We might mean well, saying these things, but I wonder: is it really the best we can do? Consider this: would it be acceptable to respond that way to someone without legs talking about the challenges they face trying to navigate a world designed for people with legs? Probably not. Me, I’d be saying to myself, “damn, he has no legs. I guess I should put up with his complaining, at least for a little while.”
I don’t particularly care much for professional sports, but I have a huge amount of admiration for Clara Hughes. During her career as a professional athlete, she competed in both Summer and Winter Olympics and is the only Olympian to have won multiple medals in each. This is not a stunning achievement. It is a unique achievement. No other man or woman in history has done this.
But she has also dealt with mental illness. Some might say she’s “conquered” it. Some might even romanticize it, claiming it’s what enabled her to accomplish so much. The reality of mental illness is not so simple, nor in any way romantic.
Regardless how some may want to downplay or romanticize the role mental illness has played in her life, I’m genuinely glad she is out there talking about it and helping people understand.
And I’m saddened to have lost a friend. My life feels a bit paler today.
“1 in 5 Canadians will experience a form of mental illness at some point in their lives.” – Canadian Institute of Health Research
“2 in 3 people suffer in silence fearing judgment and rejection.” – Canadian Medical Association
“Only 49% of Canadians said they would socialize with a friend who has a serious mental illness.” – Canadian Medical Association