Duck Test Failure, Part 2

ducks photo: Ducks at Queens Park 20130321-2027HBD-01_zps0b9154fd.jpg

In response to a recent post of mine about a friend’s suicide, a commenter referred to suicide as “an extreme position to take”.

On June 11, 1963, a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc sat down in the lotus position in a busy intersection of Saigon. A 5-gallon can of gasoline was poured over his head by a fellow monk. He then lit a match and set himself on fire. He did not move as his flesh burned and his living body turned into a charred corpse. In the days that followed, there were several other similar acts of self-immolation by Buddhist monks.

These suicides were acts of protest against the South Vietnamese government’s mistreatment of Buddhists. These were indeed extreme acts, intended to draw attention to the plight of Vietnam’s Buddhists and put pressure on the regime (and its US allies) to carry out the reforms it had promised.

But these suicides were not due to mental health issues. I do not believe that most suicides are acts of protest or attempts to get attention, but I think that belief is not uncommon, and highlights a fundamental problem with our attitude toward mental health issues.

We are often dismissive of mental health concerns because most of us really don’t have a perspective on it, which was largely the point of my post. When you look at, say, a paraplegic, even if you’re not one, you can sort of speculate on the challenges they face on a day to day basis. On the other hand, when you look at someone with a mental illness, you cannot speculate (unless you’ve had one yourself maybe) because you cannot see inside their mind. You assume that, if they appear on the outside to be similarly-abled to you, then they should have the same problems as you. So if someone confides in you that they have suicidal feelings, and you have never had similar feelings yourself, except maybe as a passing thought, then you’ll judge it as such (“Aw c’mon, life isn’t that bad! There’s always a way!”), because that’s how you would have dismissed those thoughts from your own mind. Unfortunately, our brains are not all wired the same way. For many, they cannot simply “get over it”.

I believe there are usually neurobiological causes for persistent suicidal feelings. Whether it’s BDNF dysregulation (http://www.wjpch.com/UploadFile/113197.pdf) or something else, it’s not something you can simply shrug off with positive thinking or exercise or stupid platitudes, and dismissing people with suicidal feelings (or any mental health issue for that matter) as weak-willed or attention-seeking is like dismissing people with physical disabilities as not trying hard enough.

asshat photo: asshat asshat.jpg
Advertisements

Oh, cheer up, Ducky! It can’t be that bad!

220px-Mallard2
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.
220px-Clara_Hughes_2007
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

Newtown: Guns Don’t Kill People

Statue of Minute Man John Parker in Lexington, Massachusetts

Statue of Minute Man John Parker in Lexington, Massachusetts

People do.

I started this post about a monthtwo months ago, when emotions were fresh and bitter. But I didn’t want to commit to what I wanted to write. My own words made me angry, and I don’t like being angry. Two months on, emotions are still fresh and just as bitter.

Guns don’t kill people. People do.

The people who colonized the United States of America saw themselves as people under siege. Many had been persecuted for their religious beliefs in their country of origin. They were living in a harsh land surrounded by hostile savages. And while they were subjects of a (somewhat) democratic country, they had no parliamentary representation. All these perceptions helped to create a siege mentality, which, even after a successful revolution against the “oppressors”, has persisted.

Today, it permeates popular entertainment and right-wing political discourse: our country was not given to us, it was hard-won, and we must defend it. Our enemies lie in wait all around, looking for signs of weakness, looking for a chance to take from us what’s rightfully ours. They’re jealous of our freedom and will destroy us if they get the opportunity.

When you’re under siege, it’s important to not appear weak, lest your enemies decide to test your defenses. Like many animals, who, when cornered, will puff themselves up to appear larger, more formidable an opponent to the predator, if you’re an embattled regime, having more, bigger and better guns will make you appear more intimidating to your foes. This strategy seemed to make sense during the period after the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki until the early days of the Cold War. Eventually, it became clear that it was a strategy of diminishing returns.

Still, from a position of weakness, guns might appear to be an equalizer, and they can be. But if more guns is your solution to the problem of mass murder by guns, then you don’t have a solution.

True, guns didn’t cause the violence. But they were the enabler. And the amplifier. Let’s not kid ourselves; the angel-making capacity of the .223 Bushmaster semiautomatic assault rifle is far greater than the knife, the baseball bat, the bare hand, or whatever other weapon the average “bad guy” has at his disposal.

But I’m glad we have guns. Because when the mob is reaching for its torches and pitchforks, coming for my children because they want to blame autism or mental illness or whatever it is that makes us different from them, for the deaths of their little angels, I’ll protect my angels. You people will always have more sympathy for the pretty ones, the popular ones, than the sad, lonely losers. So be it. I’ll be waiting for you. With a couple pitbulls too. Maim your ugly, neurotypical NIMBY faces when you show up at my castle.

America is a wounded animal, frantically biting its own wounds.