Utilizing Compassion : Suicide and Depression

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Trigger Warning: suicide, self-harm

I'm not going to sit here and tell an elaborate story that proves to you that I somehow understand depression. I understand dark days, that empty feeling in the pit of your stomach, and the overall gloominess of feeling lost, sure. But I don't understand depression, nor do I understand suicide.

When I was 9 years old, my uncle committed suicide. I never met this man (he and his family lived in Australia), and this was my very first run-in with the concept of suicide. He had driven up to a remote location away from his family, and shot himself in the head. I was in the 5th grade, and the most natural thing to do was share this news in class when we were going around the circle, discussing what had happened during our weekend. I can only imagine what my teacher must've thought. The tears and disbelief seeping from my mom and grandmother while discussing the news was more than I needed in order to grasp that something devastating had happened. Since that year, I've had many run-ins with suicide, whether I knew the person closely or was just a witness to their story.

My high school sweetheart's uncle committed suicide as a bright teenager with a promising future, and as I listened to his mother discuss how unexpected his death was, yet again I began to contemplate my own uncle's passing. A few years before, I had asked my mom typical, ill-informed questions: "Did he seek therapy beforehand? Medication? Was he trying to cope, or did he just give up?" She explained to me that he had dealt with depression for a very long time, and had tried everything offered to him, but eventually lost his battle. In certain cases, doctors can only "up" your medication for so long before they aren't able to do anything for you anymore. Generally, depression has been silently prevalent in my family, although it is not discussed.

Several months ago, I was on the phone with someone whose friend had just swallowed an entire bottle of pills and was on her way to the hospital because this individual had called her mother just in time. I've recently had friends confide in me that they were depressed, considering suicide, and didn't know how much longer they could hold on. In the past, a long-distance friend of mine attempted, but failed. I found out shortly after that I was a part of their suicide note. Years before we met, two of my dear friends lost their son to suicide after a gay-bashing incident on the grounds of his high school, which has inspired years of passionate activism work and generous love. Like the rest of us, I've heard Chely Wright's story, recounting the night she stood with a gun in her mouth, contemplating whether to pull the trigger.

I'm aware of the shocking, iconic stories of Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and other literary geniuses who could never find inner peace. I heard of the commonly known celebrity tragedies, most recently: Robin Williams. I'm no different than anyone; I feel like my level of exposure is pretty common. Like everyone else, all these opportunities of awareness gave me perspective into the minds of those struggling, although I could never walk in their shoes.

In my childhood, I was under the false impression that people who followed through with suicide were selfish and didn't want to put up a fight to survive and work towards a better life. I was in passionate disagreement with suicide. As I grew up, I realized I was very wrong. I should've been told something like this:

"Until you've stared down that level of depression, until you've lost your soul to a sea of emptiness and darkness... you don't get to make those judgments. You might not understand it, and you are certainly entitled to your own feelings, but making those judgments and spreading that kind of negativity won't help the next person. In fact, it will only hurt others." 
- Katie Hurley

The harsh reality that a person who seemed to be holding it together on the outside could be so tormented on the inside was truly the hardest realization of all. That someone could feel such hopelessness, trauma, and sadness that their only way out was taking their own life. That my uncle's grandchildren, or Robin Williams' grandchildren, will never grow up to know their grandfathers. That neither of these men will be able to contribute further things to our world.

However, their legacies, no matter how big or small, will resonate with those who loved and respected them. I have come to the conclusion that suicide, no matter how it is brought about, should inspire those of us outsiders to appreciate what we have. To hug each other a little tighter, and focus on performing greater self-reflection. Mental illness is not a joking matter, nor is the side effect of suicide.

For further insights on this sentiment, see Katie Hurley's blog post. If you are suffering with suicidal depression, in the United States please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or check Suicide.org for more numbers.

Kathryn's Note: On 8/15/14 (the day after this post was published), I received the devastating news that a friend and great colleague of mine committed suicide. He was a brilliant man with a brilliant message of equality and unconditional love for his children and the causes he was passionate about. This reiterates how important it is to never take a breath or day for granted. Please call the numbers above if you are in crisis/know someone who is, and if you feel compelled, make a donation to the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention by clicking here