Shortly after I published my post entitled Before and After (read the full text here), I received the following comment from my cousin, Evelyn. Her words are filled with painful honesty and truth, and I wanted to share them with you. I contacted her first, and she gave me permission. Here's her comment and some things I want to say about it. . .
Ever since we became Facebook friends (and cousins by marriage before that) I have been continually amazed by your courage in speaking out about mental health issues. So let me take a moment here and now to thank you sincerely. Your efforts will no doubt help others as they have helped me.
I just read your last blog post ( and I have to say, in my near lifelong struggle with depression, I have never found my voice the way you have. Yes, social stigma has something to do with that, but for me, talking about it has never made me feel any better. Only more vulnerable and isolated because unless you suffer from depression, it's very difficult to comprehend how profound, complex and relentless it can be.
First let me say, thank you. I appreciate the kind words more than you know. Yes, stigma has many times made me think about halting my efforts to write about mental illness and the obstacles my family faced, especially since I am also writing about my daughter. You hit the nail on the head, talking about depression, self-harm, suicide, these topics make us very vulnerable and scared. We leave ourselves open to criticism and judgment from people who cannot understand what we have been through, but who think they have something to bring to the table and add to the conversation. Generally speaking, in my experience, those people do not add much unless they approach the conservation from the point of view of trying to learn and having an open mind. What I have found though, in the short time I've been tackling my blog and working on my book, is more positive attitudes than negative. The discussion about mental illness in social media and in general is picking up steam. A full one quarter of the adult population suffers some form of mental illness. By talking about it, we reduce fear. By reducing fear, we build trust. This, I hope, will be one avenue to reduce the stigma and isolation you mention, and to raise awareness and create connection.
Second, thank you for sharing about your struggle with depression. You are right. I will never be in your shoes just as I cannot be in my daughter's shoes. This is such a profound problem as it relates to the treatment of mental illness and also how families deal with it. If someone had told me that my daughter had cancer or diabetes or any other medical condition, I would have had an enemy to combat and one that I could better understand. How do we support, empathize, and connect with our loves ones when it's the brain and brain chemistry that is malfunctioning? No matter how hard we try to put ourselves in your shoes, we will never fully understand. Yet, we experience behaviors that, to our rational minds, seem downright counterproductive. It is sometimes very hard to remember what toll the illness takes and how it presents itself. This fills me with despair as I think it renders me less able to support you and my daughter in the way I would like to.
I completely agree with your thesis of contributing joy and positivity to the world as a force for healing. They do make everything better! Every day I live with a high degree of awareness of how my personal decision to be kind, patient and respectful with everyone I meet makes my corner of existence better for me and everyone else. This idea is not my struggle.
My struggle comes from the concept of what I call I incurable suffering. Two years ago, my sister-in-law, Lauralyn committed suicide because her mental suffering felt incurable to her. And frankly, it felt that way to me, too. Despite my best efforts at being her loving friend, medications, hospitalizations, therapists, support from other family and friends, she was hounded 24/7 by relentless anguish and unbearable pain. She chose to end her life with pills and alcohol. I was left to deal with the coroner, police and planning her funeral. Her husband, my brother, also suffers from mental illness and was not able to help her.
Two weeks to the day after she died, my sister Mary died in front of me and my kids from a brain aneurysm. Ten days after that, a student at my daughter's school jumped off the roof of the school and died. Five days after that, my best friend's nephew was found in the Santa Monica mountains dead from an intentional drug overdose. He had been there for three weeks before they found his body. He had a long history of mental illness and simply could not suffer any more.
I am incredibly saddened to hear of these passings, and so sorry for all the families involved in these tragedies. No one should have to face this much trauma in a lifetime let alone compacted together like this.
As you might imagine, these events changed me forever and have left me with my own version of incurable suffering. They made me question so many things!
Yes, I can imagine. I felt the same way when my daughter got sick and through the entire process of our healing journey and still now! I question so many things–this is part of why I'm writing. I don't expect to, but maybe I'll find some answers.
If we are held in the sphere of love that is God, then why doesn't he/she/it intervene in the endless and near indescribable suffering of humanity? I'm talking about those whose suffering is, in fact, incurable. How precious is life if all you know is pain? And why do we insist these people stay here with us and choose life if that means they will only know agonized suffering?
Wow. Well, I certainly don't have the answers to these questions. I touched gently, I hope, upon the idea of God in my Before and After post in a way to convey that I have had to set aside my original perceptions of God and what I thought religion meant. I was raised Catholic and have a deep and abiding respect for people of all faiths. I, however, have had to let my traditional view of God go because of these very ideas you bring up. I liked the metaphor of the sphere for that reason — it inherently has no reference to God. I wanted to use the words, "…in his loving embrace" for the people who hold that view so dear. I think there is so much suffering in this world that for me the traditional view of God does not make sense. We are humanity, failing and succeeding of our own accord alhtough we are connected by a power greater than ourselves. And how devastating that realization was, by the way. At first. Not now. Now I find great solace in this point of view. But yes. How can we expect people who live with incurable agony every day to want to stay here? I do not consider myself a Buddhist, but I have started learning about Buddhism and can wrap my brain around the idea of the internal work to deal with my own suffering and of trying to learn how not to inflict suffering on others as my spirituality. But the pain, as you well know, is bottomless for those left behind. I was sure, when my daughter wished to die, that if she had followed through on her threat, I would have killed myself as well. I didn't believe I could live life with that much pain. I know people find a way, every day more people have to find a way.
And let me add, relative to my Before and After post, that I hope my writing never ever comes across as an oversimplification of such a complicated and complex issue. If love could heal mental illness, there would hardly be any left in the world. Every family member of every loved one suffering from mental illness I have met has deep love and respect for their ill loved one. Love alone does not cure mental illness. I believe in our power to positively influence one another, but there is as much or more negative out there as positive and its influence is as great or greater. Plus, love does not cure chemical imbalance and faulty wiring. There is, of course, so much for us to learn and so much to change as we navigate life with mental illness, it's not going to perfect. But I want to apologize here and now if my words came across as making the solution sound like all we had to do was join hands and sing Cumbaya a few times and problem solved! These issues are so multi-layered and complex. The system is making progress, but it is slow and inadequate and too late for some.
Speaking as someone whose efforts at curing my depression have failed, these questions haunt me. Over the last 30 years I have tried more anti-depressants than I can remember, consulted six doctors, three psychiatrists, five psychotherapists, three acupuncturists/doctors of Eastern medicine, three nutritionists, became a certified yoga instructor and have done every exercise program out there, and STILL, my depression persists.
Sometimes, it is much better, but never for long. In my mind's eye, I see myself attached to a very long bungee cord. One end is depression, the other encircles my waist. With tremendous daily effort, I can walk far from the depression. But invisible triggers unexpectedly snap me back with a violence and speed I can rarely predict. The triggers are numerous and some make no sense whatsoever. They also change unexpectedly like some bizarre, incomprehensible algorithm.
This is such a vivid description. I, for one, would love to know more if you choose to share about what helps you in your difficult times. I can imagine that the answer varies as much as your pain each day, but what are the things loved ones can do in times of need that help the most and what doesn't?
All of which gives me empathy and compassion for those who choose suicide. And please be clear, I am NOT contemplating this for myself. I am only saying that I understand how some people loose hope and the will to live.
The other side of this coin is the burning anger and sense of betrayal I have for the god-awful mess Lauralyn's suicide left in its wake. It was like someone took a flamethrower to my family. The aftermath was was as ugly as it was complicated and wretched.
This is some complicated stuff! And my objective at this point is to seek out small moments of respite and light. That is all. Because I know there are no answers to the big questions I pose. Only meaningful connection with fellow seekers of healing and peace like you.
I truly believe that connection is a large part of the answer. Like love, connection will not solve mental illness, but when my daughter got sick I was convinced that no one could understand how I felt. I was so wrong, I just didn't know it. Grief and isolation make the pain deeper and stronger, and make it last longer. I wish I'd had the courage to reach out to family members and friends sooner in the process of my daughter's treatment than I did. I can't turn back time, but I hope someone reading these words will see they are not alone. I would like to pay support forward.