On Bringing the Darkness into the Light
“Todd: Sit down for this. (Her 12-year old son) tried to kill himself on Wed. night by taking a bunch of pills. I found out about it because he posted a suicide letter on Instagram and thankfully someone told their parents.”
That’s the start of the email I received from my friend over the weekend. After three months of planning, late on Wednesday night, her son posted a photo on Instagram to say goodbye to his friends and took a mix of pills from the medicine cabinet.
On Thursday morning, with great surprise, her son woke up. He made his bagel, got ready for school and just as he was about to walk out the door, two of his friends’ parents called. Their daughters has seen the Instagram post and alerted them. My friend, unaware that any of this had transpired, stopped her son at the door and rushed him to the emergency room, after which he was transferred to a hospital for observation and therapeutic evaluation. He’s home now after a five-day stay in an adolescent psychiatric hospital.
Shock. There’s really no other way to react to news like this. Shock. Sadness. Questions. Lots of stupid questions. How did this happen? Were there signs? Was there some kind of event leading up to this? Are you okay? Is he okay? What do you do next? What can I do to help? None of the answers matter.
Hundreds of messages of support were left on his Instagram account. They professed their love for him. They begged him not to do it. They suggested that things will get better. And yet … only two girls told their parents. My friend later discovered that some others were afraid to tell their parents because they feared that her son would get in trouble. Covering for their buddy. Almost to the end.
The school called and asked my friend to take the post down, apparently afraid that some kind of copycat epidemic might break out. Or perhaps administrators feared the spectre of depression clouding the bucolic idealism of the hamlet in which we live. I know I’m being overly harsh here and unnecessarily snarky. I know that there are probably protocols to follow and that the administrators have to protect all of the kids. There may very well be perfectly good reasons for the request to take down the post, but it feels like a missed opportunity. It feels like an open invitation to talk. To bring the darkness into the light.
My friend’s son was released on Monday and his psychiatrist suggested that he get back to school right away, the sooner the better. My friend called the school to let them know, and to tell them that her son wanted to come back to school on Tuesday. They told her to wait until Wednesday and requested a conversation with her and her son about how to “portray” the situation. According to my friend, administrators were uncomfortable with her son’s willingness to talk about his experience and feelings. Another miss. Don’t the administrators understand that they make him feel like more of an outsider by effectively forbidding him to come to school? Don’t they understand that by asking him to “portray” the story at all simply makes him feel less whole? Makes his feelings less important. It seems impossible to treat any situation like this “by the book.” What book? Every kid who goes through something like this is unique. And that’s when I asked her if it was okay for me to write about this.
Depression is real. Suicide is real. Why do we consistently seem to run from talking about these things? It’s an illness. Like cancer. If my friend’s son had cancer, he would be encouraged to openly talk about his treatment. Why should he be denied the chance to do so with his depression? If he had actually succeeded, grief counselors would have been brought in to discuss the situation. Kids would have been encouraged to talk. Gratefully, he’s still here. Why not bring in the professional grief counselors anyway? Unfortunately, the opportunity seems to go unnoticed.
I really like my friend’s kid. He’s different in the best possible way. He sees things that most other kids his age miss. He feels things that others don’t. He’s an artist. (Which I think it just about the greatest compliment someone can give.) So, I wrote him a letter. Among other things, I wrote, “Seeing things differently and possibly even understanding things more clearly can be frustrating. It can be hard. The pressure to fit in is bad enough, but when you think differently, with more imagination and creativity, it’s difficult to be understood. Fitting in isn’t your problem, though. You can do that without much effort, probably. But sometimes, belonging is.
I’ve spent my entire life trying to “fit in.” Doing so means that I end up sacrificing some sense of my self. Part of me gets lost as I try to appease the people and “the system” around me. It’s hard. It’s painful. And when I was 13, I sat in my room with a bottle of pills. Nobody could possibly understand why I would ever do that, but I did. Nobody could possibly understand the pain, but it was there.”
I didn’t take the pills like he did. And until now I doubt that many people even knew. It wasn’t the first time I thought about suicide and it also wasn’t the last. I don’t understand what’s so dangerous about talking about it? Why not create the forum to have constructive, informative and educational conversations about feeling sad? What’s wrong with feeling sad? I told him, <em>“Don’t be afraid of your feelings, of the pain, but don’t run from the joy and the gratitude either. It’s all part of what makes us who we are. The light AND the dark.”</em> But, here I am telling him this and the adults around him appear to be exactly that … afraid of the pain.
It seems to me that the battle against bullying has become an open topic for discussion. And thank goodness! It should be. It wasn’t always that way. We ignored it. We were afraid to address it until kids started dying. Why don’t we shine a big, bright light on the darkness of depression, also? Why don’t we bring it to the forefront? I have no doubt that they might even be tied together (I write, readily admitting to not know this to be true).
Sometimes we over think an issue. And, in doing so, we lose sight of the forest through the trees. I know it’s not easy for school administrators to deal with issues like suicide. I fully respect the conflict that they must face. They have a whole community of kids to protect and God-knows how many parents whispering in their ears. But, instead of giving it to the fear and worrying about the perception or “portrayal,” could they choose to see the forest and bring this darkness into the light? It’s the harder choice, but I wonder … how many other kids are afraid to speak up? How many others are feeling such pain? How many others might benefit?
I wish I could write that everything’s going to be fine. That my son’s friend is going to be fine. I don’t know that to be true. He still has his life and that’s a wonderful, beautiful miraculous thing. But he needs to know that he doesn’t have to hide in the shadows. He needs to feel that we welcome his attempts to bring his darkness into the light. Until then, he’s going to have to feel the pain privately and nobody should have to do that.
We have this tendency and need to just sugarcoat everything. I’m guilty of it. “Just living the dream” was my stock answer for a long time … to everything. Regardless of how I was really feeling. But sometimes, regardless of what the shirts tell us, life isn’t good. Sometimes it downright sucks. That’s part of the reason this page, site and community got started. A Day Well Lived isn’t about the sugarcoating. It’s not about glossing over the problems. It’s about facing the problems, the challenges and the fears head on. It’s about being ourselves. And being allowed to show off who we are, as authentically as possible. In every situation. When the situations call for it, we don’t run from the shadows. We make the hard choice and we shine light on them.
When I asked my friend if I could blog about this, she wrote, “Of course you can. You know I have no fear of rocking the boat. The more I think about the school’s fear the more energized I get to be the poster child…Depression needs to be talked about.” Yes it does. And doing so is A Day Well Lived.