Tending the Temple

More Than “Mental Health”

A week before Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain ended their own lives, I wrote a piece that touched on the topic of suicide, inspired in part by my son. He tells me the reason he is on his phone late at night texting is because some of his friends are suicidal and reaching out to him.

A generation ago we might have said he must be exaggerating or overstating it. But I know better than to brush it off as teen drama. This past fall, an accomplished young musician in the marching band at a neighboring high school took his own life while his parents waited for him to take the field with his peers for Senior Night at the last home football game. When my kid says suicide, I take it serious. Deadly serious.

Out of curiosity, I ask my son why they are suicidal. He says it’s because everyone’s family sucks.

“Everyone’s?” I ask, probing. I wonder if “everyone” includes him. His family. Our family.

“Everyone’s,” he says, his tone communicating the answer I don’t really want to hear.

But I know he’s not wrong. I was a teenager once, too. Everyone’s family does kinda suck when you’re 15.

I want to tell them all that if it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t leave the nest. It’s nature’s way.

But if it’s nature’s way, why is it now causing kids to consider ending their lives before they’ve even begun? What has changed? I’m sure every one of us thinks we have “the answer” to that question. There’s a lot about modern life that’s anything but “nature’s way,” and I’m sure that’s the most significant contributing factor.

There’s a lot to unpack in that brief exchange I have with a boy who will be 15 next week. It challenges me, as a parent, to rethink my assumptions about what causes teen suicide, and to contemplate my contribution to the problem, as a somewhat reluctant adult. Nothing about our little family is the ideal for which I had hoped when I was his age. I did not expect to be a working mom, not even part time, and I certainly didn’t expect to be divorced. Like many young women who struggle on and off with depression, I had what I now know was a fantasy – that becoming an adult, marrying the love of my life, owning a home, making a living from my passion, and having a family of my own would somehow “cure” me. I’m still waiting for all of those things, except the family part.

I wonder how many of my son’s friends have parents who had similar fantasies when they were our children’s age. It’s a safe bet that half of them are, like me, divorced, a bit disillusioned, and struggling with depression themselves. Is it any wonder our kids are feeling the anger and especially fear that accompanies this battle, no matter what family member is on the line of scrimmage?

Like other parents, especially mothers who do battle with depression, I carry a lot of guilt about how it has affected my kids. Certainly it’s one of many factors contributing to the divorce that has left them without a dad in their home every night. I grieve that more than anything, even though I also have peace about it.

I carry guilt about the time I spend working, and I carry guilt about the time I spend NOT working and thinking I should be. I feel like I’m constantly running late for something or playing catch-up, or lagging behind, or neglecting a relationship or responsibility. Letting someone down is a persistent fear that is realized regularly. I feel guilty about spending money on the kids, I feel guilty about spending money on myself, and I feel guilty about not practicing good self-care if I put my kids or my bills before myself. I feel guilty when I lose my temper and lash out, and I feel guilty when I’m too lenient.

I work hard to keep the outside of my home looking nice; you might never guess how cluttered it is inside. The shutters are faded and the trim needs repainting, but the lawn is immaculate and the flower beds are weeded. Never mind that the bathrooms haven’t been cleaned in months. It’s a perfect analogy for my personhood. I make myself modestly presentable and well-groomed in public, but under the surface my emotions are all over the place, like so much unopened mail and old school papers piled on the kitchen counter, too overwhelming to be sorted, addressed, or put in their place.

Having let go of my former fantasy about adulthood, I’m tempted to replace it with another. If only I could be living life pursuing my creative talents, or had a partner to help me raise my children, or someone to clean my house … I could go on, but I stop myself because I recognize it for what it is.

I think this is why Kate Spade’s and Anthony Bourdain’s deaths have hit home for me.

Anthony overcame great difficulties, published a book that changed his life, and pursued a life of adventure and brought it to millions like me who had got to experience it through him. Kate found great success in creative expression, and seemed like the kind of person who had achieved balance and joy; the kind of working mom I aspire to be, creating, setting an example for her child. I thought her smiles were genuine.

And they probably were. You can have genuine smiles and still have genuine mental pain when no one is looking.

The public me smiles when she says hello; it is a family trait passed down from my grandmother, who was the oldest child and worked in her family store from the time she was very young. Putting on a public face is in my blood. Even during her last years in a nursing home that was hell for her, Grammy put on her lipstick most days. She wasn’t trying to “fake it till you make it.” She did it because it was who she genuinely was. It is also who I am. My smiles are as real as my private tears, I promise.

So I don’t doubt that Kate Spade’s effervescent persona was real. It’s a confirmation of what I know to be true – that we humans are not all or nothing, but a mix of the dark and the light, and that financial or creative success does not make us any less vulnerable to the ravages of distorted thinking that accompanies depression. If anything, it apparently makes us more vulnerable as the gap between our outer and inner selves widens. As much as I’m nervous about publicly sharing my darker side, it keeps the gap narrow, and keeps me from feeling like a fake.

Let me just pause here and say that I’m so tired of us crying “mental health” and sharing suicide hotline numbers every time a notable person ends their life. It’s like “thoughts and prayers” after a mass shooting. It feels like an empty reaction. Yes, our mental health resources suck. I can say this from my own personal experiences. Although the therapists I’ve seen in the last 20 years have been exceptional, both kind and helpful, they are not accessible. My current therapist squeezes me in once a month. When I was in crisis enough that I found the courage and resolve to finally ask for help, I had to wait three weeks for my first appointment. Three weeks. Not three hours, or three days. And I won’t tell you how much I had to pay before my insurance kicked in.

He recommended a specialist for evaluation of some of my mood issues, and they don’t take my insurance at all. I’m managing well right now, so I’ve decided not to spend $300 for the evaluation and $100 for follow-ups at this time. This is, in part, because I have past experiences with pharmaceutical therapies, and the side effects were worse than the depression. The fact that I was willing to entertain drugs at all was simply a sign of how much emotional pain I was in. I’m grateful the pain has passed for the moment.

And I’m one of the lucky ones. If the pain comes back, I have money in my savings account to cover the cost. If I didn’t, I have parents who could help me financially. I have a flexible job that allows me to set my own schedule and practice good self-care when I’m having a dark day. I have an ex who supports our children financially and emotionally, and we have an extended family who help us both be the best parents we can be in these less than ideal circumstances. I have a beautiful, if cluttered, home in a neighborhood with excellent schools and neighbors who genuinely care for one another. I have friends and a good church community and creative outlets and good physical health and the ability to get out in the sunlight and hike 15 miles in a day, which seems to be the most effective treatment I’ve found. My children are well-adjusted, healthy, and smart.

My biggest problem is between my ears – my brain and its distorted thinking. And fortunately, I’ve learned some strategies over the last 42 years that help me manage that brain, some days better than others.

Many, many people have it way worse than me in any number of ways. These days we use the word “privilege” to describe that, and I count my blessings every day without judging myself or feeling guilty that I have what others do not. Gratitude is one of my “strategies.” If anything, being mindful of my privilege helps me to be less judgmental of others. We could do with a little less judgment, because it’s not helping anyone. But for the grace of God, there go I.

“Mental health” is not a solution to the problem. Oh, how I wish it were. That’s not to disregard the miracles that can happen when mental health is squarely addressed. I know more than one person with bipolar whose life changed when they finally got a diagnosis and proper medication. But for far more people, there is no magic pill, which is part of why they are so despondent and without hope. I count myself in that group at times, which is why I get irritated when people cry “mental health” as so much emotional cover when faced with the reality that some people might be beyond “fixing” because they don’t have any easily diagnosable “condition,” other than being human.

I don’t want to be fixed.

I just want the pressure to “get better” to end.

I want to be OK, just as I am.

I want someone to take care of me, but only long enough so that I can get some rest. Any longer and I’ll lose the dignity and self-esteem that comes from being able to support myself. I want a just a temporary reprieve from my responsibilities.

I don’t want to be told what I should do. I want mercy and grace. Not from God, but from the people with whom I share this planet, especially the ones closest to me.

That’s probably what Kate and Anthony wanted too, and the boy in the high school marching band. And the kids who are texting my son. And my son. And you.

And, I want affordable access to effective mental health resources, too.

Is this too much to ask?

I want resilience. I want the ability to keep putting one foot in front of the other on a bad day. Actually, I have that; otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this. I want thicker skin so the haters won’t hurt me. Judgers gonna judge, you know? But I don’t want to stop feeling. I don’t want to be numbed out. I want courage; I want to experience the highs and lows of life without dreading them, the way I voluntarily ride a roller coaster knowing it will be over before I get used to it, allowing the ups and downs to make me feel more alive instead of terrified to live.

And everything I want for myself, I want for others, and I have no idea how we make that happen. I take some comfort in knowing I work for an organization that provides financial support to a group dedicated to improving resilience for children who’ve experienced trauma. But I want resilience for all of us, children and adults, especially the adults who are responsible for the children. I want us to be able to bounce back, to dust ourselves off, to embrace the pain as a teacher, not a foe. I want us to share that pain, not stigmatize it, so that others, especially the children, will know they are not alone.

Because you’re not alone. You may feel alone, but feelings aren’t facts. My kid is answering texts at midnight to make sure someone’s kid knows they are not alone. Someone is on the other end of the line at that suicide hotline everyone is posting right now. I’ve never called it, but I’m pretty sure they will not tell you what you should do. Maybe they just listen. Maybe they ask you a question to help you let it all out. Maybe they just say, I am here with you.

Whatever they do or say, they believe your life, my life, all life, is worth continuing.

Because it is. Life, all life, is useful. You have the power, just by being yourself, sometimes even your darker self, to have a positive impact on someone else. When someone shares their failures and shame with me, I can’t tell you how honored, and relieved, and encouraged, and less alone I feel. When we give to others what we want most, it comes back to us. I believe this to my core. It’s why I write, why I sing, why I love, why I take the risk of sharing that yes, I too struggle with depression and it is not pretty. If it makes a difference to just one person, it has worth. If sharing my pain helps one person feel less isolated, it’s had a purpose.

So, let’s have the courage to change the things we can and start with being genuine. Restrain our penchant for judgement, and extend compassion. Check on our friends, especially the strong ones. The successful ones who seem to have it all together. Give what we most need. If you don’t know what that is, it’s simply this – your presence. Your presence matters.

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2 thoughts on “More Than “Mental Health””

  1. Thank you for writing and sharing this. It needed to be said. Mental health is an ambiguous term.

    We are all on a roulette wheel when it comes to tragedy, sadness, depression, loss…on who the ball lands is anyone’s guess. Being honest with ourselves and reaching out is tremendously difficult in those states of hoplessness. Our expectations of how things should be but aren’t further sets us up. Sometimes it is simple as observers to reach in and remind us that we can indeed sit with all the crappiness and pain and come out the other side because we’re convinced there is no end to it. Sometimes we are simply tired and need others to take over until we are rested. Sometimes we need reminding of the importance and value we have. Sometimes we need to be okay waiting for our purpose or repurpose to be revealed.

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