Trigger warning: article contains discussions of mental health, mental illness, and suicide, which may be a trigger for some readers.
Disclaimer: the author wants to acknowledge and make it known that these are her personal experiences. The author would like to recognize that other people have other experiences and that no two people are the same.
At the pace of an oak tree, society ever so slowly grows. Our roots have been planted and stand, strong enough to withstand harsh winters and days that feel like natural disasters. Like the tree buds in the spring, we are beginning to open up and talk about things that once went unspoken. Society acts as a tree trunk to the many branches and limbs that are yet to grow. These branches and intertwined limbs are growing to recognize the importance of talking about mental health and mental illness. Conversations about mental health and illness are a great start to addressing the stigma. Sometimes, the simple conversations can make all the difference – just like the beaming sun on a glacial Monday morning.
Checking in with the people around you can make a world of difference. I have been fortunate enough to have these conversations with my friends and family. I cannot even put into words how lucky I am to phone my family while I walk somewhere and ask them to keep me company. Or to wake up and climb into my housemate’s nickel grey flannel sheets and to even find comfort there for just a little while. I am hopeful that other people are becoming more comfortable with these conversations as I am.
Although, conversations that people don’t typically find themselves in are those that talk about the grief and feelings that accompany a loved one’s death by suicide. The ones where you are forced to stop halfway through your sentence because your tears are getting in the way, or you cannot find the words to express the suffering you are enduring. But why don’t we have these conversations? Although I wish it weren’t true, many people will experience feelings of grief in their lifetime. Hell, take me, for example, I turned 20 this past summer, and in my lifetime, I have lost four people to suicide.
It’s time to start having these conversations; it’s time to start talking about the pits in our stomachs that are the size of the world record size peach. It’s time to start talking about this grief. It’s time to start talking about how to live for someone, instead of with someone. To make things easier, I’ll start.
When I was 14, I was taking a bath using lavender Epsom salts. I could hear my sister’s footsteps running down the hardwood floored hallway towards the bathroom. Without knocking, she opened the door and, with tears in her eyes, asked me, “Did you hear?” This was the first time I lost someone to mental illness.
When I was 15, I was at my school spirit day. I was dressed in red and grey. My friend called me and told me it might be time to go home for the day. The moment I heard her voice, I knew what had happened. By the time I was home, I had found out a childhood camp friend of mine had died by suicide.
When I was 18, I was making the most of my time off from first-year around Thanksgiving. I was helping my Nana grocery shop. My phone rang, and I answered. My best friend asked me if I could get a hold of him. I called her back and told her I couldn’t, and that’s when she broke the news. This was when I found out that someone who had helped me when I needed it the most had died by suicide.
This year, at 20, I tried to celebrate homecoming in whatever way I could given COVID. I was doing my makeup, and my phone buzzed. I got a text from an old friend saying they were so sorry I had to deal with the pain that had become so familiar to me once again. I was confused. I called her, and she explained. I hung up the phone, took a deep breath and made a mental list of who I wanted and, more importantly, needed to talk to immediately about yet another loss in our lives.
I will never forget these moments. If you asked me what colour shirt I was wearing those days, I could tell you without having to take even a second to think. These days, and moments, are stamped into my mind with permanent ink. Something else I will never forget is the way I cope following moments like this.
My initial reaction is to go numb. I climb into bed and tell myself that I will wake up the next morning, and everything will be normal. But then, I wake up in the morning, my eyes are puffy, and I know it wasn’t just a nightmare, but my new reality. I start to cry – a lot. I become a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. I am so fragile that the breeze may blow in the wrong direction, and I could start crying.
Another reaction of mine is to look for someone to blame. And every time that someone is me. I ask myself an encyclopedia’s worth of questions. Why hadn’t I been there more? Why hadn’t I called them more? Why didn’t I ask them how their day was more often? Why didn’t I hug them longer? Did I not remind them enough that I loved them? Even today, I still cannot find answers to my questions, and I think this goes for many people who experience this feeling of self-blame. To this day, I can still feel the enormous weight of guilt that sits heavily on my heart. Sometimes my lack of answers to these questions submerges me into an ocean of emotions. For some reason, I thought, and still sometimes feel that I could have done more. However, I have learned to come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t have. Mental illness is something that people do not have control over all the time. Mental illness is a medical problem, just like diseases.
Everyone has different reactions and methods of coping – and that’s okay, it’s normal. However, there is one similarity between us. The statistics start to ring louder after something like this. “Mental illness indirectly affects all Canadians at some time through a family member, friend, or colleague” (CMHA). You may have been in denial about mental illness affecting you in some way in the past. Maybe you still are in this state of denial now. Wherever you may stand, or however you may feel, doesn’t matter. What matters most is that there is something you can do to help yourself or someone around you. Here’s a place to start:
For those who may be struggling a little bit or a whole lot right now. As hard as it may be, please remember that it is okay to lean on the people close to you. Let me lean first; maybe that will make things easier for you. For me, I have always seen myself as an independent person strong enough to fix my problems. Until recently, I learned that it really is okay to ask for help, and it is okay to lean on people close to you. While I continue to look out for myself, it’s also nice to know that other people are looking out for me – people who want to help me in whatever way they can. If you think or feel that you are alone, read this and know you have me. I care.
For those who may be helping someone who is struggling right now. First off, thank you. You are doing everything you can to help – I know you are. But please, remember to take time for yourself. Helping someone through a mental health issue or mental illness can be challenging for you too. Therefore, it is important to slow down and take care of yourself to be strong enough to take care of others. Remind yourself that you are (most likely) not a professional. As much as you want to help and may feel capable of helping, the best thing you can do is encourage someone to ask for more help, maybe from a professional.
For those who don’t know where they stand right now. Look out for yourself and the people around you. Check-in on the people that surround you, whether they are a part of your daily life or not. Continue to foster an environment in which people feel welcome, free to speak their minds, and share their thoughts. Have these tough conversations. You never know who is listening and needs it most.
Mental health and illness affect all of us. There is no denying this. Whether you are going through something, you’re experiencing the loss of a loved one, or you are helping someone else – you are impacted. And so, it’s time to start having these tough conversations. It’s time to think about the sorrow that affects us all. William Blake wrote “On Anothers Sorrow” as an inclusion in Songs of Innocence. I think it beautifully encompasses the anguish that mental illness brings into our lives at some point or the other.
Can I see anothers woe,
And not be in sorrow too.
Can I see anothers grief.
And not seek for kind of relief.
Can I see a falling tear.
And not feel my sorrows share,
Can a father see his child,
Weep, nor be with sorrow fill’d.
Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan an infant fear –
No no never can it be.
Never never can it be.
Online Resources and Hotlines:
- CAMH Suicide Prevention: CLICK HERE
- CAMH Crisis and Support Services line: 1-833-456-4566
- For mental health services at Queen’s University: CLICK HERE
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: Katherine Lidtke