27 Oct TREADING WATER
This article is an instalment of MUSE Magazine’s Mental Health Theme week, taking place from October 25th to October 30th, 2021.
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 THEIR PERSONAL EXPERIENCES. THE AUTHOR WOULD LIKE TO RECOGNIZE THAT OTHER PEOPLE HAVE OTHER EXPERIENCES AND THAT NO TWO PEOPLE ARE THE SAME.
“I was swimming, I was fighting. And then I thought, just for a second, I thought ‘what’s the point’”. I was 14 and watching the popular medical drama Grey’s Anatomy when I heard Meredith Grey speak these words. In a show laden with emotional storylines of implausible accidents and rare diseases, Meredith’s close brush with death g may have been a passing side story for some, but to me, it meant something more. The notion that her accident may have been a suicide attempt was a chillingly realistic look into the complexity of mental illness. Her words nestled their way into the deepest corner of my brain, only to resurface sporadically over the following years of my life.
Before I even knew why this series of episodes left me unsettled. I could not comprehend the claims from her peers that Meredith’s drowning was an attempted suicide. I did not understand how one could act on a suicidal impulse almost unintentionally. It made me realize that if she was suicidal without knowing, that meant I could be too; and this scared me the most.
For those of you unfamiliar with this storyline, it centres around medical student, Meredith Grey, who is part of a team of doctors responding to a nearby ferry crash. At the scene of the accident, Meredith falls in the water where she begins to drown, making only a few attempts to pull herself back to land. Juxtaposed amongst the chaos of hospital scenes and paramedics in the field, Meredith seems at peace with what is happening to her. There is a certain calm that comes with her decision to give up swimming.
Drowning is a common, but a perfect metaphor for what it feels like to live with chronic mental illness. My head is above water, but I am always fighting to keep it there. Some days are more still and some days I have the strength to fight harder. Nevertheless, I am still in the water. It feels like if I am not constantly vigilant, the current will pull me under. Though I feel guilty admitting it, I can so vividly imagine the calm Meredith felt when she decided to stop swimming. It is the calm that comes with finally being able to rest. I was watching Meredith succumb to the elements, but without realizing it at the time, I was also watching her depict my long-standing internal battle.
If suicide is portrayed in the media, it is often through the eyes of a troubled quiet movie character steps away from a ledge. This leads to the general perception that suicidal thoughts are the direct precursor to a death by suicide. It creates the black and white narrative that depressed individuals are either moments away from a suicide attempt, or are “cured” of their negative thoughts. This does not account for the many of us who exist somewhere in between. The “in-between” is often summed up as not being particularly attached to living, but not always actively wanting to die. Even as someone who has dealt with depression for a great number of years, I was unaware of the continuum that encompassed suicidality. I wasn’t conscious of being at risk for developing these thoughts, nor did I have the tools to recognize them when they first started appearing.
Few people like to talk about suicidal ideation. It is more palatable to discuss the triumph of recovery from a mental illness or the tragedy after a death has taken place. A long-lasting indifference to being alive is not the most comfortable topic of conversation amongst friends. This, on top of the casual mentions of ‘wanting to die’ among young adults, makes it so that cries for help are rarely addressed seriously. Expressions of suicidal thoughts are often reduced to relatable jokes or are not taken as a legitimate threat. There are academic papers about predictors of suicidal behaviour and there are mental health advocacy pages explaining this phenomenon, yet these statistics-based resources don’t provide much solace for the people experiencing it.
Learning of the term, suicidal ideation and seeing it portrayed on this episode of Grey’s Anatomy made it finally click for me. I was able to put a finger on what I had been feeling, and it helped me gain insight into the complexity of my own mental health. It’s a strange thing to be relieved at the realization that you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, but I did feel comfort in knowing that I was not alone in these feelings. Revisiting this episode in my twenties felt like I was watching someone play out my internal cognitions. It was refreshing to see a display of suicidality outside of graphic depictions or romanticized mental illnesses that are so common in media entertainment.
In typical television drama fashion, Meredith is visited by some of her deceased loved ones in what is meant to represent the afterlife. It is in her conversations with these individuals where she comes to the realization that she intentionally stopped fighting. When she finally admits it out loud, her tear-filled mutters of, “don’t tell anybody”, are a heartbreaking expression of the shame and guilt that accompany suicidal thoughts. There is guilt in knowing that you are considering death even when you are privileged enough to have a loving support system and potential for a bright future. Suicidal people aren’t selfish. They don’t want to cause pain to their loved ones, they just want a break from their suffering.
To me, this Grey’s Anatomy storyline remains one of the most influential media portrayals of mental illness to this day. It raised awareness of a commonly overlooked issue and gave insight into what passive suicidal ideation can look like. On a more personal note, it allowed me to better understand my own mental health and feel less shame in what I was experiencing. Suicidal thoughts don’t simply disappear after you acknowledge them, but they can get easier to manage. I no longer have to carry the burden of these thoughts alone, and I felt more comfortable reaching out knowing these feelings were not unique to me.
I wish I could say I am writing this safely on shore, out of reach of the waves trying to pull me below the surface. But that is not the reality for many of us living with chronic mental illnesses. Even on days where I am enjoying life, the passing thought of giving up still remains. I wonder what would happen if I stopped treading water. But for now, I think of Meredith Grey and the hardships she survived and her courage to continue fighting. If she and all of the other people struggling with chronic mental illness continue to carry on, maybe I can too.
If you or someone you know are struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide, please reach out to one of the resources below and know that you are not alone.
Queen’s & Kingston Resources:
Good 2 Talk: 1-866-925-5454 or text: GOOD2TALKON to 686868
Peer Support Centre: located in the JDUC room 34 from 11 am to 5 pm Monday to Friday
Student Wellness Services: Call at (613) 533-2506 or visit in-person Côté Sharp Student Wellness Centre, 1st floor Mitchell Hall, 69 Union St.,
Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 833-456-4566 or text 45645
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: ONEKINGSLANE