Someone close to us killed himself two weeks ago, and we spent the end of last week traveling down and attending the funeral. It is tragic and heartbreaking, but out of respect for the family I’m not going to talk about that. Instead, I want to talk about how to cope in the aftermath.
As someone who struggles openly with mental illness, I want to speak for those who commit suicide.
There have been times in my life with the threat of suicide was very very real. Times when I had a plan and the only thing that kept me from enacting it was people who helped me when I reached out to them. So I feel like I can speak from experience when I say: no one does this because they’re thinking rationally. Teenagers have their own unique dilemmas that threaten suicide, but if we’re talking adults? They do this because the disease they are living with – depression, bipolar disorder, addiction – has overcome them. It’s the disease that ends their life. Suicide was just the form it took.
That distinction is crucial in every way. When we process a loss, we all go through the anger stage. This is a normal and healthy part of processing our grief and isn’t something to be avoided. But when it’s suicide that complicates that loss, the anger stage contains a specific component that blames the loved one. We talk about the person “giving up” or say they “couldn’t cope.” That they’ve abandoned their family or sneer that suicide is a “permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Well, sometimes that problem is temporary – the problems that often affect teen suicides can be temporary – but sometimes it isn’t. Mental illness and addiction are not temporary. And if someone dies from suicide after a struggle with a permanent problem like that, it’s not because they couldn’t cope. It’s because the treatment failed.
If someone had cancer, and they had good care from doctors and fought through chemotherapy and they still died, we would never say it was because they couldn’t cope or lament that they weren’t stronger or criticize them for being selfish. We would say the treatment failed. That despite every effort the cancer did not respond to chemotherapy and it took their life. That’s how we need to treat mental illness and addiction. (I keep saying mental illness and addiction because I want to pay special attention to addiction. It is, in fact, a mental illness and should be taken every bit as seriously.)
I am extremely lucky because in a nation where it is far from the norm, I have had access to mental health care including prescription medications. And I’m lucky again because the medications work, and I am absolutely diligent about staying healthy with the help of supportive family and friends. Not everyone has that string of luck.
We have no real treatment for addiction. There is no medical treatment, there is no cure. We have some excellent therapeutic tools, but we have no way to change brain chemistry or structure in a way that consistently and reliably counteracts addiction. Which means that every person you know who is sober and living with addiction is performing a mind over matter feat of strength that should humble us to our core. Unless we can use our mind to lower our cholesterol or blood pressure, how dare we judge an addict whose disease ends their life?
Blaming a victim of suicide for being weak reinforces the stigma surrounding mental health and feeds into the diseased mind that tells us the world would be better off without us, that we’re too much of a burden on our loved ones, that we shouldn’t reach out for help, that we’re not capable of coping.
But it also is a tragedy for the people left behind.
Your loved ones didn’t commit suicide because you didn’t love them enough. They didn’t commit suicide because they didn’t love *you* enough. They didn’t do it because you enforced boundaries or consequences or to teach you a lesson. They did it because the disease overwhelmed them and the treatment failed.
No other cause of death has us feeling so guilty. We wouldn’t tell ourselves that if we had put up with the cancer better than our loved ones would have survived. If only they loved us more they wouldn’t have been overcome by the tumors. If we had loved them better than they never would have gotten cancer in the first place. All of those thoughts are absurd, but when you replace cancer with addiction, they are commonplace.
Mental illness is a disease. Addiction is a disease. And losing someone to it is tragic, but it does not make them, or us, weak. All we can do is rest in the knowledge that their fight is over and try to leave room in our hearts for the knowledge that whatever length of time they managed to fight this disease was heroic.