I used to lie compulsively. Not to the people in my immediate circles, but to the people on the periphery of my life. Often I would concoct tales of anguish and trauma. These fictions would start out as a “harmless” coping strategy for just myself. I experienced waves of depression and anxiety that would crash through me. My calm seas would be instantaneously in an uproar of violent riptides and torrential rain. Every fiber of my being would scream for a reason why. I could not comprehend or predict any part of it. Even as an articulate child I could not find the relief of even an incoherent scream to outwardly express the onslaught of mayhem raging in me.
So I would lie. First to myself. Within moments of an attack I invented the most melodramatic and tortuous stories I could. In my head people I loved would fall tragically ill and die, I would suffer loss of limb and innumerable types of abuse. I would lie to myself to validate the turbulent grief inside of me. It was not true enough to me that I was mentally ill, so I made fictitious calamity my truth.
If you were to look at the truthful events of my life before the age of 10 through the traditionally applied lense of society the average person would not be able to find an “adequate reason” for my poor mental health. Later on in life I would experience multiple instances of sexual assault and begin grappling with my sexual identity which would compound my problems and add ptsd into the miasma of my mind. But up until that point I was always well fed, well clothed, and very well loved. My family was far from being in a state of care free eternal bliss, but on the whole we were well.
And here in lies the problem. Looking at life through that lense alone is far from enough. You cannot compare stories to define the worthiness of someone’s mental health because mental health is not confined to the borders of external circumstances alone. It encompasses internal physical and neurological structures that even the most privileged upbringing cannot guarantee escape.
So today when I went to the movies and saw a film called Captain Fantastic and witnessed it touch on these issues, I experienced an unavoidable desire to say something. This movie is the story of a family of eight who have chosen to leave modern society in exchange for a life of homesteading in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. This decision was reached together by mother and father. They are equal partners, both motivated by the same goals and ideals and we are led to believe both equally satisfied in this lifestyle. Despite this contentment and harmony, the mother deals with severe mental health issues, and spoiler alert…she goes away for treatment and after several months she commits suicide. You are led to believe that she was living the life she had always dreamed of, and yet was still in daily turmoil.
Upon hearing the news, the father tells his children the exact nature of their mother’s death (without actually imparting the gory details) and allows all six of his children to collectively grieve however they need. They all knew she was sick, they all knew the exact circumstances of her mental health as best they could understand, and they were all allowed to ask any and all questions. The camera does not cut away, there is no relief, you see and hear nothing but their first reactions to this devastating news and you watch them cling to each other for support.
The father and children decide to pack up and drive across country to attend the funeral even though they are not invited and the planned service is suited to the philosophy of her parents and not at all representative of her last wishes. Upon arriving at their cousins house, her nephews ask around the dinner table about how their aunt died. While our family was informed directly about what happened to their mother, these children only heard that she was sick. “And sometimes sick people die.” What ensues around this dinner table is a perfect embodiment of the uncomfortable nature of suicide and the tragic stigmas attached to discussing mental health. It is horrific to sit through. All I wanted was to get up and pace, smash my head into a wall, or run until I couldn’t hear anything. My heart was racing, my finger nails were digging into my palms furiously leaving deep furrows that left marks for several hours after the final credits rolled, and I began to sweat just watching it.
It is important to now note that I myself am a suicide attempt survivor. The details of my story are not necessary here, only that without proper self advocacy skills or help I was alone, even while being daily loved and supported by my family. Mental health issues are often hard to see, and I spiraled down enough to think my only way out was death.
To not confront and discuss mental health and suicide in our society may not feel like it affects you, but I assure you it does. These stigmas are dangerous. Skirting the dirty truth is damaging at all ages. Telling children something other than the truth of mental health perpetuates a system of forced silence that to those of us wrestling and weeping with ourselves feels like society is suffocating us. Each censorship or conversational evasion is another link in the chain that shackles us and makes it all the more difficult to swim to the surface of the ocean of our illness long enough to scream for help.
Mental health issues knows no race, gender, or sexuality. It is a purely human disease that can strike anyone. It hurts. It hurts like hell. And it is compounded by polite prevarication and watered down stories told to us at young ages. It is not cowardly to hurt. It is not cowardly to seek help. It is sometimes all we can do to keep breathing in and breathing out.
Regardless of what your opinion is on Captain Fantastic as a movie, or the ideologies portrayed therein, the stigma surrounding suicide is brutally addressed. Followed on the heels of this scene is a discussion on the Bill of Rights. This juxtaposition makes it clear that no one can legislate your choice to speak on anything. But I can implore you to examine your relationship with these real world concerns. I can beg you to look at the way you present these tales to younger generations. Suicide and mental health is always a severe reality. Death in any form always comes with a bitter taste. But it is also true that because these issues touch us all, the stigmas have profound and far reaching consequence. I do not have the exact answers or script for how to discuss this. I do not have any letters after my name making me an expert. All I have is my one story and how I choose to tell it. We can remove stigma and still have room for nuance as a society. There is space still for gentleness, tact, and a compassionate hand while discussing the incomprehensible nature of such a tragic loss. I don’t know just the words you should say, I just know somehow it should be said. I deeply hope that de-stigmatizing discussions on mental health and getting help will make suicide narratives less frequent and therefore the world that much more bright and welcoming.
And if you are reading this and you need help:
You are not alone.
You are not the first nor will you be the last.
Seek help, there are resources.
We need you desperately in this world.
You are not finished here on this earth.
You are loved, you are loved, you are LOVED.