Category Archives: Mental Illness

Wet Suits and Suicide

The first time I was breathing underwater with scuba gear it was in a Kansas YMCA swimming pool. Breathing underwater was as amazing as the final test was terrifying, for which a mandatory free-ascent without oxygen was required. It took me three tries. However, my success had the intended result. I learned that in spite of my instincts, I could ascend from 40-feet of very cold, muddy water on a single breath. Since the test was early spring in a huge Arkansas lake, we were wearing wet suits.

Wet suits are another thing that don’t seem logical. When you get in the water, it soaks WetsuitCroppedyour suit. Your body then warms the water, very quickly, which continues to serve as a layer of warmth and protection from the cold water. I would love to walk around life with a social wet suit, protecting me from the cold-shoulders we inevitably bump into.

The thing about a wet suit is that out of water, walking around is exhausting. What was a layer of protection in the cold water becomes untenable on land. I think that clinical depression, for some, is like walking around land in a wet suit, but without it actually keeping you warm. It is like a permanent, cumbersome weight that you can’t figure out how to peel off. And at the risk of extending the metaphor too far, I would say that the wet suit of depression can convince one that taking it off would be worse than the misery of wearing it. Those on the outside might say, “Just take it off,” as in ‘get over it.’ But of course, it doesn’t work like that.

There are probably many groups of experts on suicide, but one of them which keeps statistics is the American Association of Suicidology (which is a word, and is the study of suicide prevention per Webster). They tell us that more women attempt suicide, but more men succeed, for example. A Washington Post story reports that there has been an alarming spike in the rate of suicide in white, middle-age men since 1999.

The Washington Post on Suicide and Robin Williams

While I am very sad about the loss of Robin Williams, I believe he made a choice that was his to make. We’ll never know what he was thinking at the time, but I can see that maybe he was just tired of walking around on dry land in a wetsuit and flat-out couldn’t figure how to get the damn thing off. The Parkinson’s was one more utterly exhausting obstacle – like trying to run track in a wetsuit. In Robin William’s case, he would have been expected to make jokes for everyone else while doing it.  Maybe he just thought,  “Enough is enough.” That he apparently hung himself does creep me out, but there should be some recognition for him in staying clean-and-sober to the end of his days, after what I’ve read was years of struggle.

In the last few days, in casual conversations in various settings and comments online, on radio and television, I’ve heard people say, “What about those he left behind?” “What a shame.” I remember someone telling a suicide story about an acquaintance saying, “Suicide is an angry act. It hurts everyone left behind.” Suicide may have a ripple effect on those left behind, but it is the most deeply personal act possible. It’s just not about you. That is not said to diminish the pain of those left behind. It is just to ask, why can’t people make a choice about their own exit?


Loving and Leaving the Good Life, by Helen Nearing

Helen and Scott Nearing come to mind. They were the original hippies, leaving a comfortable Manhattan life during the Great Depression and teaching themselves subsistence living in rural Vermont, then Maine. Their story is a good one, but what is relative to this topic is that at age 100, Scott was finished. He accomplished what he intended, he had no life-threatening illness, he simply stopped eating. He did indeed make a graceful exit. And it was his to make.

Goodlife Website on Scott and Helen Nearing

Disclaimer: I realize depression it is a treatable condition, not all people with depression are suicidal, and not all suicides can be linked to depression. Some would say that suicide can only be the result of mental illness. America may be a financially wealthy country but when it comes to mental health this is a primitive, unenlightened society. So, maybe the argument that suicide is linked to a treatable mental illness is often correct, but it is a moot point when mental health treatment is even less available and/or affordable than physical healthcare, for many of the non-wealthy. There’s the added problem that even if you have some insurance to help, you really don’t want mental health problems on your medical record. You know I’m right about that.

In our less-than-enlightened society, medical advances have outpaced ethics and common sense. People are living much longer, but not necessarily doing it well. Human beings are lingering beyond their ability to be productive, or even happy. Many are suffering painful, prolonged illnesses without the opportunity to get off the runaway train of medical science that lengthens life but can’t help us live it.

I was a hospice volunteer for several years. I learned that religion does not always support the dying or the suffering. In fact religion contributes to the shame around suicide. If someone is in so much pain they see suicide as a viable option, shaming them exacerbates the misery. One argument religions have used in condemning suicide is to assert the unerring sacred value of life – at all costs. This position is promoted even while all the major religions venerate martyrs. There are religious martyrs who died at their own hands and those who engaged in behavior that would make their death inevitable – that doesn’t even count religious wars. So a sweeping assertion about the unerring sacred value of life doesn’t hold consistent with how religions have been practiced historically.

As the article linked below says, it is not that long ago that a funeral mass was denied if the deceased committed suicide. While the Roman Catholic Church is now responding to suicide with more compassion, church teachings still make it clear that suicide is morally wrong. I single out the Roman Catholic Church because it is an easy and obvious target, but don’t think it is the only religion with discomfort around suicide. on Suicide

The thing about shaming suicide is that it makes people less willing to talk. The American Society for Suicide Prevention counts “Positive connections to family, peers, community, and social institutions such as marriage and religion that foster resilience,” as “protective factors for suicide prevention.” If someone is too ashamed to talk, how can they make those “connections?”

Preventing Suicide

I remind you that when it comes to faith, there are no certainties. That is actually what faith means – believing what can’t be seen or proven. So since it’s all speculation, maRobinWilliamsFBybe we could do the right thing and back off the judgment of the suffering and the tired. Suicide is mysterious. We can’t truly know what was going on. We can only try to pay attention to the people around us. And in any case, every adult deserves the opportunity to make a choice about their exit. To Robin Williams I say: Thank you. I respect your choice. Though we wanted more, you gave us plenty. – J.B.


Anger Mismanagement

It is probably a mistake to admit this, but on the way to church, I flipped someone off.  Even at the time, I recognized the irony of my actions.  I admit I think they deserved it, and I did feel better doing it.  They were walking in the middle of the street in slow motion.  It was in a quiet neighborhood – but it was a street.  They saw my vehicle and just kept walking slowly in the middle of the street, before they finally sauntered to the shoulder. 

Even though at the time of my indiscretion I was driving to church, I don’t consider myself one of those typical church ladies, mostly because I enjoy cursing like teamster.  (Yes, I have heard them do that.)  But in my experience, very often church ladies have the same inclinations as me and my one-finger salute.  You see, I think passive aggressive is still aggressive and sometimes worse because it masquerades as nice.

At a place I worked I had a co-worker who was one of those sweet middle-aged women who everyone thinks is kind.  She was in church about four times a week always talking about praying for people and God’s will.  My perception is that she was more of a self-martyred doormat, and expected other women to be the same.

In the department in which I worked I was being picked-on by a male co-worker and quite honestly had groused about it a little too much.  Church Lady didn’t come to my rescue or defend my honor.  Nor did she communicate directly to me that my commentary was wearing thin.  When she became chilly (passive aggressive) I made several attempts to offer to help her with work or see if anything was wrong and got no response.  Instead she complained to a manager about me.  No complaints about the male for his actions, but instead about the female (me) and my reaction to being harassed.  As a female, she expected me to suffer in silence.

It seems that there are too many opportunities to feel out of control, frustrated, pissed off, and even enraged.  Fewer and fewer people know a safe way to handle those feelings.  Here’s what I don’t do – pray it away.  Turning anger in toward religion just creates an angry religion.

In my readings, I have come across an expert on this: a humble Vietnamese, Buddhist monk whom I have heard speak and whose books I have read.  His writing style is not challenging to serious readers (English is not his first language), but thePanOnStove content of his books is spiritually inspired, and almost magic in its simplicity.  (It is wise to read it as poetry.)  In Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, Thich Nhat Hahn talks about “cooking anger,” (p.29).  He compares it to cooking potatoes.  “But even at a very high flame, if you turn off the fire after five minutes, the potatoes will not be cooked.”  I take this to mean that my anger deserves respect, and a minimal amount of time to process.  My anger has validity and deserves recognition by me, though perhaps something more positive than flipping someone off.

What kind of anger led the two men accused of the Boston Marathon bombing to such behavior?  Like most of us, this has been disturbing to me.  The Wall Street Journal article (link follows) tells the story of a lost, frustrated young man (the older brother).  The guidance he received from his mother was to pursue extreme Islam.  That’s not a reflection on Islam.  It is, in my opinion, bad parenting.  I sincerely believe that any religion, or any ideology for that matter, could have been exploited to the extreme by this young man.  He had a need to lash out, as he did once at his local mosque.  Reasonable Muslims told him to knock it off, just like moderate Muslims have condemned what it seems he did in Boston.

Wall Street Journal on family religious issues of accused Boston bombers

Salon article on deceased and accused Boston bomber disrupting mosque service

Religion on Muslim leaders against terrorism

Religious people will likely disagree with me, but I don’t think religion is the answer for all one’s woes.  Religion may offer inspiration or guidance, and hopefully spiritual growth, but if someone has serious psychological problems or is socially disenfranchised, religion will be received and exercised in that same way.  Every religion is interpretive and angry people will interpret religion as angry.  Put more simply: people find the god they want.

That takes me to Bill Maher.  I usually agree with him, so when he went on a rant about Islam I really had to stop and think.  It is difficult to argue that Islam is not a dangerous religion, though I don’t really believe that it is.  With religion, much like human beings, context is everything.  There is a difference between understanding the Islam of Mohammed and his writings, and perceiving Islam only through the eyes of angry Muslims who have embraced a cult-like interpretation of what is truly an inclusive, peaceful religion.  As tragic as recent incidents have been, the actions of extremists represent a very small minority of practicing Muslims.  In the same way most Christians would not want to be thought of as people who bomb abortion clinics (I hope); nor would Buddhists want to be known for the “War Monk” in Sri Lanka.

When Bill Maher judges a religion on the behavior of its practitioners, it makes sense and seems fair.  But we live in a mass-media, global world with a lot of troubled people.  Some of them are going to choose a religious interpretation that validates their anger and allows them to lash out.  That can happen in any religion, or political group for that matter.  Remember, the moderate people are not newsmakers.  Peaceful, reasonable people do not make good headlines.

Bill Maher on Islam

I feel like we have learned enough about the accused Boston Marathon Bombers.  It was a sensational and horrible tragedy played out on live feeds for days on television and the Internet.  But now it is time to learn and heal.  We need to “cook” our own collective anger and learn from what has happened while we find ways to support those who have been hurt.  I do not want to see one more photograph of those young men. They should not be the news any longer.  We are the news.  People helping people is “Boston Strong” and that’s the only news I want.  And religious people around the globe – for this is not just about Islam – have to prove our worth by serving.  It takes a lot of compassionate service to offset those working for angry interpretations of religion. – J.B.

There’s crazy and there’s crazy

There’s bungee-jumping-crazy and there’s having an audible conversation with someone that no one else can see.  Most of us can think of at least one relative that is eccentric or disruptive.  “The Lion King” has that great line: “There’s one in every family.  They ruin every special occasion.”  In that story, the disruptive relative crossed the line from annoying to dangerous and killed Simba’s Dad.

In one of my stints as bartender, there was a regular customer, let’s call him Rick, who came in every day and had exactly three beers.  He always paid without incident, though he never tipped.  All the bartenders were ok with that, perhaps because it seemed it took his entire being just to function in a society so different from himself.  His struggle was subtle, but not invisible.  He didn’t like it if someone was in his chair or when the manager changed the TV station from “Family Guy” to sports – I agreed with him on the latter.  Once an out-of-towner two stools down noticed Rick talking to himself and said something sarcastic about “that guy who’s had too much.”  Rick was not then, nor ever in my presence, inebriated or the least bit discourteous to anyone.  Nor was he ever packing heat.

The shocking availability of extremely destructive gun-power combined with rampant mental illness is a lethal combination that is only talked about after tragedy.  The United States has the most heavily armed civilians in the world with 90 guns for every 100 citizens (Reuters, August 28, 2007).  You would have to move to Yemen to live in the second most heavily armed citizenry with 61 guns per 100 people.

Statistics on mental illness are less reliable, partially because not everyone even agrees how to define it and so much is undiagnosed.  I’m asking you to consider the prevalence of mental illness for yourself by opening a newspaper or visiting a news web site and looking at the headlines.  In your opinion, how many of those stories have someone crazy in them?  On page one of the Philadelphia Inquirer (January 25, 2011) try this headline: “Moscow airport bombing kills 35.”  The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kansas) also has the Moscow bombing on page one, but on the local tab of their web site stories, the third headline is “Wichita woman ‘very critical’ condition after hammer attack; man arrested.”  The Peoria JournalStar (Peoria, Illinois) has a story on the local tab of their web site with this lead: “A member of a Western Illinois University fraternity was ticketed early Friday morning for choosing to eat lasagna instead of evacuating his building when the fire alarm was tripped, authorities said.”  Crazy has many flavors.

When I watch the political talking heads make stuff up, I call them crazy.  Their rhetoric is not as immediately life-threatening as the hammer-attacker, but the irresponsible and dishonest speech is destructive.  Congresswomen Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) is probably ‘crazy like a fox’ when she re-writes history in order to tell people what they want to hear to engender support.  The web site calls her “Batshitcrazy.”  (Yes, that really is a web site.)  Anderson Cooper (CNN) challenged her on one of her speeches where she marginalized slavery and misrepresented the experience of many immigrants when they first came to this county.

Sadly, that leads us to the Arizona shooting.  CNN has a “Belief Blog” with a column by Boston University religion scholar Stephen Prothero, “My Take: Is Arizona shooting an individual or shared sin?”  Prothero wrote about our prevailing culture of “vitriol” and readily available guns.  About accused shooter Jared Loughner he said, “To insist that he was not influenced by that rhetoric is to pretend either that ideas have no effect, or that they somehow magically lose their effectiveness when they enter the brains of the mentally imbalanced.”

If you are willing to agree with me that mental illness is nearly epidemic in this country, then consider what dangerous situations might be lying dormant.  Just as mental illness and guns shouldn’t be mixed, neither should religion and mental illness.  There is the potential for dangerous results, just as what happens when religion is exploited for bad politics.  Of course the worst situation is when religion, politics, and mental illness work together to produce suicide bombers.

I have had first-hand experience with clinical depression.  I got better for a number of reasons, not all of which are pertinent to this column.  Because depression includes shutting down, I shed religion.  This was one of the most fortunate affects of the depression for me, because at the time I was only able to understand religion through the lens of the depression that was putting a dark and heavy cloud over my entire life.  Everything I saw, read and experienced came to me through a depression filter.  Religion did not inspire me, it depressed me.  It was not the cause, but it did exacerbate my condition.

Mental illness can’t be prayed away, in my view.  It is pervasive.  It is a powerful and complicated demon that is not easily exorcised.  Many people feel ill-equipped to respond appropriately, which is probably the case of Jared Loughner’s parents.  That’s understandable, but at the point he was amassing weapons, they owed it to the rest of us to give us some warning.

The tag in the Prothero column link is “it takes a village to make a killer.”  It’s time to view our world through the eyes of the struggling.  Next to each of us is someone who is chronically unemployed, stress-fatigued, marginalized, seriously lonely, or just crazy.  If we pay attention we might just be able to tell eccentric crazy from dangerous crazy.  And let’s keep the crazy away from guns and religion.  Call me crazy, but I choose to believe that compassion and awareness might be enough to reduce some of the tragedy that we are coming to take for granted.