National Survivors of Suicide Day - guest post

In honor of Justin

In honor of Justin

I wrote this post for the National Survivors of Suicide Day (tomorrow) to honor those of us left behind by the silent killer of men & women in America today…

this killer doesn't see color, or nationality, it doesn't care if you live in a mansion on a hill, or under a bridge over pass… it does not distinguish between the successful or the struggling…

this killer is shame.  

So much shame surrounds those who are depressed and having suicidal thoughts. Suicidal ideation, and the paralyzing fear that comes with it, causes extreme feelings of isolation in people, more often than not, keeping them from reaching out for help. In the end this isolation and despair is responsible for a staggering amount of lost life.

In a country that professes to have a more understanding and supportive attitude around the struggle for mental health and wellness than most other nations, why is it that we still carry so much shame and stigma around what it means to suffering with the debilitating effects of mental illness?

We allow for “physical” illness, in fact we encourage those suffering with cancer, heart disease, and diabetes to “be brave”, to “stay strong”, to “hang in there”…yet…

even to this day, when a person opens up about their struggles with mental illness, especially men, there is still a deep seeded belief that causes people to see individuals as somehow mentally, physically and spiritually weak, or even worse, personally responsible for creating their own suffering.

This is a tragedy that must end. Because of this line of thinking… over 42,000 individuals die every year…men, even more so than woman…why?…because, sadly, as a man in this day and age, there is no shame greater than being emotionally weak.

When will we evolve beyond this?

When will we realize that sadness and vulnerability are not a sign of weakness, they are a sign of depth and sensitivity to to the world around us? We need people to feel safe about sharing their truth and their experiences.

As a suicide survivor myself, having attempted my own life and fortunately having been lucky enough to have survived…I feel that I have a clear understanding of the loneliness and complete sense of shame that it is to think of death and ponder its allure.

I lost my father at the age of 12 to the loneliness and despair of suicidal ideation, as well as one of my best friends, Justin, just 5 years ago, this December. I cannot help but wonder, that if we lived in a world where it was safe to say, “Hey, today I feel hopeless, and death seems the safest option,” without fear or judgement, but with the idea that their would be a sense of gentle love and support, would more people be alive today…would my Dad…would Justin?

How many others would be alive as well?

Like most people who knew him, and ALL who knew him well, Justin came blazing into my life with fire and flame. Sadly he left in the exact same way…

Our birthdays were exactly 1 year apart. A Taurian’s fierce nature and voracious loyalty were not the only things we had in common. Very early on I recognized a flickering and inconsistent spark in him, that I too shared in moments of extreme inspiration, that were punctuated by a deeply sad and reclusive nature. When he was on, he was on…like nobody’s business. As far as I know, he was never specifically diagnosed with any illness, but I don't think that much matters now anyways. I just know that sometimes he would retreat from the “party” into a silent space that he never really shared with any of us.

Long term friendship often mimic the changes we go though as individuals, ebbing and flowing through our growth. This is why we sometimes grow apart from people we still very much love…our lives move onto different paths. This certainly occurred for Justin and I over the years, living in different places, and doing vastly different things. But, when we got together our love and deep affection for one another never changed.  Lucky for me, our friendship evolved into something more than late night buzzed chattings on the philosophy of youth revolt and Bukowski’s legacy, into something deeper and profound.

He was a friend I could call at 3am in the morning with out question; a person whose doorstep I could show up on (and did!) with out speaking to one another for 9 months, and he would welcome me in without question, begin a previous conversation exactly where we left off, without skipping a beat.

He was a true friend, as true as they come. Sadly, I didn't see what was coming…I lived with so much guilt…how could I not have known, why didn't he tell me?  Hindsight is 20/20, and vision like that stings for a very long time.

Today, while I refuse to live in regret, I still so often wonder why he couldn't reach out and say anything to anyone. Even knowing that I had suffered with deep mental illness issues, he couldn't say anything to me??  His parents were and are extremely supportive and compassionate people who would have crawled across the Sahara to help him. He had a plethora of friends that deeply and truly loved him, and still do, to this day. These are unanswerable questions…and at some point I have stopped pondering them, because this is a vortex of despair from which there are no real answers.

The facts remains that on early day in December of 2011, Justin took his own life. I can never ask him why.  I can never tell him how incredibly much I love him still to this day; that as we grew older, he was beyond a friend, he was like a brother to me.

I’ll admit that after his death, I felt helpless and hopeless for a long time. Now, a few years later, I see that his death changed the fabric of my way of life in ways he could never have imagined.  I think this is because, more than anything, my Taurean stubbornness (he had it too!), refused to let his death mean nothing. While he may be a statistic on a chart to many who didn't know the magic in him that those who loved him knew, his life matters to us, it matters to me. And the way he died, without a sense of hope or a glimmer of light, is something that clings to me, that makes me want to fight against the despair.

Today, because of Justin, I fight to break the stigma regarding mental illness for people of all ages, nationalities, colors, sex, and belief; but particularly for our youth, they will be the true tide changers. Mental illness often strikes in the teens and early 20’s without warning, and believe when I tell you…it is scary. I speak from experience. Our young people need to be informed, they deserve to be. Whether it affects them personally, or someone they love, at some point in all of our lives we will meet or know mental illness. It is an undeniable fact. Shouldn't we prepare people to help each other, to help themselves, to have good resources? 

Because of my experience with mental illness and suicidal ideation personally, as well as the loss of my father, and Justin…my life altered course…things that I thought mattered stopped mattering, and I realized I had a calling to help others… I let this calling lead me, and now I have gravitated to work as a CPSW (certified peer support worker). Although I live in a very remote area of Taos, New Mexico. I am currently focusing on bringing a stigma breaking training program into the middle and high schools of my town. This program helps youth to better understand mental illness, how they can recognize it without judgements, and how to be of service to themselves, friends and family members who are dealing with a vast array of associated issues.  We teach that that brain gets sick just like all the other parts of the body, and it is nothing to be ashamed of…

I know I will never stop missing Justin, but it helps to know that we fight the good fight: to bring awareness to the wider population around the stigma we face as a society, and particularly for youth. We help break down the shame surrounding suicidal ideation and create a safe place for people to be vulnerable.

As survivors of suicide, we carry the burden of loss forever…and we never forget but, it doesn't mean we our powerless.  One thing i have learned for sure, is that our experiences of suffering can be incredibly powerful, and in fact can be a profound gift…with them, we have the opportunity to turn empathy into understanding understanding into support and support into action

My losses and subsequent suffering have built great strength and resilience deep in my core…True, I cannot not help the people I’ve lost, but I can help others…many others.  I’d like to believe that if my father and Justin were alive today they would be proud of the work I have begun.

Photo credit: Blu Hartkopp

Photo credit: Blu Hartkopp

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About the Author: Brenda Steele lives in beautiful and rural Taos, New Mexico. For the last 10 years she has traveled and worked remotely as a personal chef. Recently she has been transitioning into work in the mental health field, doing advocacy and outreach in her community and beyond, with a goal of bringing a better understanding of mental illness and support services into the more remote areas of her state.