“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” -Albert Camus
Today was the memorial service for the doctor who recently took his own life. The local high school auditorium was full to capacity again, for yet another untimely death in our community. First I was struck by how many lives a single life touches. We are often so unaware of how many people we impact each day and often it is in death that we realize how many people were actively listening.
Photos of a life well-lived flashed across a huge screen. The family in all its tenderness – pictures of red-headed babies, toddlers, children turning into adolescents while biking, running, trekking and skiing in many of the beautiful landscapes the world offers. It seemed a dream; his life overflowing with friendship, love and purpose. How could one not want more of this? How could you choose to leave so much behind?
His wife and daughters spoke first about him. His girls recounted stories about the many ways that their Daddy was always there. One in particular made me weep to hear her tell it: they were running a half marathon together and she started to fade. She was hurting and knew she couldn’t finish. Her dad took her hand and squeezed hard, filling her with energy. “It isn’t great form to run holding hands with someone, but I didn’t want him to let go. He didn’t.”
The eldest daughter told the story of how he had showed up last minute to run a women’s marathon with her when she was afraid she couldn’t do it without him. At mile 25 he started to cramp and told her, he knew she could finish and he would find her at the end of the race. “So I know with all he has given us, we will find him at the end. We will have the courage to go on with out him.”
His wife spoke and without using the words suicide or referring to his tragic violent end, said he had struggled at different points in his life with depression. His oldest friend told some stories about how when they first met, he was so taken down by it, that he had to go home. That was the only mention of what killed him. The rest of the hours was a celebration of a life more beautiful and full than most can dream of.
Mental illness is perhaps the largest silent killer among us. We don’t talk much about the process of mental illness, or how, even in a seemingly perfect life, it lays dormant, just out of sight- but maybe never out of mind. Some mental illness is so big, it destroys both the lives of the ill and wreaks havoc in the families attached. What would it have taken to avert this tragedy and give this family all the years they had in front of them? Just one cry for help might have been enough.
The stigma around mental illness has not subsided even with its incredibly high prevalence. According to a recent report from the National Institute of Mental Health, one in four adults, or approximately 57.7 million Americans experience a mental health disorder in a given year. Six percent, or one in seventeen people have chronic, debilitating mental illness. The cost for mental illness-related disability is over $100 Billion. It is rare for my husband who has been practicing psychiatry for over twenty years to be speechless about the results of untreated mental illness. He knows from his daily interactions that there are some illnesses too grave to repair. “What is most tragic,” he said, “is that this is how mental illness gets passed on, in trauma and loss that takes lifetimes to heal. ”
There will perhaps never be a making sense about this story, but rather a non-judgmental holding that brings forgiveness. That might just be enough to put the illness to rest.
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