Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Beast

The Beast has claimed two young lives in our area this week.

Two girls from my old high school committed suicide. The deaths are not related and aren't a part of any pact or anything; they're simply independent tragedies that have rocked a small high school and a small community. I did not know the first girl, though she was a freshman here last year and her picture looks familiar. I do know the second girl's family, and have been trying for two days now to wrap my head around their loss.

Bad news travels like wild fire, and people have been talking about it. A teacher here, who also knows the second girl's family, came down to talk to me the day she heard.

"How could things have gotten so bad for her that that was the only way out? They are such a good family..."

This was said with the implied undertone: How could a kid from a good family want to commit suicide? Doesn't that just happen to "troubled" kids?

And the unfortunate answer to that, the one none of us wants to hear, is It can happen to any of us.

"Depression is a beast," I said to the other teacher. She shrugged her shoulders and wandered back to her classroom, probably still not understanding it. Because if you haven't lived it or seen it, it's easy to pretend The Beast isn't that bad, isn't that big, isn't that threatening.

Oh, but he is.

I know him well. Mental illness runs in my family. One of my aunts is a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, a cousin is bipolar, and yet another aunt clearly has OCD but has never sought treatment for it (she thinks it's completely normal that she sometimes wakes up at 3am, worries about whether or not she's hung up her coat, and consequently spends the next 3 hours cleaning out every closet in the house just because it's on her mind and "getting on her nerves."). Dad used to kid that all of the "crazy" people were on mom's side, but OCD rears its head on my dad's side of the family, too; years ago, his mom revealed that the bottle of rubbing alcohol she kept in her purse and carried wherever she went, which my mom had been wondering about for years, was used to rub down every toilet she ever sat on both before and after she used it, both out in public and (to my mom's dismay) in her own kids' homes.

Swimming in that gene pool, I guess it was pretty unavoidable that I would eventually find myself floudering in the deep end. I was always an emotional kid and as young as my daughter's current age would find myself feeling inexplicably sad and easy to cry for long periods of time, most often in the winter. In college, after trying too hard for too long to be academically perfect and excel in areas I wasn't naturally talented in, I finally broke. At the end of a sophomore year where I found myself sleeping too much, eating too little, avoiding some of my friends, and crying alone in the bathroom on multiple occasions, I realized I needed help. One night, after taking a long midnight walk in the cold March rain, I had a scary thought: I had become numb. Not just physically (I barely felt the rain or the chill even without my coat) but emotionally. I didn't want to kill myself; I wasn't brave enough. But I didn't want to live anymore, either. I went to bed not wanting to wake up in the morning. The very next day, I sought help.

Thank God for Paxil and for the six free hours of Comp Care we got every year.

There's a difference between no longer wanting to live and actively pursuing a way to die. But it's a fairly thin line. If I hadn't had the support of a family who themselves had seen it and been through it, if I hadn't had a moment of clarity where I realized I needed help and that things could get better, I might have done what those two teenagers did.

I was in pain, and would eventually have done anything to make the heaviness, the sadness, and the self-loathing to go away.

My mom, herself a periodic rider on the antidepressant train, gets frustrated with some of her friends, who have actually said things like, "You can choose to be happy," and "You just need to get out of the house more." She was one of many outraged women when Tom Cruise took his jab at post-partum depression and made the statement that Brooke Shields could have felt better if she had eaten healthier and exercised more. We are firm believers, having tried therapy by itself and with modern medication, that it's a chemical imbalance that has a genetic root. Anybody who argues differently has probably never felt the way we have at our lowest and witnessed the change that occurs when our bodies' seratonin fires the way it's supposed to.

Anybody who argues against psychology and depression medication probably never lost a child to suicide.

Since that initial breakdown and breakthrough, I've only had a couple of times when I've felt The Beast near again. After Ainsley was born, when my hormones were out of control and my body was fighting a foreign enemy I didn't yet know about, I had a few dark, dark weeks that had me wondering if it was worth it to go on. Thankfully, I knew my own warning signs and pulled over before a derailment. I always know, too, when my thyroid has stepped further down and my Synthroid needs to be adjusted; things get a little dark around the edges.

I am 35, and have life-long experience with it now. I know the warning signs.

Many teenagers don't.

When The Beast breathes down their necks, and the pain of living becomes too great, too many of them will choose to end their pain in a way that ends everything else, too. Their families and friends are left to question, Why? and What if? Lives full of potential are snuffed out in the only "cure" the kid sees: death, in its unfaltering permanence.

The Beast has no favorites; he haunts old and young, rich and poor, religious and atheist, from "good" families and "bad." He could come after any of us, or our children. The only advantage we have is that sometimes The Beast is noisy and heavy-pawed and we can hear him coming. We just need to listen.

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