When I was in sixth grade, my health class had a guest speaker who spoke about STDs. The lecture included a section about AIDS, which was still relatively “new” at that time and was still shrouded in mystery and bad information and was still annihilating people in droves. He spoke about transmission and facts versus rumor, and then made a statement that stuck with me for how absurd I believed it to be at that time. He said, “The statistics suggest that at least half of you will be affected by AIDS within the next two years.”
This seemed ridiculous to me. At 11 years old, I believed my corner of the universe, a relatively affluent area where my military father was currently stationed, full of quiet towns far from the big cities, was impervious to things like AIDS epidemics. I couldn’t imagine how anyone I knew would be touched by this, and certainly didn’t think this man’s statistics would apply to my life directly.
Those words from health class rattled in my head 18 months later when my favorite uncle, a man who had been an ever-present figure of love and laughter in my life, a confidante and ally that could be relied on without fail, suddenly died from complications from AIDS. His death was shattering to my world in so many ways large and small and the reverberations of that loss echo through my life to this day, nearly 30 years later. I miss him daily even after all these years.
This week two celebrities took their own lives, shocking the world and devastating the people who love them. Stories of their pain and struggles have emerged in the days that have followed and all kinds of people have speculated and commented, about suicide, about depression, about mental illness. Some of those commentaries have been misguided, some of them have been insightful, some of them have been searching. I think we all want some sort of simple and comfortable answer, some neat way to tie it up so that we can then make it “out there” instead of feeling the closeness. Instead of facing the possibility that a disease that lies so convincingly to people and hoodwinks them into believing that their lives aren’t the worthwhile gifts that they are could touch our lives, could touch the people that we love.
I am no mental health expert. Hell, I’m no expert about anything. But the words of that health teacher have been rattling around again in my brain this week. He was speaking about AIDS, but the underlying message was really this: there is no one who is guaranteed protection, there is no amount of money or privilege or denial that can shield us and those we love from the losses we fear. We all walk around vulnerable, our soft bodies and tissues permeable to illness and impact, to attack from without and from within. We attach stigma or shame as some way to attempt to make it “them” or “other” and pretend that it can’t land in our lives like a bomb in our laps.
I’m at a loss for words that can actually contribute something meaningful to this conversation really. I’m at a loss for solutions or comfort to offer. These deaths simply fill me with sadness and heartbreak and a little bit of terror. We all contain depths within us that will forever remain unknown to anyone but ourselves. We share what we can as well as what we choose, for any number of reasons. But while many physical ailments show external symptoms (certainly not all- ask anyone who suffers from a chronic disorder like Sjogren's or fibromyalgia), mental illness carries on under the disguise of physical health, tells its lies and wreaks its havoc under the radar and out of sight.
Right up until it doesn’t.
Right up until it creates a crisis that might go undetected until it’s too late. Like the AIDS that that health teacher was talking about, mental illness is still shrouded in mystery and misconceptions and is still annihilating people in droves.
So I am at a loss. At a loss for something big to do or say. But I keep coming back to this very basic truth: we have no idea what people are carrying around with them. What pain they may be dealing with that we can’t see, that we aren’t privy to. Our lack of understanding or our misinformation doesn’t diminish that fact in the slightest. Turning away or making it “other” doesn’t shield us, doesn’t exempt us or those we love. We will all be touched. Whether by AIDS or cancer or depression or addiction…whether physical or mental or both, some kind of illness will hit our lives at some point like a cataclysm and reset the axis of our worlds.
The only thing that makes it at all easier to bear is to support each other, to grasp each other’s hands and say “I see you. I see your pain. Even if I can’t fix it, I will stand here beside you and do my very best to listen, to ease you in any way that I can. I will not judge you and I will not assume that I know what you need. I will simply support you and I will love you with all the force that I have.”
You are not alone. I am not alone. We can do these sometimes hard and sometimes awful and sometimes unbearable things together. We can. I have to believe that. I must.
Go gently out there, you guys, with kindness and compassion, and please, please, please reach out for help if you or someone you know needs it: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)