This diary is inspired by a response I read to the death of Leelah Alcorn, whose tragic story you can read about here.
Excuse me if I start with a personal story, and then proceed to a more general general discussion of the subject of this post.
Once upon a time ...
Isn't that how all fairy tales begin? But the story I am about to relate is no fairy tale. In 1975, I was attending Colorado State University. I was a shy, reticent young person, but I did have three people who were very close to me. One was my girlfriend. The other was my roommate, one of my two close friends from high school. And the third was Bob, my closest friend, and the person I most admired among my peers.
Bob chose me to be his friend. I never asked him why. At the time we met, he was a brilliant student, popular in school (he was elected class president in 7th grade) and a good athlete, though he had a slight frame. He was whip smart, able to think as fast on his feet as anyone I ever knew, and yet also a great writer. He learned Italian on his own so he could read Dante at the age of 12. He wrote poetry and stories. He was an extremely creative person. He also had, for lack of a better word, charisma. Everyone liked Bob. Until they didn't.
You see, as he got older, and entered high school, he began to fall behind in terms of his class work. Not a great deal, but now he was no longer getting straight A's all the time. Much worse, however, he began to slowly isolate himself from others. It happened so gradually that at the time I was not really aware of these changes to his personality has they happened, changes for the worse.
For example, he gave up Baseball, his favorite sport and the one he excelled at. He stopped participating in student government. He became very cynical about life. He didn't date, though I know there were a number of young women upon whom he had crushes. He began reading Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and Sartre, Poe, and Byron, among others, often quoting them to me, particularly the darker, most depressing, nihilistic passages. He spoke cryptically about trouble with his parents, but I wrote that off to a general disillusionment with his religion (he and I shared the experience of being brought up Missouri Synod Lutheran) and the fact that his father, a man very much unlike his son in all aspects, did not appear to like Bob very much.
At the time I did not understand what was driving this change in him, for I was going through my own problems relating to my peers and my family. I just did my best to support him and be as a good friend to him as he was to me. My mother sensed there was something wrong with Bob, and she suggested many times I should end our relationship. She saw him as a bad influence on me, someone who reinforced my own tendencies toward self isolation and depression. But I never cut the cord with Bob. He was my best friend. Some days I thought he was the only person who truly understood me.
Unfortunately, I didn't understand Bob very well. He had periods of manic activity and grandiose projects for us to undertake, followed by periods of apathy and sadness, but this isn't seem that different from my own experience. I was sorry he wasn't the same popular, engaging popular person I first met, but I still loved him as a brother. In fact, to be honest, back then I loved him more than my own brothers. But love is not understanding.
Around his junior or senior year in high school, he began to make jokes about suicide. I didn't give them much credit at the time. He always seemed to make those references in an less than serious manner, as a form of satire almost. That was just the way he was. However, over time, these suicidal statements became more prevalent. I finally asked him if he truly meant what he said, because what he was saying bothered the hell out of me, but he quickly denied it. I took him at his word. Big mistake.
Bob and I were supposed to go out the night after our graduation to celebrate. He knew I was going to school in Ft. Collins, while he had chosen to go to a small college in Southern Colorado. It was to be our last big outing together before summer jobs and college separated us. But in the immortal words of Rick in Casablanca, fate took a hand.
You see, after a health scare in the spring of my senior year (an episode of pericarditis for which I wa hospitalized for 11 days) I re-examined many things about the path my life was taking. I came to the decision that I could no longer continue letting my shyness and social anxiety limit my chance for a better life. I was determined to overcome my fears of interacting with other people.
Fortuitously, there was a girl from my church (literally the pastor's daughter) who was one of the few people my own age to visit me when I was ill. I took this as sign that she had an interest in me (I'd had a crush on her for years) and very spur of the moment, I called her up on the day of graduation and asked if she would like to go out with me, never expecting she would say yes. Well, surprise, surprise, surprise. She said she'd love to go out with me. I felt such great joy at her answer, but I also felt awful at having tom cancel my plans with Bob. I hastily called him and told him I had to call it off because - you know - girl, date, first time ever, etc. He seemed to take it pretty well, said not to worry, go have fun, all the right things friends say at times like that.
Of course, if I'd known Bob was rapidly descending into the throes of a severe clinical depression I might have made a different decision. Then again, maybe not.
Jump ahead 8 months to February, 1975. By this time, Bob had flunked out of school after his first semester, mostly because he never went to class. He met my girlfriend over winter break and introduced us both tom the pleasures of smoking marijuana, one thing he had taken away from his brief college experience. He had grown his hair long, and a beard as well. He seemed a little "off" to me, more depressed than before. I knew he had moved back home to live with with his parents, and that things were not going well, but he still continued to write letters to me and we would talk whenever one of us had the money for a long distance call, which wasn't that often. I was worried about him, but not worried enough.
On Valentine's Day, he called me at my girlfriend's dorm room, out of the blue. It was around 8 pm. His voice sounded slurred. I asked if he had been drinking. He said yes, and then he added he had just taken an entire bottle of phenobarbital pills he'd stolen from our mutual friend's father (a veterinarian). He said he called to have someone to talk to before he died, so people would understood it wasn't our fault, that this was the best thing for him, that he was looking forward to not feeling anything ever again, no pain, no rejection, and so on and so forth. Naturally, I was shocked and panicked at this unexpected development.
At some point, I placed my hand over the mouthpieces of the phone while he continued to tell me that killing himself was best for everyone concerned, and I told my girlfriend the situation. She had someone call my parents, who immediately called the police. She and I kept him talking until police and an ambulance arrived at his parents' home. He was lucky. They transported him to the ER in time to pump out his stomach and he survived.
They kept him in a psychiatric unit for a couple of weeks, and we went to visit him there. None of his other friends we knew did. His parents, of course were mortified, but even moreso, they were ashamed by what he had done. He was their only child. Killing oneself sent you to straight hell in their eyes. Worse, they felt other people - their friends, fellow church members, his father's work associates, my parents, even me - blamed them for what he'd done.
When Bob left the psych unit he moved back into their home, but that summer he left to go to California to attend a school out there. He wrote me to say he never wanted to see his parents ever again. For all I know he didn't. They had spent all their time taking him from one psychiatrist to another, desperately trying to find a quick fix for his problems while denying to everyone that he'd ever tried to take his life. He and I kept up an intermittent friendship after that, but it was never the same. He eventually got a degree in environmental science and worked for a while as an investigator for the California EPA, living in the LA area. I still exchanged letters with him, some more coherent than others.
The last time I saw him was at the marriage to my wife of nearly 28 years in 1986. He looked decades older. He still had long hair and a beard, was shabbily dressed (he wore a wildly mismatched coat, shirt and tie with jeans and cowboy boots), and gave off a strange oddly out of place vibe for a wedding. We spoke at the reception for the last time in my life, about half an hour. It was mostly a rambling, disjointed monologue on his part about some conspiracy theory involving the CIA, various agencies of the California government and some business he had investigated for pollution violations. He claimed they were involved in some plot to destroy California, the details of which I've long forgotten.
I tried to maintain contact with him after that, but at a certain point he stopped writing letters back to me. I later heard from another friend he'd been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. I was never able to verify that this was true, but it seemed possible. I often wonder if he is still alive. I also wonder what his life would have been like if his family, his friends, his teachers and other adults in his life had been able to reach him before his mental state deteriorated to such an extent that he considered suicide the 'best of all possible worlds.'
But that isn't the society we live in, is it. We live in a society that considers itself to be exceptional. Which glorifies the "winners" in life and attributes to them only the best of qualities, the best of values, a society which holds these rugged individualists up as role models for the rest of us. Our bookstores and libraries are filled with self-help books, books on how to succeed in business, and my favorite of this genre, books on the lessons we can learn from wealthy fathers.
As for those who fail at life, the so-called "losers," wel,l we don't talk about them much. Sure, every once in a while Hollywood will make a sentimental movie about doctors who heroically serve their patients with mental diseases, but far more often our media portray the mentally ill as dangerous, unstable and often murderous people. people to be avoided and shunned. If they abuse alcohol or other substances as a means of self-medication because they are not receiving proper care and treatment, the stereotype presented by many in the media is far worse. "They have only themselves to blame," is often the unstated but dominant theme.
Funny, but that isn't the America I thought we were striving to become.
To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, "All human beings are created with the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Read literally, of course, this statement cannot be proven true or false. However, historically, it is states aspirational goals for a more just and humane society. Too bad for us there are no societies where the lives of all persons are considered to have the same value as others higher in status. There are no societies I know of that permit everyone the same degree of liberty, regardless of their station in life. And as to the pursuit of happiness, well no society does a very good job of fostering that goal among its people, particularly those in the lower classes.
Indeed, despite the aspirational values Jefferson enunciated in the Declaration of independence, and the statements in the Preamble to the constitution, which specifically says that the purposes for which our form of government was created include among them the establishment of justice and promoting the general welfare of all the people, we as a country have a dismal record when it comes to achieving what our founders set as bar for the 'greatest country on earth.' And for those failures, we, collectively, as a society, have only ourselves to blame.
There are many examples to illustrate this claim, but my purpose here is not to address all of the numerous instances when our nation and the majority of its people have fallen short. That subject is too vast for a simple blog post. Instead, I'd like to discuss the failings of many people in America, including many on this website, when it comes to the subject of mental illness, depression and people who take their lives.
First, a caveat. I am well aware that many of you are good people who do not need to be lectured on this subject by me. I am also aware that opinion polls show that most Americans no longer attach to depression, mental illness and suicide the same stigma that our predecessors did. Even though the Catholic Church and many other religions still preach that suicide is a sin, suicide is seen by many Americans as a personal tragedy and not a sign of moral failing by people who take their own lives. For example, some recent surveys have shown that a majority for Americans now support "assisted suicide" for the terminally ill, and many also believe that they should have the legal right to make that decision for themselves.
Unfortunately, however, polls do not always reveal the true underlying bias among a large number of Americans against those who suffer from mental illness. As Robin William's death recently exposed, there still prevails among many people the attitude that suicide resulting from depression, bi-polar disorder, anxiety disorders, alcoholism, substance abuse, and even schizophrenia is a selfish act and the fault of those who kill themselves and/or their family members.
That stigma is not only the result of individual prejudice, but also a systemic bias against those who suffer from mental disorders which reaches to the highest levels of our government, and is set forth in policy decisions first made over a half century ago.
"Mental health is a separate but unequal system," [Patrick Kennedy, a former congressman from Rhode Island] says. "We have a wasteland of people who have died and been disabled because of inadequate care." [...]
Stigma ... forces many to live in shame rather than seek support, even as their lives unravel. Yet patients who want help often can't find it, says Kennedy, who has acknowledged his own struggles with bipolar disorder and drug addiction.
Stigma even shaped the crafting of the Medicaid law a half-century ago, because Congress didn't want to "waste" federal money on mental illness, says Ron Manderscheid, executive director of the National Association of County Behavioral Health & Disability Development Directors. "People were operating under the belief that mental health was a black hole for money," Manderscheid says.
An obscure provision of the Medicaid law specifies that funds may be used for hospitals treating physical conditions but generally not for mental health, says Tim Murphy, R-Pa., a child psychologist who has introduced legislation to ease these restrictions.
The Medicare law discriminates against those with mental illness, as well, by limiting the number of days that patients can receive inpatient psychiatric care. Medicare imposes no such limits for physical health, says Mark Covall, president and CEO of the National Association of Psychiatric Health Systems.
By denying hospital care to the mentally ill, Murphy says Congress set two standards for health, effectively telling the country that the mentally ill are less deserving of a decent life than others. By forcing the mentally ill to live with sickness, confusion and disability, federal law reinforces the assumption that the mentally ill are incapable of leading functioning, safe, successful lives.
This disregard for the lives of those who suffer from mental disorders, and the general stigma attached to being 'different,' including those burdened by depression and anxiety of the type that leads to the suicide of young LGBT youth such as Leelah Acorn is a failure of empathy and compassion on the part of our elected officials. It is also a failure on the part of large segments of our society, and yes, even among some of us who are dedicated to voting for 'Better Democrats.'
I'm not going to go into how penny wise and pound foolish it is to take such a Scrooge-like approach to caring for the mentally ill in our country, though that argument can certainly be made. Nor am I going to try to determine the economic cost to our country from allowing so many people to find no better solution for their problems than suicide, for that price is incalculable. What I'd much prefer is to have a discussion about how all of us here can begin to take actions to reverse this horrific situation. And the first thing we can do, is start with trying to feel more compassion and empathy for people who suffer from mental or behavioral disorders.
I'm sure many people suffer from one or another mental illnesses. I myself receive treatment for depression brought about by my own health issues and those of my wife and daughter. Luckily, my case is not that severe. But even if you do not have one of these conditions, I am willing to bet you know people who do. Even if you know of no one with a mental disorder, more than likely you have suffered with a traumatic event in your life that was heart wrenching, and extremely difficult to get through - the loss of a loved one, a permanent physical injury or chronic illness, abandonment or rejection by someone you deeply cared about, service in the military or police in which you harmed another person out of fear for your life, rape or other criminal assault - any of the aforementioned (and so many more not recounted here) can give one a basis for understanding the need for empathy for others in pain, others who face unendurable suffering.
Unfortunately, it is a well known fact that empathy often has its limits. For most people, it is easier to identify easiest with individuals who are family members or friends, or who have suffered from a traumatic incident similar to what one has themselves experienced. I know it is easy to empathize with someone who we see suffering from something, an illness, a traumatic life event, what have you, which we ourselves have know about first hand.
Speaking solely for myself, I have great empathy for those who suffer from autoimmune disorders such as mine, since I know full well what they are going through. I also have great compassion for people who have been injured by drunk drivers, since I was once hit by a drunk driver and suffered irreparable physical damage to my head and my hearing.
It is, unfortunately, also true that it is often difficult for people to identify with the suffering and pain of those whose lives are far different than their own. Imagine you have never experienced grief, or been told you have an incurable disease, or heard frightening voices speaking to you that no one else can hear. I can speak from personal experience. The first time I encountered a person with schizophrenia I was disturbed and afraid - not by what they said per se, but by the way they spoke to me, their behavior, the complete and utter confusion and anxiety I felt in their presence. It is not a memory of which I am proud. That person did not cause my distress. I did that on my own.
Now let's consider for a moment the case of Leelah Alcorn, the teen who recently took her life after a lifetime of having her identity denied and disparaged by family, by her church, and by many who knew her. They had no experience to match hers. They could not understand her pain. They only saw her as a problem to be fixed, not as someone who needed their help, their love, and their support.
This is the issue that faces all of us every day. How do we find a way to understand those who are not like us, who we see as so different from us that we have no means to connect with their life experiences, no path to understand the pain they feel. Fortunately, we have at our disposal the teachings of all the great spiritual leaders down through history, from Buddha, to Jesus, to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, who all preached essentially the same message. And what did they teach us? Let me take a stab at it.
We must listen to those who are different from us. We must see that their pain is not so different from ours. We must love those who hate us, and return anger with acceptance and yes, even with love. It is a radical message, to say to a stranger, I love you, I want to help you, even if you hate me, even if you do not understand or appreciate who I am, or what I have to offer. Lovingkindness is not easy to practice on a daily basis. To turn the other cheek, to love one's enemy, is still a radical idea. To say to other that we will not react to your hatred and violence with hatred and violence of our own, but will instead stand for what is right without violence, without hate, is difficult. That we choose to stand on the side of love, love even for those who cannot find it in their heart to love us in return, that is our mission, however. It is the only way forward to a higher morality for this lowly species ironically named by themselves homo sapiens sapiens.
I speak now to those who I recognize disagree with what I have stated in this essay, in part or in whole. I don't know your history and you don't know mine. But if we are to survive this century, if we are to evolve morally and spiritually as a species on this planet, we cannot continue to talk past one another. We cannot continue to scream and screech and attempt to drown out what the other person we view as an adversary, as our enemy, has to say. We must learn to listen and hear what is said to us, and then respond with compassion and with empathy, even as we stand for what is just and right for all people.
Consider, as a symbol of what we must do, the tragic life and death of Leelah Alcorn. What was the real issue that led to her choose suicide over life? Was it revenge upon her parents, or her selfishness, or her demands for more than than that to which which she was entitled? I say with sincere conviction, no and no and no. Did her suicide hurt others, cause suffering to others? Yes, it did. Did those individuals deserve to suffer because of her pain? I am not one to judge, but I would say that in most cases the answer is no.
But what I do know is this. If she had been heard, if she had been accepted for who she was by anyone who could have shown her they understood her suffering, that they recognized her pain, then perhaps she would not have made the emotional, irrational, impulsive and tragic decision to end her life. She was a child. She needed our guidance, our love, our compassion. Sadly, it is too late for her and all those caught up in the tragedy of her last days.
What might change this from happening again, however, is a sea change in the way the people in our society - you, me, everyone else - looks at young transgender people. Just as we must try to understand the experiences of fear, of anxiety, of anger that communities of color feel every day when they face the possibility of a confrontation with a police force that views them as its enemy, just as we must try to understand the suffering of people in the Middle East whose lives and families have been torn apart by wars, wars undertaken to benefit the interests of powerful interests here and abroad, just as we must try to understand the often irrational fear of so many of our neighbors, friends and even close family, who are fed an unending stream of bile and hate by propagandists who profit from the terror they promote, so also we must see Leelah and all those who are different from us in whatever way, as not that different, as not that strange, as human beings to whom we owe the same respect and and concern for their well being as we do for our own.
In short the first step we must take is to examine our own prejudices, our own biases, our own irrational hatreds, our own tendency to look at the small differences between our fellow human beings, rather than allow those differences to obscure the vastly greater similarities and common ground we all share.
That ends what i have to say for now. I hope and pray (in whatever sense you understand those words) that you will hear me, and that you will in the comments to this post, offer your own ideas on what the next steps should be to advance this agenda. The arc of history bends toward justice I've heard, but it won't bend unless enough of us put aside our differences and push and pull and force history to bend in the direction we want it to go.
Namaste, peace, amen.
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