Following the recent tragedic suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain and in memory of Robin Williams, we have been reflecting on depression and mental health. Depression is around us everywhere, often hiding in the strongest, happiest looking people. Money, fame, success, midlife experience-does not save you from these feelings. The below story comes from author and counsellor Jay Fields, reflecting on a story of coming across someone who was suicidal..
A few Sundays ago I was out with my friend on our motorcycles, seeking the solitude and openness of gorgeous roads in the middle of nowhere. And then it happened.
We came up to a hairpin turn in the road and found a mangled car flipped upside down. There were two motorcycles parked nearby and two other vehicles that had stopped to help. My first thought was, “Oh god, I bet a motorcycle crossed over the line and the car swerved not to hit it.” As my friend and I wordlessly got off the bikes and took our gloves and helmets off to go help, I prepared myself for carnage and possible dead bodies.
When we got close to the car I took in the site—there was only one car involved, and inside it one woman. Two tough-looking motorcycle guys and one local-looking guy were knelt down by her window talking to her and trying to help.
I could see the blood in her hair from a deep gash on her head. She appeared to have a broken arm and two broken ankles. She was in shock. She was screaming and combative. I thought it must be because she was in so much pain. But then her nonsense yelling became fiercely clear as she looked right at us and screamed, “I was trying to kill myself! I don’t want you to save me!”
And in that instant I smelled the alcohol that filled the air around her. And I looked around and saw there were no skid marks—she had not tried to slow down at all to go around the tight corner.
Though I’ve never seriously contemplated suicide, I know what it’s like to feel so much anguish that it feels like no one anywhere could ever help you out of it, much less yourself. In fact, the very next night after coming across this scene on the road, in my own flailing attempt to run from some very deep and old fear I was feeling, I acted recklessly with the heart of someone I love and landed in the emotional equivalent of an upside down vehicle.
The fear I was running from was nothing in comparison to the pain of shame I landed in. It hurt so much I vomited just to try to get the hurt out of my body. And though I was in no way going to try to kill myself, I could feel the part of me that would rather die than feel what I was feeling. I imagined how preferable it would be to be able to dig through my chest with my fingernails and rip my heart out rather than feel that searing in my chest.
So as I watch and read the national dialogue about Robin Williams’ suicide this week, I understand and I don’t. I understand the part of him who was suffering and chose death over feeling what he was feeling. I don’t understand what, if anything, could have been done to prevent it, and whether that’s even important.
Although I’m pleased to see public discussion on significant topics like mental health and suicide, I can’t help but think that there is something more basic, more general, that touches every one of us that isn’t being said. And that is just how ill-versed we are as a culture in feeling, and in particular feeling things that are uncomfortable. Even more so, feeling things that are sickeningly relentless.
Please understand, I’m talking about those of us who are privileged. We do have a home and food to eat. We do have a great network of friends and family. We aren’t in an abusive relationship. We don’t have clinical depression. We’re not enslaved. We don’t live in a sickeningly war-laden country.
It’s easy for us to smack ourselves around a bit when we start to feel despair or terror and say we shouldn’t feel that way. We put back on our thinking caps and go about trying to make things different and better because we have the privilege to do so. But this is a great disservice we do ourselves and others. It’s just as dismissive of our wholeness as human beings as are the comments by people who see Williams’ professional success and are perplexed why he would ever kill himself.
We all have things we’d rather die than feel. Whether it’s the feeling of being alone or being hated or not being enough, they’re the things we run from. They’re the things that drive every decision we make. They’re the things that keep us deepening the ruts of unhealthy habits, whether that’s substance addiction or the addiction to busy-ness and people pleasing. And they’re the things that, to the extent we deny that they’re there inside of us, keep us from being able to see the pain in others without trying to negate it or make it go away.
Which brings me back to the woman from the accident. Weeks later there are two things I can’t forget from this scene.
1. The moment she first said that she had been trying to kill herself, the toughest of the motorcycle guys who was kneeling next to me turned and looked me right in the eyes. It was as if I could feel his heart stop in the same way and the same moment mine had. His eyes were wide as a scared kid’s and filled with tears. He repeated her words aloud to me with as much gentleness and compassion as I have ever heard in anyone’s voice. And for a few moments we didn’t say anything, we just held the humanness and the agony of the situation.
2. As we got her away from the car and the first folks on the scene offered rudimentary first aid while I kept watch for traffic, she repeatedly said how she had wanted to kill herself and how she wished she was dead. Every time she said this I would hear the response from the people around her: “no you weren’t,” or “don’t say that, honey,” or “you’re going to be ok—you’re alive!”
These two things stick with me. The first because I saw this man—who happened to have a very large knife strapped to his thigh and who I would have never wanted to cross paths with in the middle of nowhere—allow his heart to break. It was exquisite and piercing.
The second because I wanted so badly to yell at these people to not negate this woman’s experience. I wanted to go sit with her and allow her to have her pain. To tell her, “I hear you—you were trying to kill yourself. I get it. And right now you’re alive and it’s painful—even more so than whatever you were running from—and I’m so very, very sorry.”
I don’t know what this woman’s story was, and I don’t know what ended up happening to her. It’s my prayer that she is in much less pain now.
It’s also my prayer that people who experience clinical depression and other unarguably real torments in their lives, from some grace larger than me and all of us, know less suffering.
And finally, it’s my prayer that we all learn to allow for our own pain and for the pain of others. That even the toughest and scariest of us learn to let our hearts be pierced. That we have the courage to face the worst of what we can feel so we can open to the best of what we can feel.
Because, despite how much my mind would argue, deep down in the most courageous and wise places in my being I know from experience that the way the heart breaks with pain and the way the heart breaks with love are indistinguishable.
Find out more about Jay Fields on her website.