author: "One More Day: A powerful true story of suicide, loss, and a woman's newfound faith"

One More Day, Chapter 4

Chapter 4: the stigma of mental health

We became a statistic we never asked to be a part of on October 31, 2015. That of suicide loss survivors. We became a part of a club we don’t want any of you in, and that we wished we didn’t belong to on any given day. This is the hardest club to live through.
         This club is filled with protection over one another. A fierce protection of you-touch-my-family, you-deal-with-me. I have never been as loyal and protected over my family than after my sister died.
And I had never in my life felt a stigma placed on a family death than I did when Katie died by suicide. When my mother died of breast cancer, we not only talked about it, but welcomed the outpouring of love, and people, into our home. When my brother died, our home was packed. Tragedy – accidents – brings people together.
After Katie died, it was a couple of months before we began talking about the “how” in a public way. Suicide wasn’t mentioned in her obituary or at her standing-room-only memorial service, where hundreds gathered in a sea of purple to honor my sister.
The word never left our lips unless you were within our tight and trusted circle. Don’t say anything, we’d say. People don’t talk about suicide or mental illness near as much as is needed. And if 123 people are dying by suicide daily, why is this? If this is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., why is this?
If we are losing our family members and friends, why is this?
We are met with the most gut-wrenching pain imaginable, and at the same time, feel we have to hide the cause of it; hide the reason our loved one died. Can you imagine feeling you can’t talk to anyone about this because you don’t want your sister judged? Because you know nobody will understand? Because you are afraid of their reaction?
We suffer an undeniable pain we feel will never go away. This club of ours is the absolute worst.

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The hardest question following Katie’s suicide was why she would do this. Why, when she had a beautiful and supportive family, would she take her life. Why, when she had all the encouragement around her, and why, when she herself wanted help.
Why. It’s not even a question, but rather a one-word statement that is confusing and when you know almost the whole story, conflicting. The only solace we could provide for ourselves in knowing all of this is that Katie wouldn’t have done this because she loved fiercely – her family, friends, life. The disease did this. Her depression took over. That was our only reasoning, and in our numbness, our only understanding.
We clung to it.
But it didn’t take away the hurt, or the fact that somewhere, she made a decision to leave us. That somewhere, somehow, she wanted to die. We are left with immeasurable pain and with non-existent grieving stages because even three years after her 2015 death, we can fall apart, or become angry again, or start with the statement of “why” no matter how many times we’re advised to stop questioning.
No matter how many times we’re told to start moving forward. No matter how many times we’re told our loved ones wouldn’t want to see us like this. And my response? Like what – see us human? See us grieving them? See us with emotion because we loved them that much? Because we miss them?
Grieving a suicide is the hardest I’ve faced personally. There’s simply nothing comparable.
The curse in my family is that we understand how a suicide death is different from other deaths. How cancer taking a loved one away can make you angry at cancer, and how an accident can leave you shocked, hurt, and perhaps leave you with feelings of regret for not telling the person once more that you love them. Or spent more time with them.
But, suicide. This was a person’s choice to leave the world. And you don’t want to be mad at the person who died – although it happens. The statement of “why” turns into a screaming match inside your head – yelling at the person who died, yelling at God, berating yourself for not doing enough to keep them here.
Because wasn’t I enough? Wasn’t the help we gave enough? What else could we have done?
You’re angry, guilt-ridden, hurt, confused, mad, and nothing makes sense. You cry out with a pain you didn’t know existed in your forever-quest of learning why this happened. And while deep in your core you understand a person’s mental illness had everything to do with this, you can sit with a heaviness inside your chest trying to make sense of something you’ll never make sense of. And that’s the honest truth.

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            Driving home to Alabama after attending my sister’s memorial service in Texas – just a week after she died – a friend text messaged me and mentioned my sister seemed so young to die. I decided I was tired of keeping information from people and decided to tell him the truth: she suffered from depression and took her life.
            I didn’t hear back from him for two months. And every day that passed in which he didn’t respond, I made the decision within myself that I was wrong to have said something, and that it wouldn’t happen again.
            But it did. And I wasn’t ready for it.
            Another friend called after I returned home, and I told her what happened, and she gasped, and stuttered over her words. And I remember thinking on the phone, “What’s wrong? Why can’t she just talk to me about it?” A few days later, she dropped off a book at my doorstep about grieving and loss.
            Another dropped off wine and chocolate where I worked. More friends made enough food for me that I didn’t have to cook for two weeks. Another friend continued calling, and not having been in touch with her for a very long time, I chose not to answer. Once we went public in January 2016 with how Katie died, she stopped calling.
            But it wasn’t until I sat over coffee with a friend that I learned not everyone is going to run. Because when I told her, she was calm and listened. And that’s all we want – to be heard. To know we can talk without you feeling you need to know what to say. “I’m sorry” goes a long way. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say” goes even longer. Running away, or going silent, just hurts and can shut us down, making us feel that not only is suicide a topic you can’t discuss – which we understand is difficult – but that it’s also too difficult to listen.
            If we’re going to erase this stigma we feel attached to suicide and mental illness, we need to know we can talk about it openly. We need to know there is going to be someone there willing to listen. To look us in the eyes and let us know we are going to be okay, and that what we’re feeling is okay to feel. That we are not alone.
            We are desperate because we are so lost, and we’re likely unsure of where to even turn when we both don’t want to talk about it and when we want nothing more than to talk about it. When we want to keep it to ourselves, and when we want to share with others.
            Sometimes, I think the hardest part about Katie’s death is the feeling of secrecy behind it, I wrote in my journal on November 28, 2015. At this point … those who know, know. We’ve received prayers and kind words of thoughts and peace, and one of the hardest things is feeling you’re harboring this huge secret because of the stigma attached to mental illness and suicide, and other affects it brings. So you thank people and then revert back inward and feel you not only have the weight of the world on your shoulders from that, but from her death, and what finally led her to end her life. 
For every suicide death, it is reported that six people are intimately affected, from immediate family members, close friends, co-workers, and even clinicians.
            If there are 123 suicides per day, that’s 738 people affected daily. Over 700 people every single day feel lost, pained, and with nowhere to turn. I would safely guess the majority aren’t sharing on social media how a loved one died like they would if someone lost a battle with cancer, or were in a horrific car accident.
            That’s over 700 people daily who feel alone and confused, and who are introduced to what stigma is and what it means. We are often faced with a society that feels we could have done more. We are asked whether we saw “the signs,” and if not, how did we miss them?
            Do you not think we don’t ask ourselves this?
            We know she suffered from depression, I wrote about Katie in my journal on November 28, 2015. We know she sought therapy, that she was finally put on the right cocktail of drugs. We know she wanted to get better, and we know there were struggles with that. We know all of this. We don’t know what happened that night. We know that she hung herself in her closet and that her husband found her. We have cried and cried with the heaviest hearts this past month, just missing her.
            My goal was always to move back to Texas to be closer to my family, and after Katie died, I often wondered if I had made that move sooner, if it would have made a difference. If being that one extra body of support would have helped.
            Then I’m told to stop thinking that, to not dwell on “what ifs.” But we have a right to feel what we need to, to question what we need to, just as long as we don’t cling to it. Just as long as we don’t “live” our regrets, questions or worries. Just as long as we don’t let it all consume us.
            I believe the grieving process is ours to take for as long as we need to take it. Done in healthy ways – through communication, therapy, outreach, journaling – and we can come out ahead, just as long as we continue moving forward. Just as long as we continue taking steps forward, no matter the number taken back.

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            As a newspaper columnist in Montgomery, Alabama, I focused on health and wellness, and at the time of my sister’s death, used the column to serve as a platform for mental health. It was early January 2016 when we decided as a family that I would mention that Katie died by suicide.
            Are you ready? Are we ready?
            And after that column was published – and once I felt the freedom of coming out from hiding – I couldn’t stop focusing on mental health. I used my job as a way to gather as much information as I could and presented it at a time our community was working to develop an urgent care crisis center, where those with a mental illness would be treated at a separate facility instead of clogging up emergency rooms. I used my sister’s story to tell the story of mental health.
            Of depression. Of suicide.
            It’s a story I wish I never had to tell. But I was advised by my pastor not long after Katie’s death to use her passing for good. The only way we knew how to do that was through my writing at the newspaper. I dedicated two years to mental health coverage: the problems associated with it, the cost to the county and country, profiles on those suffering with varying mental illnesses, and what agencies and the state’s mental health department was tirelessly working to do to improve care and outreach.
            It was therapeutic for me to write about my sister, and about mental health, and it brought tremendous insight to both myself and the region our newspaper reached. And I hope it helped diminish some of the stigma that surrounds it.
            I hope through my work at the newspaper that eyes were opened in a way that there is less of a cloud covering over mental health. I hope that through the stories and interviews, that the community has more of an insight into people who live with mental illnesses.
            They are people like you and me. Your neighbors, co-workers, family members, your friends. With the stigma placed on it, you’re just not going to hear them talking about it. I made it my mission at the newspaper, and today, to reduce that thought.

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