Being Mortal

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I doubt it is possible to have access to the internet and be unaware that suicide has once again floated to the top of the news. If you were online and missed the fact that two famous and deeply gifted people took their lives this week, I’d like to know which filters you’re using in your various news feeds. You could sell it as a formula for downer-proof digital life.

In the several of the news reports about the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, there were references to a CDC study which indicated a couple startling trends. First, the suicide rate has risen 30 percent or more in half of the United States. Second, the CDC found that about half of the people who committed suicide did not have a history of mental health diagnosis or treatment. This bit of information startled me.

Before hearing about this study I assumed that two things are true about suicide: that the person is indeed deceased, and that he or she had an untreated or undertreated mental illness. I even went so far as to consider that 40,000+ yearly suicides in the U.S. could indicate that we are still living in a stone age of sorts in mental health treatment, that for some people mental illness can indeed be a terminal condition.

Sadly enough, it is true that some people suffer from mental illness so resistant to available treatments that they face a real and persistent threat of death due to suicide. One of my friends committed suicide in 2016 for just such a reason. Combine a deeply disabling mental illness like bipolar or schizoaffective disorder with substance abuse (which can sometimes involve escalating dependence on prescribed, controlled substances like Xanax), and suicide is a definite risk. For individuals with a clinical picture like that, mental illness can become a terminal condition.

Now is the point where I realize that I am taking entirely too long to develop the notion that arose in my mind from reading references to the CDC study that indicated about half of people who commit suicide have no mental health treatment history. Long story short, I believe that we are living in an age where it is becoming harder to conceal serious mental illness. You don’t have to crack open very wide to intersect with a mental health diagnosis. In the case of my friend who took her life, she had an 18-year-long treatment history before her suicide. She lived in small, conservative communities for her entire life. She was a born and bred Rustbelt Republican, and she grew up knowing that mental illnesses are just as valid as physical ones.

If half of U.S. suicides involve people with no mental health diagnoses, I cannot escape the notion that a rising number of people are deciding that their lives aren’t worth living. It is possible that some people are making a rational choice to stop living for trivial reasons. Why? Because they do not value human life enough to preserve their own.

I believe that everyone does a fairly complex yet intuitive cost/benefit analysis of human life and that this analysis informs the value we place on our own lives. For example, if you believe that a blind person is worthy of a dignified, happy life, you would eventually adapt to life as a blind person if you happened to lose your vision. If in your heart of hearts, you believe that such a disability leads to a useless life, you could very well choose to end your life due to loss of vision and have no mental illness at all.

While it is vital to continue the battle of easing stigma and increasing access to mental health treatment, I also believe that is time to start a cultural discussion of the value of human life. As this value declines in our culture, it becomes more rational to think that one should stay alive only as long as one is healthy, young, wealthy, famous, or some combination of all that is prized in the here and now.

Both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain were well into middle age. I can’t help but think that whatever their personal reasons for suicide, their passing is symptomatic of our culture’s discomfort with aging. At 45, I am well into the long, rude awakening that aging is hard work. Have I broken some unspoken rule in advertising that I am already getting old? I’ve written several posts about my struggle with lumbar degeneration. In reality, my problem is just advanced aging of the spine. If you get old enough, there’s a good likelihood that your back will be just as bad as mine is.

I can’t be the only one who was so ill-prepared for getting older. I grew up in an era when looking young was paramount, with little regard for one’s insides– if you can be mistaken for a 30-year-old, then your insides must be that healthy, too. I am going to transgress once again in revealing that we start falling apart by degrees from the moment we are born. Ask anyone who’s had their wisdom teeth extracted after age 30, and you will hear that 30 is not so young.

In thinking of the rising suicide rate, I must remind myself that I decided long ago that life is worth living until its natural or accidental end, however hard one’s circumstances may be. Life is worth living even one is severely disabled, profoundly poor, or impossibly old.

Turn this thinking inside out. Consider a weather-beaten man wandering about downtown who looks like he has nothing but where the day may take him. No matter how he landed in such a life, his survival shows that he values his life against all odds. How much do you value yours?

And now we deal with bullies . . .

 

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A moment in time from better days

Lately, my family has been trying to cope with a problem that had no name until yesterday. I’ve had repeated, exhausting conflicts with persuading my daughter to go to school. To her, every cold and discomfort has grown to proportions epic enough to warrant a day home. Yesterday I finally had to propose a choice to her: she could go to school or we could visit the ER to investigate the source of her immobility. Really, when these episodes happen, it is like she makes herself as steady as a massive boulder, unmoved by any plea until she overcomes that inertia.

So we visited the ER. In all honesty, I was worried that she was letting everything fall apart because she had lost interest in living. She writes a lot, but she keeps her thoughts cloaked in secrecy, even to the point of creating screen names in non-western languages. I spied one of these aliases and found a blog where she had written: “I’m going to kill myself.”

I looked at the date. She had written that declaration months ago. How could I have missed the tremors of that earthquake that struck in the bedroom across the hall from mine? It’s one of those moments when you must accept that if psychic perception exists, it is unreliable at best.

When the ER staff interviewed us, I confronted Eileen with my knowledge of this writing. They helped us get to the bottom of our problem: Eileen is being bullied in the cafeteria at her high school.

The hospital gave me a list of signs of bullying: attendance problems, slipping grades, insulting oneself, etc. The only signs she didn’t have were missing items and injuries.

The abuse is verbal in nature. When Eileen walks by these boys, they announce that she has no friends and is overweight. She won’t disclose any further details.

For years I’ve feared for what could happen to my child whenever I’m not around. Why? Because Eileen does not tell the story of her life to me. Sometimes she tells her stories under the cloak of anonymity online. My daughter has autism. Her variant of it strongly disinclines her to tell the good or bad of her days.

Her patterns of communication and perception did not have a name until she was in 8th grade. That was when we had a diagnosis of autism. She makes eye contact with few people. Her speech and phrasing, when she does choose to talk, is markedly different from her peers. She can’t remember a time she couldn’t read. She can read and sing in two languages, English and Japanese.

Long story short, she’s had a hard time finding common ground with her classmates. Only a precious few students have taken the time to break through her walls. I thank God for them.

I struggle with knowing what to do next. I have contacted the school to request a change in her lunch setting. I don’t know these boys’ names.

If I could talk to them, I would tell them to stop this madness. Changing Eileen is about as possible as stopping a mile-long train barrelling toward you with your bare hands. Maybe once upon a time each of you fellows dared to be different, and you were forced back into the herd by bullies in or out of school. Whatever your reason for picking on my daughter, you should know that the only result will be hurt.

While she does not share your values, she still has feelings. She doesn’t care what is in style, what team won, who’s dating whom, or who drank how much liquor on Saturday night. She still feels loneliness, and you do nothing but wound her when you remind her of that.

No matter what you say, it is just not possible that she is going to come to school transformed into a skinny girl who wears clothes that please you. She will never pay you compliments on all of your victories large and small. Leave her be. She has the right to an education free of harassment.

My daughter doesn’t want her peers to know that she has autism. Maybe it’s time to disclose that. Maybe there would be some kindness and understanding. Aside from their comments about her weight, which are ridiculous in their own way, they really are harassing her because of her disability. Their comments aren’t much better than making fun of someone for needing a wheelchair.

I admire Eileen for what she has endured growing up. Think back on your school days. There have been entire school years where no one has called my child on the phone, texted her, or invited her to a party. How long could you have survived this?

She is the strongest person I know.