We met at work 35+ years ago – two young women in a male-dominated high-tech company. We became Best-Friends-Forever (BFFs), joined at the hip for several years while Kate put her husband through Harvard Business School, and later, after she transferred with the company, back home to Oregon. We lived parallel lives: children, career-family challenges, divorce, single motherhood, and so much more. She flew 3000 miles with a newborn to be matron of honor at my second wedding: we sandwiched the ceremony in between breast feedings so she wouldn’t explode. I visited her and her growing family several times during business trips to the West Coast and we connected periodically for long chats on our birthdays.
Fast-forward to 2012, after struggling for many years – from crisis to crisis – we lost our youngest adult son to suicide, death by mental illness. I called Kate with the news. After a short pause, she said, “I’m just waiting for a similar call.” That’s how I learned the dark secret she was too ashamed to share: a 10+year nightmare of her daughter’s substance abuse and poor life choices. Subsequently, our shared experiences included the extent to which our children were suffering from undiagnosed mental illness and its frequent companion, self-medication/addiction, and the destructive path this cut through the heart of both families.
Less than three years later, she did receive that call: like our son, Kate’s daughter gave back the gift of life. We are bound together once again, our paths similar yet different, as we navigate through sudden loss with no goodbye. It’s like hitting a brick wall at 100 mph: our child dies but the impact is lasting…reverberating endlessly through those left behind but still clinging desperately to their coattails.
My gift to Kate is the space to find her own way and offer courage, strength, and compassion. We each chart our own course. When she asked, how I made it through, I told her my search for ‘normal’ continues and share the tips that help me cope:
• Stay tethered and anchored to reality: meditation, prayer, a nature walk, yoga.
• Beware of guilt: It is hopelessness looking for a home. Make it a brief visit.
• Have a plan: let your heart be your guide. Do what feels right for you and those you care about.
• Build a support system: take time for solitude and grieving but don’t isolate. Seek professional help if needed.
• Pick and choose your battles: you don’t have to engage in every battle you are invited to.
• Give yourself permission to smile again: “There is not much laughter in medicine but there is much medicine in laughter.”
She asked, “Is there hope?”
I answer, “Yes, absolutely! I have found a purpose in all this heartache – as a mental health advocate partnering with my local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), to ‘give mental health a life-affirming voice.’ Their local H.U.G.S. program (Health Under Guided Systems) is a free community based children’s health program that addresses the prevention and early intervention of social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health challenges for children ages 3 months to 18 years. H.U.G.S. received a national recognition award in 2014 for early intervention. This gives me hope that our children may be the last generation who are stigmatized and marginalized because their struggles are undiagnosed in childhood.”
May is National Mental Health Month, and that gives me hope, too. It is a time to embrace and celebrate mental wellness and thank all the local organizations, agencies, first-responders, volunteers, caregivers and families who champion, promote and advance mental health.
It is the time to consider how we keep our community safer and welcoming for those living with mental illness and impairment as well as those who are not; how we can teach our children, teens and adults of all ages about awareness, personal responsibility for our mental health and safety, safe practices and watching over each other.
It means working together to dispel the stigma that surrounds mental illness and keeps it in the darkness.
It means encouraging our legislators to fund successful evidence-based mental health programs, and fund research independent of pharmaceutical industry influence.
It means ensuring patients, caregivers and families have community resources and services so they are less isolated and more connected – services provided by NAMI as well as other organizations and agencies.
It means recognizing and addressing health privacy legislation that prevents families from getting needed medical treatment for adult family members.
It means wisely approaching recreational drug legislation by assessing possible unintended consequences for minors as well as ensuring the infrastructure is in place to support and mitigate those challenges. Long overdue is a sensible approach to gun legislation that respects gun ownership as well as public safety.
I hope Kate and I will live to see the U.S. ranked lowest in the number of suicides annually, instead of #81 out of 133 countries (2015 International Social Progress Index). That would be “the gift that truly keeps on giving”.