Girl Talk: Being Unafraid to Face our Spirits

I was looking for some information over the internet for a book I am writing when I somehow landed on an article about a young, 19-year-old Stanford University student who died after attempting suicide.

The article said that the parents were not saying what, exactly, caused her death, but the same article said that in a memorial statement, the family acknowledged that she had attempted suicide. The writer of the article said that even though it appeared the actual act of attempted suicide didn’t kill her, it appeared that after that attempt, from whatever injuries she sustained, the attempt ended up causing her to die.

I am not using her name, because she could be so many of us women, who are depressed but who will not face our depression, or talk about it, and because the communities that surround us really do not have patience for those of us who suffer from depression.

After my divorce, I realize now that I was depressed – for years. I could not and would not admit it, nor talk about it.  After all, I was a single mother; my children were small and I had to hold it together for them…and to add insult to injury, I was a new pastor. I figured that the congregation was probably already struggling to deal with the imperfect woman who could not and did not hold her marriage together; had I let on that I was depressed, I am not sure they would have kept me on as their pastor.

And so I suffered silently. I am sure I was not nearly as effective as I could have been – either as a mother or a pastor. I remember thinking that my own mother had told me that she had once suffered from a nervous breakdown. I didn’t know what that was exactly, but I wondered if it was hereditary.

My mother never talked about that time of her life, and she certainly never discussed it with me, except for one time when she got angry that I had put on an application that she had once suffered from the nervous breakdown. She was furious, and yelled at me for being so “stupid.” I didn’t know it was a sin to have a nervous breakdown, and a bigger sin to tell someone about it.

I did wonder, though, during my post-divorce years,what I was going to do, what a nervous breakdown felt like. I didn’t go to a doctor; I didn’t take medication. Only once I began to come out of the fog, years after the divorce, did I sit down a few times and talk to a counselor.

I call denying our emotional pain fear of facing our spirits. Our spirits really do a good job of telling us when something is wrong and when our spirits tell us that, it is a cry from within to do something before it’s too late, but there’s still such a stigma about mental illness, and still such a stigma about admitting that emotionally, we just don’t feel so good. I cannot understand why we are allowed to feel bad physically, to be ill, sometimes terminally, physically, but are expected to be on our jobs continually when it comes to our emotional and spiritual health.

I thought about this young Stanford student, who was apparently a good student and a well-respected athlete. She grew up in Santa Barbara, an amazingly beautiful place, so I assume she didn’t have much economic hardship to worry about. Her case reminded me of another Stanford student I read about some days ago who had never bounced back after her mother committed suicide. Within two years, this young woman was dead as well; she had taken some time off after her mother’s death to recuperate, and had recently returned to school, and was now…dead.

Ironically, this girl was a proponent for mental health education.

I guess all people need to face their spirits, but we as women are so good at ignoring ours while we try to take care of everyone else. We are good at dressing up and pretending we have it all together, when that’s not even close to being the truth. And in the end, we suffer, as do those around us who love and care for us.

Was I mentally ill post-divorce? I can say, now, that yes, I was. I am fortunate that there was something enough inside me (maybe my spirit working overtime to save me in spite of myself) so that I didn’t commit suicide. I never considered it, but that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t have considered it. Whenever someone is depressed, the capacity to go to a place that is scary and cold is there.

I hope that the family of both these Stanford students will recuperate well, but will also become unafraid to talk about this menace called mental illness, or, more specifically, depression. We are not required to have it together all of the time. If we would listen to our spirits, and do what we need to do to effect spiritual balance inside of us, perhaps there would be fewer suicides, and fewer people living lives of absolute hell.

A candid observation …

A Death in the Family

My sister died yesterday.

Her death was not unexpected; she had battled cancer like a trooper, the first time, 20 years ago, and then again, last year this time, when it came back.

She was tired of fighting, tired of going back to the hospital, tired of getting blood and medicine and more blood. I think she just said, “OK, already. Enough.”

She is the first of our siblings to die. My parents both died years ago. We five children have always had each other. Now we are five, minus one. It feels strange.

I have learned not to despise death, or even fear it, but rather, consider death a part of our life cycle.  I keep thinking of John Donne’s sonnet, “Death Be Not Proud:”

Death be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so,

For, those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,

Die, not, poor, death, not yet canst thou kill mee.

I can rather hear my sister saying that to Death as it approached her. She defied death and the doctors, from the first time she was diagnosed with cancer until the end. Doctors said she would be gone much sooner than now; my sister told them both, “I think not.”

When I saw her in April, we were able to talk and laugh and share. What she wanted most was a cup of coffee from McDonald’s. I ran out to get her a cup and the last thing I did before I left that time was to bring her another cup of that coffee. It felt good to give her something she wanted. I took a picture of her, in her hospital bed, with her bald head and IV…and cup of coffee. That picture will forever make me smile.

I am, as a pastor, very familiar with losing people I love. I am even more familiar with the loss death deals as a member of a family. Death doesn’t affect the one who dies nearly as much as it wrangles those left behind.

This coming Monday would have been her birthday. Well, I guess it still is …it’s just that she’s celebrating it in a different space.

Is she gone? Well, physically, yes, but her spirit is all over the place. No life, once shared, is ever fully gone. I took a walk this morning and saw two amazingly beautiful Blue Jays. It was if she had sent them into my space to remind me that her spirit is forever.

There is a comfort I feel, remembering my tenacious sister and John Donne’s poem: death didn’t beat her. She took Death by the hand and led it to where she wanted it to wait until she was ready to go.

Death clearly, in this case, cannot be proud.

That would be a candid observation.