Today my friend Shannon, who started the Matthew Patrick Geary Trust, posted a link to a New York Times article about a sharp rise in the rate of suicide among middle-aged people. People like Tony. Middle-aged men, in particular, are at increased risk. More people now die of suicide in the United States than die in automobile accidents.
Think about that. MORE PEOPLE IN THE UNITED STATES DIE OF SUICIDE THAN OF INJURIES RECEIVED IN CAR ACCIDENTS.
And we are not talking about it. Yes, there’s an article in the New York Times. But that doesn’t mean people are talking about it. There is still so much shame, so much secrecy and fear around the topic of suicide. What I am asking you who are reading this to do is to sit with that statistic for a minute. Sit with it. Think about it. Don’t just think about the numbers. Think about IT, think about suicide. You probably don’t have any difficulty believing that someone you care about might at some point be killed in a car accident. So many of us travel by car, every day. So many people speed, or drive while overtired or drunk. So many people get caught up in bad weather, rain or snow. So many people talk on their cell phones or even text while driving. I have been in car accidents, one that could have been a lot worse than it was. I know people, several of them, who have lost their lives in car accidents.
And now, I have lost someone I loved to suicide. As uncomfortable as this may be to think about, anybody reading this, anybody at all, could find themselves in my shoes someday. That is how big a problem suicide is.
Mental health coverage in this country is a joke. It’s practically non-existent. People who need help can’t get it, and that’s if they can manage to get past the stigmatization of mental illness, past the shame and judgment of people close to them, and maybe past their own self-blame and self-judgment and actually ask for help. The truth is that if Tony had listened to my pleas, if he had agreed to seek out the professional help he so clearly needed, I have NO idea how we would have paid for it. His first twenty visits – a drop in the ocean – would have been covered at some pathetic percentage. The rest of it would have been out of pocket.
Nobody is suggesting, ever WOULD suggest, that we limit and stigmatize and bar people from getting treatment after a car accident. Such a suggestion would be completely laughable. We love our cars here, don’t we? We love our cars more than we love our hurting, sad and lost fellow human beings.
A person who’s contemplating suicide is driving a car. The car is his brain. He knows, sometimes, that something’s not working the way it works in other people’s cars. He drives through mud and grime, and the windshield gets harder and harder to see through. All he can see is the mud. He tries to clear it off, but he feels like he can’t reach out and turn on the windshield wipers. He wants somebody else to come along and turn them on for him, but he doesn’t have the words to ask. Or he does, but they can’t reach. So he keeps driving, but he can only see glimpses of the other people on the road through the dirt and the grime that obscure his vision. He thinks the whole word is like that, filthy and hardly visible and he is the only one who feels that way. Everybody else, it seems, drives around with ease. They flip their wipers off and on as needed, they apply the brakes, give it more gas, and navigate turns and unexpected detours as if it were nothing. But the suicidal person feels that he can’t do any of those things, he just has to keep driving. He can’t see the road ahead of him. He’s tired of trying, and even though he has AAA they won’t come out for this. It’s not part of the coverage, you see. They’ll come out, but only if he can come up with a huge amount of money, money he just doesn’t have. It’s something he’s going to have to deal with alone. Only he can do it.
And so finally, he gets so tired of the trying; so tired of the people pointing out how different his car is, and how he should be ashamed of being so different; so tired of feeling like people are judging his car for its flaws; so tired, so tired, so tired of trying to drive when he can’t see and can’t get help and can’t avoid getting hit by other cars and can’t afford help or feels that he shouldn’t even have to ask for help, that he sees a cliff coming and he takes his hands off the wheel and he lets the car skid and fly and slip over the edge into oblivion.
And those of us who tried to clean off the windshield, or tried to get him to understand that he could do it himself, are left standing on the edge of the abyss and looking down and wishing so much we could reverse time and make the one we loved come flying back up over the edge and into our arms and into our lives and our hearts. But we can’t do that, because it’s too late.
If a car manufacturer were selling cars without safety features, without working brakes or seatbelts or airbags or windshield wipers, nobody would buy the car. If companies decided suddenly that some illness with a huge public profile, breast cancer or leukemia or multiple sclerosis or heart disease, would not be covered or covered at laughable levels, we’d be outraged. If major HMOs announced they would no longer provide coverage for injuries received in automobile accidents, there would be an uprising. So why not over this? Why not now? Why not to save the people who need saving the most, the people who are ostracized and shamed and made to feel like they are not normal?
It’s scary. That’s why. The human brain is a mysterious territory, different for everybody and largely unmapped. We are each alone inside of that territory, and we have to make the map ourselves. Some of us are born cartographers, and even if we have moments when we fear we are lost, we find our way back again. We have a compass, we have a sense of direction. A sense of confidence in ourselves that we can work through it, come out of it, find our way back to the path. Some of us don’t have that. Some of us don’t, and that scares the hell out of those of us who do. We can’t understand it. We fear it. We shy away from it. We throw around words like “nuts” and “crazy” with ease, because it’s so much easier to label than to learn. It’s so much easier to run than to sit with the idea that we all, any one of us, could lose someone we love to suicide. It’s so much easier to turn away, to lalala our way past the words, the terrifying words, that suicide is a problem that’s getting bigger. It’s not going anywhere. It’s a monster. It’s the child in the basement in Omelas. We know it’s there but we pretend it’s not because it’s so much more comfortable to pretend.
I’m done pretending. It’s time to get noisy.