I’m launching an ambitious end of one year/ start of another, fundraising campaign. It’s my holiday season anti-depressant, how I alchemize pain into gold. And it’s how, with your generosity, we can literally save lives.
As a vibrant, achieving teenager, I took for granted that I too would get to assemble an adulthood like my privileged peers: partnership, children, good health, satisfying work, travel, and festive holidays with extended family. But the universe had a different plan for my life.
Due to a constellation of extreme chronic health conditions that most likely stem from early childhood medical issues, I wasn’t able to have children. This loss and the ineffable grief that accompanies it, still occupies some part of my heart every day. Given that parenting wasn’t in the cards, I’d otherwise have implemented an exciting plan B for my life, which would have included abundant, service-oriented travel. Despite herculean efforts to the contrary, my health issues have worsened significantly over the years, making plan B impossible. My current life is mostly homebound, primarily due to a rare and under-researched neurological disorder called hyperosmia. I’m also dealing with multiple chronic pelvic pain conditions and a random assortment of other chronic issues. Like a dog digging for a bone, I keep searching for healing, trying anything and everything, in hopes that one day I’ll get my life back.
Meanwhile, I mine for silver linings, and try to find beauty and meaning and gratitude in the smallness: walks to Jamaica Pond when I’m able; snuggling my elderly peekapoo with button eyes; the rare outing to a friend's house; the story podcasts I adore; the winter sun that pours in the window while I write this. And to cope with the isolation, I get creative about how to stay connected to the vibrant network of amazing, loving humans in my life. By some miracle, I’ve even managed to develop a long-distance romance this year, with someone who sees, through the haze of health challenges, my warrior-ship and indomitable spirit. Not to mention, he’s a tall glass of water with a heart of gold.
There is so much for which I’m thankful. Yet, it’s also true that my restricted life could not be more radically different from the adulthood I hope for. Low-level grief is a daily companion. The holiday season amplifies this grief, about not having a family and children of my own, and about not having a body that allows me to indulge, find physical comfort, or travel for the holidays. It’s also a time of year that accentuates the absence of two of my beloved family members who were among the most supportive in my challenging life. In 2007, Jeff, my best friend of a brother, reached his capacity for suffering, and ended his life. And in December of 2013, my mom began her final descent at home on hospice care, dying not long after her December 25th birthday. She was the matriarch around whom we used to gather for Christmas each year.
A consequence of living with this degree of physical stress and restriction is that my baseline propensity for depression which began in college, is routinely stoked and stirred. After Jeff died I committed to what I coined “anti-shame activism,” by writing publicly about stigmatized topics, like my experience with depression. I believe that shame and silence, and the isolation they perpetuate, are among the most sigificant risk factors for suicide. It’s not in my power to bring my brother back, but it is in my power to help dismantle the culture of shame that enshrouds mental health issues.
While I’ve written publicly about depression for a number of years, until this past summer, there was still something I was hiding. Following the high profile suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade and the national conversation that ensued, I came out publicly on Facebook about living for a number of years with suicidal ideation. Most importantly, I shared home-grown ideas for how to support a loved one in that mindset. The response was overwhelmingly positive and the post was shared over 150 times.
The feedback included an email from a stranger explaining that the ideas I shared were transforming her relationship and communication with her teenage grandson who had recently indicated suicidal thoughts. She emailed, “I never realized that he could be feeling shame. The texts I sent him today were so different and his response to me was as well…Again you changed our lives and I am so grateful for your sharing.”
My new grandmother friend emailed me a photo of her and her grandson, smiling with their backs facing each other, as if they’re comparing heights. He wins by a long shot. His eyes are kind and pensive and I see in them that we carry something in common. I keep his photo on my computer desktop as a reminder to keep finding the courage to write and speak openly about this issue, to use my tandem experience of being a suicide survivor and someone who lives with episodic suicidal ideation, to help others.
The positive Facebook response began to disintegrate the shame I carry about my propensity for suicidal thoughts. I don’t have an intrinsic ingratitude for life, and I absolutely don’t want my sacred life to end any sooner than it’s supposed to. My brother didn’t either. But we both happened to inherit brains, that in the pressure cooker of deep suffering, generate suicidal thoughts, in a misguided but well-meaning effort to release pain.
As I contemplated what organization I wanted to support this holiday season to step outside myself, the Facebook experience helped me recognize that one of my deepest passions, and possibly my unfolding life’s purpose, is advocating and caring for other humans who are suffering suicidal pain. This work heals and empowers me. Until we destigmatize the admission of suicidal thinking, by increasing our cultural tolerance for despair and refuting the myth that suicidal feelings are a sign of weakness, people will remain silenced and suicide prevention will only be so effective.
There is one more fact that I’ve never shared before now. Over the years, a handful of times I’ve called Samaritans suicide hotline when I’ve felt pain so profound that I didn’t want to burden family or friends. I’m a resourceful and privileged person with a vast network of people who care about me; so to call a crisis hotline is deeply humbling. But the kind, gentle voices on the other end of the line have been like nightlights for my pain, illuminating just enough for me to see that what’s left, when I’ve been stripped of so much of what used to bring me joy, is love. What’s left is love. And love is the oxygen required for humans to survive deep suffering. The Samaritans hotline offers free 24/7 love for humans in despair. And sometimes that stranger’s love saves a life.
Samaritans serves Massachusetts but also fields calls from the National Suicide Hotline. The calls are answered entirely by volunteers who go through rigorous training. Samaritans also offers free Suicide Prevention Workshops - in schools, businesses, and community groups - teaching teens and adults how to recognize that someone might be suicidal and how to help. Every 12 minutes, someone in the United States dies by suicide, and it’s the second leading cause of death in 15-34 year olds in America. Last year, Samaritans answered nearly 80,00 phone calls and texts. One of those calls was mine.
This holiday season, I’m asking for your generosity to invest as much as you can in this life-saving work. But even if you can only invest $5, that matters and I would be so grateful. Also, for every dollar you donate, it will be doubled because I have a generous matching donor! This is why I’ve set an ambitious goal of raising…$20,000!
That goal might seem outrageous but in 2010, three years after my brother died, I raised $18,000 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I’m determined to surpass what we were able to accomplish together nearly a decade ago. Please consider giving in memory of someone you love, or gifting a donation to someone in your life for the holidays. To spread the word about this campaign, it would be amazing if you forwarded this email to people in your life who have been impacted by depression or suicide. I really can’t thank you enough.
I’m wishing you a healthy, peaceful holiday season. And I’m especially holding in my heart those of you for whom the holidays are complicated and not particularly joyful, whether that’s just this year, or every year.
Thank you for being one of the lights in my life.
Kyle (& Arlo)
“There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors.” - Adrienne Rich