Tuesday, September 10, 2013

We are Legion, Reprise: Suicide Awareness Day

(Today, September 10, is World Suicide Awareness and Prevention Day.  What follows is an unedited re-post of an intensely personal installment from the weeklong "We Are Legion" series of blog posts from earlier this year.  This one was written in the wake of the suicide of Pastor Rick Warren's son Matthew, who was (is) my age.

Even when you feel completely, utterly unloved, God still loves you.  Please, always, always remember that. Don't be afraid to seek help if you need it.  -E.A.)

Trigger word warning: suicide.

I know I said initially that this was a three-part series of posts.  It will be four instead.

Beginning at the age of 14, I began having increasingly frequent thoughts of suicide.  I became socially withdrawn, flunked out of advanced algebra, and by the time I graduated, I had been suspended from school twice for fighting.

After months of refusing, I eventually caved to my parents' wish to take me to see a psychiatrist.  He was able to immediately diagnose me with major clinical depression, and he put me on a regimen of antidepressants that I have continued in some form or fashion to this day.  Today, I am medicated and I am well, but I still remember how much I underachieved during my teenage years.

I remember it because even on medication, those episodes still return in minor forms.  Depression is like any chronic disease--I cannot be cured of it, I can only manage it.  I will likely be medicated for the rest of my life.

And I'm okay with that.  That's the way it has to be in order for me to function.

But it also isn't something that, for obvious reasons, I ordinarily share with people.

I'm writing about it right now, though, because Matthew Warren, the youngest son of Rick Warren (yes, that Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback and Purpose-Driven Life fame, and whom (full disclosure) I have occasionally criticized on the blog) killed himself this weekend after a lifelong battle with mental illness.

Matthew was twenty-seven years old.

It is how old I am.

Believe me, it hit home.  Please pray for Matthew's family, biological and church alike.

I worry that people sometimes rush to judge a suicide because of our own Christian orthodoxy that it constitutes a grave sin.  And I understand the logic behind that--I forget who said it, but suicide is our way of telling God, "Screw you, you can't fire me.  I quit."

We aren't supposed to quit on God.

But if we take a step back, and remember that depression is a mental illness, suicide becomes apparent as the result of terminal depression.  Roughly 3.5% of people in the United States who have depression eventually will commit suicide.  If we were to see depression as the disease that it is, it would be like saying that 3.5% of all cases of this disease become terminal.

Depression is not a moral failing.

It sounds simple, but I'm going to repeat it: Depression. Is. Not. A. Moral. Failing.

It is a disease.

I have always understood why folks might call depression a "demon," as though another's personal demon might be addiction or substance abuse, but I have recently begun to shy away from the urge to do that.  My depression isn't a demon, and the minute I say that it is, I am saying that having it is somehow wrong or somehow a moral weakness of mine.

And it isn't.

Because of how we normally associate demons with evil, saying someone's mental illness is a demon of their's implies an evil within that person which the person may or may not have control over.

And that's harmful.  It puts an unfair burden on the person suffering from mental illness, and it lends an inauthentic identity to the disease itself.

My depression is not a demon I have to be exorcised of, it is a disease I have to live with.

But for however long well-meaning people still put the words "depression" or "mental illness" in the same breath as words like "demon," we're going to have people engaging in extremely private battles with their illnesses and, in some cases, ultimately losing.

Read through the statement Rick Warren made again (in the CNN link above).  He wrote, in part, "But only those closest knew that he (Matthew) struggled from birth with mental illness, dark holes of depression, and even suicidal thoughts."

I'm not suggesting that making personal struggles with mental illness more public is the way to go--as a PK (pastor's kid), Matthew likely already had more burdens growing up than your average boy.  And it is saddening that, based on Rick's statement, Matthew had been receiving treatment and it had ultimately failed.

What I am suggesting, though, is that maybe people might one day feel more free to explain their depression to people if they wish, rather than suffering mostly in private.

After all, a big part of what helps heal a person is the other people around them--medical staff, family, friends, and fellow patients.

In Mark 5, the Gerasene Demoniac confronts Jesus and the demon says, through the possessed man, "We are Legion, for we are many."

Far too often, the inverse is true of the people who suffer from these so-called "demons:" We are depressed, and so we are lonely.  And it is so for this man, the demoniac--he has gone into self-imposed exile in a graveyard, surrounded only by the dead.

We become lonely through a variety of ways, which has been in part the thrust of this weeklong blog series: we divide up one another.  I wrote about how we divide up the church, and then about how we divide up God's word.

We need not, should not, and cannot divide up ourselves.

For depression is, for better and for worse, not a demon.  It is a disease.

And like many other diseases, it can kill.  Even, sometimes, with treatment.

But also like many other diseases, it can be whipped.  It is possible.

If you are depressed, please, please, please do not be afraid to seek help.  Your family practice doctor can almost certainly refer you to a psychiatrist or psychologist, and many churches and pastors should also be able to refer you to mental health specialists.

If you are actively considering suicide, there are hotlines you can call.  The National Suicide Prevent Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.  It is toll-free and staffed 24/7.

We are Legion, sneered the Gerasene Demoniac, for we are many.

But we--the people who see and understand and live with mental illness every day--we are legion too, for we are many.

And with help, we can be the many who control our illnesses, instead of letting them control us.

So do not be afraid to seek help.  It is there for you if you ask for it.

My hope and prayer is that if I, and others like me, can be more open and courageous about mental illness, you--whoever you are--might feel courageous enough to make that life-saving request.

Yours in Christ, from someone who cares for you,

Dedicated to the men and women I met during my brief time as the intern chaplain of the inpatient psychiatric ward of California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.  I still remember seeing the scars on your wrists and your necks.  I still remember listening to your stories.  I still remember hearing your fear.  And I hope and pray that that fear has, like our time together, receded into the sea of years-ago memories.

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