Sunday, September 10, 2006

Suicide, rabbits, demonic depression and God

Because today, September 10th was World Suicide Prevention Day, Linda and I joined the local march for awareness which went from the ocean to the university and included lectures and workshops. The organizer, in her opening remarks, said that 10% of people will be touched by someone’s suicide. Personally, I cannot see how a person could make it to age 30 without knowing someone who has attempted suicide, has committed suicide or is suffering from a loss to suicide. But it is one of the those “issues” that no one likes to talk about, probably because most people don’t know what to say.

Today’s march had a total of two men, less than 7% of the marchers; and they were pretty clear they were there in a "support" role. Why is it so hard for some/many guys to accept and feel the loss instead of "moving on"? I don't believe that women actually care or feel more; though maybe they are allowed to show it more, as there seems no appropriate way in this society for males to publicly show loss, emptiness, empathy or even remembrance (unless the military is somehow involved).

As the march neared the university, we started spotting, "wild rabbits" which started a few generations ago with some lost pets. Of course, the rabbits are so used to university life they tend not to twitch even when bicycles zips past them. During the suicide rememberance ceremony, I was distracted by an older, slightly arthritic rabbit hopping closer and closer. “Look,” I whispered to Linda, “It’s the velveteen rabbit!” She agreed and we both watched it nibble towards us. I thought of the classic line from the book, “When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” This almost sentimental moment was soon erased by my recall of the inexplicable review of this book on Amazon: “My therapist recommended that I read this book, for reasons unknown to me. It is a good children's book, but not for an adult suffering from agoraphobia.” Errrr....yes.

Linda and I slipped away, as we like to talk things out between us, and the workshops were sounding increasingly wholesome, as in just the introduction we had been invited to walk the meditative labyrinth and to join with the connectiveness of a tree and its roots. Since I tend to swear and say loud irrational things when talking about suicide, I wanted to get away from all the hush and contemplation to do so. So we simply followed the white rabbit (not a drug reference!).

We talked together about some of the people we knew who had committed suicide, both of us remembering Mr. B. He was a long time minister noted for his gentle and sensitive soul. He killed himself many years ago, but only last year did I find out that a senior minister, Mr. M. was involved. Mr. M was the same superior whose demands and insensitivity drove my father to a complete physical breakdown (and leaving of the ministery). Mr. M then was placed over Mr. B., constantly berating criticizing and mocking him. Mr. B committed suicide within 18 months. Mr. M has now moved on to another church area.

There was a time, in my church denomination, when people were committing suicide every single month. I remember some months when the North American church newsletter had more suicides in the obits than any other cause of death. Not that anyone talked about it, of course, except to speculate a) if they not going to heaven and b) why they had not given their hearts and minds sufficiently to God.

Does God prevent suicide? I don’t know, but I do know that if God’s followers were more willing to talk and support those with mental illness, depression, sexual abuse, divorce and suicide/suicide attempts, Christians might be more effective at preventing suicide, instead of in some cases, encouraging it. I cannot count the number of times I have heard the message that the solution to depression, or mental illnesses is acknowledging our brokenness, opening our heart completely to God (and some vitamins) and through God’s power “overcoming” our depression, our OCD, our Anxiety, our mental illness, our homosexuality. There are a host of Christian books from Don Colbert's, to the 40 year classic, Spiritual Depression which says, “all depression has its root in sin…only in Christ can release from the bondage of self come”, or Victory over Darkness in which “Victory Over the Darkness emphasizes the importance of believing and internalizing the cardinal truths of Scripture as a base from which to renew the mind and fend off Satan's relentless attempt”, then there are the books linking mental illness to demonic possession. Of course, in the isolation created by a view that depression or mental illness is a state of being “unchristian”or not Christian enough, specifically, not being humble or open enough to God and/or not being determined or working hard enough to “overcome”; many, many people I knew prayed, and tried and struggled. They also waited in their own dark night for something that never came, and then they killed themselves.

It would be nice if the same Christians who get glasses because they don’t see failing eyes as a lack of brokenness, and get special instruction for their children because they don’t see dyslexia as a form of demon possession could be as enlightened when it came to serotonin, lithium, nor-adrenaline and other chemical brain interaction imbalances. Or even the idea that someone attempting suicide isn’t defying God but showing the desperation from which they see their life.

I was disturbed and saddened when blog force Hugo Schwyzer gave a long post detailing his transformation from mental illness to peace through leaving medication behind, opening his heart to God and working hard on confronting himself: “And if nothing else, my story makes clear to me (and perhaps to others) that addictions, personality disorders, and mental illnesses can -- through a combination of grace and exhaustive, long-term effort, be overcome..Where there is even a tiny spark of willingness to change (and inside some pretty rotten, crazy people, that spark can be found), there is reason to hope.”

While he starts originally about Narcissistic and Borderline Personality Disorder, he expands it to all mental illnesses. For Hugo (and many, many Christians), a normal, or positive quality of life is one which is broken into two categories: those who are on meds and those who aren’t, those who “free” themselves and those who don’t, Hugo refers to them as those who “make it” and those who “don’t’”: “Why some make it and some don't is anyone's guess. My condition was grave and real, and my life is different today -- and I don't take meds.”

While I applaud ANYONE who positively reorders their life after becoming aware of mental illness, I am frustrated by another ode to a program which will kill more people from suicide in trying it, than those who succeed. This combo of desire to change and opening your heart to the Lord is exactly the same one which is preached by Exodus International, those who believe that sexual orientation is not fixed, and that someone who really wants to will let God change them “for the better” – of course, studies on this type of program have shown that far more people kill themselves in failing to meet these expectations and the despair that follows than ever succeed.

Going to a doctor and getting the appropriate medication IS an action of acknowledging that you are not defined by your illness or medical imbalance. So is going for therapy. So is going to support groups. If you want to help prevent suicide; then get to know the people around you, and be there for them. Or support somone who is doing the 20 mile, Out of the Darkness Overnight, raising 3.6 million for research and education in this year's event. As a person suffering from depression or mental illness, certainly accept responsibility for your actions, your treatment of others, your ability to positively impact others, but not for the preset biochemical interactions in your body. God doesn’t heal Obsessive Compulsive Disorder with bee pollen or Vitamin B for a reason; because it doesn’t solve the chemical imbalance. There are however several medications that do.


kathz said...

A good and thoughtful post. Like most people, I've know quite a few people who died through suicide, mostly as a result of mental illness. However, I'm never sure that medication works for everybody. While some certainly benefit, others seem to find their condition made worse by prescribed medication (possibly because the medication needs more testing). I'm perhaps a little questioning because a long time ago a coupl of friends tried to overdose on anti-depressants. Some people I know have been helped by counselling - again, others find it useless. And then there are the doctors who want to ofer medication and identify physical ailments as psychological. I once went to a doctor with a bad chest infection and he tried to insist the problem was depression (because of the stress of being a working mother). Eventually I managed to insist enough to get a chest X-ray - and was prescribed strong antibiotics the moment the result came through. I also wonder how much mental illness is a result of a messed up society - some people must suffer depression, etc., as a result of prejudice, discrimination, poverty, etc.

Thanks for a post that has made me think about a complicated subject.

Elizabeth McClung said...

Agreed on the NHS doctor obsession - I had one doctor who tried to give me prozac for everything I came in for, from a back ache to a flu. Obviously medication doesn't work when you have a wack job prescribing it. Also tend to be very leery of doctors who prescribe the same anti-depressants they happen to have the free pen, mousepad, stapler and notebook of (could they only remember one name after a medical conference).

Counselling is important, but in the UK, Canada and the US is only available to those able to afford them (though if you are suicidal, can ask your GP for a immediate referral for counselling - they should contact you within 3-6 months).

The difficulty is that for many mental illnesses, a correct dosage from a knowledgable practitioner is the first step before engaging the others. I do recommend people do thier own research as well talk to doctors about starting at lower dosages if they have had poor reactions in the past. But, to think of one woman I know, if you can't leave the house because you have to vacuum the walls and every other surface three times a day, the biochemical reactions must be stopped first.

On the note of anti-depressants, pharmacuticals should stop selling drugs that have suicidal tendancies as side effects including, for one SNRI, I know, a suicide IN the second stage controlled tests - it was still given FDA approval. So, no, I don't trust them blindly, but thinking of another friend whose family history is 50% suicides, medication for her and her family isn't an option, it's a lifeline.

Sober @ Sundown said...

I appreciate your open discussion of difficult topics.

kathz said...

My most recent experience comes from trying to help students, whose mental illnesses can be made worse through being away from home for the first time, and having to work absurd hours while studying full-time. Luckily the counselling service is free to students, though over-stretched at times, and the counsellors are familiar with the kind of problems faced by students. It's not necessarily an alternative to medication but sometimes an accompaniment. We're beginning to get helpful advice on mental disabilities (e.g. Asperger's, OCD) as well and the support for the students is finally improving. It's much better than when I as a student - but the levels of mental illness among teenagers are way higher now.

funchilde said...

wow. i am continually in awe of your thoughtful, witty writing and the way you look at things from a slightly different angle and it illuminates your topic in such a way that i'm like "yeah, what she said!" your writing makes me want to know more about everything. I lurve it!

Faith said...

Thanks so much for writing this Elizabeth. You are absolutely correct in comparing depression to getting glasses or help for dyslexia. And I'm really happy for Hugo, but I fear that his posts, as well as other ministers who believe that depression will go away when one has more faith, is doing more harm than good.

Lynn said...

I think you might like to read Sylvia Browne's latest book "Exploring The Levels of Creation". In the latter part of the book, she thoughtfully discusses many of the topics in your post and I think you might find it refreshing.