I think many of us can remember the lesson in grade school about the ostrich. It is, relative to other birds, HUGE. But while other birds have the luxury of flying away from predators or danger, the ostrich is land bound. It does, however, pack a pretty powerful kick.
We’ve all heard the myth about ostriches burying their head in the sand, thinking that if they can’t see their enemy, then the enemy can’t see them. Ignoring the enemy will somehow make it go away.
It sounds pretty absurd, doesn’t it?
No matter how appealing that may be, it’s a luxury the ostrich simply couldn’t afford to indulge. If it did, the species wouldn’t have lasted very long.
We heard from a wonderful friend whom we hadn’t seen for more than a year. It was great to find out what he was doing now. It was no less than we had expected; he is at the top of his field and truly on his way to changing the world for the better. He works incredibly hard and deserves the good things coming his way. What an exciting time of life for him.
But as we read through his email, our smiles of great memories slowly faded. He had the courage to share some pretty private and intense experiences with us, experiences when we saw him every day more than a year ago. Depression had become so suffocating that he made a plan, along with a scheduled date, to commit suicide.
Not to give up, but to escape the drowning pain inside.
If someone asked me to describe this friend who found himself in such trouble, I would use words like: vivacious, fun, happy, hard-working, incredibly bright, and humble. In fact, he and I shared a phrase in the office of “just getter done.” He was great at rolling up his sleeves and not afraid of getting dirty while “getting it done.”
But under all this was someone who didn’t feel any of those things. He was working hard to do what he knew he should be doing. He was trying hard to be positive and find the good things around him. He was doing everything he could think of.
Still the date approached. He could hold on until then.
But no longer.
Miraculously (and there is no other word for it, because I KNOW that God has us in His sights and sends help when we need it), he and I had a conversation about a week before his self-appointed deadline. I remember feeling like he just wasn’t himself. I thought that he had spread himself too thin with his schooling, work, and senior projects.
But I was wrong.
Here’s the lesson: Even though I was wrong, and didn’t see his mental anguish, I stopped him and talked to him. Hopefully, he saw through my bumbling and knew that I genuinely cared about him.
The date of his suicide came and went.
As Ann and I talked through what he had shared with us, what broke our hearts the most was when he told us that his parents and family weren’t really asking him about his life, or sensing his depression, or even looking closely into his eyes to see the dimming light.
I don’t know his family and I don’t judge them. I give them the benefit of the doubt that they were doing the best they could with whatever they were facing at the time.
But even though, he fell through the cracks and came way too close to a tragedy.
It took me more than 25 years to find the courage and self-confidence to ask for, and then accept the help that comes after being labeled “mentally ill.” But now that I understand, at least in my case (and each case is different), that I’ve got some crazy biological things going on in my brain.
I can accept that.
And in turn, I seem to be more open about things that others see as very personal, very private, very painful.
Being open has saved me.
Another thing that I had to be at peace with was that even if I could accept it, there are those close to me who may not be able to. It is still too frightening, too unknown, too stigmatized.
Who wants to admit that they have a “crazy person” in the family? It is worse than the Ebola virus. If they get too close, they may catch it too.
I was blessed that Ann, Alex, and Nick weren’t afraid. They watched closely. They knew that something was very, very wrong. They lovingly but candidly talked to me about it, asked what they could do, consulted with others who had gone through it. Together we learned the right balance between ignoring and suffocating.
In essence, together we faced it head on.
Our friend, though, didn’t have someone in his life who was willing, or able, to see and then face his depression head on, together, with him.
And we almost lost him.
Perhaps they didn’t know enough to recognize what was in front of them. Perhaps they were too afraid of what it may be and just hoped that he would work through it. Perhaps they didn’t want to be wrong and somehow offend him. Perhaps they were disappointed in him for being weak enough to not be able to shake the problem. Perhaps they were angry that this had come into their life and just wanted it to be over.
Whatever the reason, they let their personal emotions take precedence over that of another.
Sounds like burying your head in the sand, doesn’t it?
Well, as one who saw suicide as the only remaining solution, I ask for all of us: It’s time to pull your head out of the sand. It’s no longer a luxury any of us can afford.
Please, slow down enough in your busy, busy life to actually look at and see those around you, those you love, those who are in your path. There are too many who are still falling through the cracks.
Talk to them. Ask them what is going on. Most importantly, let them know that someone cares.
Just as it is a myth that the ostrich buries its head, it is also a myth that ignoring the symptoms of mental illness will somehow make them go away, or get better, or just have never happened in the first place.
Let’s care enough to pull our heads out the sand. After all, if ostriches can see how ridiculous it is, shouldn’t we?