Breath & Shadow
Summer 2022 - Vol. 19, Issue 3
"Suicidality: Neither Solution nor Sin"
Lindsey Morrison Grant
Unlike many, when I learned of the presumed self-orchestrated demise of Former Miss USA Cheslie Kryst, I was not shocked. According to a January 31, 2022 New York Times article, the 30 year old had earned both an MBA and law degree. She took a hiatus from the law office for which she worked to pursue the pageant title and, later, work as a correspondent for the entertainment program, “EXTRA.”
In an essay published by Allure magazine last year, Ms. Kryst reflected on the challenges of growing older and challenging conventional thinking about women’s appearances and opinions.
“A grinning, crinkly-eyed glance at my achievements thus far makes me giddy about laying the groundwork for more but turning 30 feels like a cold reminder that I’m running out of time to matter in society’s eyes — and it’s infuriating,” she wrote. “After a year like 2020, you would think we’d learned that growing old is a treasure and maturity is a gift not everyone gets to enjoy.”
As I switched channels and listened to one acquaintance's eulogy after another, I heard repeatedly that they had seen “no signs” that their friend was in any way distressed or depressed. In some I sensed that they felt betrayed by the act and befuddled, if not guilty, for not having known her better.
After years of firsthand suicidality and having the great, good fortune of surviving to reflect on my experience (and on the experience of friends who had not been so fortunate), my perspective is unique. My views are that of a contrarian who has spent a lifetime questioning assumptive rules and regulations, procedures and protocols, statistics and stigma, diagnostic diatribe, mindsets and meanderings that lead to prejudice and presumption. A child of the '60s, my penchant for questioning authority is deeply ingrained, as is my innate hope that innovative/creative/out-of-the-proverbial-box thinking has led and can lead to individual survival, if not humanity's salvation. The profoundly hopeful idealism of that description is oh-so-contrary to the assumptive sad-sack image that society foists on those who speak of the unspeakable act of suicide. It merely emphasizes the axiom that two seemingly diametrically opposed things can be true at the same time.
In my own naive way of resolving abandonment issues, in the mid-1970's I joined a religious group of wayward musicians and zealots enamored by the rebellious inclusivity of Christ's example. Its group-think provided a sense of purpose, belonging, identity, and the ethical foundation I lacked. However, with an unspoken prohibition on questioning the divine dialog and dictates of its self-proclaimed leaders, my yearning for the life, liberty and pursuit of free-thought created a sizable schism, deep-wounds, and more questions than the answers they provided through oft out-of-context Biblical regurgitation.
As is the nature of organic matter starved of basic elements (whether water, sunlight, or nutrients), institutions without the rejuvenating influx of new thought grow stagnant and toxic, if not infectious. Their infrastructure disintegrates from poor circulation of ideas as they, instead, elevate the status quo. They prop themselves up with policies, pretense, and presumption while avoiding accountability through demonizing and scapegoating those perceived lesser. This is how and why Western culture, (especially religious, political, and healthcare systems) have projected the concept of death by suicide as a sin, a crime, and character flaw. With an inevitable head-scratching, shirk, and laying blame at the cold, lifeless feet of the victim, they move on without reflecting on their own systemic bias as a contributing factor.
With the recent loss of a dear, old friend to a self-orchestrated death, I've done more reflecting on the topic. I'd known this person since we were in high school. We were both business partners and housemates for a few years. We shared a love of the creative process, zany humor, penchant for progressive politics, and bipolar diagnosis. My friend was an actor and it was not until his memorial that I realized the motivation behind this passion for performance and the connection to suicidality.
He had achieved the Boy Scouts of America's highest rank of Eagle Scout. Performing to BSA's set standard earned this meritorious honor, but also managed to reinforced his internalized self-evaluation based on others' standards; his ongoing self-image dependent on performing others' scripts; and it compounded the guilt from each all-too-human failure to do so. Many spoke at this gathering about his kindness to them, his humor, and generosity. And, although this was all true of his character, the darker side of self-doubt and fear of disappointing others was likely what lead to his demise. My friend saw suicidality as failure, as a grand disappointment. He worked diligently to help others get passed such periods, but missed opportunities to get help for himself in those shadowy moments out of the fear of disappointing others and the fear of being perceived as a failure.
The news of Cheslie Kryst's death, less than two months later, felt like déjà vu, especially in light of her apparent need to live up to the expectations of others, her success, her ambition, and ability to mask her internal pain with a smile.
In a particularly challenging period of my own life, where I found no relief from debilitating depression in the piles of prescriptive promises, I recall sitting alone in my living-room, glaring through cloudy cognition and staring into the cold, dark abyss of an empty fireplace. I thought about suicide, yes, recurringly, but then it dawned on me how tremendously fearful I was of these thoughts. The experts would suggest that a fear of death is quite natural. However, it was not a fear of pain or fear of the unknown that had overwhelmed me, but merely the fear of having such thoughts, as if imposed and controlled by some ominous, outside force. In that moment, I made the decision to challenge this crippling fear. I made the decision to accept suicidality as the means to end my pain. Suddenly a tsunami of serenity washed over me. I felt renewed and the depression lifted. Those self-same experts would also say this pre-suicide period of elation is also quite normal. And I would say to them, it was not the decision to end my life that felt liberating, but rather being unfettered by the haunting, social stigma-imposed fear of it that triggered the exuberant psychotic break from reality.
Sometimes, I think, a “psychotic break” from the reality imposed by internalized expectations or imposed standards of others can be, if not refreshing, then a needful respite for reflection. I spent this reflective period in a locked mental ward (yet again) for my elation with this liberating epiphany led me to blindly and unabashedly share my plans with my therapist. During this admission, I allowed myself to me convinced (yet again) that I was broken and that such thinking was broken and wrong, a sin and a crime. It should be noted and emphasized that those who suffer from severe depressive episodes can and often do experience excessive guilt as a symptom. I personally feel, therefore, that there is no need to reinforce it with condemnation. Such tactics are less an effective treatment modality than an effective means to blame the victim and avoid acknowledging systemic failure.
This was in no way my first hospitalization, nor would it be my last, but it was a thought-provoking one. It wouldn't be until 2018 that I would have another revelation about suicidality. I'd spent a number of years seeking alternative cognitive-behavioral modalities outside psycho-pharmaceuticals which included mindful awareness and mediation to mitigate stressors. With the assistance of an insightful healthcare team, I weaned off of psychotropic medications. My glee was compounded by being able to face down, with personal, experiential certainty, the poor outcome statistics of those with a bipolar diagnosis. Always the contrarian!
Unable to navigate and unwilling to acknowledge the triggering effects of an overtly stressful work environment, I had a classic breakdown and landed in the hospital (yet again). In the extensive recovery period following my discharge, I re-visited the concept of fear as the ultimate stressor and exacerbator of symptoms. I realized that my own symptoms actually manifested in a cluster, part of a depressive syndrome. The severity of symptoms was measurable and suicidality (although one of the most severe), was merely part of that symptom cluster. Neither solution or sin... it is merely a symptom to be acknowledged as information; in the same way a runny nose is indicative of a virus or allergy.
The re-framing of suicidality with this diagnostic model helped me measure the severity of symptoms, but also with that awareness came the abilities to distinguish symptoms, qualify their severity and not succumb to fear-laced, knee-jerk, social stigma-imposed emotional reactions to them that only serve to amplify the embarrassment of having them at all.
It grieved me that, although my debilitating symptom cluster infrequently included suicidality, it often manifested with atypical behaviors such as dyspraxic clumsiness, sleep disturbance, memory impairment, diminished judgment and decision-making ability, as well as impulse control issues. I reported these, but they didn't seem to bear clinical significance to my previous healthcare team, especially compared to the bug-a-boo of suicidality. To me, however, they were a bellwether signaling greater vulnerability and offered priceless information to gauge the severity of the episode, (whether it was waxing or waning), and which of the intervention tactics I'd developed to employ.
Religious prejudice and suggestion of criminal intent are heavily woven into the dark tapestry that separates those with the experience of suicidality and those gleefully ignorant. On one side, those with this experience suffer the fear of being exposed as sinful or criminally minded; of appearing weak, “emotional” or incompetent. On the side of ignorance, the sinister veil of judgment, confusion, and condemnation fosters the “other-ism” which provides a false sense of security for those who dwell in its sanctuary of socially acceptable sameness and dutifully distances them from the madness on the other side. This culturally judgmental influx is all mirage, smoke and mirrors; misunderstanding and missteps which support the ongoing division which precludes empathetic innovations and needful legislative support for mental health.
We are burdened by this belief system that presents suicidality as something other than information, as any symptom does. No one heaps guilt on a patient hemorrhaging by saying, “Stop that foolishness,” or “Just get your butt back to work,” or (my favorite) “You don't realize how much you're hurting US.” No, the cause of the bleeding is found so it can be stopped. To merely place a compress on it is insufficient. To ignore the cause can be lethal. Which is usually the case for how we treat the symptomatic information to as suicidality. The difference is most are not fearful of asking for help if they're hemorrhaging. It's vital information, not deemed a crime, sin, or solution.
I've thought about this subject a lot as I meandered on my mental health journey the last 20+years, in and out of psyche wards and relationships; in and out of cognition and dreams; but never so clearly as I have in the shadow of my friend's recent passing and magnified by the untimely death of Ms. Kryst. The grief I feel in this loss is minimal compared to grief I feel watching institutions perpetuate religious, fear-laced belief systems that subjugate the sensitive seeking support and elevate emotional detachment in the guise of “maintaining boundaries.”
Experience is always the best teacher, if the time is taken to do the homework. She has taught me to appreciate humanity, and challenge those who'd take advantage of its most vulnerable... especially those who use fear and coercion merely for profit, or the sated sense of superiority... whether fair-weather friends, corrupt corporations, or inflated institutions. I'm not despondent, but disgruntled, maybe, but mostly aware. And I think, with regard to how we interpret suicidality and perceive those who die from having this symptom hidden, ignored, or misinterpreted, it's past time to flip the script.
My experience with a spouse with substance abuse problems mirrors my own with the symptom of suicidality. Socially we condemn addicts as weak, sinful, and flawed humans. Therefore, they most often do not seek help for addictions until they lead to criminality. It is yet another elephant seated in Papa's recliner, demanding its supper be served and commanding the remote. Such addictions, when they impose grave harm for the individual or another, are labeled a disease. If only So-and-so would stop this behavior, everything would be okay. This is how those who experience suicidality are treated. “Stop the behavior,” is not the answer. Stopping the condemnation by acknowledging the behavior as a symptom, and addressing the underlying cause is the answer.
In no way is this change of perspective meant to offer a pass to those with addiction issues or experiencing suicidality. What it does do is remove the condemnation that prevents the individual from getting help, that keeps them in denial, trapped in a shadowy world of excuses and cover-ups. It's meant to invite them to delve into deep-seated issues to promote healing by uncovering deep-wounds for cleansing, and to reclaim the living-room space for real living. That is living a life of one's own making; based on honest, introspective, strengths-based, needs-assessment, not on the exceptions of The Boy Scouts of America, beauty pageants, religious dogma dictators, or even well-meaning pity-panderers.
Self-identifying as a neurodivergent, two-spirit, elder storyteller and contrarian deeply rooted in what's become known as Portlandia of The Left Coast, Lindsey Morrison Grant attributes success and survival (if not salvation) to superlative supports, mindfulness practice, and daily creative expression in words, sounds, and images. Currently, while on the lookout for a publishing home for her six children's books, postcard & poetry books, and an essay collection, their art is represented by SIY Gallery of San Francisco.