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Suicide as clickbait is stigma in action, starring XO Jane & Amanda Lauren Kass

So many other things I’d rather be writing about today (eg: my new puppy or Argo, the coolest road-worthy amphibious Canadian export ever). Instead, I’m writing a cautionary tale about the hazards of being good at other peoples’ lives.

There’s hardly anything easier. After all, who doesn’t know better than someone who hasn’t dealt directly with an issue exactly how best to deal with it, right?

Outside Experts, an Inside View

Back in 1990, when my ex and I split, the good news was that I had a full-time job. The bad news was that my title was “Mom” and the highest-level full-time job I’d had (and left years before) was in a bookstore.

Nonetheless, I waived child support and, after 18 months of receiving the maintenance I’d been promised for three years, took a tiny buyout. I had no job and little in the way of prospects. From my family’s point of view, I’d lost the lone coconut-flake sized-shred of sense I’d ever possessed.

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This is about as sensible as I get.

Decades later, after I’d lost track of how many times my mother, sister, aunts and bossy cousin (the men of the one-up generation were all dead by the mid-1980s) had leaned on me to “take that bastard to court,” Mom was still harping about what an idiot I’d been.

There were several reasons I opted out of chasing my ex around for money that I knew he’d never give me. There are tons of ways to shelter assets when you have your own business. He knew all the ones that existed (and several that probably didn’t). That was a big one.

My biggest and realest, though, to was become someone who didn’t have to. I had three daughters looking at me. I had to show them that you could make what you wanted to happen happen in life. Even when things get scary, as long as you don’t give up. Chasing my ex through the court system for what those women thought I was “owed” would have meant squandering the time and energy required to reach my goal.

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Why giving up was not an option.

What I didn’t know back then was this: That time and energy also consumed the awareness that it even needed explaining. Only now, as I write this, do I realize that some important friends along the way – who still mean the world to me – understood without any explanations. Their faith, belief and support made it possible for me to keep going in those moments when I wasn’t sure I could.

Gratitude aside, my main point here is how easy, when looking from the outside, it is for someone to judge another person’s life, choices and outcomes.

 

When Honesty is the Cruelest Policy

Which brings me to Amanda Lauren Kass, whose essay “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing,” was published May 19th by XOJane. It’s a division of Time, Inc. that pays $50 for personal essays. (Writers get more when a post goes viral. The lack of a link is intentional.)

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This is in memory of Leah and her sister.

“Leah,” Kass’ former friend, died by suicide a few years after being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Leah’s sister, a high school classmate of Kass, died of cancer at 19. You can read Kass’ account of Leah’s spiral here if you’d like. (XOjane took the piece down and put an apology in its place after a few days of leaving it up (you know, hits = $). (The hyperlink in this blog is to an archived page on the wayback machine.)

Or I can save you the trouble by riffing off another Time, Inc. publication, specifically “People,” for which I used to review books. At one point, we had to write “Bottom Lines,” one-sentence summations of our reviews. Here’s my Bottom Line-inspired summary of Kass’ essay.

“’Leah’s’ life looked hard and inconvenient so I fired her, made fun of her, judged her parents for not doing more – and her decision to die by suicide was totally the right one!”

Wiser and better heads than mine have written responses addressing Ms. Kass’ character and possible motivations for writing what she did, and the multiple ways of living a full and meaningful life with or without a mental health diagnosis.

 

Families suffer when the Ignorantatti go unchallenged

What I haven’t seen anyone write about is where Leah’s parents were in all this and why they weren’t more involved or helpful as their daughter spiraled deeper and deeper into what appears – based on Ms. Kass’s description – to have been depression and psychosis.

Ms. Kass calls them out in the story, and is (unsurprisingly) cruel and judgmental.

As a Family Educator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness since 2006, I have spent countless hours with family members who are terrified for their children, siblings, parents and friends. They’re also just plain terrified. Which is why they sign up for NAMI’s Family-to-Family class.

In three hour increments over 12 weeks, F2F provides information on what I have come to refer to as “the Big 7” (schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, major depression, anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder). It also touches on post-traumatic stress disorder and how it and the other mental health conditions affect the daily lives of people living with them.

F2F also gives family members the information they need to take care of themselves,  ways they can effectively advocate for their ill family member or friend and a safe space. It’s powerful to see what happens to people when they get to tell their stories in a setting where the responses are nods of understanding instead of horrified stares. My favorite thing about teaching that course is watching people come in singly or in pairs and leave in groups.

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The NAMI Walk at our lakefront. Nationally, these happen all over the country. Every year there are more people and more dogs. (That’s me & Matey on the right. The lump in my pocket is a container of dog treats)

Ms. Kass’ bald cruelty is not unusual. That she wrote and published it might be, but for anyone wondering about stigma and mental illness, that essay is Exhibits A-F. It’s also a textbook example of the reason we in NAMI describe these illnesses as “no casserole.”

Leah’s parents can probably speak to this way more eloquently than I can, but I bet that when her sister had cancer, the community rallied around the family. I bet they brought meals, provided emotional support and anything else needed. Doctors were forthcoming with information about what was happening and kept the family in the loop regarding their daughter’s progress and disease course, even after she was 18.

Leah’s disease course was very different, and I’d lay money that the same people who helped when it was cancer scattered like vampires at dawn when Leah got sick. Because of HIPA (Health Information Privacy Act), her parents probably got no information about what was happening with her. Because they didn’t know, they weren’t able to find out about a diagnosis, what it meant, what medication she might need and whether or not she was taking it. They had no power to do anything other than watch her spiral. The only thing that would have made a difference was Leah signing a release form authorizing her parents to receive information. Which, based on my experience with other F2F parents, is extremely rare. Most people with psychotic illness tend to act out against the people closest to them and who know them best. It also tends to onset in early adulthood, just as people are striking out on their own and striving to be independent. Call it tragic, call it a confluence of clusterfuckery. It’s that and then some.

When I read Ms. Kass’ essay, it was Leah’s parents I thought of; Leah’s parents for whom I ached. I’m sure that piece pulled the scab right off the open wound that is their daughters’ deaths.

Ms. Kass recently got married. One day, she may hold a newborn in her arms. She and her husband will look into their baby’s face and imagine the firsts. They will want to give their child everything. They will wonder who and what this little person will grow to be.

On that day, I hope Amanda Kass remembers Leah, and her sister, and their parents.

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The baby grew up to be me. My dad, a rabbi who was beloved by his family and his congregation , died by suicide when I was 14. Its likely he had undiagnosed bi-polar disorder.   Stigma prevented him from getting the help that might have saved him. It also prevented my mother from feeling that she could be honest with my sister and me about what happened, and about our own family medical history. I was 25 & married with a child when I went hunting for the truth, because my daughter deserved a better answer than “I don’t know,” or “It was an accident,” when she got old enough to notice she was down a grandpa.

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Love, loss, hope and backup plans: Making now count

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So, it’s been a few months. I could make up a whole raft of reasons for the radio silence, but the truth is job-related.

Last July, I was laid off from the job I loved, and not long after my last post in February, there were signs of a happy ending/soft landing. In a fit of holding off until I could share good news, I put off posting.

But I’ve waited long enough, and now I’m at that place where you just say “Now matters. Live here!”

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An expert at living in the now

So here’s a little story about the job I loved and lost. It wasn’t performance-related (the exact words of the HR official who hand-delivered my layoff letter). I was really good at what I did. But it was funded by “soft money.”  Which is code for “grants.”

The particular grant I worked on for 10 years was funded through the Wisconsin State Legislature. The program was almost 40 years old, and provided a whole lot of bang for the $895,000 it cost state taxpayers. I could venture guesses as to why it was de-funded. But those would just be guesses.

My program was one of 16 around the state. We worked with adults – mostly women but some men, too – who had not been the main breadwinner in their households, but for any number of reasons found themselves in a position where they had to become the main breadwinner. My participants were divorced or separated from partners or spouses, married or partnered with someone who’d become disabled and unable to work, or who’d lost a job. In a couple of cases I worked with people who’d given up good jobs out of state to come home and see an elderly parent through his or her last illness. Those people had been supported by the parent’s pension or social security. One of them was paid through an agency that provided elder care to be their parent’s caregiver. All that ended with their parents’ deaths, and they needed to rejoin the workforce.

For 10 years, I got paid to listen to these people tell me who they were, then help them figure out how to reimagine their lives. Most days I went home feeling like the luckiest, most blessed individual on Planet Earth because, having already gone through my own version of the horrible realities my participants were living, I could serve as living proof that it was possible to come out on the other side.

It was something I would definitely have appreciated when I was where they were. Most were also completely inspiring – making courageous choice after courageous choice to make their lives better. (I’ve stayed friends with many of them, and that’s helping me now. As I said, luckiest & most blessed.)

I had a sneak preview this might be coming down the pike in 2007, when a state legislator (Jeff Fitzgerald was his name) decided to cut the program because, according to one of my then-colleagues, he figured that if it wasn’t at all the technical colleges, it didn’t need to be at any. (There was a 100-day standoff about the budget that year, and the 16 program coordinators from around the state took advantage of the time. We spent it informing our representatives about what we did. When budget was passed, we were in it).

“Your backup plans need backup plans.”

One of my mantras is “Your backup plans need backup plans.” My backup plans since the ’90s  have been freelance writing, back-of-the-house for catering and anything else someone would be willing to pay me for.

It turned out, though, that I like having a steady gig with benefits and co-workers. When I looked at it through my Program Coordinator lens, the reality of my patchwork resume – a bachelor’s degree in music followed by journalism and project management experience – meant the average HR department would probably toss it for being too scattered. And there was the reality of my age – ie: not 30.

I needed something bigger.

 

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A rhino is pretty big, even on a Scrabble board.

 

I couldn’t do anything about my age (and didn’t really want to). But I could address the resume. So I started looking at graduate programs. I wanted something that would pull everything I’d done together and take it all to a different level. I also wanted something that would make me as fire-proof as possible for a 50-something woman whose work experience and college degree were at least as well matched as Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries.

Which is the reason I went to library school. It’s a terrific degree – really versatile. People with library degrees work in all kinds of settings – IT, corporate, legal, financial, academic – the list is pretty long. And maybe it hasn’t gotten me a job yet, but the skills I’ve added to my existing toolbox have given me a level of confidence in riding out this layoff that I never would have had without it.

So, while I wait for my Prince Charming job to come along (I’m straight, which is why it’s not a Princess Charming job), my library degree is working for me. It’s also working for others. I volunteer two mornings a week at a university library, in one of their digital units. I’ve added book indexing and dissertation editing to the freelance journalism, marketing and technical writing/editing/content development I’ve always done.

And then there’s this blog, which started as a gift to myself. Thank you for reading it, and especially thanks for reading this post, which is mostly a ramble/meditation to get myself back into my once-a-week posting routine. A whole lot has happened in the past few months, not the least of which was finishing my first knitting/quilting hybrid project.

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My first knitting/quilting hybrid project.

Coming attractions ,with illustrations

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It’s all gluten-free all the time at the Kinnikinnick Bakery in Edmonton, Alberta.

 

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The Humane Society said Matey was a “three-month-old Shepherd mix.” She’s not.

 

 

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