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.

The Art of Knowing What You Don’t Know: Cultural Intelligence, Tamir Rice and Hope for a More Enlightened 2016

The first time I heard the term “Cultural Intelligence” was in a church basement. The topic under discussion was an update on the redesign of Milwaukee County’s Behavioral Health division; the person updating us was describing an all-too-familiar and depressing reality:

The group doing the  redesign work is comprised of mostly white, upper middle class, suburban people who know, socialize and interact with other mostly white, upper middle class suburbanites. These well-meaning people are creating policies and procedures that will affect mostly black, poor, urban people whose realities are very different. Worse, they have no chance to understand that they doesn’t understand, because people with the ability to effectively reality check those committee members (people who are, were, know, socialize and/or interact with mostly black, poor urban people) have virtually no voice at the table.

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When I saw this painting at the Milwaukee Art Museum yesterday, I knew it was the image I wanted to go with this post. Tamir Rice was already in my mind, and he will never be as old as the young man in this painting. It’s called St. Dionysus; the artist’s name is Kehinde Wiley. Check out more of his work at http://www.kehindewiley.com

Or, to put it another way, there is one person of color on the board. There used to be two, but one took a job that meant having to leave the board.

One thing the two people of color were able to achieve was getting the County to pay for Cultural Intelligence training for Human Service workers. Last month, offered a seat at one of the trainings, I jumped at the chance. We had to take a pre-workshop assessment. Our scores would be given to us at the training.

I wondered what mine would look like. A few years ago, I took one of Harvard’s Project Implicit tests. I wasn’t surprised to pull a score showing an automatic preference toward white over black faces.

Cultural intelligence measures one’s ability to work and relate across all cultures. When we got our scores, my “CQ” was higher than I had expected. So, just for the heck of it, I went home and retook the Project Implicit test. My automatic preference had disappeared. That I’d had it wasn’t a surprise. That it’s gone isn’t surprising, either.

As a white lady of a certain age, my first experience with people of color occurred before I understood anything about what color was. Lily Mae Madden cleaned our house once a week and sometimes took care of my sister and me when I was way too little to know anything other than that Lily Mae wasn’t scary like my mom and I loved her. She was big and soft and kind. Her husband, Sam was tall, slender and as kind as his wife. My sister and I adored them.

By the time I was in kindergarten, they had passed out of our lives. There were no black children in my class. Or my school (which went to sixth grade). Or my neighborhood. There were no black characters on my TV screen (“I Spy” came on after my bedtime), until “Julia” came out in 1969.

In junior high and high school, things changed some. My urban public high school had no ruling class. Race differences were a reality but not an issue. White and black kids hung out together during the day, and maybe some socialized outside of school. All the girls in my crowd were white, though none of us thought about it in those terms.

In college, I was a fish out of water. It was my first real brush with class differences, although I was too green to realize it. At my small, private liberal arts school, most of the students had come from families with way more money than mine and many had gone to private boarding schools. The norm was to spend junior year somewhere else. My “somewhere else” was Israel.

The program was through the Reform movement, a year on the same kibbutz outside of Jerusalem. Professors came to us, and our single summer class was three hours of Hebrew instruction, six days a week. I wanted to learn Arabic, too. Attempts to connect with anyone who could help me find a class or teacher were quickly quashed. (“What do you want to do that for? You don’t want to do that.”) I was a good sheep, out of my element and with enough strange things to handle. I didn’t push things with the authorities.

I still tried, though, and achieved a small victory.

My aunt, in Minnesota, had a friend there whose cousins lived in Acco, a lovely city in Northern Israel. The Shaabi family’s Roman-era house was a cavernous stone structure just across from the sea wall along the Mediterranean. I didn’t learn much Arabic. But I was able to experience an aspect of Israeli culture I wouldn’t have otherwise. The experience taught me a lot about race relations at home. In Israel, it was the secular Jews, the religious Jews and the Arabs living separate lives in shared space. Here, black and white people mostly live separate lives in shared space.

I was 30 when my first marriage ended and my quest to find a family-supporting job led me to a racially mixed nonprofit agency where people socialized outside of work. The result was my first experience walking or driving down a street and wondering, instead of being a little uncomfortable and scared, whether the non-white person coming toward me was someone I knew.

These days, everybody I pass on the street looks like someone I might know and it feels weird to be in a roomful of people where everyone is the same color as I am.

I don’t know how to make that the reality for more of us. I wish I did.

Because it’s the only real way we can stop living in a country where police officers who look like me won’t be able to pick off a 12-year-old black kid with a toy gun and get a free pass from a grand jury. Tamir Rice’s family deserves better. The same goes for Trayvon Martin’s, Deontre Hamilton’s, Sandra Bland’s, Laquan McDonald’s and Walter Scott’s.

May 2016 be a safer place for all of us.