“Why do I want to do this? Why do I want to do this?”
I sat at the desk in my office at home asking myself this question over and over and over again. My Dad’s death had been weighing heavy on my heart (as it does nearly every day), but there was something that felt different at this moment of my grief. In the immediate aftermath of losing my Dad, I was just trying to survive. I was just trying to make it through the different and unexpected challenges that accompanied each day. I didn’t know how to do it, and I simply took things one day at a time.
But a few years after losing him, I wanted to do something with my grief. I wanted to make sure my Dad didn’t die in vain. I wanted to help other people.
I wanted to fight.
As I mentioned in last week’s post, September is Suicide Prevention Month, which has caused me to think more and more about the larger fight against mental illness and suicide, along with the personal implications for my own journey. Suicide Prevention Month forces me to think about my own motivations for writing and speaking and advocating for a more open and honest discourse about mental illness.
So why do I fight?
I fight because my Dad didn’t take his own life, but because his life was stolen from him. My Dad was a victim of suicide, and in an earlier post, I’ve written about why that phrasing matters. My Dad didn’t take his own life. Depression and mental illness robbed him of joy, and eventually, his existence as well.
I fight because my Dad was robbed. He was robbed of the experiences he deserved to have. He deserved to enjoy retirement. He deserved more beach vacations. He deserved to be a Grandpa and play with his children (and probably feed them way too much candy before turning them back over to their Dad). He deserved more walks with my Mom and our dog. He deserved more bike rides and miles on his truck and chances to embarrass his son with his ridiculous Dad humor.
But depression stole all of this from him, and from my family. Depression told my Dad, falsely, that he didn’t deserve these things. I wish I could have told him more that he did.
I fight because I feel robbed. There are so many things I wanted to see and do with my Dad. Naively, I thought that I had so many years to check items off of our bucket list. In the blink of an eye, all of those moments were gone. We never got to go to a country concert together. We never got to go on a kayaking trip. We never hiked the mountains like we wanted to. We never went on a diet and started working out together like we said we would (Okay, let’s be honest…that one probably wasn’t going to happen anyway). There are so many “would-be” moments that are now gone forever. My heart longs to have those days back. I wish for nothing more than the opportunity to be next to Dad. To hear his laugh. To tell him how loved he was and always will be.
I fight against mental illness because it’s mental illness that stole all these moments away.
I fight because I’m angry at the true enemy. I don’t understand the ins and outs of depression and mental illness, and although I’m trying to learn, I don’t pretend to be an expert on the nuances, causes, and neurological forces that cause people to sink into such horrible and inescapable periods of darkness.
But I can name the enemy. And I can use the talents God has given me to advocate for those who are much better equipped to research and study and develop treatments.
And I can help expose the enemy by pulling back the curtain.
People who lose their loved ones to cancer don’t get mad at their loved ones. They get mad at cancer.
People who lose their loved ones as victim of violent crimes aren’t mad at their loved ones. They get mad at the murderer.
Therefore, I get mad at depression. I get mad at mental illness. I get mad at the pressures of our society that caused my Dad to hide his hurt.
And it makes me want to fight. And to deliver a knock-out punch.
I fight because, unfortunately, my Dad’s story is only one story in a host of others that have a terrible ending. As much as I’m fighting to remember my Dad, I’m also fighting because I want to live in a world where no one else ever has to experience the heartache that I have. I’m fighting because I live in a country where 30,000 Americans lose their life to suicide each year. I’m fighting because I live in a country where someone becomes a victim of suicide every 16 minutes. One death by suicide is one too many. And I’ll keep fighting because these victims, like my Dad, deserved better.
I fight because I have a printed copy of an article from CNN on my desk from December 2016, and I fight because it’s the story of Brandy Vela. Brandy was an 18-year old high school student in Texas with beautiful blue eyes and a bright smile. As all too many high schoolers know, bullying can be harsh. So much so that it forced Brandy to believe that her life was unlivable.
Brandy’s classmates would make up fake Facebook accounts and message her and taunt her. The teasing was relentless. With maturity far beyond her years, Brandy chose not to respond, but her classmates were relentless. Brandy even went so far as to change her phone number and report the bullying to local police, but the authorities weren’t able to help because the perpetrators used an app that couldn’t be traced. The police told Brandy and her family that they couldn’t do anything until there was an actual fight or physical altercation.
On a seemingly usual Tuesday, Brandy sent a very unusual text to her family members from the bedroom of her home. “I love you so much,” the text read. “Please remember that, and I’m sorry for everything.”
Her family rushed to her bedroom and found Brandy with a gun to her chest. They begged and pleaded for Brandy to see that her life mattered. That her life was worth living.
“I can’t do this anymore,” Brandy responded. “I’m tired. I’ve come too far not to do it.”
Brandy’s life ended in front of the family members that loved her most.
Fortunately, two individuals have been arrested in connection with Brandy’s death. I can only hope that the individuals who invested their time in tormenting a fellow classmate will receive swift justice, but I hope the guilt for their actions feels worse than any punishment.
This is not normal. This is not acceptable. This is not an acceptable end for any man, woman, or child, period. If we value life, we will do everything we can to eliminate the forces that cause individuals to think that life isn’t worth living.
Our world and our society are both full of unbelievable and unnecessary pressures. These are pressures that drive people to think they aren’t enough. Pressures that drive people to think that the hurt and pain they feel will last forever.
Every death by suicide is unique and completely different, and there are contributing factors that make each case unique. The pressures facing Brandy Vela and her feelings were very different from those that hastened my Dad’s death, but there is one unfortunate commonality: left behind is a family full of grief, questions, and unending pain.
Like Brandy Vela’s family, I am left wondering “what if.” What if I had done more to try and help my Dad? What if I had forced him to seek medical attention? What if I would have stayed with him the entire day instead of leaving the house? What if my Dad was still here?
Suicide isn’t fair. It isn’t fair to those whose lives are cut unnecessarily short. It isn’t fair to the families who are left behind. Those victims and those families deserve the strength of an army to take down this enemy once and for all.
For my Dad and for every single family affected by this horrible epidemic, I ask you to join the fight.
Dad, I miss you every single day. I replay our last conversation, the hurt I saw in your eyes, and our last words to one another. I also replay all the moments throughout life when I knew you were hurting, and although I can’t help you any longer, I want to help other people. I don’t want any individual to experience the pain you felt. I don’t want any family to experience the loss that ours has felt without you. Dad, I hope you will continue to be my guardian angel, watching over me as I do my best to honor your memory and your story. Thank you for always teaching me that it’s important to help those who can’t help themselves. Thank you for always showing me that love can heal all wounds. I hope your story reaches those who are hurting and causes them to get the help they deserve. I promise I’ll make you proud. Until the race is done, seeya Bub.
“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” 1 Corinthians 15:58 (NIV)