When Kate was 14, her classmate died by suicide on a Friday. On Sunday, Kate attended the funeral. The principal, however, announced that "Madeleine had left school."
Her friends couldn't openly mourn their loss; the issue of depression and suicide wasn't addressed. The atmosphere was a heavy grey cloak of speculation, secrecy and fear.
Today, Kate is 32. The incident still sticks out in her mind. Avoidance is a subject that infuriates her.
Prefaced with "it's not polite" or "it's a family secret", institutions, organisations and families sometimes pretend that problems and emotions don't exist. Shoddy excuses are spun, PR exercises are launched, and objects that remind one of the problem are removed from existence.
Yet, when we avoid, we magnify the mess we intended to avoid. The problem becomes a wound that festers. People are given the message that they aren't allowed to feel any negative emotions.
They don't learn that together, they can push through difficult times.
As individuals, we run away too
But we all avoid.
I remember the moment we realised that my colleague's client turned on her worry switch every night, so as to block out intrusive images from her mind in her battle with trauma. That's why her insomnia- which she had sought help for- persisted.
As Borkovec suggests, worrying helps us to run away from more uncomfortable things. Being verbal in nature, it interferes with the visual stream of images.
My friend and fellow psychologist Dr Hanita Assudani says that avoidance is often obvious and covert.
It lives in our actions -- we avoid the lift because we associate it with the first time we had a panic attack -- or when we do something else. For me, when a new goal seems daunting, I find myself organizing the freezer instead -- something I don't normally do.
It's mental when we tell ourselves not to think about something, or in the case of my colleague's client.
Avoidance is emotional when we numb ourselves with forms of escape -- food, substances, shopping, etc.
Why we run away
As individuals and larger systems, we run away for many reasons.
Discomfort runs against the very fiber of our being, says Assudani. Indeed, we work hard to maintain certainty.
Sometimes we're so accustomed to seeing ourselves as one thing, that what's on the other side feels too uncomfortable. The comfort zone may feel like quicksand, but it feels soft, pillowy and safe too.
We're also not taught to take care of ourselves and our emotions, and we don't know how to be vulnerable.
Today I answered a survey by University College London on clinical psychologists' personal experience with mental health difficulties, and our thoughts about disclosure.
Topics like shame, a reluctance to seek help, and the fear of stigma were pertinent. I thought about the secrecy around mental health, the label of 'mental illness', and the prejudice towards the body over the mind.This reminded me of a quote a friend posted recently from a lecture:--
"If you've not experienced a panic attack or depression by late 20s or early 30s, it means that you are not doing enough, and have not fully experienced the complex and overwhelming world out there." -- Ali Modaresi
My friends and I reflected on that statement. We realized, many of us have never given our experiences a diagnostic name. But we feel so alone despite how these experiences are commonplace.
Perhaps, it boils down to psychologist Dr Guy Winch's question, "How is it that we spend more time taking care of our teeth than we do our minds?"
Walking towards ourselves and a common humanity
It's not your fault if you run away. We all do. We've not been taught otherwise, and we've been told that showing vulnerability is bad.
But here's the thing. When we set such examples for children- like Kate when she was 14-generations grow up not knowing that it's okay to be honest.
Because as adults, we forget how we felt as children when things were clearly wrong but everyone else pretended all was okay.
When we first get faced with something life-changing or consequential, avoidance helps us to cope. My friend and fellow psychologist Dr Karen Pooh says that the gratification of not having to face the issue-at-hand feels seductive, so we keep continuing.
But when this becomes a habit, things don't change.
Still, let's think about the world we want to live in. I know I want to live in a world where future generations are raised to have the courage to face themselves and know that whatever happens, they can overcome.
Where institutions, organizations and families can be honest about our problems and emotions, even if it feels difficult.
Call it a chicken-or-egg issue, of whether it is society's or the individual's fault. I think it's time we cast the blame game aside and see running away for what it is.
In essence, avoidance is a conscious decision. Every time we engage in it, we make it easier to keep on continuing.
But it is a dangerous tango where the entrapment deepens with every step. As Assudani says, "Our minds trick us into believing that if we pretend it's not there it will go away, but then again what has ever gone away because we want it to?"
Back to you. What values do you hold on to, and what sort of world would you like future generations of your own and your loved ones' to be raised in?
Is it one where we walk towards ourselves and a common humanity?
If so, perhaps we can trust ourselves to look at our life choices and examine why we're running away.
And as organizations and families, we can learn to tell the truth kindly. To let the people around us know that they'll be supported through dark times.
Because together, we are so much stronger. And when we stop running away, we grow even stronger.
If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.