Fifteen years before he killed himself, in his parents' basement, at the age of 29, my cousin Cody saved my life. The day that it happened was late-ish in winter, I was 11 and he was almost 14. We'd gone for a walk in the woods by my family's house. We were young and adventuresome and dumb and bored and so when we came to the nearby creek, we decided to walk across it. I went first. I was an 11-year-old girl and I was showing off. Winter's big snows were all starting to melt, making everything in our path a soft, white-ish mush. In the middle of the creek, I stepped into one such mush, the ice, more fragile than I thought, broke beneath me and my body plunged into the water. It was all over in less than a minute, but I remember every second of it. The frantic splashing. The unexpected depth and violence of the water. My arms flailing to grab onto anything and failing, my legs, freezing and in a tangle as the current tried with great force to drag me under and away. Somehow Cody managed to pull me out, by my collar, he was always so strong. Seconds more, and I would've been pulled under the ice. Seconds more, and I would have most certainly drowned.
In the years since, I've thought of that day often, I've thought of near disasters, of true sent-from-some-other-world blessings and of my own fate and of Cody's and how tragically different they turned out to be. And I'm thinking of my cousin's life especially this week, when suicide and all of its dark-scary-senseless sorrow is hanging around us like a crooked veil.
I come from a family of addicts. Those who are not addicts are mentally unstable. Sometimes the two are intertwined. The healthiest among us are sloppy drunks with neurotic and/or narcissistic tendencies who have sought treatment, or not, but are living OK, and productively. The ones who suffer the worst are severe depressives and severe addicts -- addicted to gambling, drugs, booze, crime, nicotine, bad partners and bad choices -- whose diseases have all but ruined, or at the very least lessened, most of their lives.
I didn't maintain a close relationship with Cody after the creek incident. I can say it's because I was a preteen and he a real teen and our paths diverged and parted ways. But the truth is, I didn't maintain a close relationship with most of my extended family. I ran away as soon as I could. I was afraid of them. I was afraid that some day it would happen to me, that their darkness was contagious, but that if I fled I could be free.
According to a story in this week's New Yorker, "Suicide, A Crime of Loneliness," almost half a million people living in the U.S. attempt suicide each year and one person succeeds every 40 seconds of every day. When a high-profile person like Robin Williams commits suicide, these statistics only worsen: for example, the month after Marilyn Monroe took her own life in 1962, suicide rates jumped by 12 percent. In moments like these, when we've lost someone we collectively loved, it's easy to try to find tidy and simple answers to something that's actually messy and complex. Was it Robin's money troubles? Addiction? Problems with his career? Parkinson's diagnosis? Though psychologists have identified some broad-stroke reasons behind suicide, they equally agree it's never one thing that leads people to take their own lives. Still, those who are left behind continue to look for ways to understand that which is not entirely understandable. Often we feel guilt and feel shame (could I have done more? I could've done more) and helplessness, undoubtedly we feel regret for the ways things might have been and we look to place blame.
Suicide is commonly referred to as a selfish act, but to describe it this way is to lack understanding, empathy and compassion for those suffering from the disease of depression, those for whom suicide seems the only way to escape seemingly inescapable pain, the kind that British pianist and depression sufferer James Rhodes compared this week to wearing "a cloak of lead":
"Real depression is something so serious, so life-threatening, so heavy, that it is more than disingenuous to bandy the word around lightly -- it is dangerous ... Unlike cancer its sufferers are too often greeted with a creeping sense of blame and suspicion, rather than compassion and horror ... Depression is like being forced to wear a cloak made of lead. You don't get to choose when to put it on and take it off. It is a second skin which gradually seeps into your own, real skin and poisons it until you are a walking, toxic, corrosive bundle of infectious awfulness. The thought of suicide is the only real respite and the only chink of light at the end of the tunnel. You can "pull yourself together" only inasmuch as you can make yourself three feet taller."
Fast forward from my cousin Cody's suicide a decade ago to early this spring, when I received a cryptic text from my mom "Call me. I have something to tell you that I don't want to say over text." When I called, she told me the unimaginable: my young cousin Sofia, who was not even 22 years old, had taken her own life the night before, after returning home late from working the night shift. The guiding opinion in my family was that Sofia, whose mother was a severe addict who'd been in and out of jail all of her life, was having problems in her relationship, living with someone who she maybe no longer loved, working too hard, not making enough money, desperate, and feeling alone. At her memorial, friend upon friend stood up to say how generous she'd been, how Sofia's kindness and love changed their lives. I imagine how that would have made her feel, the girl who was abandoned by her mom and maybe did not feel loved enough, to know how many people cared. I wonder if hearing my grandmother's haunted, frail voice after she died, or looking into her father and brother's lost and hollow eyes, knowing that they would never be whole or the same, might have changed her decision. But ifs and mights and whys are dangerous around suicides. Speculation was pointless. No one would ever really know.
What I do know is that neither she, nor Cody, received proper treatment for depression, either because the disease crept up on them before they realized its severity, or they didn't know where to turn, or didn't think they had the time nor the financial resources at their disposal, or were raised in households where mental health treatment was not understood or considered a priority. I imagine it was some combination of these and that they are far from alone. Suicide is something we still don't know how to talk about in this country. It's still such a taboo that most people are afraid to open up about what's going on with them without fear of some kind of judgment. It's important to be able to confront these incredibly scary issues without so much fear. I left years ago because I wanted to not think about all the darkness in my family, but looking back, that's something I wish I'd changed.
Because of Robin Williams' tragic death this week. suicide is in our collective consciousness. It's a worthy moment to talk about how to help and where to find help if you need it. Listen here: You are not a freak if you feel this way, you are just a person going through something. There are people who want to support you and make you feel better.
Here are some resources that can help when the violent waters of depression are trying to pull you underneath.
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
- National College Student Crisis Helpline: 1-800-472-3457
- How to really help a depressed person, a good list from the non-profit Help Guide.
- NAMI: the National Alliance on Mental Illness
- Finding a therapist near you
This post originally appeared on HelloGiggles.com
Names have been changed.
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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.