A note from someone left behind

Do you understand what losing someone to suicide is really like? Do you know what it’s like to be someone left behind? Do you think you have a better idea after watching the latest TV show? Well, I watched it. And my best friend killed herself when I was 15. Here’s my two cents.

The latest Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” was another show clogging up my social media newsfeed. Much like a viral funny video, a big news story or controversial celebrity gossip, you start to see it everywhere and it makes you quite curious. I am on social media constantly working my business so I tend to be on the up and up with trendy things in pop culture.

When I heard about the show, I googled it and saw the subject matter. At first I was surprised to see this subject matter as a mainstream Netflix series. I was intrigued. I am a mental health advocate. I’m part of a non-profit surf organization, One Wave,  which is raising awareness for mental health so I am very vocal about this difficult and often taboo subject matter. I lost my best friend to suicide in 2006 and grew up with my mother suffering from severe mental health issues. My family is also riddled with mental illness and I suffer from mental health issues myself. So, I may not be a psychologist or a doctor, but I have a lot of real-life first hand experience that I feel must be shared.

The first episode I saw, I was completely silent. I was paralyzed but I couldn’t stop watching. I didn’t cry, laugh or speak. At the end my boyfriend looked at me and asked, “Are you alright?” and the tears started to flow. I couldn’t say much. It’s been over 10 years since I lost my best friend and I can openly talk about it. I do very frequently. But this struck a whole different cord. I proceeded to watch the whole series over the next few days and every emotion you can think of was brought up.

Some people say that this show will greatly benefit the mental health awareness movement and others say that this show is actually very insensitive to how suicide prevention should be approached. I think both are true. But instead of focusing on the fictional show, I want to help you understand what it is really like.

When a young person commits suicide, it is tragic, shocking and downright heartbreaking. When your best friend dies by suicide, it is all of those things and more. It is life altering. But suicide itself should not be the focus of the conversation. Or maybe it should? There are dozens of articles about how to properly discuss suicide and help young people who are suffering. But unfortunately, worldwide, the suicide rates are still painfully alarming.

Suicide is a choice that affects hundreds and thousands of people. It affects all of us collectively. That one person has such a bigger ripple effect than they could ever begin to understand. We all do.

The problem here is the fictional story focuses on the reasons, the bullying, other people’s actions and how they could cause loneliness, shame, and isolation. Teennagers are especially vulnerable. But the real issue here is mental health and how that can be affected by the teenage social setting, coping with our feelings, bullying, grief, friends betraying us, parents divorcing, or boyfriends cheating.  Mental health itself is the root of this and how we all treat each other.

There is no glamour in losing your best friend to suicide. It is painful. It left me screaming at the top of my lungs, ripping through the office, throwing things and wailing in sheer misery. I felt guilty, confused, depressed, angry, and miserable. I drowned my feelings in drugs and alcohol. I leaned on our best friends who understood and we did what we could to heal.  We grew together as a community, not apart. And years later I see, we all had wounds that closed in different ways.

People asked me things like, “What did she have to be sad about? Didn’t you know that she was hurting? You were her best friend, you didn’t see any warning signs?”

Everyone wanted a reason. And that’s what I hate about this show. You can’t possibly understand the reasons why. What reasons you need to understand is how you can change your life to be more supportive, inclusive, and empathetic toward everyone around you. You need to realize how your small digs, teasing and name calling can hurt someone. You need to realize how common it is to have struggles that go much deeper than that. Depression and mental health issues are worsened by life circumstances and events but the root of the issue is the depression and mental health issues themselves.  

Instead of focusing on the reason why someone commits suicide, let’s focus on how we can open the dialogue. How can we assure young people that their feelings are valid and important but suicide is not the answer? How can we educate and empower students to get mental health support, not just from their school counselor in a formal setting but because that is the environment of society itself. Mental health should be a topic you can talk about in  the hallway, homeroom, in an assembly, in the locker room. Whether you like it or not, shying away from the subject DOES NOTHING TO IMPROVE IT. Sure, this show might violate the guidelines. But it’s fiction. Breaking Bad is about a highschool teacher owning a meth lab, is that the point of the show? Is that encouraging teachers to become drug dealers? What message is it really sending?Suicide is a sensitive subject but I hate to break it to you, it’s a lot harder to live with someone you love committing suicide than it is to start those conversations about mental health in the first place.

It’s not about the note, the method, the reasons why. The fact that the media and the show want to highlight that shows they aren’t truly aware of what is important on this subject matter. Cancer kills people, heart disease kills people, mental health issues kill people.

As someone who is left behind, I will say to anyone who is reading this, who has lost someone to suicide, who has felt suicidal themselves, or wants to understand it better.  Here is a different kind of note about what it feels like.

To the ones who left,

I’m not mad anymore. I was for a long time. I felt more emotions than I can verbalize. Your choice was a catalyst of change in my life. Your choice affected thousands of people. But, your life. Your life is precious. I wish you could see what we really thought of you. I wish you could see that the tunnel you were stuck in had an end. But I don’t blame you.

I do now know what overwhelming grief is like- when you can’t get out of bed, your stomach is in knots and your eyelids are heavy. Your shoulders feel heavy and you’re angry at everyone who looks your way. I felt this grief because of your choice. We all did. But I still don’t blame you because the grief you had to feel to really choose to leave must have been immeasurable.

Your choice gave me the strength to live each day and treat each person as someone who deserves my time, love and attention. Not everyone took your death like this, but I personally chose to.  I don’t waste my time judging others and I don’t let the behaviors or choices a person makes determine how I feel about their character. I speak up for others whether they want me to or not. I speak up for you. I speak up for mental health- consistently. It’s hard and painful at times- because I wish I knew how to champion for you back then, but now I do. I champion for all the young people just like you and finally I am learning to be my own champion. I spent so much time healing from losing you and worrying about my mom, and drinking I covered up the root of a lot of my own struggles and pain. But, I was coping the only way I knew how- which is what I realize you were doing too.

Now, I am dealing with my own struggles each and every day and I am definitely not perfect but I know I am moving in the right direction because I am starting that conversation. I am free from any stigma in my own head about mental health and I want to pass that on to others without them having to suffer themselves or lose their best friend. I miss you everyday. I think about you every day. I know it’s too late for you but I’ve made it my mission to help those who are still here.

If you are reading this, you must comprehend the amount of people who you truly matter to. Human beings get caught up in life and forget to remember the little things and people who make their world complete. The choice to leave is not the right one. It’s not glamourous. It’s heartbreaking. You are not alone and you can get through anything that life throws your way. You are stronger than you can ever imagine. Don’t suffer in silence. Ask for help. If your friends, parents, or classmates don’t understand. Find someone who does. There is the help out there. We need your love and light in this world. Being left behind is not fun. It’s not easy. It’s life altering and for many not in a way they can heal from. But I will continue to live and breathe another day, carrying your heart with me. I will speak up. I will tell the real stories because they matter and regardless of what anyone thinks, they need to be heard. To this day, I wish I could have saved you, but I am at peace that you made your choice and I will deal with it by making sure I do everything in my power to make people feel heard, connected, accepted, and open to talk about their problems- big and small. I will show myself the grace of opening up about my own struggles and allowing myself to be heard. Mental health is not an issue that is going away and it’s definitely not going to get better by ignoring it. It’s an issue for all of us and it affects everyone whether they personally suffer or not. Life is a complicated thing, and I definitely don’t understand it all but I do know that kindness, understanding, and empathy are life changing. We all have that ability. You have the ability to change lives and you have the ability to change your own. You are most certainly never alone and every decision you make will have consequences far beyond your comprehension. You are heard, seen and you matter, whether you like it or believe it yourself. Choose life.

Sincerely,

Someone left behind

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