I can still hear my four-year-old brother singing “Love is something if you give it away…you end up having more!” bit.ly/VIDEO_John_Memorial. I can also still hear the phone nearly 15 years later. I was in the depths of depression, so I didn’t answer…but the damned thing kept ringing. “Melody? I’ve got some bad news. John…is dead.” I don’t recall exactly what was said after that. I just remember that John had committed suicide. Given that I was struggling with suicidal ideation myself, there couldn’t have been a worse time to receive this news: If suicide was okay for John, it somehow made it a more acceptable choice for me.
I made it to the high school auditorium to find it filled with exponentially more people than I even know: this was for what was called a “Celebration of Life.” I am of the opinion that this term should be reserved for occasions when people are living. I believe replacing “Memorial Service” with “Celebration of Life” candy-coats the reality of death, and that when it comes to understanding the impact of suicide and therefore preventing suicides, this is detrimental. I celebrate the memory of John because that is all I have.
The most common theme among people contemplating suicide is the feeling of being a burden. My question is, what if you really are? I live with chronic physical and mental health conditions. It is exhausting for me, and it is exhausting for those who know me. Just ask them…those who are left, anyway. I must give credit to those who were honest: “Truthfully, it’s too hard for me to watch you become sicker and sicker;” “You just don’t fit in with my life’s pace.”
Really? I didn’t know friendship was contingent upon health.
Then, there were those who loved and supported me until they simply couldn’t take it anymore. They believed that love cures all. They had the best possible intentions and did everything they could to help me – ultimately to the detriment of the relationships. As time went on and my illnesses prevailed, they became exhausted and in one way or another, they disappeared.
The answer? Actually, there are three: honesty, balance, and boundaries. Don’t tell me it’s okay to call you 24/7 if it isn’t. Don’t encourage me to talk about what’s bothering me if the topics are disturbing to you. Don’t give so much of yourself to me that you have nothing left for anyone else because eventually, you won’t even have anything left for yourself. I can be needy, but I am not greedy. I am also naïve and I believe that if you tell me something is okay with you, that it is. Please do not lie to yourself and to me and then blame me for believing you.
You may fear that setting boundaries with me will kill me, but the truth is quite the opposite: setting boundaries will keep our relationship healthy. You will not become overwhelmed and leave, I will not be a burden, and I will not feel like the only way to relieve myself of my pain and you of the responsibility you feel for me is for me to die. You don’t need to be afraid to say “No” to me. I will respect you for it.
My second mom did everything she could think of for John when he was caught in the whirlwind of mental illness. She brought him into her home, adjusted her schedule to suit his needs, engaged in projects with him, and did volunteer work with him. She loved him unconditionally, just as she did all of us. She also did everything humanly possible to help ME for 30 years. I can’t think of a single thing that she didn’t try. I love her for it, and I will be grateful to her for all eternity. I am also saddened because I know our relationship took a toll on her and by extension the rest of the family. I believe that we did the best we could with what we knew, understood and believed at the time. However, I wish with all my heart that we had recognized the damage the lack of boundaries was doing to us both sooner than we did so that we would have had time to develop and enjoy a healthy, balanced relationship.
John ultimately chose to take his life; I choose to live mine. Initially, I was angry with John. Furious. Then, I felt abandoned. How do I feel today, four years later? I feel robbed of the opportunity to be in each other’s lives. John was an amazing musician, a generous person, and had one of the kindest spirits about him that I have ever encountered. I miss him immensely. He has left a void that can never be filled. The fact is that when you choose to take your life, you leave a hole in mine. That is not the legacy I want to leave, and I am determined to do all I can to choose to live and to help others do the same.
I witness compassion for and forgiveness of John while I continue to perceive resentment or at least fear of my needs…and I feel jealous. Jealous of John. People love John. People avoid me. John had the guts to do what I have wanted to do for decades. While people continue to “celebrate John’s life,” I continue to feel that I am a burden. I am still alive. I am still trying. Doesn’t that count for anything?
I often feel as though I would receive grace and forgiveness for suicide as opposed to blame, judgment, and criticism for the way I have lived. The truth is, there has not been a single day as far back as I can remember that I have not considered suicide at least once – even if just for a fleeting moment. This is a difficult existence. My reasons are that I am not productive enough; that no one would notice if I was no longer here; that people would be relieved if I died because they wouldn’t have to worry about me or interact with me; and feeling and having been told that I am or was a burden. Regardless of the fact that all of these messages have varying degrees of truth to them, they are very powerful triggers which for me can make the difference between being able to act responsibly versus needing hospitalization, and for some people, they can make the difference between survival and suicide. My point? Words create powerful messages embedded in my psyche. So does silence.
My practical response to John’s suicide was to open an eBay store, Lazarus Treasures, to honor his memory. Sellers donated a percentage of their profits to The Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program. Wanting to do more, I incorporated TreasureLives. TreasureLives’ mission is to educate the public about suicide prevention and mental health. We have a YouTube channel which broadcasts memorials of lives lost to suicide as well as testimonies of lives saved. We recently created a group on Facebook for Survivors of Suicide Attempts at bit.ly/TLs_FB_SSA. Our goals for the future include the writing and distribution of a mental wellness curriculum that extends from kindergarten through college and mental health advocacy for veterans, seniors, and those with disabilities. If you visit our homepage at bit.ly/TreasureLives, you will access statistical information about suicide, an extensive resource page, a blog, an online store, and links to our social media networks. You will also find “A Dozen Ways to Donate” and see how you can be part of our Wall of Heroic Volunteers. To view the Wall, please visit bit.ly/TLs_Heroes.
I made a few attempts to take my life when I was younger: It is debatable as to whether I wanted death or attention, but does it matter? If we all paid just a little attention to each other, those of us with significant special needs would not be a burden to any one person. This is what we mean at TreasureLives when we say “It doesn’t take much to be a hero.” Being my hero doesn’t mean that you do everything for me all the time: It means that you find space for me somewhere in your life, honor that space, and express to me that you cherish that space. It means that you do the best you can to take care of yourself because we cannot have a healthy relationship if you resent me. It means that you will give me the opportunity to respect boundaries rather than assume I will violate them. Most importantly, it means that in some shape or form you will celebrate my life now, with me, and not wait until after I am gone.
I am more than my illnesses. I am a musician and a writer. I am educated, creative and talented. I am a born advocate. I am a dedicated friend (I’ve been told on more than one occasion that I am more loyal than a dog.) Don’t assume that just because I have physical and mental illnesses that a relationship with me must be all about me. I don’t want that. Give me the opportunity to love and support you. I’m a great listener and when wanted I can give valuable feedback (sometimes even when not wanted…I’m working on that.) Being in a relationship with me doesn’t mean that you are supposed to meet all of my needs or fix me. YOU CAN’T! It means that you educate yourself about my conditions so that you understand that sometimes simply brushing my teeth is an accomplishment to be applauded; It means that you acknowledge my struggles, appreciate my efforts, and partake of what I have to offer – just as I do you and yours. Yes, I have many needs. One of them is to give. I invite you to get to know me beyond my symptoms and my sicknesses. Who am I? I am Melody Nolan, and I am the founder of TreasureLives.
*For more about my perspective on this subject, please watch “Suicide Skit,” penned by me, Melody Nolan at bit.ly/VIDEO_SS