Sheila Hamilton, recently awarded the Judy Cushing Life award, talks about Lines for Life, the Northwest’s 24-hour suicide hotline:
Seven years ago, in this room, on a night much like tonight, I was still struggling with how to make sense of the loss of my late husband to suicide. He was a brilliant man, and a magical presence in my daughter’s life, but as many of you know, living with someone with a mental illness, especially an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness is life draining on its own. Our unwillingness to confront the most difficult aspects of our lives came crashing down in a six-week period when he was finally hospitalized and deemed “unreachable” by the medical staff.
In the wake of his death, I’d cobbled together a grief strategy of writing, meditating and a healthy dose of denial. I’d distracted myself with the demanding work of raising my daughter and working to keep us afloat. And then, someone behind a podium just like this asked those of us in the room who had lost someone they loved to suicide to stand up. And chair after chair after chair made the squeaky sound of truth. It was liberating to stand and be counted. That day changed me because I actually understood how common suicide was and how many people were impacted by mental illness.
I do not believe in leaving the past behind. It informs who we are today. We really can’t escape the path that landed us in the crosshairs of suicide—if we try to forget, smells, color, even temperature, can land us back to our shock and grief and loss. We are human.
But what I have attempted to do is understand the conditions that lead someone to the point they are hopeless and estranged. In order to objectively unpack my husband’s suicide, in order to understand the risk and the plight of those who suffer, I had to go deeper.
I’ve come to believe pain and suffering are inevitable for large intelligence and a deep heart. My husband’s mother spoke five languages. His father was a Harvard MBA. They were, and continue to be, a rich, colorful, but also deeply sensitive family. I believe, as do many suicidologists, that our greatest minds also suffer great sadness. The same qualities that drive a person to brilliance may also drive that person to deep despair and loneliness. Highly successful people tend to be perfectionists, and no perfectionist ever meets his own benchmarks. I’ve come to believe that suicide is not just a crime of loneliness, its a crime of unwillingness; an unwillingness to be human, to be vulnerable, an unwillingness to ask for help and an unwillingness to believe in a higher power or another’s capacity to help us through to the other side.
Most people imagine that resolving problems will make them happy. If only one had more money or love or success then life would feel manageable. It can be devastating to realize the falseness of this optimism. So what do we do? We must adopt a sort of radical honesty in our lives, we must encourage the conversation about emotional intelligence from an early age, we must seek out friends and partners who aren’t yearning for plastic or fame, but for whom true intimacy is a way of life. We must allow ourselves to be seen, and when someone else is hurting, as a moral barometer of who we are, we should be willing to sit with that person’s pain, his grief, and the sobering knowledge that we may not be able to fix it.
But we are there.
I’d like nothing more than to see the need for Lines for Life go away. I’d like us all, as individuals, to learn the emotional language of hopefulness and be willing to listen to those who are lost or who are suffering.
I’d like our kids to learn e.q. is more important than i.q. and the most beneficial thing we can do for our own brain chemistry is to learn to sit in silence, to breathe and not judge. Especially not ourselves.
But until then, the volunteers at Lines for Life are doing the heavy lifting for us. Ninety-eight percent of all the calls they receive are a success. The operators know how to deescalate that impulsive, destructive sense of loss, of failure, of loneliness. They can steer a person who is suffering toward comfort and help. That’s the most important work I can think of. And if you agree with me, I’d ask you to support this life-saving work.
Sheila Hamilton is a five-time Emmy award-winning journalist and the host of Portland, Oregon’s #1 rated morning show. Her book, All the Things We Never Knew is the story of her husband’s descent into mental illness and her advocacy for people with lived experience.
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