Thursday 21 September 2017

For some, life is very hard without that 'second skin'

Mental illness is a very simple term to describe something that is anything but simple, writes Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Many parents who lose a child would like to think that it was not in vain. While it is small comfort to them, and does not in any way make it easier, it does seem to give a focus to their grief to do something for others in a similar position.

It helps them to make some small sense of something that can seem so senseless, something that seems to be against nature. The death of a child or a similar tragedy can often, in fact, unleash an extraordinary, almost superhuman energy in parents, and can motivate them to do things that they may never have thought they were capable of, from starting a charity to starting the kind of campaign that can change the world.

Sometimes, when we get broken, it is through trying to fix the world that we fix ourselves.

And that is usually a good thing for the world.

When Tom and Sally Fitzgerald decided to talk about the death of their daughter Kate from suicide, they can't have known that it was going to become one of those things that would make everyone stop and think, that would cause people to put aside all the very practical and mundane worries that we all have in Ireland 2011, and to think for a minute about the bigger picture, about life itself, about the more eternal agonies.

Just days after Kate Fitzgerald took her life, an anonymous article written by her appeared in the Irish Times. It detailed her struggle with depression and was a plea for more understanding. When Kate's father Tom read the article he realised after a few lines it was by his daughter. In fact, without knowing exactly what the article was, Sally had helped Kate with aspects of it. Tom contacted Peter Murtagh in the Irish Times and Tom and Sally then did an extremely moving interview about their daughter that appeared in last Saturday's Irish Times and stopped the nation in its tracks.

Kate Fitzgerald clearly wanted some good to come of her pointless death. And Tom and Sally are trying to respect that wish, and hopefully helping to heal themselves in some way. And it must comfort them that it has worked. None of this is in any way to say that what Kate did was not wrong and senseless and unnecessary. But Tom and Sally clearly think that Kate's story could help to change some other, as yet unfinished, stories.

Kate's death and the fact that she took her own life shortly after finding out that what was in a way her suicide note, a plea for tolerance and understanding of those with mental health problems, would be published in the Irish Times, has not just given us pause for thought about mental illness specifically. In fact, what it has caused is probably a broader meditation on the very meanings of life itself.

Mental illness is a very simple term to describe something that is anything but simple. You will often hear people talk about how depression is just another illness and it should be regarded as being the same as a physical illness. This is said to try and take away what many feel is a stigma surrounding depression. So if we regard it as being no more blameless than the common cold, then we just regard sufferers as normal people who had the bad luck to catch it.

But of course this is not how we regard mental illness. Because in attacking the mind, so called mental illness seems to attack the very self. Whatever the physiology of it, and whatever you believe in, mental illness is something that affects a person's very personality, their identity, what you might call their soul.

Depression, which is the mental illness that most of us will encounter in our lives, whether in ourselves or friends or family, is anything but a discrete medical problem. Depression might start in the head but it is voracious, and left unchecked, it ranges through a person, taking out everything from the physical systems of the body to the emotional. So as much as the doctor can check things off a list to see if you are depressed -- sleeping too much, not sleeping at all, lack of energy, lack of libido; in most cases, most of us know that depression is, at its core, about much more than that.

So what is it? Is it hating yourself? Hating your life? Is it about being lonely? And by that I mean real loneliness, the kind where you can be surrounded by people and family and friends but feel utterly alone and isolated and unable to connect with anyone. Some people say it is about anger, and that depression happens when you turn your anger in on yourself instead of expressing it in a healthy fashion. Stuff like that -- worthlessness and isolation -- are not the kinds of things that are just about chemicals in the brain. Maybe bad chemicals in the brain sometimes kick it off, and maybe bad chemicals in the brain don't help when someone gets the kind of knocks that lead to a depressive episode, or maybe to a lifetime of depression. But it's more complex than chemicals.

These are all the questions that Kate's story brings up. Because Kate, in so many ways, was not what many people regard as a depressive. She radiated talent, energy and beauty, according to the headline in last Saturday's Irish Times. While depressives are very often talented and beautiful, they don't always radiate energy.

But more than that, Kate seemed like a person who was deeply engaged with life, who was dynamic and energetic and liked a challenge. We know, among other things, that she revitalised the Democrats Abroad in Ireland at a young age. In fact, in the days before her death, Kate had apparently been for an interview at Ernst & Young. When her parents contacted Ernst & Young to see if they had given Kate any bad news just before she died, they apparently said that on the contrary, she had been one of the chief contenders for the job.

So Kate was outwardly bright and bubbly and capable, perhaps to the point that most people, even an interview panel, might not have known she was a depressive and someone who needed to be treated gently sometimes.

At Kate's funeral, in that most melancholy but most beautiful place, Glengarriff, many melancholy but beautiful words were spoken. There were words read from Kate's blog, which you may have read by now. The Because I am a Girl ... blog. In it Kate said that, "Because I am a girl I remember that I have more love than I could possibly know what to do with. And that loving unselfishly makes light of even the heaviest burden. Even if it takes a little while to get the hang of it." Which makes you think that Kate knew her ailment was as spiritual as it was mental, and that love, without wanting to sound twee, can heal spiritual malaises.

There were two other things in that blog that gave other interesting insights into Kate's self, and her soul, the part of her that was perhaps most under attack from her depression. "Because I am a girl, I dislike how hard I am on myself, and how hard other girls are on themselves. We are our own worst critics. We all need to give ourselves a break."

Again, the inability to give yourself a break, the tendency to be hard on yourself, goes far beyond mental illness. But it is probably a trait of many depressives. Kate's mother Sally spoke in the Irish Times last week of how Kate was not comfortable with failure.

"She was constantly critical of herself; she never thought she could be good enough," Sally said. She spoke of how Kate had a lack of confidence, despite all her apparent self-confidence. These are all things that go beyond mere mental illness. These are the very traits of a person, the keynotes to character, and, like many aspects of depression, managed well, they can be powerful tools. For many people, it is the ability to tap into the dark side of their nature and harness it that is the source of their true power.

But the bit that really got me about Kate's blog was where she said, "Above all of these things I hope I inherited [my mother's] strength in the face of adversity." Because the poor kid clearly didn't. And that, again, probably went beyond what we generally consider mental illness. Kate's friend, the American writer Mary Kate Simmons said something similar about Kate at the funeral. She said that Kate "lacked that extra skin that helps the rest of us fight one's corner without depression". In other words, Kate was sensitive, maybe even what we sometimes disparagingly refer to as hypersensitive.

Depressives can be like that too. They feel foolish easily, feel they have done stupid things, can spend hours or days brooding over things that were said and done to them, things others would pass off easily and move on from.

Kate Fitzgerald didn't dress in black and wear gothic make-up. She was stylish and well turned out. She wasn't someone who hid in the corner either. She wasn't self-absorbed. She was a social person, who, even in her last days, was thinking about the bigger picture, about helping society to understand the nature of the cross she bore. And maybe Kate's lesson is in there somewhere, in the fact that there is no such thing as the typical depressive, and there is no such thing as simple, mental-illness-based answers.

I'll tell you something. Depressives can be difficult, boring, hard to be around, infuriating, hypersensitive. They can be loud and seemingly confident too. They can take everything too personally. Sometimes when they are quiet it's not because they don't want to join in. They can be infuriating friends or siblings or children or colleagues. They don't mean to be, and they hate themselves for it. But they usually just can't help it.

Sometimes you need to be patient with them and indulge them a bit. And you won't always feel like putting up with them but be careful because if they notice, they'll take it hard. Depressives are often a pain in the hole and they demand all kinds of extra work. They can be high maintenance and often for not much reward.

But most of them are doing their best. And things that are very easy for you can be very difficult for them. And when they are depressed, they can't ever imagine what it must be like to be you, for whom everything seems so easy.

So if you want to be enlightened, and if you want to help turn the tide on suicide, try and be a little bit more aware of people, a little bit more understanding, a little bit more patient. You'll probably even get something out of it yourself.

The saddest part is that Kate didn't need to die. If she could have got herself through that moment, that time, she could have maybe learned to fall in love with life again, or at least to find it tolerable. And her parents and her friends and her colleagues will always live with that. It was a waste of a perfectly good life and it is nothing to be glorified. It is shit. That is what her parents, her brother, her friends and everyone who knew her will always live with. It's shit, and unnecessary, and pointless. And, as twee as it sounds, we can all try and help it not to happen to other people.

By just trying to understand that they were born without the second skin.

Sunday Independent

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