The Personalist Project

Last month our friends lost their beloved 20-year-old daughter (and granddaughter, and niece, and cousin, and friend), Evie. Her uncle, Fr. Paul Donnelly, had some memorable words on the occasion, which I wrote about here (skip the rest of the post if you like, but don't miss his words!). We weren't able to travel the 500 miles for Evie's memorial Mass, but my friend Monica was there and told me something Evie's uncle, Lawrence Donnelly, said. I'm not sure if it's a direct quote, but here it is:

Life presents two competing truths: 1. that each of us is a speck on a rock swirling through an endless cosmos, and 2. that each of us is a unique, never-before, never-again, unrepeatable human person.

The first one is true, as far as it goes (except, I guess, the part about the "endless" cosmos). The second is also true, and far more important. But it can be tougher to hang onto, most especially when you're in the throes of depression, as I'm told Evie was.

I used to think self-harm, along with depression and addiction, were fairly rare. I thought people who took their own lives were generally those who'd experienced some dramatic tragedy, lost perspective and despaired. Maybe it was even in my mind that victims of suicide, depression and addiction just weren't trying hard enough to fight their demons.

I don't believe any of those things anymore, for the very sad reason that they've all hit too close to home. For example, when my sister Rosie, who tells her story here and here, faced life-threatening depression, I had to leave a lot of preconceptions behind. And a few years earlier, I ran into this description of what happened when someone else (anonymous by request) finally, and very reluctantly, decided to try anti-depression meds:

Now, when the pills are working [...], it’s like someone turned the volume down on the poisonous thoughts, or took the hooks out of them. When a sad thought occurs to me, I can decide not to think about it, although it might grumble in the background a little; it doesn’t tackle me, eat me alive; it doesn’t grow another head for every one I chop off. Is this how most people are, most of the time?

That's how I am, most of the time. That's my normal. But I didn't realize it wasn't everyone's till I read my brother's words. I had no idea.

When I wrote about Evie last week, other people confided their own surprising (to me) struggles. I never would have guessed some of them were dealing with such things. One friend, Julianne, told her story in a comment she left on my first post about Evie. She writes:

I struggled with depression as a 20 something year old--was extremely close to committing suicide/had the bottle of pills in my hand. Why I was spared? I don't know. When the brain chemicals tank, there are no good feelings happening in the brain, everything is dark--every thought is dark...the emotional pain is so great that it is like someone being in a building on fire and jumping out of the window to get away from the heat (think of 9/11 and the twin towers). those people were not choosing to commit suicide, they were desperately trying to get away from the heat.... 

But each case is different--even when it's one and the same person who's suffering. Julianne again:

In my early 20's, I was working through childhood trauma causing the depression. However, just 2 years ago, I experienced a severe depression from seasonal affective disorder. I was suicidal with no reason to be other than my brain chemicals tanked from lack of sun and vitamin D.

"Seasonal Affective Disorder"--just the kind of thing my younger self would have been over-quick to dismiss and explain away as someone trying to make excuses for not trying hard enough! Julianne continues:

I was suicidal, had no emotional reasons to be--happily married, happy to be a mom to my kids...but without the right chemicals working in my brain, I almost had to call a suicide hotline. As a 51 year old at that time--I struggled mightily with the dark thoughts. I knew they weren't real, but that was because I had been down this road before. Even though I knew what I was feeling was not based on reality and only on brain chemistry, it was still extremely difficult for me to keep myself alive. 

Often it's not so easy to diagnose. Sometimes it seems to be a tangle of genetics, addictions, brain chemistry, unwise life choices--which nobody's immune to--and tragedy. You can see how easily each of these could feed off the others. Sometimes the very meds people take to protect them from self-harm have self-harm as a side effect. It's a fog, a soup, a labyrinth.

As John Janaro describes it in his blog, Never Give Up:

When you see us, we may be "fine," but we are "walking on the surface" and the surface is an eggshell already full of cracks and always in danger of breaking under our feet. We have developed our survival skills, however, so that we have our eyes on the nearest secure spots and we have learned how to jump to them before the next crack sucks us down.
You don't see any of this.

I guess what I'm hoping is that people who were as clueless and quick to judge as I was will read this post and reconsider. And that people in the dark, navigating the broken eggshells, will feel less alone.

Rest in peace, Evie.

Comments (3)

Gary Gibson

#1, Jul 12, 2017 9:11pm

Thank you, Devra!  Good thoughts, well expressed (as usual!).   I have had several suicides in my family, which in some ways is no surprise, since there were some big things that went terribly wrong.  But it is still a shock.  I do believe in God's mercy.  That gives me peace and comfort.

Devra Torres

#2, Jul 12, 2017 9:21pm

It's always a shock, I think. I'm sorry to hear it's hit so close to home for you. What it's done for me, initially, is make me rethink how I'm raising my kids. I want them to be tough, resilient, not take themselves too seriously, not think the world centers around their feelings...but now I want to make sure I don't give them the impression that if they run into depression or addiction or some other giant roadblock, they don't feel like it's their fault, or like everything can be fixed by just trying harder. In fact, even if they don't run into those things, I want to keep a balanced view of things, and a sense that they can be open and not ashamed of "weakness," even in smaller things.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Jul 12, 2017 9:42pm

I like that point of yours a lot, Devra. I now have several ardently Catholic friends or friends of friends with a child who committed suicide. It's absolutely devastating and profoundly bewildering.

It leaves me with a general sense that something is seriously awry. We need to re-think our approach to parenting and education and a million other things.

Mostly (as usual) I think JP II and the council fathers were right to call for that "turn toward subjectivity", and the present Pope is right to point out that we have a long way to go before we've fully completed the task.

I've been learning a lot lately from Diane Langberg's books and youtube talks. She's a Christian psychologist with 40 years of experience in treating trauma victims. She's convinced that "trauma is the 21st century mission field."

She says that everyone who's experience trauma needs 3 things to heal: "Time, talk, and tears." Depression and mental anguish are closely linked to trauma.

We need learn to open ourselves much much more to the interior experience of others, and be less sure we know what it takes to live well and be happy and successful.


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