One of my favorite photos ever is of a house near a wetland, with clouds reflecting in the water. It’s a simple photo, really. But the more I look at it, the more I like it. It intrigues me.
My son, Derek, took the photo in his final year of life as he was battling mental illness. He was buried on Christmas Eve, 2012. He was 25 years old.
He gave the photo to me as a gift. It is on my desk as I type these words. When I look, I find myself trying to see what Derek saw in that one moment when he managed to get outside of his own head.
I have spent way too much time inside of my own head since December 17, 2012, when he committed suicide. It was three days after the Newtown massacre, when Adam Lanza used his mother’s guns to kill 26 people, including 20 first graders, in an elementary school in Connecticut.
Derek did not use a gun to kill himself. But it always felt to me like a gun was used on him.
He died three days after Newtown, when the immediate conversation about the mass shooting was framed in the context of mental illness as much as it was about guns.
It was framed as if there was equal blame to the tragedy. Many framed it as full blame on mental illness.
There was not equal blame. Guns were to blame. Mental illness is an illness. It is not a badness. But it is a label. Derek, who was a thriving student at Northeastern University when he first displayed symptoms, hated the label. So did I.
There is a stigma attached to mental illness unlike any other illness. I am a part of it. It has taken me six years to say this. And I hope to never feel compelled to address it again. But it needed to be said.
My son was in a dark place. He was not, in fact, one of the many people who did not get treatment. He got treatment. His treatment did not work. When I see people post things on social media about suicide prevention, it makes me enormously sad because of what feels like, now in retrospect, the inevitability to the progress of my son’s disease.
But I remember what I will always perceive as the trigger, the sinking feeling about what the Newtown shooting and the aftermath would do to him. I remember the exact moment of hearing from my friend, who scrolled his phone, about a shooting in a first grade classroom. I remember feeling very scared.
I recall, specifically, the knot tightening in my stomach when I heard of the shooting. It was physical, immediately. I felt like I was bleeding on the inside. Little did I know.
In the aftermath, I could not reach Derek. No one could. And then he was gone.
Mine is just a theory. He did not leave a note, and there were a lot of reasons, I am sure. The real reason, I try to tell myself, is that he had a disease. I feel guilt, anger, sadness and I daily fight my own deep depression. (There is a reason why Cape Cod Wave focuses on surfers and guitar players so much. I am desperately chasing happy people. And I will be back to that immediately.)
But back to my theory of his trigger, and now mine… every mass shooting gives me what can only be described as PTSD. It always takes me back to December, 2012 – physically, emotionally, my whole soul goes back there.
I was in Pittsburgh visiting my brother when the Pittsburgh shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue happened, and 11 people were killed. It was just a few miles from my brother’s house. It shook me. It was so close, the most irrational part of my being felt like it was closing in on me. But it didn’t feel irrational. It felt logical.
My point is that if this happens to me every time a mass shooting happens, based on my tenuous in-my-head connection to a mass shooting, I cannot imagine what real trauma survivors of actual shootings endure when another shooting occurs.
I also imagine I am not the only person who knows someone with mental illness and cringes when these caustic discussions occur after each of these shootings.
There are more victims than you think.
And there are mentally ill people everywhere. You may know one.
Please be kind, always.
Soon, there will be another bloody headline, some frantic video, and more thoughts and prayers. Thoughts and prayers, always. Rinse and repeat, ad nauseam. We have all seen this movie before.
There will be funerals. We will feel sad and outraged from afar – from over here on our side of the Cape Cod Canal.
It can’t happen here. It won’t happen here.
It can’t happen anywhere. It won’t happen anywhere.
Hug your children, and savor your moments. Have a merry Christmas, or whatever you celebrate at this time of year. I now celebrate when Christmas is over.
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