All in the Family

Mental Illness and Caregiving Across the Generations

Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk

An Important 18-mile walk.

In February, my friend invited me to join her for the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).

I was one of the first people she'd told about the suicide attempt she'd made five years ago. Then, life had beaten her down. She said she'd felt like she was wearing a concrete dress. One afternoon, she swallowed a bunch of pills. Luckily, she survived. But for years she'd kept her depression and suicide attempt secret from all but her closest family members.

I was honored to have her trust me with her secret and proud of her for going on the walk. It was the start of her fight against the stigma of mental illness and suicide. Going on the walk was the next big step in her healing process.

I thought about her invitation for days, coming up with one lame excuse after the next for why I shouldn't go on the walk..

  • An 18-mile walk at night through Philadelphia? It'll be dark. I'll fall. What if it rains?
  • My bedtime is 10 P.M. I'll be a wreck if I stay up all night.
  • Parts of the city are dangerous. Something bad could happen. 
  • It's a fundraiser event requiring each walker to raise $1,000. I've never been comfortable asking people for money.

 

I declined my friend's invitation.  Instead, I contributed to her fundraising goal to assuage my guilt. 

But I kept getting drawn back to the AFSP's "Out of the Darkness" website. There I learned that suicide claims more than 38,000 lives each year in the United States and that every 13.7 minutes, someone dies by suicide. A suicide attempt is made every minute of every day, and in about 90% of suicides, mental illness plays a role.

I know about suicide, mental illness, and secrets. In 1975, when I was a senior in college, my mother who had struggled with manic depression (Bipolar Disorder, Type 2) for close to 10 years, killed herself. I was devastated.  Like my friend, my father, brothers, and I kept my mother's mental illness a secret. Even my father's brother had no idea about her overwhelming sadness, inability to function, and numerous suicide attempts. I also kept my mother's suicide secret, telling people I met after her death that she'd died in a car accident.

My mother's mental illness and her suicide had a tremendous effect on the adult I became. It steered me to psychology, but away from being a clinician. I was fascinated by the effects that mental illness have on family members, but feared being responsible for keeping people with mental illness from harming themselves. I became a researcher, spending decades documenting the ways in which mental illness affects families.

My mother's suicide left me with an overactive imagination and a fear of losing others dear to me. It had me convinced that if I didn't know where my husband or kids were, or if I couldn't get in touch with my brothers, something bad must have happened.

When it became clear that my adopted daughter suffers from bipolar disorder, I resolved that this time mental illness would not beat me. I spared no expense getting her the best medical care available and invested more emotional resources in meeting my daughter's needs than those of my career, my marriage, and the rest of my family. But, as with my mother, I kept my daughter's illness secret.

By April, I was drawn back to the AFSP website on a daily basis. I listened as my friend told me about meeting her interim fundraising goals and training for the walk.

Why wasn't I doing this walk?

I love to walk. I'm in great physical shape, so I should have no trouble walking 18 miles. The walk is very well organized. People walk in groups so there is little danger. If I were to fall, there would be medics on hand to help me. AFSP staff offers tools and guidance for meeting the fundraising goal.

At the beginning of May, as Mental Health Awareness Month began, I decided to participate in the walk. My husband and friends will walk with me on our "Surrounded By Madness" team.

To ready myself for the walk, I'm exercising and building up my endurance.  I'm halfway to my fundraising goal, delighted by the contribution family and friends have made to AFSP.

At the end of June, I'll walk in memory of my mother. I'll remember how her mental illness destroyed her. I'll walk to raise money that will support AFSP's mission to prevent suicide and save lives. I'll walk to raise awareness about mental illness and suicide. I'll walk to comfort and be comforted by others who've lost a loved one to mental illness and suicide. 

I sure hope it doesn't rain.

Rachel Pruchno, Ph.D. is Endowed Chair and Professor of Medicine at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine. Her memoir Surrounded by Madnessis available at online bookstores.

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