All in the Family

Mental Illness and Caregiving Across the Generations

Be Not Afraid to Ask for Help

Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk 2014 in Philadelphia

I previously blogged about my decision to participate in the 2014 Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk. Today I share with you my experience doing the Walk.

Grand Luminaria Display, Art Museum of Philadelphia
Grand Luminaria Display, Art Museum of Philadelphia
Last Sunday at 3:25 a.m., having spent eight hours walking 16.4 miles, my husband and I crossed the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's (AFSP) finish line. My left heel throbbed; my husband's body listed, his aching back forcing him to lean in against the pain.

I learned a powerful lesson that night — one I wish my mother and the thousands of other people who commit suicide each year could have learned.

Asking for and receiving support are not signs of weakness. They make us strong.

My first challenge was fund-raising. Never comfortable asking people for money, I followed the foundation's instructions. Within weeks, family and friends contributed $1,000. Their support empowered me.

If my mother had been able to ask for help in 1975 when she struggled with crippling depression, would she have lived to walk me down the aisle at my wedding in 1985?

Before the walk began, we heard heartfelt stories from people whose loved ones had died by suicide. As teary walkers clung to one another, I thought about my mother. Just 51 years old, she left behind a husband and three children. Despite her illness, she was our rock. But when she needed help, she didn't know how to ask for it, and we didn't know what to do.

My thoughts turned to the person who jumped in front of the Acela train I rode to Washington days earlier. Then and in the tragedy's aftermath, no details emerged about the person. Male? Female? Old? Young? Amtrak employees and media reporters used only the designation "trespasser." As disturbing as this death was, even more troubling was learning that trespasser suicide is common. Had this trespasser asked for help? Did anyone know of the trespasser's pain? Did anyone care?

As 2,000 walkers headed past Boathouse Row and through the Parkway Museum District, we moved slowly, a sea of humanity connected by our blue "Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk" shirts. The setting sun and a beautiful breeze embraced us.

As darkness fell, we passed City Hall, the statue of William Penn watching our procession. From that vantage point, the red, flickering lights from our safety armbands must have looked like mating fireflies. Passing the Liberty Bell, I wondered what freedom might mean to people contemplating suicide.

Walking through Elfreth's Alley, fearing my foot would catch in the cobblestones, I grabbed my husband's hand. Was life any different for people struggling with mental illness and thoughts of suicide when Ben Franklin roamed these streets?

Bananas and munchies fueled our bodies at frequent rest stops. And both the organized cheering stations and impromptu shouts of encouragement and high-fives from people sitting on their stoops empowered my soul.

From Chinatown, we trudged through the Mexican market; by midnight, we were in South Philly, home of cheesesteak rivals Geno's and Pat's. I wondered whether coming from Asian, Hispanic, or Italian backgrounds made it any easier for people to ask for and receive help for depression.

Sitting down to a midnight snack, I met a woman from California walking with her father from Germany. This was her seventh time, remembering her brother who had died 10 years ago. I met a man from Connecticut whose 14-year-old daughter had killed herself three years ago. I ran into a friend who had survived a suicide attempt seven years ago.

Eleven miles into the walk, I stopped at a portable toilet. Fumbling in the dark, I heard commotion outside. A gruff man screamed: "Just let them kill themselves. They're a bunch of losers." Tears came to my eyes. Attitudes like this are why people hide and don't seek the help they need. Women, most likely participating in the walk, yelled back, outraged. A peacekeeper tried to calm them. "He's drunk. People say stupid things when they're drunk. Ignore him."

By the time I opened the door, it was quiet.

Minutes later, a woman cleaning a bar's sidewalk tables smiled at me and said: "Thank you for doing this. You have no idea how important your walk is to me."

Traversing Locust Walk, I thought about Madison Holleran and the three other Penn students who ended their lives this year. Had any of them trekked this path considering alternatives?

Just before the walk ended, we viewed "Finding the Light Within," a mural painted by 1,000 people whose lives were touched by suicide. Its powerful message is the importance of community support.

The glow of the luminary bags that walkers had decorated for lost loved ones lined the Art Museum steps, marking the walk's end.

My husband and I proudly claimed our victory shirts. And as we hobbled nine blocks to our car, we knew we had never hurt so good.

 

This blog post was originally published as an Op-Ed piece in Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, July 6, 2014.

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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