Last January, when my husband Josh suggested we participate in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s (AFSP) Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk, I cringed. We’d done the 2014 Overnight in Philadelphia. It had been comforting being with hundreds of people who, like me, had experienced the suicide of a loved one. Still, the fundraising requirement and 7-hour drives to and from Boston dampened my enthusiasm. But Josh wanted to do the walk in his hometown, so I agreed.
From the time I was 12, I’d witnessed the pain that serious mental illness caused my mother. When I was a senior in college, she killed herself.
Unlike many people who blame a loved one for committing suicide, I was never angry with my mother. I didn’t feel she’d let me down and I didn’t feel rejected.
But I did feel alone. Not just because I missed her terribly, but also because I didn’t know anyone else with a relative who’d committed suicide. I didn’t know how to talk about it and I felt ashamed. For more than three decades I hid the truth about my mother’s death.
Five days before the walk, I started watching Boston’s weather forecast. Buckets of rain and high winds threatened. Accuweather.com warned of a Nor’easter. Though I’d met my fundraising goal and resigned myself to the long drives, battling torrential rains was the deal breaker. I decided I wasn’t going.
Josh said walking in the rain is nothing compared with the pain experienced by people who kill themselves. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.1 and 90% of the time serious mental illness, usually depression, precedes it.
Every 12.8 minutes, an American dies by suicide,1 leaving behind scores of family members whose hearts bear lifelong scars. I had to walk to let other survivors know they are not alone.
A sea of humanity filled City Hall Plaza for the opening ceremony. Despite the ominous forecast, 2,500 walkers – the largest number ever to participate in an Overnight – had gathered. Everyone wore colorful honor beads signifying the loss of a parent, child, spouse, sibling, or friend. The beads connected us. Stories of loss, not defeat, inspired us. When CEO Robert Gebbia said approximately 40,000 Americans lose their lives to suicide each year, Josh, fiddling with his Fitbit, whispered, “Did you realize the walk is about 40,000 steps?”
As the walk began and we inched our way to the State House, I caught a glimpse of the statue of John Kennedy. It reminded me of the leading role Massachusetts has played in the fight to help people with mental illness. In 1840, Dorothea Dix’s investigation into care received by people with mental illness found an unregulated and underfunded system with widespread abuse. Her lobbying resulted in a bill that expanded Massachusetts’ mental hospital beds and served as model for other states. More than a hundred years later, President Kennedy, seeing the cesspools that large mental hospitals had become, called for deinstituionalization and community-based care for people with mental illness.
Circling Fenway Park and passing the statues of Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski, Josh’s boyhood heroes, my thoughts turned to Jimmy Piersall. When Piersall’s bipolar disorder caused bizarre behaviors, the Red Sox treated him with compassion, encouraging treatment and welcoming his return to the team – a groundbreaking response in professional sports.
As we headed toward the Seaport District, the rain changed from a light sprinkle to a steady shower. By midnight, trudging through South Boston toward Castle Island, the winds had picked up and the rain was pelting. I thought about hopping on an AFSP bus and calling it a night. Josh checked his FitBit and announced that we’d taken only 27,000 steps. “There’s still 13,000 people we need to take a step for,” he said.
We pushed on. Conversation, so common among walkers earlier in the evening, ceased as we focused our attentions on avoiding the deepening puddles and battling the elements. As water dripped from my poncho into my shoes, I thought about my mother. I knew my temporary discomfort was nothing compared with the ongoing isolation and despair people with serious mental illness suffer daily. I hoped my walk would help things change.
Slogging our way through the North End and back toward Government Center, the wind whipped. Crossing the finish line, I had but one wish – that people with serious mental illness would be treated with respect and given the compassionate care Dorothea Dix and President Kennedy envisioned so that far fewer people would take their own lives in the coming year.
Climbing into bed hours later, I asked Josh if he’d do the Overnight Walk with me again next year. He agreed, even though it will be in the city that’s home to the Yankees.
1. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (2015). Facts and Figure. Retrieved from https://www.afsp.org/understanding-suicide/facts-and-figures