by Vanessa Sanford
*This post is intended to help parents and educators learn the impact of Stigma and how it effectively gets in the way of learning compassion and courage. Stigma silences our hurts. This letter educates us on how to protest against Stigma in hopes it may save a life–maybe the life of someone you love. Vanessa M. Sanford, LPC practices in Frisco, Texas, and specializes in multiple areas of counseling for children, teens, and adults.
Dear Stigma around Suicide Prevention and other Hard Conversations,
This is my Breakup Letter to You,
I know we have been together for a long time. As a matter of fact, you have been controlling lots of people. I have quieted my real feelings to keep you around. I guess I thought if you were running the show, I would be safe and hidden from pain. I am finally brave enough to call you out on hypnotizing us to only focus on our kids’ grades and achievements, or on being perfect with our bodies and décor. I want to provide a disclaimer about this breakup letter. It is going to be imperfect and messy and vulnerable. I have thought a long time about how to say this to you, but couldn’t find the perfect words. So here goes…
I am no longer willing to see pain and then run or hide or numb or ignore or cliché my way from it. I have come to realize I can do hard things. I want you to understand I can trust myself more than I trust what you require us to believe “but what will people think?” and “we can’t talk about that” and “that doesn’t happen to us.” I have come to realize your superficial pressures teach us all to lie. When someone says, “How are you?” We are taught to say, “I am fine, and you?” Well, Bless your little heart, Stigma. Your rules are what keeps us sick and silent and scared to tell the truth. You have taught me to glorify fear and to avoid risk, failure, pain, or struggles. You have taught me to stay in my comfort zone, not to trust courage, but hide from anything imperfect. You want me to only put my best Christmas-card-captured-moments online to sell to everyone: “No struggles here.”
Well, I am sure you are criticizing this break-up letter, but I am continuing anyway.
I am beyond mesmerized by those who defy you. We will never forget when 9/11 happened. We saw broken hearts show up with open arms and help, donate, pray, and be there openly for one another. It was so tragic and beautiful to see such love and connection. When hurricanes and earthquakes or any natural disasters happen, we all just put you away and do whatever we can to help our brothers and sisters. I am forever grateful you stay quiet during these times.
Please know I am so confused, Stigma. Why, why, why are you so quiet during natural disasters and terrorism, but so ferocious when many of our brothers and sisters are silently suffering with internal terrorism and emotional disasters and contemplating suicide? Without you, the image I see is open arms and broken hearts leaning into the suffering of others with charity and empathy. When you are around, the image I see is our hands over our mouths and our eyes shut as we run away from suffering.
Here are some questions I have for you: Why won’t you let us listen to someone’s pain so they feel heard, not hurt, especially when they are contemplating suicide? Why must you create such pressure for us to interrupt and spray out “know better advice” all over someone desperately needing light into their darkness? Why do you confuse us into talking instead of bravely listening to understand and staying curious as to what they are feeling? Why do you dangle carrots of numbing and judgment and criticism all over so that we get distracted from having hard and awkward conversations about suicide and how to prevent it?
YOU just tell people to get over it, move on, deal with it, or suck it up. You tell them, “my story is harder than yours,” or “that won’t happen in our family,” etc. I no longer want to subscribe to your cult. I no longer want to participate in keeping people silent. I want to learn to be brave in discomfort instead of staying comfortable in resentment. I want people to know they are not alone in their loneliness. I want leaders and parents and teachers to understand we all are sick and tired of being scared.
What an insult it is, Stigma, that you have led me to believe I am not capable of these hard conversations. I urge you to stop leading companies, churches, classrooms, sports, dinner tables and bedtime routines. Shutting others pain down for us to stay comfortable is something I will no longer do. I will listen, even if I am scared and do not know what to say. Glennon Doyle says, “fear is love holding its breath. It’s our job not to convert fearful people but to love them.” Yes, Glennon, I agree. I have to unlearn how to fight fear with fear. I have to learn how to lovingly see fear and not join, but to also respect that I cannot force or pressure or blame others into letting go of it. I know there are lots of places and people who role-model this, like the Suicide Hotline Center and therapists, hospitals, and artists. Where truth and love and fear are spoken, and expressed imperfectly and messy, but not silenced. I am learning not to shut down in fear and to also respect how powerful fear is. Fear can keep us safe, but not by the standards you want us all to uphold. So Stigma, I now know your Full Name: Stigma-Comparison-Judgey-Avoider of Hard Things-Love-holding-its-breath.
I have been going behind your back for years planning my escape. I am officially ready to leave because I have found enough people not buying into your lies. I am so mad at you for betraying all those that died because they were silenced and felt alone. I was deceived by advertisements you promoted to buy your product. Stigma, I challenge you to look closer into how YOU have role-modeled what to do in struggle. Just in case you didn’t know, September is Suicide Prevention Month. That’s right, I am breaking up with you during this important month spreading awareness on suicide. I want to shout as loud as I can to those suffering in silence, “You matter, you deserve to be heard.” I have also learned when people feel suicidal, they really just want to kill their pain. They do not understand if they die, their pain actually doesn’t even die. It spreads to all those that love them. We don’t understand pain when we follow your lead. The options you have provided us are to run away and hide, get scary and big and loud, or please our way out of pain. You haven’t taught us to lean into pain, to get curious, and to be gentle and loving and non-judgmental. I am learning these things now that I am not with you anymore.
You know Stigma, I was watching this rap artist named Logic perform on the Video Music Awards.
He did not follow your rules. He stood up and spoke out. He even titled his song the Suicide Hotline Prevention Number, 1-800-273-8255. He sure did! I thought it was brilliant. You know what? People stood up and clapped and were inspired by his courage. People were so moved, the Suicide Hotline Center reported a 50% increase in calls since that performance! Can you believe that? He stood outside of his comfort zone and spoke truth. He was asked why he made this song, and he said that lots of fans would tell him all the time how his lyrics changed or even saved their lives. He said he would be grateful outwardly, but on the inside, would feel confused and wonder, “I didn’t create this art to save people.” He goes on to say, “What can happen if I took myself out of my comfort zone and made a whole album about everybody and everybody’s struggles including my own which is one I’ve never done. What if I silenced my own fear and I say, ‘I’m scared talk about my race. I’m scared to talk about the state of this country but I’m going to do [it] anyway. I’m going to persevere. Man, how many lives can I really save then?’” So, now that I am breaking up with you, I have a lot of time on my hands. I may even become a rap artist, like Logic.
I also watched a Netflix series not too long ago called 13 Reasons Why. It is about a girl in high school who commits suicide and leaves reasons why she did it. There was so much of you, Stigma, around this series. So much fear and concern from lots of professionals and parents that thought this series was dangerous and put ideas into kids heads about suicide. Dear Stigma, I will bravely admit that I liked that series. It goes against your rules of offering an emotionless, sterile, and easy way to talk about suicide. It goes against the story ending in a pretty bow with all struggles heroically returning us back into our comfort zones. It defied you. I liked that about it. It was messy and scary and too real and I watched some of the episodes in panic with my hands over my eyes. I cried and talked and thought about the characters as if I knew them. You know what else I liked about this series? Stigma, you were actually in the series! There were characters that kept silent and were just bystanders to pain. That is what you do best. Then, there was some starting to learn the importance of being Upstanders. They went against the silence and tried to speak up and do the right thing and not ignore someone in pain. What a lesson! I invited others to talk about this too, and we did not stay in silent judgment. We disagreed and shared fears and worries of how this will negatively impact or glorify suicide. I thought about what myths are already out there about suicide and if this series makes these narratives worse. I was aware many teens had seen it before their parents. We are all hungry for a safe place to tell truths like, “I am having a bad day and feel sad” instead of “I am fine.”
Stigma, your rules have stood in the way of too many lives.
I read a book recently called Braving the Wilderness, The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, by Brené Brown. She is a researcher and storyteller, and I feel this book helped me break up with you, Stigma. She talks about the difference between fitting in and belonging. She says, “Even in the context of suffering – poverty, violence, human rights violations – not belonging in our families is still one of the most dangerous hurts. That’s because it has the power to break our heart, our spirit, and our sense of self-worth.” Being able to detach from Stigma means I get to lean more into self-worth and true belonging. Brown goes on to say that based on her research, there are three outcomes when we feel broken…
- You live in constant pain and seek relief by numbing it and/or inflicting it on others;
- You deny your pain, and your denial ensures that you pass it on to those around you and down to your children; or
- You find the courage to own the pain and develop a level of empathy and compassion for yourself and others that allows you to spot hurt in the world in a unique way.” (Brown, 2017, p. 14)
Did you know suicide doesn’t only destroy the lives of young teens? Sometimes even the obituaries in the newspaper do not tell the whole story of how a person really died. Many elders, treasures full of wisdom and cherished stories, take their lives. They painfully feel ignored and of no value. They kill themselves too.
I also watched this TED talk by Shane Koyczan.
He soulfully shares his story of being told messages he was unworthy and how this silenced his inherent right to feel love and belonging. His story is gut-wrenching and brave because he talks about learning his worth from within, and about letting go of what others think. It made me cry and think about all the people that are made fun of, laughed at, ignored, and shamed because they are different. Stigma, you make being different a bad thing.
I am not as sad as I thought I would be to break up with you. As a matter of fact, now that I think about it, songs, books, art, poetry and even rap have been defying you all along. I will try to be more creatively defiant when in fear. I have learned that the opposite of anxiety is not calm, it is self-trust. I would even add that the opposite of courage is self-betrayal. I feel free to believe in myself and believe in others without you by my side. I am aware you will still be around, and I am sure I will bump into you since we live so close to each other. When I see you, I will not say hello or ask how you are doing, out of self-respect. I might just give you a nod–or not. I will have to remind myself you are charming but dangerous. You are so good at lying to me and others, forcing us into silence. You focus on what others think. I choose to loudly treat myself and others with love and kindness.
Dear Stigma, please do not write back. This is like one of those emails that clearly states DO NOT REPLY.
Love when in Fear,
No longer Silent
Dear Lives Lost to Suicide,
We miss you every day. We miss what you would have been like if you had received help, if you weren’t told to be quiet and hide your pain.
Dear Lives Contemplating Suicide,
We want to hear about your pain. YOU don’t have to die. Tell a professional, parent, teacher, doctor or someone you trust. Keep telling until someone hears you. Write, draw, paint, cry, scream, sing, dance your way out of the silence and into the lit driveway of Love. Help is waiting for you! Listen to Logic’s song and memorize the title and call it. Just be messy, imperfect, and vulnerable. Know asking for help is Brave and Right.
Dear Lives Afraid to Speak up about a Loved One Struggling,
Please remember, it is better to say something, even if it is imperfect, then to say nothing at all. Say something like, “I don’t know what to say, but I love you and am so glad you told me. Let’s find someone who can help.” Stop saying, “They are just saying that for attention.” Stop ignoring or gossiping or seeing someone struggle from afar and do nothing. Do something, anything. We all need to know we matter. Lead with Love not Fear.
Dear All Ready to Break up with Stigma Alongside Me,
I hope we start to learn that hiding behind Stigma hurts not only ourselves but others. What if we all realized that when we see someone struggling and make fun of them or ignore them or don’t know what to say so we say nothing, that this is exactly what Stigma wants? It’s not going to be easy but I found help in this quote I found in Brené’s book Braving the Wilderness, “Stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don’t belong. You will always find it because you’ve made that your mission. Stop scouring people’s faces for evidence that you’re not good enough. You will always find it because you’ve made that your goal. True belonging and self-worth are not goods; we don’t negotiate their value with the world. The truth about who we are lives in our hearts. Our call to courage is to protect our wild heart against constant evaluation, especially your own. No one belongs here more than you.” (Brown, 2017, P.158)
Professional Disclaimer: The artists mentioned in this article are not a replacement for professional help for those struggling with suicide or rape, but they are powerful artistic expressions defying Stigma’s rules. Artists create expressions every day that are controversial. It is okay for people to not like them. Stigma loudly protests against messy and imperfect storytelling and we start blaming and fear-mongering. In regards to The Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, it is my professional opinion this is an eye-opener and it goes against what Stigma wants when it doesn’t offer a positive ending. Suicide, in real life, isn’t a positive ending. Listen to that uncomfortable feeling this series triggers and consider it a great starting point for others to recognize how they handle discomfort and pain: do we blame and shame, or increase our understanding and not silence ourselves from helping? Whether it is a helpful series or not, teenagers were glued to every episode quietly and secretly in their rooms. That tells me that this isn’t something okay to talk openly about with parents. This also tells me kids are hungry to find some place to understand this more. It is messy but also brings light to such a dark topic. It is okay that professionals disagree on this. The hope is to disagree and seek understanding, not stay quiet because it could possibly offend someone. Suicide is pervasive and sad and confusing, and we need more parents getting comfortable in the uncomfortable so kids can trust their parents to get out of their rooms and into an open space and talk about this together. This post is not intended to substitute for professional help, and I encourage individuals considering suicide to reach out to a professional who understands (1-800-273-8255 / https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/).
Resources for Parents of Teens: www.granthaliburton.org
Shane Koyczan’s TED talk https://www.ted.com/talks/shane_koyczan_to_this_day_for_the_bullied_and_beautiful
Netflix Series, 13 Reasons Why
*please check out the extra episode explaining the reasons behind the series
“Come out, Come out, Whoever you Are” article by Glennon Doyle in October 2017 issue of O Magazine
Brown, B. (2017) Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Random House.