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Column: Words are important, and stigmas hurtful

Sometimes at night when I hear the train whistles through an open window of my apartment, I think of Karen.

I think of that time she picked me up from a bar and we drove 30 minutes south to Jefferson City, Mo., to the Capitol building I’d spent so many hours in when I was 20. Behind the building, the great, wide Missouri River rolls steadily. Along its side, throughout the day and night, trains pass.

I don’t know how long we sat there that night behind the Capitol, staring at the river and watching the trains. For a while I kept count of them all, but then I stopped.

Karen is a writer also, living in the Pacific Northwest. So I won’t tell her story, but the part I will tell is mine.

I met her this spring. I’d been enrolled at the University of Missouri in a horrifying honors elective that called for me to make collages and keep a dream journal. I immediately balked. If you know me at all, this will come as no surprise. I searched for anything to fill the hole in my schedule and found a copy editing elective. That’s where I met Karen.

And then this May, I almost lost her.

As I said to her the first night she told me she was thinking about killing herself, the damage it would do to me would have been irreparable. She asked me how I would react. Or maybe she didn’t ask, exactly, but she made a comment – something like “Wouldn’t it just be easier for everyone?” “No,” I said.

I was desperate for her to understand, to sink those words into her very core – for her to know with no uncertainty that if she died, no, it wouldn’t be easier. No. It would scar me forever. No. I would never let it go. No. No. No. No.

The night I made her burn her suicide note, she came over and slept in my bed. We looked at pictures of rock dwellings, and she cried and complained of the constant pain in her head. I didn’t know what to do, so I held her.

I’m not a religious person at all, but I prayed a lot those 3 weeks. I didn’t know to whom I was praying or even what I was doing. But I did. Silent repetitions of the same thought: Please let her get better. Please.

An increasingly dire situation all came to a head one morning in the newsroom we both worked in. I was working a morning shift on the copy desk, and she had come in to talk to one of her mentors about how she’d been feeling. The next thing I knew, I was in the back seat of a borrowed SUV with a Pulitzer Prize winner and together we were taking Karen to the hospital. To the psych ward. I was terrified. Was this the right decision? Did she really need to go to a psychiatric hospital? I mean, really, wasn’t that a little aggressive? She’s not crazy.

Yes. Yes. No. True.

As much as I’ve spent my life trying to eschew most social stigmas and assess situations without their burden, I found myself playing right into this one. Karen. One of my best friends. In a psychiatric hospital where they have only a certain number of allotted visiting hours a day, and I wasn’t allowed to bring my Swiss Army knife keychain inside. Or my phone. Or anything. Where I visited Karen each of the 3 nights she spent there. Where I underwent metal detection before being escorted onto an elevator by a security guard. My Karen. In a psych ward.

That first day I visited, I went home and cried. It was the first time I’d cried about Karen. In fact, it was the first time I’d cried about anything in a long time. And then I prayed.

During our daily visits, we talked of the people she’d met there and what excellent fodder it would make for her memoir. “It’s like camp, but they don’t let you leave,” she told me. “Write that down.”

And then it was over, and she was out. And her medication had been readjusted, and her diagnosis updated, and she was better. She is better. She still struggles, she tells me, after I had her read this column. But the difference, she says, is that now she knows it gets better.

If there’s a silver lining to any of this, it’s that my understanding of mental health has been overhauled.

I’ve seen a psychiatrist since I was 17, as did a large number of my friends growing up. So I’ve always considered myself kind of a modernist when it comes to bringing the discussion of mental illness out from behind closed doors. But Karen’s time in the hospital really tested that. Without an adult intervening, I don’t think I would have taken her to the hospital because of that ingrained stigma. Looking back, the prospect of not having taken her is a horrifying one.

It’s a stigma I’ve talked about now at length with friends and family members. Just this past week, I talked about it with a new friend here in Sterling. He, too, has had his share of visits to a therapist, and together we talked about that and about the pervasive feeling in our culture that that’s a kind of “doctor’s visit” that isn’t discussed, and how that needs to change.

It’s a topic of conversation that came up during an hourlong, tearful (on my end) interview I had with Cheryl Robinson, whose son “died by suicide” in 2005. It was the first time I’d ever heard anyone say “died by suicide,” so I asked her about it.

To say “committed suicide,” she explained, implies a more deliberate act, like one has a real choice and that both options are equal. The nuance in her word choice makes sense, and creates an important distinction.

As a writer, I try to choose my words very carefully. I did it when I told Karen the damage would be “irreparable,” and now, with suicide, I’ll do the same.

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