I am so not an activist. Other than a few walks for peace and hunger in my high school years, I've been more focused on small arenas of activity: family, friends, church, the kids' schools.
And yet, here I am: a volunteer advocate for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. It's not a big deal, and I have no illusions of grandeur. Mostly it means that I introduce myself to our representatives and senators, which I've done via email, and keep in touch with them when issues warrant. There's a local chapter forming, and perhaps I'll become more involved with education and public speaking as opportunities arise. We'll see.
As I've already said, I haven't been much interested in suicide prevention activism. I've seen suicide primarily as a personal and family tragedy and, even if there were more to it, I haven't had the inclination to do more about it than write in my little blogs, and make the occasional presentation on care for grieving parents.
But my breast cancer experience has changed my attitude. I've experienced firsthand what the publicity and funding efforts of the past few decades have accomplished. When I was a girl, furtively reading my grandmother's women's magazines, I understood that breast cancer was a matter of such embarrassment, and the usual surgical treatment so extreme, that many women ignored their symptoms until their survival was unlikely. And if they were treated and survived, they seldom discussed what had been done to their bodies.
How times have changed! The world as we know it in October is PINK. No secrecy, no hesitation. We are far from a cure, but the research has come a long way, and treatment is dramatically different than it was 30 years ago.
And then there's suicide prevention. Little money, little publicity. Little knowledge. Great stigma.
My great-grandmother Robin Anderson, the woman for whom both I and my son Josh were named ~ Josh's middle name is Anderson ~ suffered from bipolar disorder, and attempted suicide at least once. (I learned the latter piece of information only recently, although it was no surprise to me.) Her daughter and only child, the beloved grandmother who played a huge role in my life until her death a few years ago, almost never mentioned her mother, and never described her challenges except to refer on occasion to her frequent hospitalizations at Johns Hopkins, where she was cared for by a college classmate of my grandmother's who had become a psychiatrist.
I am certain that Josh suffered from what was, to us, completely disguised severe clinical depression. And it killed him.
What if my grandmother had been more open? What if bipolar disorder had been discussed as freely then as breast cancer is today? What if mental health self-examination cards had been available to hang in the shower? What if colleges and clinics offered routine mental health screenings?
Would we have known what we were seeing? Would Josh have known what he was experiencing? Would someone among us all have known to seek help? Would there have been effective help?
Those left behind after a suicide face a lifetime of "What ifs?"
Maybe we could eliminate some of them.
I don't think that breast cancer activism has much need of me. And frankly, breast cancer has had little effect on our family, relatively speaking. But suicide has left a deep and terrible gash across our lives, one that will persist and will affect my grandchildren and then their children.
Maybe I could do my small part to stop it from doing worse.