This is what happens when I watch mainstream TV
Hello Internet, it’s Sunday, March 4th, and I have been watching Glee.
Now, if you are a great lover of Glee, I get it. If you can’t stand the show, I get that too. I live in the in-between realm where I can’t stand it for long periods of time, and then I’ll go back to it out of boredom one day and find myself unsatisfied until I have completely caught up on the series.
I am not really interested in talking about the show. But since I watched most of the current season in my bed yesterday in a fit of introversion, I have been thinking about something they brought up, briefly covered in a one-sided way, and then passed over.
It should be unsurprising to anyone who knows anything about Glee that they deal with the bullying of gay teenagers. They dealt with it for most of a season, actually. Right now, the issue is back, and appropriately so, since that issue is an ongoing fight in school hallways everywhere. And with the issue of gay teen bullying comes gay teen suicide.
I suppose I should warn anyone who is not up-to-date on the show that I am about to spoil something for you, in the vaguest terms that I can manage.
A character attempts suicide.
When this happens, and the other characters find out, most of them reach out to the person who made the attempt. One of them is angry with that character, though, expressing the feeling that suicide, or any attempt towards it, is fundamentally selfish and a giant middle finger to anyone and everyone who cares about them.
The character who feels this way is struck down by one statement, using terms like “reductionist” that I am pretty sure no emotional 17-year-old would have come up with. And that’s the end of it.
Ok, enough about Glee. Here is my story.
5 years ago this summer, my best friend, a man who had been struggling with his mental health for as long as I had known him, killed himself. He had made attempts before that, but they had always been unsuccessful. And they had always been explainable. Something had happened to trigger them.
When he succeeded, it took everyone – EVERYONE – by surprise. This man had a support system. His friends cared about him. They were there for him. And it seemed to us that he was doing better. He was making plans for the future. It has not been a good 6 months for him, but we all thought he was out of the woods.
And then, he didn’t call any of us. He made a choice and he followed through with it. It wasn’t a cry for help, as suicide attempts are often described. If he had wanted help, he would have reached out to the people he knew would help him. He made a deliberate decision to end his life.
There was a note. Several people he loved, and who loved him, were named in it. I was one of them. It wasn’t that he wasn’t thinking of us – that he didn’t know he had safe places to go and people to turn to. He apologized because he knew his choice would upset us. But he made that choice for himself.
I imagine the experience is different for everyone, but this is what happened to me: I felt everything all at once, until my system literally couldn’t handle it any more, and then, somehow, I felt nothing at all. I have always been lucky in my own mental health, and this is by far the closest I have ever come to damaging myself. I didn’t eat because I couldn’t feel hunger and was too apathetic to get up and cook, or even to order delivery. I could barely move. I focused on unrelated problems in my life because I couldn’t deal with my feelings about my friend’s death. I knew how to feel about those problems, so I felt things about them.
For the first few days, what I felt about the suicide was primarily a hollowness. I felt like there was a vacuum where my stomach should be. And that is just not a feeling that you can do anything about. It just sits there, sucking everything about you into oblivion.
My parents tried to help, and because they know me very well, they tried to help me name the feelings. Once I knew what they were, I might be able to deal with them. Guilt came up. It’s common for people to feel guilty about the death of loved ones, especially about suicides, because there is always something you could have said or done that could maybe have made a difference.
So I tried that.
Let me say that again. I tried to feel guilty about my best friend’s suicide.
But that was bullshit, and I knew it. No matter how many things I invented in my head that I could have done to prevent it, the simple truth was that he hadn’t reached out to me. He didn’t call. He didn’t email. He gave me absolutely no indication that he wasn’t continuing on what seemed to be an uphill path to relative health. The last thing I said to him was “I love you.” I was guilt-free, and there was nothing I could do about it.
So that wasn’t it, and I continued to feel hollow and hopeless.
I didn’t start to heal until I went to the market for a henna tattoo. This was a little tradition in my life while I was in Ottawa: every year, a few days before my birthday, I would go get some design drawn onto my skin in henna by a lady who had a stand down in the Byward Market. And, since it seemed that traditions – even meaningless ones – were as good a reason for leaving my bed and apartment as any, I went to fulfill it.
I was not hiding my emotional state very well. Actually, I wasn’t really even trying. I didn’t care what anyone thought of me. I cried in public. I went around feeling as though I was not really a participant in the world, like I was watching it all from a distance.
So when the lady with the henna tattoo booth asked me what was wrong, I told her. She, like every single other person I had told so far, said that I was very strong, which I think is mostly code for “I have no idea what to say to you but I would really like to take the brunt of this conversation off of your shoulders.” Then, she said something that I will never, ever forget.
“It’s all right to be angry.”
Oh my god. That’s it. I’m angry.
I’m not saying that a flare of light lit in my mind and I was suddenly able to get over the fact that my best friend had just died. But I knew what that feeling was – complicated, of course, by sorrow, and grief, and disappointment, and the practical need to remove an important person from every aspect of the future I’d imagined for myself – but on top of all of that, I was angry with him.
He left me, and I was mad at him for it.
And yeah, it was all right to feel that way. And since I knew what it was, I tried to understand the choice that had made me so angry, and then I forgave my friend for making that choice, and then I moved on.
If the situation is that a person has attempted suicide and survived, then it isn’t going to be helpful to yell at them, in the same way that it isn’t helpful to throw a frying pan through a window. But don’t tell me what to feel. If I am angry, I am angry. It’s a valid emotion. And I have every right to feel it, and to express it, to talk about it. If you don’t know what you’re feeling, how on earth are you supposed to deal with it in order to move past it?
So thank you, Glee, for kind of sort of dealing with what it’s like to survive a crisis of somebody else’s mental health. You failed. You failed because you told your audience – demographically an audience of young people who are likely at some point in the future to know someone who attempts suicide – Not To Be Angry. You said “It’s not about you” (which is true, and, I think, a very important thing to hear in such a situation), but then you said “you can’t be angry about someone else’s pain.”
Yes, writers of Glee. You bloody well can.