it’s the best story pitch, the best, everyone thinks so

Press releases! As an arts writer for the Times Union, I get a million of them a day. Okay, I’m exaggerating a little. I get 796,321 of them a day, of which I manage to read only 239,547, principally because 431,446 of them get quarantined and classified as spam. And so, inevitably, stuff gets missed. Whenever a publicist asks sheepishly if I mind being approached a second time with a reminder email or a phone call, I reply OH GOD YES PLEASE ALWAYS I BEG OF YOU THANK YOU BLESS YOU. The squeaky wheel gets the grease!, I always add, laughing. They laugh, too. But this is dead serious business, trying to get a journalist’s attention.

Thus it was with unchecked dread, pitched anxiety and no small sense of cosmic ironic payback that I composed a press release pimping myself out for interviews. The reason: A story I told for “The Moth” is being published in a new collection coming in March. Plenty of other (MUCH, MUCH, MUCH BIGGER) names are also included in the collection, including Tig Nataro, Louis CK and John Turturro, and any self-respecting reporter or editor in his or her right mind would naturally seek out an interview with any of those people before ringing up some random regional-arts-writer-cum-suicide-memoirist (AND WHAT A FUN COMBO THAT IS) based in Smalbany, New York.

But what the heck, right? Maybe I could drum up a few more sales for my book (INSERT SHAMELESS LINK TO ‘FIGURING SHIT OUT’ AMAZON PAGE RIGHTY HERE). I mean, maybe not;  the thing was published more than two years ago, which might as well be 2,000 in the literary cosmos. (“Hi, would you like a copy of my recent book? The Emperor Tiberius loved it!”) But, ya know. Squeaky wheel gets the grease.

So here goes. With no further ado, I present my first-ever stab at a press release. (And, yes. I sent it.)

Greetings, journalist! I’m one, too, so I know how this works: The chance of your responding to a cold email hovers somewhere between 2 and 5 percent. The chance of your actually writing a story on the topic being pitched is roughly .08 percent. That said. . .  

 I’m an author and speaker on suicide loss. I’m also one of the 45 folks whose stories for “The Moth Radio Hour” were selected for a new collection coming March 21 from Crown ArchetypeThe Moth Presents All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown. The link:
My story, “The Weight of a Ring,” tells of my navigation through widowhood following the 2011 suicide of my husband, author Christopher D Ringwald. If you’re curious, and you have 11 minutes and 11 seconds to spare, it’s right here:
If you have a little more time on your hands (not too much more — it’s short), I’d be happy to send you a copy of my book, Figuring Shit Out: Love, Laughter, Suicide and Survival, released in 2014 by Behler Publications. It tells of the rough year following Chris’s death, and it’s a fast, raw read, full of MAJOR EMOTIONAL OUTBURSTS IN ALL CAPS and plentiful foul language. That link:
And now, to reward you for making it this far, I present several more links: 
*My blog, which also features MAJOR EMOTIONAL OUTBURSTS IN ALL CAPS and occasional foul language:
*My TEDx talk, “You’re Still Here: Living After Suicide,” in which I repeatedly exhale loudly:
*An interview with me in Widows & Widowers magazine, in which I discuss the term “shit magnet”:
*My author’s bio:
*Some links to my current work as an arts writer and columnist for the Times Union in Albany, NY:
*Some links from my former life as a Hearst movie critic:
*Finally, the Amazon page for my late husband, who wrote authoritative, erudite, poetic books on faith and addiction:
Aaaaaand that’s about it. If you’re interested in my book, just let me know, and I’ll mail or email you one at warp speed. I am also available for interviews, be they short and sweet or long and prolix. I am capable of either.  
Thank you for reading my email to the end! We both survived! Good luck clearing the thickets of your inbox, and may you have a lovely day. 
Best regards,
Amy Biancolli 



how suicide feels to the living

A morning-after addendum:

I want to make clear one point. I believe that that the act of suicide, carried out in a final, distended moment of incomprehensible darkness, is not a choice. In that final moment, people are altered by pain and incapable of rational decision-making. They are other than themselves. But this is exactly why an open conversation needs to happen now: Because we need to reach people before they’re other, before they’re altered, before they’re incapable of hearing a story or having an insight that might, someday, prevent them from hitting that final moment.
I often think about the things I might have said to stay my sister’s hand, as it clutched those pills that night, or to stop my husband from jumping on that sad, sunny morning. It’s too late now. Probably it would have been too late then. But perhaps I can say something today that might help someone else tomorrow — so they never reach the airless, senseless dark of their last act.

Original post:

You’ve probably read about the latest research showing a steady and alarming uptick in American suicides. I saw the headline this morning, took a deep breath and dove in, recalling a friend’s remark after my sister killed herself. “I know what it means to be shocked but not surprised,” she wrote in her condolence letter. And I thought: That’s exactly right. Only someone already familiar with suicide would describe it that way.

My sister had been far too sick for far too long, and suicide always loomed. My husband’s descent was faster, steeper and more abrupt, but suicide still loomed. In both cases, the difference between the looming and the loss was the difference between the fear of being punched and a right cross to the head; it’s a blow you want to duck, believe me. You don’t want to know how it feels to lose a loved one to suicide. And yet you should know. You need to know. If more of us knew how it felt, maybe fewer of us would wreak that terrible pain on others.sunset pic

Suicide is less rare than it was, but it’s still uncommon enough – and not discussed enough – to feel like an aberration from the norm and an outrage against life itself. So it is. But the outrage won’t abate, the epidemic won’t recede, unless and until we can discuss it in a public forum that includes not just grieving survivors, not just people struggling with suicidality themselves, but everyone. Everyone! This is a struggle that needs to be acknowledged, owned and addressed by all, even the people who are not directly affected and (God willing) never will be. Men wear pink ribbons for breast cancer research, don’t they?

So here’s what I’m going to do right now. I’m going to start by describing exactly how it feels to lose a loved one to suicide – the shock that’s not a surprise.


  1. It makes no sense.
  2. It makes you question the mercy of God and the laws of the universe, even if you believe in both.


  1. It makes no sense.
  2. It makes you question the mercy of God and the laws of the universe, even if you believe in both.
  3. It’s all you can think about, even when you’re thinking about something else.
  4. You feel guilty.
  5. You cry until your nasal cavity collapses and your eyeballs melt.
  6. You feel shredded to pieces of confetti thinness.
  7. You wonder if you’ll ever feel normal again.


  1. It still makes no sense.
  2. It still makes you question the mercy of God and the laws of the universe, even if you believe in both.
  3. It’s still all you can think about, even when you’re thinking about something else, and even when the outside world wishes, for your sake, that you could think about something else.
  4. You still feel guilty, even when you know you shouldn’t.
  5. You still cry until your nasal cavity collapses and your eyeballs melt, just a little less often.
  6. You still feel shredded to pieces of confetti thinness.
  7. You still wonder if you’ll ever feel normal again, even as you wear your Hello, I Am Officially Normal! face for the outside world.
  8. You wonder whether everyone else you love will leave you, too.
  9. You feel as though there must be something wrong with you.


  1. It still makes no sense. No way around it.
  2. By now, enough joy and beauty have dropped into your life that you’re able to see the mercy of God, if God is something you believe in. You still question the laws of the universe, though.
  3. You can now think about other things, but here’s the catch: The loss lingers as white noise, humming under everything. It’s always there. It defines you.
  4. No way around the guilt, either. It’s part of the white noise.
  5. The further removed you become from the loss, the less you cry. But the loss is as huge as it ever was. And when you do cry, your nasal cavity still collapses and your eyeballs still melt.
  6. Same goes for the confetti. You’ll never feel entirely whole and healed, even as you wear your Look At Me, Peeps, I’m Good As New! face for the outside world.
  7. And you’ll never feel entirely normal again, either. You begin to realize that only a thin line separates the abnormal from the normal, the insane from the sane, those who kill themselves from those who grieve in the aftermath.
  8. Sometimes the people you love do leave you, via death or other avenues. And each successive loss digs up the stinking muck of all the others, making you even more frightened of yet more loss. Forever after, you’ll question the permanence and solidity of everything and everyone around you.
  9. You’re now absolutely convinced that there’s something wrong with you, especially when someone in the outside world implies you ought to be over it by now. But you know you’ll never be over it. There is no getting over it. There’s only going through it, again and again and again, with faith in love and a stubborn hope that life, no matter how often it’s hurt you, will lead you to joy in the end.


bombings aren’t suicides

The horror in Paris has me thinking again about the failures of that word “suicide.” I first wrote about this back in March, when Germanwings pilot Andreas Lubitz killed himself and 150 other people when he flew a plane into the Alps. I was struck then, and I’m struck now: we need different terminology to describe a mass murder that involves the death of the killer, too.

Whenever I hear of a suicide bombing, I wince. I think: that’s not suicide. That’s not the same sort of action, driven by the same sort of mental state, that caused the deaths of too many loved ones in my life, dear souls who bear no kinship with the murderers in Paris. My husband and sister bore no hate in their hearts for others. They were compassionate, decent and bountifully giving people driven by love, and the pain that caused their suicides was an excess of feeling that could find no outlet short of death. They didn’t mean to extend that pain to others when they died; that wasn’t their intent. They were beyond intent. They were beyond thinking about anything but escape.

What black thoughts felled them had nothing to do with the darkness that infects extremists, who strip themselves of the very human fiber that binds us all. A man or a woman driven by hate who enters a teeming public space and detonates a vest is acting not out of self-loathing, not out of inward pain, but from the loathing of others and the monstrous conviction that outward pain can serve some higher purpose. They blow themselves up not because they feel too much but because they feel too little. They’ve already rid themselves of their humanity. They’ve already annihilated themselves.

And so a suicide bombing isn’t really “suicide” — in Latin, the killing of the self. In such bombings, the human perpetrator is simply collateral damage, a mere ambulatory shell that allows the explosives to reach their intended targets. Call the act for what it is: an auto-detonation, no more than using one’s body as a weapon of mass murder. Suicide has nothing to do with it, because the self has nothing to to do with it. By that point, it’s already dead. Were the self still living, it would stop, cry out in horror and cast the intact vest aside, then fall to the ground and weep with shame.


no word for what happened in the alps

The news that Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz might have crashed deliberately into the Alps, killing 150 people, has left officials and everyone else at a loss for words. One in particular: a word that can capture all those deaths and the madness behind them. “Suicide” doesn’t cut it. If Lubitz was driven principally by the urge to kill himself – and just happened to kill everyone else because they happened to be riding on his suicide method of choice – than that’s more than self-murder. That’s a chilling and catastrophic failure of empathy that no one phrase can capture.

Every suicide wreaks collateral damage. Every suicide has victims beyond the one who dies: just ask anyone who’s answered a phone or a doorbell to learn a beloved someone jumped, swallowed, pulled a trigger. One of the mysteries of suicide is the darkness of that final moment, the whys and how-could-they’s of it, the realization that we can never know. Was it some drug they went on or off? Was it crushed romance, lost job, lost sleep, some other trigger that worsened or prompted depression? And how could they do it to everyone they loved? My husband and sister were two of the most caring people I knew. And yet the darkness prevailed, wounding the rest of us as it killed them.

But Lubitz’ final act was something else. Assuming the reports and their implications are accurate, it was more than suicide. It was more than murder-suicide. It was mass-murder-suicide, a slaying of himself and everyone with him in a moment so black that he lost all light and reason — and a sudden plunge downward into lifelong grief for 150 families. If the Latin-derived word “suicide” means a killing of one’s self, what could we possibly call a killing of one’s self and far too many others? A praeterside, or a killing “beyond”? Suieoside, or a killing of “me” and “them”?

I don’t know. I can’t know, because this is beyond meaning: nothing to coin, nothing to parse. No sense anywhere, no way to define it. There is no decent word for it but horror.

dana perry, graham moore, and what mattered at the oscars

You know which two moments really mattered at the Oscars this year. You know because they jumped off the screen with their audacity, authenticity, humanity and courageous, revelatory love.

The first occurred when Dana Perry, hefting her award for best documentary short, dedicated it to her late son, Evan. “We lost him to suicide. We should talk about suicide out loud. This is for him.” The second came when Graham Moore, hefting his own hunk of Oscar for adapted screenplay, revealed that he had tried to kill himself at age 16. “I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different or she doesn’t fit in anywhere. Yes, you do.”

The suicidal urge and action are a mystery. What form and depth this darkness takes, no one can imagine. Answers will always escape us, just as answers always elude the living in the weeks and months and years following such a death. The whys, the what-ifs, the how-could-this-bes. The what-could-we-have-dones. All were asked after Robin Williams took his own life. All are asked after every suicide. My husband’s, my sisters, everyone’s. We ask the questions. We cup our hands to our ears. There is no reply to be heard. There isn’t anything we can say — to each other, to the dead — to satisfy the urge to know why it happened, the need to nail down its cause and meaning.

But we can still say something. Maybe there’s no answer to hear, but we can still fill the void with our love and electric impulse to connect. We can still speak of the unspeakably hard, because only by talking can we ease our pain and the pain of others.

Perry was right: This needs to be discussed. Moore was right: We need to make room for eccentricity, difference, all that makes us singularly and miraculously who we are.

Let’s talk to each other. And then let’s listen.

vita nuova

vita  nuova page 1

After my father tried to kill himself with sleeping pills in 1974, he spent nine days in a coma, attached to a snarl of tubes as his body and his brain flushed out the toxins. Then he spent six months in pure talk therapy at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn., where his mind and his spirit did their best to purge despair.

I remember visiting the place with Mama and my sister Lucy. The grounds were lovely and collegiate and lousy with overfed squirrels who ran right up to us and boldly demanded snacks. We would visit once a week, if memory serves, walking the grounds with my father, curling up on his bed with him (“Drink him up, girls”) and meeting fellow patients who called him Lou and smiled with thanks as he gave them candy. He always gave everyone candy; Daddy’s magic pockets were full of peppermints and crystal blues and doodads, rubber bands and paper clips and stamps.

One young man there truly loved him, gave him a copy of an Elton John album that my father never listened to (he was more of a Beethoven and Tin Pan Alley man) but I did. I remember huddling over a little blue record player, the kind that closed with a buckle, and listening to “Your Song” until the words entered my pores and then my bloodstream and finally my heart. I can’t hear that song now without thinking of Daddy, his time at the Institute, or the pale, sweet boy who gave him this record with the aching ballad of love and blue eyes (or green). I still have it somewhere. I’m not sure where.

I have other reminders of those days. The little ceramic rabbit he made in art, for one. For another: every memory of my father that followed his hospital stay. Because he came home. The talk therapy stuck. He was always a little strange after that, and the coma, combined with some other form of dementia, did a number on his short-term memory. But he never attempted suicide again. He lived another 18 years, dying at age 85 from heart failure after a fall.

Just tonight, digging through an attic drawer in search of a working pen, I found something else: Some of the notes Daddy made during those six months in Hartford. What caught my eye in particular were four small, pulpy sheets torn from a pad and covered with his idiosyncratic (to say the least), borderline-illegible handwriting. But it’s legible enough, this time. And it’s profound: a beautiful, powerful statement of life and hope from a man who had given up on both. Its title, I’m guessing, is an homage to Dante’s “La Vita Nuova” (“The New Life”), not surprising for an author who pored over the classics, worshiped the written word, worked his tongue at 16 languages and translated “The Divine Comedy” out of sheer love of poetry.

I cherish this little scribbled document — this determined scrabble of light and gratitude in the wake of terrible pain. It says all anyone has to say about the will and the need to keep moving and loving with purpose. I’m glad he lived to say it. I thank him for it. I love him for it. It gave him new life, and it gave me my father. It’s my Vita Nuova, too.

Vita Nuova
-To be grateful for every breath.
-To be interested in everything concerning and absorbing humanity.
-To be doing something or other, preferably constructive and progressive in development — but to be immersed.
-To learn to concentrate for longer and longer periods and perhaps always a little more fruitfully.
-To value every moment with my dear ones as a precious jewel, unique and irreplaceable.
-To be of help, in small or large matters, whenever possible among my fellows in other settings and gatherings.
-To get back, with new glasses — badly needed — to reading — linguistics, etc., anything, even murder mysteries, for puzzles and relaxation.
-Perhaps to plan a book about word origins, backgrounds and relationships.
-To be grateful for today — to dwell happily on the thoughts of tomorrow, and placidly on the problems of yesterday.
-To learn from my mistakes, particularly the MISTAKE, and know such impulsive, undermined behavior is completely buried in the past and beyond repetition.
-To be ever grateful for the love others bear me and return it with warmth and pride.
-TO LIVE! And to help others live more fully.


robin williams, again: on ‘cowardice’ and compassion


I hadn’t planned on writing again about Robin Williams’ death (I hadn’t planned on it the first time), but each new suicide kicks up some dust from the old ones. And when Fox News’ Shepard Smith called Williams a coward, I almost choked.

Smith has since apologized. Good. He should have. Still, some points need to be made, here.

First: Williams wasn’t a coward. My husband wasn’t a coward. My sister wasn’t a coward. My dear friends who killed themselves weren’t cowards. They were good, loving, generous and sensitive people who battled demons so vicious and alienating that they believed they were better off dead.

I’ve said this before, I’ll say this again, I won’t stop staying this, ever: suicide never makes sense. Neither Williams’ misery nor the misery of those left behind can be explained by any worldly logic. But the hurt that his death afflicted on his loved ones doesn’t negate the agony he was in — God only knows for how long — or the compassion that it merits from us.

No, he wasn’t a coward. Cowards aren’t people in pain. Cowards aren’t people who face and fight a crushing urge to die. Cowards are people who make snap judgments out of fear. Who look down at those who suffer. Who fail to regard another person’s torment with anything but love.

Second: The pain that suicide inflicts on its survivors is beyond all human ken. So the natural human response is, inevitably: WTF? THAT couldn’t have happened, because THAT PERSON was loving and giving and good. THAT PERSON would not have grievously wounded his family and friends. THAT PERSON would never have given up on life. THAT PERSON wouldn’t do that.

Now, this word “do.” Hmmm. That’s a verb. Did you notice? It implies a subject, an agent, an actor in the broad sense. Someone must actively do suicide. It isn’t done to them. It never just happens. It involves an act. The problem with any act is that it suggests a choice; and the problem with suicide is that the act is so damned unconscionable, it causes so much damage, and it prompts so many powerful, elemental surges of bafflement and anger. How could it not?

And yet suicide is not a choice. Is it an act carried out in the depths of self-loathing? Yes. Is it a rational decision? No. My husband was so altered by depression, sleep deprivation and anxiety — so alien and muddled in his thinking — that he was, by the time he stood at the lip of that roof, taking those actions, an entirely different person. He was logically incapacitated by mental illness.

So, no, his suicide wasn’t a choice. It was an impulse followed in the dark of a fleeting moment after too many such fleeting moments. Had that impulse ended and the moment passed, he might still be here. It didn’t, so he isn’t, so I and all who loved him are left to parse the larger lessons from his death.

They’re the same lessons we’re parsing now in the wake of Robin Williams’.

Lesson number one: We need to talk about mental illness. We need to see it with clear eyes and a caring heart. We need to not run away from it because it frightens us or confuses us or cuts too close to home. We need to be brave and smart. We need to stare it in the face. We need to see it in others’ faces. We need to see it in our own.

Lesson number two: We need to choose, with absolute conviction, to live. Sanity is too tenuous in this world, pain is too prevalent, to take too lightly the possibility that any of us could break. Even if Williams didn’t rationally choose death, we must rationally choose life in the aftermath. We must do what we can to keep ourselves sane and grounded on this beautiful mess of rock and air and water. We must treat each day as a gift and give in return. We must promise to make choices with the highest possible yield of love, for love, in the end, is the only real buffer against the spasms and agonies that befall us.

Anyone who reaches the ledge of suicide is past all reason. Because of that, we need to step away from it now. We need to profess to each other a commitment to living now. We need to promise now not to kill ourselves — and must act, however we’re able, against the encroaching blackness.

We need to make those choices when we can, so we never reach the moment when we can’t.

robin williams: only the love makes sense

Like a lot of people, I learned of Robin Williams’ apparent suicide on Facebook. And when I did, I dropped my phone onto the kitchen counter and wept. Really wept. The first words out of my mouth were directed at him: You didn’t just do that to your wife and kids. The second were prayers for them, because my kids and I know. We know how it feels to be on the receiving end — of the pain, and of the prayers. One was hell. The other was not quite heaven, but an earth where at least we felt ourselves carried by love. God has many hands, I often said in the months following my husband’s fatal leap.

No one knows what to say after a suicide. Some people, too afraid to say the wrong thing, say nothing. If we can’t find reason or meaning or some lenitive hope behind a death, how can we console in its aftermath? How can we say anything that soothes, relieves, explains?

We can’t. You can’t. There’s nothing that soothes or finds reason after a suicide. There is none. All there can be, all anyone can ever express to the grieving and each other, is love. All we can do is promise to love one another better in the brief time we have.

Here’s what you should say to suicide survivors: anything. Here’s what it means to them: everything. Here’s the best explanation for their loss: nothing. There is no explaining either the act of suicide or the anguish that leads someone to commit it. If we could understand one, we could understand the other; instead, all we can do is parse the turns and tragedies in a person’s life, the drugs or depression or dalliances with all the wrong psych meds or snake oils or habits of self-abasement, and even then, we don’t have an explanation. We only have a narrative.

All the baffled postings on Facebook reflect this horror in the face of cosmic unreason and embattled faith. And indeed we should be baffled. Indeed there should be horror: suicide should never be treated lightly. How could Robin Williams, a brilliant, explosively insightful, comic-genius man-child who brought joy to so many for so long, have done this to himself and his loved ones? Expect everyone everywhere, every online gossip site and supermarket rag, to dig deep into the causes. Maybe we’ll learn there was an obvious trigger. Maybe we won’t.

Either way, Williams’ death will never make sense — just as my husband’s death will never make sense, just as no suicide will ever make sense. Not in this world. For suicide is a violation of all that we know to be true: that life is precious; that love prevails; that parents will put their children first; that light and joy and hope are stronger, infinitely so, than darkness and despair.

No. It will never make sense. It shouldn’t.

What does make sense: the love that surrounds Williams’ family now and in the long months ahead of them. That’s the love that will prevail. That’s the light that conquers. And they’ll emerge from that darkness. They will. They will.

dr. wisdom chimes in

NOTE: A blog reader has informed me that I was too hard on Dr. Wisdom — that the post below is too personal and mocking. Maybe it is. And maybe I should have left Dr. W. out of the conversation entirely.
But if my email exchange with this anonymous retired psychiatrist should serve any purpose, it’s this: to inspire us all to conduct our dialogue about mental illness in a manner both frank and civil. And anyone who believes we shouldn’t be talking about such things in public? Let them just go on believing it. It won’t affect us. We won’t stop talking.
Carry on.


Not so long ago, I received quite the imperious email from a retired psychiatrist. This had never happened to me before, although I did get an absolutely vile one from a hand surgeon years ago, after I gave a positive review to Michael Moore’s “Sicko.” The guy told me he despised me. In those words. Swell. I vowed not to have any fingers reattached by him any time soon.

By comparison, the letter from the shrink wasn’t vile, only arrogant — the sort of arrogance that feigns patronizing concern for one’s well being, a la, “Tsk, tsk, young lady, you shouldn’t be conducting yourself that way!” This came in response to a Times Union reprint of a blog post of mine exhorting people to talk about mental illness. In it, I mentioned my husband’s and sister’s suicides and my father’s attempt, all of which I’d written about before.

I was flooded with responses from readers describing their own and loved ones’ struggles with depression, bipolar, suicidality, addiction. Not a one took issue with my premise — that we need to talk about this scourge if we’re to have any hope of combating it — until I got the email in question.

It’s a stunner. It starts out expressing sympathy, then identifies the writer as “a retired psychiatrist who understands this subject better than most people.”

Ahhh. Dr. Wisdom. Nice to meet you.

I’m tempted to quote the email in its entirety, because it’s breathtaking in its presumption, pretensions and limited view of the world. The gist of it’s this: that Dr. Wisdom thinks I shouldn’t be airing out my woes in public. Thinks no one should. Thinks Facebook revelations are “pathetic.” Thinks we’re all better off discussing such things in private, with our closest friends and family and “a skilled professional” — like, say, Dr. Wisdom.

“It is unnecessary to satisfy everyone’s prurient interest in the details of one’s life. What kind of reaction are we looking for when we beat our chests to the world about how we have ‘survived’ this or that trauma or hardship? Admiration? Pity?”

According to Dr. Wisdom, we should always to turn a stoic, shiny face to outsiders: “I, personally, wish to be seen and appreciated for my strengths and I am careful to keep aspects of my life experience that may be viewed by others with pity or contempt confined to my private sphere of relationships, if at all.”

That’s an interesting word: “strengths.” Because I’m not so sure I have any, aside from the strength that comes from realizing I’m broken. Aren’t we all weak? Don’t we all get punched sideways and pushed flat? Doesn’t a sane and happy life come from facing that? Isn’t that the paradox of being human?

The email continues:

“The best place to work out one’s issues is within oneself. Don’t look for the world at large to validate you. The world is and has always been, at best a callous and, at worst a cruel place, and, no matter how we may protest or struggle against this, it is unlikely to change.”

I have nothing against psychiatrists or other mental-health practitioners, by the way. I regard them as I do all specialists — i.e., as people to be visited on an as-needed basis, like orthopedists. But, like orthopedists, some are better than others.

After reading the email, I decided I felt sorry for Dr. Wisdom. What a miserable and lonely way to go through life, convinced that you can’t reveal yourself to anyone but those in an airtight inner circle. How confining that is. And how useless. What’s the point of living if we don’t connect with others? What’s the point of pain if we don’t acknowledge it, reach out with it, start new conversations, find new commonalities, make new friends — and maybe help out someone in the process?

Good can come from bad. But only if we talk about it. Only if we share ourselves with others.

I did zap a reply to Dr. Wisdom, noting that my husband’s death was a news story covered throughout the region. And Dr. Wisdom did apologize, but only because mine was a public loss; that made my decision to write about it acceptable. (“I was referring in my note to those who feel the need to be the ones to spread the news, which does not apply in your case.”)

I didn’t respond to this apology. It wasn’t worth it. Dr. Wisdom wasn’t worth it. But the whole exchange reminds me, once again, that we have a long way to go in discussing mental illness with compassion — and without judgment — in a manner that helps everyone, patients and families alike.

I’m going to put this bluntly: Anyone has the right to talk about anything that happens to them. When trauma hits you, whatever shape it takes, whether it happens in public or private, however uncomfortable it makes other people, you bloody well own it. You can deal with it however you need to deal with it. You can stuff it down. You can see a shrink. You can air it out. You can talk about it, write about it, sing songs about it, make art about it, push for change on it.

You can decide what to do with your own pain. It’s yours.

let’s talk about mental illness, really

Happy Lou, long after the storm.

Happy Lou, long after the storm.

On the horn with Madeleine recently, she asked me: “Mom, did you read Nicholas Kristof?” This is a question that she often asks and always makes me happy. That my 20-year-old daughter reads The New York Times and keeps such close tabs on her favorite columnists warms the cockles of my newswoman’s heart, whatever the heck cockles are. (And are they normally that cold?)

Turned out Kristof’s column a couple Sundays back raised an issue that cuts close to home for us. He called on the news media to stop neglecting mental illness — to address it honestly, compassionately and comprehensively, looking at real people who struggle with depression or eating disorders or suicidality or P.T.S.D., rather than weighing in with generalizations after the latest mass shooting. “All across America and the world, families struggle with these issues,” he wrote, “but people are more likely to cry quietly in bed than speak out.”

No one likes to talk about mental illness. The thought alone unsettles, embarrasses, terrifies. After my father attempted suicide with sleeping pills in 1974, he spent nine days in a coma and six months undergoing pure talk therapy at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn. — which worked — and I spent those same six months not answering the unspoken questions of everyone at school. One kid who dared mention my daddy’s stay in a psych hospital got promptly shushed by a teacher. And I remember thinking, more or less, “What the fuh?” The message was clear: This type of illness, with this type of hospital stay, is not to be discussed.

Bullshit. We need to talk about it. It hits people.

My father recovered from his depression and went on to live another 18 years — no psych meds, no recurrence, though the coma probably hastened his dementia. My sister and husband weren’t as lucky. I’ve now written about all three of them (two in my last memoir, one in my next one), so I’ve obviously overcome any lingering reluctance to discuss suicide in a public forum.

It’s all out there; I’m all in. I don’t have much choice in the matter. Because, face it, if I decided I couldn’t talk about the people in my life who’ve been affected by mental illness, I WOULD HAVE VERY FEW THINGS TO TALK ABOUT.

As a people, 21st-century Americans are open to discussing so many things: our sex lives, our hoarding, our fights against life-threatening ailments. But when we try to discuss this brand of fight and this brand of ailment, our jaws lock. We can’t go there — not because it’s all too alien. Because it’s all too familiar. Because too many of us have cried quietly in bed ourselves, or have heard a loved one’s weeping.

There’s no cause for shame in mental illness, no cause to feel isolated. We only think we’re alone because we’re so tight-lipped, so scared. Every time I’ve lost a beloved someone to suicide, people have emerged from the shadows to confess that they had, too.

How can we combat this scourge if we don’t face the darkness squarely? How better to nurture and bulwark our own peace of mind than to name the insanity, call it out, give it form, understand it, find its weakness, see its depths? How better to stay sane and alive ourselves — which are, in the end, one and the same thing?

So let’s talk about it. Really. And let’s start now.