Brand building through storytelling

Invisible afflictions

I like to think I know how a life-threatening illness looks. Sunken eyes, pale skin, baldness from chemotherapy, perhaps a ventilator or a wheelchair. Oh, who am I kidding? Every day in Canada, 10 people die of an invisible affliction. Mental illness drives them to suicide, often in what should be their prime. Once in a while, they take other people with them. Yet until the unthinkable happened, they blended right in with everyone else.

Joshua Lall, the Calgary man who stabbed himself to death after killing his wife, two of their children and a tenant, was a sensitive, hard-working guy who adored his family and seemed headed for a bright future as an architect. Toward the end, he started hearing voices. He thought he was possessed by the Devil. According to the latest news reports, his wife died trying to protect the kids from the man who had been their protector.

I can’t get the Lall family off my mind. I look at their photos of their hopeful faces and want to throw my arms around them all, to pull them back from the precipice on which, for goodness knows how long, they had been standing. I think of Joshua’s parents, who were flying to the family’s aid and didn’t get there in time.

Joshua was 34. My son is 36.

I ask myself how a good person can fall through the pit of desperation with the shattering force that destroyed the Lall family. But the truth is, I know more than I want to know about the cancers of the mind that we call “mental illness.” A physical cancer is you against your disease. A cancer of the mind consumes you to the point that you become your disease. As Milton’s Satan says in Paradise Lost, “Myself am hell.” Yes, indeed.

Without trying very hard, I can think of 10 friends who have been scarred by the suicide of someone close to them. My father was an alcoholic who suffered from depression. I’ve been treated for depression myself. Tellingly, I didn’t call the mental health clinic until I began to have alarming fantasies involving bathtubs and razor blades. I was too ashamed. I thought if I had any guts, I could beat this thing on my own. After all, I was young and strong. It’s not as if I needed a transfusion or a cane.

When I was growing up in New Hampshire, the biggest insult any kid could hear was “cuckoo,” always said with a sneer and a whirligig motion of the finger beside the head. Sometimes we’d make wisecracks about “52 Pleasant Street,” supposedly the address of the state “nuthouse” (I never checked). These are more enlightened times in which celebrities go public about their struggles with mental illness (Brooke Shields and postpartum depression, Jane Pauley and bipolar disorder). Yet you have only to look at the the breathless disdain for the public meltdowns of Britney Spears to see that tolerance only goes so far.

In Canada health care rivals the Maple Leaf as our national symbol. Screening initiatives for cancer get big bucks and front-page headlines. Rightly so. But what about the unseen illnesses that poison lives all around us? If we really value health as much as we claim, it’s time we gave mental health the attention and support that it deserves.


Posted by Rona

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