I wrote Lauren’s Life about a month after she passed away, a time when I was in an everlasting fury of rage. I was angry at myself for not seeing the signs, I was angry at the medical system for failing to treat her correctly, I was angry at her ex-boyfriend for being the source of her depression and not telling us he knew she was suicidal, I was angry at my sister for not telling us herself.
Everything I wrote in that article was true. From Lauren’s stellar childhood to the mistreatment and infidelity she faced in her relationship, I disclosed every detail. But what I failed to expand on was Lauren’s battle with mental illness. It took me days going through draft after draft of writing:
Lauren battled her depression, As Lauren’s mental health deteriorated, Lauren suffered a psychotic break, Throughout Lauren’s depressive episode,
I finally settled at briefly touching on Lauren’s manageable generalized anxiety. I was so afraid of writing the words ‘mental illness’ because I didn’t understand it myself. I couldn’t untangle the complexity of mental illness, so I took the easy way out and shoved all of the blame on her ex and her doctors. I couldn’t grasp that my sister with a loving family, plenty of friends, and the most amazing future ahead of her would give it up for the uncertainty of death.
Prior to my sister, I knew of just three people that lost their lives to suicide. As I think back to them, I remember the gossip that buzzed around, “Who found them? How did they do it? Where did they do it?” almost every question under the sun was asked besides the most important of all:
What caused them to believe that life was not worth living?
Lauren and I attended Catholic school from pre-school to senior year, a place where God was discussed every day, but mental illness did not meet the criteria. The only time a teacher discussed suicide was that to inform us that it a mortal sin, you’ll be damned to hell for eternity, bad, wrong, don’t do it, end of discussion. I even think about my psych 100 class at UIC. I remember learning about genetic abnormalities, brain chemicals and imbalances – the science of mental illness, but never the risk factors, treatment options, and prevention.
It took me a very long time to change the question in my head from ‘how did I miss the signs?’ to ‘how did I go 23 years without learning the signs?’
The magic word here is stigmas.
Stigmas are what made me believe that mentally ill was synonymous with mentally insane. Stigmas are what caused me to think that a suicidal person had no friends, no family, and no future. Stigmas are what kept me from writing the words ‘mentally ill’ in fear that someone would think Lauren was talking to voices in her head and spending 72 hours straight in bed staring out the windows.
Stigmas are what kept me from understanding mental illness.
Lauren battled mental illness for as long I could remember. But mentally ill was not a term anyone used, Lauren was a perfectionist.
- She spent six hours a day studying after school, I thought she was a just determined.
- She joined more sports and activities that she could handle, I thought she just had great time management.
- She spent all of her money on new clothes, I thought she just had great taste.
- She never, in 6 years, called in sick to work, I thought she was just a dedicated employee.
- She spent an ungodly amount of hours getting ready everyday, I thought she enjoyed taking her time.
I never realized how wrong all of this was, how badly her anxiety controlled her life. It didn’t occur to me that she went to dire lengths to be the very best because she didn’t believe in herself, that there was a constant tapping on her shoulder telling her to do better, that she lived in constant fear of rejection. What’s worse? This was all before her psychotic break ever occurred.
Lauren lost her will to live the day she day she moved out of her boyfriend’s apartment. It put my mom and I in a frenzied panic. Despite her lack of happiness and bottomed-out self-confidence, she continued pursuing her doctoral degree and went to work every Sunday. After the constant persistence of my family, her doctor officially diagnosed her anxiety and she began seeing a therapist. We knew that Lauren was depressed, but believed that she was on the road to recovery. The only person I could compare my sister’s depression to was to my uncle’s. It took years of medication and therapy, but he recovered. I thought she would too.
Lauren stopped taking her medication and seeing her therapist a month after she started. She seemed to be improving, but all she really improved was the mask she wore. She learned to appease us by coming along on every family outing we planned for her, going out with her friends just enough not to raise suspicion, and no longer complaining about how she felt foggy and stupid. We fell harder for the mask as she fell harder into her depression with each passing day.
A month after Lauren left us, an organization called Hope For the Day conducted a presentation on suicide prevention at my office. I sat there with my jaw on the ground, mentally checking off every warning sign they touched on and thought: ‘Where were these guys a month ago?! If I had only known, I could have saved her!’
My life, my mindset, my purpose changed that moment.
I stopped denying my sister’s mental illness and started the conversation. I got certified in mental health first aid and made a promise that I will never let this happen to anyone again if I had the ability to intervene. I stopped writing the things that people wanted to hear and started writing about the things that needed to be said.
If there is one thing you can take from reading about Lauren, it is that mental illness is as real as day and you have the ability to educate yourself about it. Fill your brain with knowledge and your heart with compassion.
Learn From Lauren
Learn For Lauren
Live For Lauren
With all of my Love,
Lauren’s Little Sister