This has been a hard week emotionally. I just returned from a memorial service where I said a permanent goodbye to a sixteen year-old student and friend who I knew for all too short a duration. Earlier in the week I said a (hopefully) temporary farewell to another young lady I have grown fond of and learned so much from. The grief and sadness is a little easier the older I get because I have learned to accept the choices of others, even when that means I am deprived of their regular company.
Kaya came to one of the Mile High Bug Club events at Cheyenne Mountain State Park about three years ago. She got my attention immediately because she had driven down from beyond the Denver area just to hang out with a bunch of "bug nerds" and look at moths and other insects drawn to the blacklights during the night.
As we got to talking, I learned that she, too, is an only child, with divorced parents, and eclectic interests. The more I got to know her over the years the more in awe I became of her intellect, adventurous spirit, and easy-going nature. She will be on to a new job now, in a far-off city, but I look forward to staying connected, and seeing her again someday should we agree on a place to seek new and fascinating insects.
It occurs to me that while I have genuine affection for Kaya, she embodies qualities I wish I had when I was her age: confidence, mostly, but an even richer analytical mind, a fearless approach to new experiences, trust in others, endless curiosity, and a sense of freedom. Yes, that romantic notion of just going wherever your heart and soul take you. Dream on, live fully, my friend.
I met Erin Starkey, her brother Brad, and their mother in August of 2012 when we both turned out for a gathering of entomologists and insect photographers at a research station in southern Arizona. Imagine the surprise and delight to learn that we all lived in Colorado Springs. We got together again a handful of times, once for Erin's birthday if I recall correctly, and I shared books and insect specimens with her. I saw her last on my own birthday, last January.
Little did I know that she was equally enamored with all animal life, rabbits especially, and was a volunteer with our local Humane Society. I had no idea she was also artistically inclined, with a talent for songwriting, acting and directing, drawing, even animation. She was incredibly empathetic to the poverty-stricken, volunteering at shelters and soup-kitchens.
Unfortunately, I also did not know that she suffered from mental illness, and the spirit-sapping lows that come with that. On September 5, the heaviness got too much to bear and she took her life.
She wasn't wanting to leave us, of course, she was attempting to leave herself. At least that part of herself that conjured demons of emotional misery, dominating every part of her psyche. As if that dimension of your soul could be shed like a snakeskin, killed with the equivalent of a silver bullet....but it always takes everything else down with it. Some people try and wash that part of their mind away by drinking. Others smoke, snort, shoot up, or otherwise exorcise one dragon with another. Some people try and outrun their own ominous shadow by literally running away.
The empty, unsatisfying, and self-destructive remedies abound, all of them equally useless, a mere temporary fix that might get you to tomorrow, but still leave you with no future visible to you on your horizon. You have choices only in what Devils to bargain with, what form of suffering is the least painful.
"You could choose to be happy if you wanted to..."
No, that is not how depression works. That is not how anxiety works. That is not how obsessive-compulsive works. That's not how any of this works. As long as you insist that it is "all in your mind," or imply that one has control over their state of mind, you are doing a horrible disservice to those cursed with mental illness. Stop being so damn condescending and free your own mind to contemplate the possibility that others can be "wired" differently than you, you healthy, sunshiny son-of-a-....
Listen, we all have our deficits, our ills, our weaknesses, our genetic uniqueness. I guarantee that you know people with mental illness whether you are cognizant or not. The manifestation of madness is not always what we have been taught that it is. Your job is not to assume, not to dismiss, not to pity, not to stigmatize, but merely empathize.