Hope… cus i usually can’t help but smile

Photo by Cindy Svec - copyright 2013 VisitCedarKeyOn a routine school day in April 2005 our family awoke to discover that Jenine, our 14-year-old daughter, had hung herself during the night.  The notes and instructions she left behind left no doubt that it was intentionally and elaborately planned.  What drives a tender child to such desperation?  Given our affectionate family life, I could not fathom what signs I had missed, for surely, how could a mother have not known?  Jenine had been out of sorts, alternately quiet and irritable, when she wasn’t being her normal, vibrant self – but what teenager isn’t moody?  It was months later that I understood from Jenine’s own secret writings that behind her characteristic exuberance and ‘bounce’ was a deep undercurrent of depression.

In her own eloquent words Jenine described her state of mind in her private online blog a month and a half before she took her life:

merde. i am in so much pain. this just proves that once i stop feeling depressed all the time, then it hits. this huge dark  forbiding cloud of depression swallows me and will not let me go. my only escapes?  i  can start to feel a little better by having some cherry vanilla cream soda and reading an anime book, or watching the reduced shakespeare company.  but i cant get away from it.  it wont let me go.  so much bad stuff happens…  just so all you konw, i am not just some stupid suicidal teen.  there is more to me than that, but i am depressed…. its in my genes, and i cant get away from this. i want to escape. i want to stop wanting to die, and i want to stop wanting to cut myself, but it is just so hard, especially with things getting worse…. i dont know….. i havent smiled a real smile and meant it all day, and [..*!@#], that is huge for me, cus i usually cant help but smile.

Hope is a concept that lost meaning for me in the past year since Jenine took her life.  Anticipated life events are too painful to contemplate as they demand to be rewritten lacking the vibrant presence of Jenine.  (Her eyes sparkled with playful intensity, and as her younger brother describes her, “Her smile literally lit up the room”.)  In reality our family of five – now four – lost track of our future the day we lost Jenine.  Survivors of suicide are advised to ‘live one day at a time.’  This is not only good advice but a matter of survival.  Our world was fundamentally rearranged when Jenine was lost to us.

It’s now been a full year since her death, and it FELT like: …one …day …at …a …time.  It’s been the longest year of my life.  With all that energy going into the present, I had only dread for the future.  Survivors are also advised to observe milestones commemorating the life of their loved one.  On the one-year anniversary of her death, we gathered teen friends and adult friends together with family to remember Jenine’s life.  We called the event “Jenine’s Gift” to help us bring to mind how she made our lives better and richer.  Our 18-year-old daughter organized a coffee house open mike, and with courage and optimism led some 50 of us to openly share memories, stories and songs.  Shortly after, we gathered in a park to “liberate” 1,000 origami cranes that students at Jenine’s high school had made in the confused and distressing weeks after her suicide.

The upcoming events inspired something in me, and with surprise I recognized it as a spark of hope.  I addressed the small gathering in the park that morning with my reflections, which I have reproduced and polished a bit here.

Hope has not been a friendly word to me this last year.  In fact, I’m not sure I knew what the word meant any more.  But as I reflect, I am aware of a hope emerging in me.  And this hope involves you who knew Jenine and were touched by her and by the tragedy of her death.  It appears that Jenine was suffering from a disease – an illness called major depression or a related disease called bipolar disorder.  When events discouraged her, her mood plummeted and she felt completely hopeless – like nothing was ever going to get better.  That’s what happens in the mind of a depressed person – to the point that she kept her desire to die a secret from those that might have helped her.  The great tragedy is that there are effective treatments for these diseases.

Recently a scientist searched the internet and found

…my Google search on ’depression’ revealed a publication that identified sin as the cause of depression.  Initial amusement quickly gave way to the sobering recognition that this simplistic formulation conveyed a prevalent, if generally unarticulated, belief that depression is not a real illness but, rather, the result of a personal failing – moral, spiritual or adaptational.  [Rubinow, David M.D. New England Journal of Medicine, March 23, 2006]

Jenine tried very, very hard to ‘tough it out’ and solve her ‘personal failing’, waiting for her recurrent black cloud to let her go.  The problem is that mood disorders are NOT ‘personal failings’ – they are physical ones that involve interactions between our genetic makeup and the environment.  As with illnesses like high blood pressure or diabetes, a combination of learning new behavior and the right medication is needed to adjust the chemical imbalance that underlies the disease. But, before sufferers like Jenine will feel safe and know they don’t have to ‘go it alone’, our culture needs to treat depression like a “real illness”.

I had suffered with the recurrent depression and less frequent manic states since I was a teenager.  I had 20 more years than Jenine to overcome my paralyzing fear of being ‘labeled’.  When the depressions became deeper and more frequent I sought psychiatric help for the first time and was successfully diagnosed and treated at age 34. The best news of my life came with the realization, “There really IS something wrong with me, and my condition can be treated ”!

Long ago I told Jenine about my illness and my medication.  In the months before her suicide, she began therapy when her father and I learned to our horror that she was cutting herself.  But I never put the two things together.  She knew depression was “in her genes”, but somehow the part about my medication making me better didn’t offer her a lifeline.  There is a strong undercurrent in modern culture that encourages us to mistrust doctors and dependence on medication, especially for mental health.  There is apparent denial that, most often, chronic mental health conditions are successfully treated with medication.  In contrast, people readily accept that an insulin-dependent diabetic needs their insulin every day of their life….

What must we do better?  Personally, I have resolved to cultivate more curiosity when it comes to my children and loved ones. There’s an opportunity for dialogue when I’m more direct and open about the behavior or emotion I observe.  My emerging hope involves you who loved her, too.  My hope is my confidence that you who know Jenine’s story will remember this experience and, in time, your openness will help dissipate the shame around depression.  You are each ‘Messengers’ into the future.  My hope is that Jenine will remind all of us that it doesn’t have to end this way.  As you encounter depression in your lives or the lives of others my hope is that your response will be to speak openly about this common illness and the reality of help.  How I see it, through hopeful eyes, you are each like a pebble tossed in a lake.  The healing waves of hope ripple out in all directions and with endless possibilities.


~ In memory of Jenine Clifford (July 24, 1990 to April 13, 2005)~ Mom (Camille), Mother’s Day May 14, 2006