For Sally

by: Jay Henningsen

My exposure to people suffering from depression has been a long, strange trip. Several members of my mother’s side of the family have struggled with various degrees of clinical depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder for large portions of their lives. As an adolescent, I honestly never really paid much attention to their problems. Depression was a non-issue for me, and my family never discussed it. 

After my parents got divorced, however, mental illness began to seep into my life in odd ways. Fearing I was not coping well with my parents’ breakup, some well-meaning relatives who were also suffering from depression made the suggestion to my mother that I should talk to a child psychologist. While I didn’t feel like anything was wrong with me, I also didn’t see the harm in talking to someone, so I agreed. My counselor was an amiable woman who was easy to talk to, and I discussed many things with her over the next few years. 

This friendly child psychologist told my mother on numerous occasions that there was nothing wrong with me. Sure, I was introverted and frequently chose books and video games instead of human interaction, but she insisted there was nothing clinically wrong with me and no reason for my mother to worry. These other depressed relatives, however, would have none of that diagnosis, and they convinced my mother that I needed more serious help.

When I was about 16 years old, I uncovered this one day when I answered the phone, and a psychiatrist’s office was calling to confirm an appointment for me. Thankfully, my wits overcame my shock, and I politely informed the lady on the phone that this was a mistake and that I had no reason to seek their services. After I hung up the phone, I went into the living room and immediately confronted my mother.

After the shocked expression fell off of her face, she tearfully admitted what was going on. I don’t remember exactly what I said to her at that point, but I basically chided her for both not listening to the professional and never actually asking me if I felt anything was wrong. I believe that was the last time I ever let my mother make a medical decision for me. I also resolved to never let another person aside from a trained and licensed professional tell me that there was anything wrong with me.

Because of these experiences, I developed a rather cynical view of people with mental illnesses. I thought they were all people who were too weak or too lazy to deal with life’s problems. And most of these problems weren’t really that bad to begin with, since all of the depressed people I knew were white, middle-class Americans who were related to me. I pictured them all as people who thought that mood-altering medication was the solution to every hardship, and I thought they wanted to push this solution on me simply because I didn’t act the same way they did.

This perception wasn’t helped by the ugly confrontation I had with one of these relatives after I came home from college years later. Once again, I had a family member insisting that I needed help because I stayed up late, slept late, and stayed home reading books when I wasn’t working. This time, however, I reacted in anger and made some particularly unkind statements which I grew to regret later in life. Sadly, my relationship with this person never fully recovered, even though I realize now that her intentions were good and she thought (albeit incorrectly) that I was having some of the same experiences that she did.

As is often the case, it took a tragedy to shake the views that I had developed over the earlier part of my life. My wife met and befriended a woman close to our age who I will call Sally.We later discovered that Sally was struggling a lot. She had a bad job and an unreliable car, she lived alone, and she didn’t have many friends in the area. She felt her situation was hopeless and that she didn’t have much chance of improving it.

My wife, who is a much more caring and giving person than I am, continued to try to help this friend despite all the breakdowns and hysterical fits. She drove to the hospital not once, but twice, late at night to get Sally’s keys, so that we could take care of her cats after she decided to admit herself to the psych ward. Finally, we were able to get in touch with Sally’s father who offered her the opportunity to move in with him after he finished moving himself. After a few seemingly positive conversations, it seemed like things were getting better for my wife’s friend.

Then, a few days later, we got word that Sally walked out of her apartment, entered her car which was parked on the street, put a loaded shotgun to her head, and pulled the trigger.

My wife and I were both shocked. We had thought she was on the verge of turning her life around. Later, we found out that she was rejected by a man, and this event seemingly led to her taking her own life. We also believe that she stopped taking her medication before this happened.

Sally actually did leave a note behind, and she asked that my wife and I adopt one of her cats so that it was not sent to an animal shelter. While this cat was a bit difficult to care for, we honored her wishes. 

I understand now that some people truly need help, and I realize that attitudes like I used to have can make it more difficult for these people to get the care that they desperately need. This event caused me to re-examine some of my views, and I now have a constant reminder how serious mental illness can be. 

– Jay Henningsen, 11/23/2012

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