Can You Simply Choose to Be Happy? A New Outlook on Mental Health.
Four Saturdays ago, my perspective on choosing happiness was forever changed. My thoughts on mental health were brought to the surface with a newfound confusion, compassion and urge to better understand.
This Saturday began as an ordinary blessed September day. My family and I left our cottage in pursuit of some fresh fall air in northern WI. We were excited to discover Twin Bridge Park, in Crivitz, with scenic views and hiking trails. My goal was to capture not only some great family pics but also some perfect photos of myself and 13 year old daughter/co-blogger for our new blog.
We started our hike along some roughly marked trails and quickly veered off when we discovered a contemplative space with large warm rocks over looking High Falls Reservoir. We were immediately invited to stretch out on this comfortable rocky ridge and enjoy the view of the blue skies and deeper blue water. Naturally, I pulled out my phone to start taking the perfect pics.
Despite my excitement, the blue skies and crisp refreshing air, my 13 year old was in a negative funk, making it difficult to capture any great photos. I provided my typical attempts at encouragement by reminding her to take in the scenery and try to enjoy the moment. I was frustrated that she was crabby. She couldn’t describe why she was feeling this way. I blamed it on hormones and suggested she use this space to find her happiness. I gave her some alone time and advised her to contemplate on being grateful and kind. I told her that she is in control of how she feels and can decide how she wants to see the world that day.
This seemed to help as her mood lifted a little and we were able to continue our hike and even capture a few nice photos.
We then drove 30 minutes through lovely winding country roads to climb the 132 steps of the 100 foot tall infamous 1935 Mountain Fire Lookout Tower.
The view above the treetops was gorgeous and this lifted all of our moods.
We ended this day with a delicious home cooked meal back at our cottage and life was good.
Shortly after midnight, I woke with an urge to check my phone which was on do not disturb. I had several missed calls and a text from my brother-n-law that stated, “Bad News. Call immediately.” With a racing heart and shaky hands I called my sister in Chicago. She answered but couldn’t speak because she was hysterically crying. She handed the phone to my brother-n-law who informed me that my youngest sister (I have 5 sisters) took her life. I immediately screamed and cried in disbelief. I wanted nothing more but to be with my mom and other sisters.
I was 4 hours away from my family and knew I needed to try to calm myself and rest before jumping in the car. After a few hours of shaking, crying and attempted rest, I drove to Chicago. Our family cried, hugged, screamed and stared at one another in pure horror and disbelief. Eventually, we developed a plan. My oldest sister, my mom and myself knew we needed to go to my sister’s home in California. We had to see it. We had to know her life. We needed answers.
THE SEARCH FOR ANSWERS…
Before we knew it, we were flying to San Francisco and I was pouring my heart out onto this iPad. I described my sister, my memories of her, my future dreams with her, my confusion, my sadness. This became her eulogy.
We drove 6 hours through winding Northern California vineyards and redwood forests as we made our way to her home in Mckinleyville. Within 48 hours of receiving that phone call, my mom, sister and I were standing in the middle of her yurt holding hands and praying for her and for us.
We had just experienced the worst 2 days of our lives. We had to endure the faces of her devastated friends, the coroners office, the crematorium and sorting through her belongings. We searched for clues to explain the confusion and to answer our questions. We knew she was not always happy. We knew she felt lost at times without a sense of true purpose. We didn’t know just how much deeper those feelings actually were.
My baby sister was very kind. She was also very private. She didn’t feel comfortable talking about herself. However, she was fantastic at being our comic relief. She was always goofy and we all admired her free spirited natural lifestyle. She was an organic farmer, a beekeeper, a gardener, a woodworker, a jewelry maker and a collector of beautiful crystals. Her choice didn’t make sense.
Through our searching, we discovered some undated journal entries of hers. She self analyzed her mind. She described being tired, slipping, disappointed and angry. This opened our eyes to some of her hidden pain. Her undiagnosed, untreated mental illness.
Before we left my sister’s home in northern California, we did experience remarkable peace at one of her favorite places. Trinidad State Beach. We walked across the beautiful beach just as the sun was starting to lower in the sky. We had our hearts and minds set on sitting on some gorgeous immense rocks while holding our sister/daughter in her rudimentary new urn. We placed her favorite sun hat on her as we sat and enjoyed the peaceful sound of the waves approaching the shore. We breathed in the fresh air. We took pictures. We imagined the joy she felt every time she was here. We imagined her dog, Juniper, having the time of her life jumping the waves. We felt her presence. We felt her freedom. We smiled for the first time all day.
The next 2 weeks were a painful blur. My family and I walked around like zombies. I replayed images of her in my mind. I talked to her daily. I heard her tell me that she is ok. She’s happy and free. She chose this. She doesn’t want us to be sad or to suffer. I had strangers tell me the same. Two in particular told me that they could sense her and gave me a positive message from her.
I’m starting to feel better. At first guilty to feel better. But now actually better and ok with it. I miss her and will forever. But now I can talk to her everyday. I can look at the world differently.
I see mental illness in a whole new light. If someone can die from a heart not functioning properly or from cancer with heartfelt sympathy, why can’t they die from suicide without any negative connotation? I firmly believe my sister didn’t commit suicide. She died from suicide.
I now question the advice I gave my daughter that morning on the rock. Perhaps choosing to be happy today isn’t always possible. It might not be that simple. I don’t know the answer but I do know I have more to learn. I need to free myself from negative preconceived notions regarding mental health. Not just for myself, but for my sister, my daughters and society.
Where do I go from here? How do I start? Suicide prevention research, dive into mental health books, read about how to guide children through negative emotions…
I would love to see the world look at mental health as an ailment that needs attention. Not a mysterious label that is whispered behind closed doors.