The Faces of Courage

Courage comes in all sizes, shapes, and forms. It has a positive side and a negative side. The aftereffects of a courageous act may be relief, fear, regret, apprehension, and second-guessing one’s motives.

One thing is for sure: Any act of courage leaves you a different person than you were before you made the choice that changed your life…forever.

This year, on February 10, two courageous people changed their lives forever. Ryan and Ji, hosts of the Chicago morning talk show Windy City Live, chose to speak for a special program (“Inside the Mind: Mental Health Awareness”) about their loved ones who died by suicide. It was the first time either of them had spoken about these very personal tragedies.

Neither Ryan nor Ji made the decision to speak their truth lightly or easily. Both shared that they feared the consequences, the potential fallout, of disclosing something so personal and devastating. I feel such sadness for Ryan and Ji, and my heart cries for both of them.

Ryan’s younger brother—by 11 years—died by suicide five years ago. Ji lost her father to suicide 20 years ago. Neither of them had spoken about their loved ones to anyone, especially not to their Chicago ABC/Channel 7 TV media family. No one knew that Ryan’s brother took his own life….that Ji’s father died by his own hand. They held these powerful secrets in their broken hearts and lived trapped in a world of painful silence and fear that someone would “out” them.

As I listened to each of them tell their stories, and watched the sorrow and fear on their tear-streaked faces, I was aware of two competing feelings in the pit of my stomach: a deep, sharp sorrow for my daughter and also a hot, stinging outrage for both Ryan and Ji. Gritting my teeth and clenching my fists, I cried.

We live in the advanced, forward-thinking 21st century and yet, still, we are fearful of that word SUICIDE. Still, we are fearful of what others will think about us and about the loved one we have lost. We fear so much losing our friends, our jobs, our good name and standing in the community that we don’t want to reveal the truth that someone in our family died by SUICIDE. We live in fear of the repercussions and backlash associated with mental illness. We are ashamed for our loved one—and for ourselves—and we retreat into silence. We do not speak their name. We deny their existence and act as if they had never lived. We live a lie. We suffer in silence. And we suffer alone.

Norm and I made the decision to speak the truth about our daughter’s death for many reasons. Rebecca LIVED. She existed. She loved—and was loved. She made a difference in the world. And she made a difference in the lives of the people who knew her and loved her just the way she was. Rebecca was real, and we would not—could not—deny the beautiful reality of her existence. And just as we would not lie about her life, nor would we lie about her death.

We spoke the truth, fully aware of the fallout…that we would lose some friends…that people would always look at us and our family in a different way…that people would talk about us behind closed doors, behind hands held to mouths right in front of us…that people would stare and point…that we would feel like outsiders in society. All of these things happened…and continue to happen. Yes, we care, and we are hurt by such behavior, but it will never stop us from working to educate those who are uneducated about mental health and SUICIDE. We have become advocates and teachers in a world that does not always want to hear the truth.

Like Norm and I, Ryan and Ji will also find themselves different people now, and others will look at them differently. They will never be the same…but they will be free of their terrible secrets. They are free now to speak the names of their brother and father with love and respect. They are free now to teach those who don’t understand mental illness how devastating it can be to all family members. And they are free now to promote mental illness as a real disease…a real disease…A REAL DISEASE.

My prayer for both Ryan and Ji is that a community comes forward to love and support them while they transition from the pain of silence to the liberation of openness. I pray that their TV family, real family and their friends encourage them to continue to advocate for mental health awareness while embracing their courage.

They are, indeed, courageous people. They exposed the most painful, intimate sides of themselves to bring awareness to a subject that remains shameful in our “progressive” 21st century. It’s time we put that awful shame and ignorance behind us and move into a world that promotes awareness and compassionate understanding of depression and bipolar disorder (and all mental illness) as real diseases. Actually, it’s past time.

To Ryan and Ji and to all of those reading these words with a gut understanding: Please become advocates and teachers with us. Speak your truth. Break your silence. Remain anonymous if you choose, but send your story to Rebecca’s Dream. This is the moment to be proactive. Help us to help the millions of people living with mental illness and their families, friends, and colleagues.

Be courageous. We are here for you. Take our hands.

We know. We love you.