Real Talk - The Smile Behind Suicide

How easy has it become for us to fake happiness? How many times do we post on social media, acting as though life is perfect, but on the inside, feeling as though we’re drowning? How many times have we lost friends, coworkers, and fellow service members because we fail to truly get to know who they are? Society has become so supportive of faking a smile in order to avoid exposing the raw situations or emotions we experience, and we’re losing people at a rapid pace because of it.

My husband Miles was the king of faking a smile, even on the days where he was anything but happy. Friends and co-workers never saw anything other than his goofy, easy-going personality. If you met Miles on the street, you’d think his life was perfect, and that he was undoubtedly happy, which was exactly what he wanted everyone around him to believe. However, being married to him, I knew a very different man, and I knew the roller coaster of emotions he faced on a daily basis.

In January of 2019, Miles was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, depression, anxiety, and PTSD, all at once. For years I’d known he was struggling with some form of mental illness, because the man I knew wasn’t the same man that people outside the walls of our home knew. He lived his “outer life,” exactly as I described in the aforementioned paragraphs; the constant smile, the jokes, and the pictures painting perfection. Meanwhile, at home, he went through spurts of sleeping for days due to depression, and days of never sleeping because of the PTSD. He’d go through extreme highs, which we later learned was thanks to the mania of bi-polar disorder, back down to the depressive state. Every day was truly a guessing game of how he was going to feel, or which side of him we would get.

Fast-forward a year, with several failed therapy sessions and medication changes, to February 20, 2020. Miles prepared for a court hearing, while I dropped our boys off at daycare and headed to work. Within a few hours, I found myself with a horrible gut feeling, the kind that you can’t shake because you just know something isn’t right. I stepped out to call Miles after his hearing had ended, and could instantly tell that it didn’t go well. I could hear in his voice that he was upset, despite the number of times he said, “I’m fine.” I told him I was leaving work and that I’d be there soon to talk to him. The 15 minute drive to get to him felt like it took a decade, because that same gut feeling I felt earlier in the day, was telling me that I needed to get to him fast.

I finally got there and when I walked in the door, I could tell he had been crying, and he was visibly upset. I went to hug him, and he pulled back. It was at that moment that I knew what I was walking into. My heart sunk as I saw him open the bedroom door and grab the rifle off the bed. I watched him break-down in tears, and confess that he couldn’t do it anymore. He told me he was tired of fighting his mental illness and feeling out-of-control, tired of putting our family through the ups and downs, and tired of waking up every day, knowing that he’d forever have to live with the demons of his past. He was exhausted, and I could see it in his eyes. I begged and pleaded for him to let me help, I told him that he was never a burden to our family, I told him how loved he was, and I told him how much our boys needed their daddy. I tried anything and everything I could to get him to see himself through my eyes, to stop him from what he was about to do, but it wasn’t enough. Within seconds, my husband, my best friend, and the father of our 3 beautiful boys, was gone.

The past 8 months have been a whirlwind of emotions, ranging from anger to sadness to confusion. I find myself constantly asking “Why?” Why didn’t he feel like he had any other option? Why didn’t anyone realize how badly he was struggling? Why couldn’t I do more to stop him? In asking myself these things, it brings me back to the actuality of how often we create a false sense of happiness to avoid showing our imperfections.

As military members, we are notorious for diminishing our ailments, or making light of our mental health struggles. We portray ourselves as having it all together, all the time, in all aspects of life. When leadership asks us how we’re doing, our go-to responses are, “I’m fine,” or “I’m good,” because we are afraid to be honest about the struggles we face on a daily basis. Miles was no different when it came to this, as he would always smile and respond with “I’m good!” I had even fallen into the habit of telling everybody “I’m fine,” knowing that I was lightyears away from being fine.

Losing him meant I was going to be the sole provider for our children, which wasn’t an easy task while trying to navigate the PTSD and anxiety that came with his suicide. Despite the stigma of getting help, I agreed to mental health treatment, I agreed to trying medication, and I stopped telling people “I’m fine,” when asked how I was doing. I knew I would never be able to help anybody else if I wasn’t willing to help myself first, and Miles would have called me a hypocrite if he knew I was silently struggling like he had been.

My challenge is this:
• Be transparent about how you’re doing, especially if you’re in a leadership position. If you’ve hit a rough patch, it’s okay to admit it. If you’re in therapy, it’s okay to talk about it. If we are only willing to disclose the best parts of our lives, how can we expect others, including those in our circle of influence and under our care, to feel comfortable being openly imperfect?

• Check on your people, and I mean really check on your people. Get to know them to the point that you notice when something is off. Know what struggles they are facing, and find ways to be supportive. It’s easy to look at the individuals who constantly smile, and joke, and have picture perfect social media pages, and assume they’ve got it all together. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve been told, “I had no idea Miles was dealing with _________,” because from the outside looking in, he was happy.

• Be kind and be mindful
. Are you aware of the weight your words can carry? Are you aware of which people are tip-toeing the line of suicide? Do you know that the next sentence you say could be the one that pushes someone over the edge? On the contrary, your next sentence could be the one that saves somebody. We never know the full extent of what people are facing, and it costs absolutely nothing to be a good person. Be kind and be a positive presence to those around you.

Miles and I both sat through every suicide prevention training, we did all of the required CBT courses, yet here I sit as a 29-year-old widow with 3 little boys, and only a small box containing my husband’s remains. Suicide happens far too often, mental health isn’t talked about nearly enough, and every last one of us has the ability to change the way both are perceived. Until we stop normalizing a “perfection” that doesn’t exist, and start accepting transparency and flaws, we will continue to lose, at a staggering rate, those who feel as though they don’t fit the mold our society has created for them. It’s easy to look at the topic of suicide and mental health and think “this doesn’t apply to me and this will never happen to me,” until it does, and it did. While I will forever wish Miles’ story had ended differently, my genuine hope is that his ending can inspire a new beginning for someone else.

-Meagan Kay
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