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“The Sin of Despair”

Today, the homily at mass offended me a little bit, or at least made me squirm. He talked about the “sin of despair.” Thankfully, he included a disclaimer that he was not talking about clinical depression, which is an illness. However, he then went on to say how awful suicide is (I agree), but almost in the old school guilt-base sort of way. I took away that he was saying it is a sin for people to feel despair unless they are mentally ill. I think despair comes with being human. Not to mention, I think anyone who commits suicide is sick in someway–even if its not clinical depression.

My instinct is to get angry when I hear someone call a victim of suicide “selfish.” Because having been sick enough to feel suicidal, I understand sickness is not logical. In order to kill yourself, you have to have severely distorted logic. For example, when I felt suicidal, I knew it would hurt the people I loved. That hurt to think about. I truly believed that just by being alive, I hurt them continuously and made their lives worse. My logic was that I would make their pain quick and permanent, like ripping off a Band-Aid. Then they could heal and move on with their lives–without being dragged down by me forever.

Thankfully, I achieved health and with that health, true logic returned. My loved ones made it clear they would rather sacrifice everything to take care of me sick forever than see me dead. If I was still sick, I wouldn’t be able to believe that. I’d believe that they felt like they “had to” say that. Now, I’m far from permanently healthy. Mental health still dictates a lot of my life. Yet, I’m well enough to trust my loved ones on that. I see it in their actions and feel it in their hugs.

When I get angry at people for blaming the person, not the illness, ┬áin a suicide, I try to show compassion for the person speaking. I understand they are speaking out of pain. Not to mention, I felt the same way as a teenager when a loved one told me he tried to kill himself. I was furious at him. I said, “How could you do that to us?” (meaning the people who loved him). The truth is, that my response was self-centered. I didn’t understand how mental illness works, and I thought the person was just so wrapped up in his pain, that he didn’t care about mine. Suicide is traumatic and just plain tragic for all involved. It’s natural we want to blame ourselves, feel betrayed, or wonder how we could have “saved the person.” Anytime I hear of a suicide or suicide attempt, I am deeply saddened because it’s hell for everyone involved.

I don’t think religions, especially the Catholic Church, have handled mental illness well. They are getting better, like the disclaimer today about clinical depression being an illness and not a sin, but they have so far to go. Spirituality is a big part of the healing necessary with mental health. Many people suffering, like myself, can’t find solace in religion or a patriarchal God because of how mental illness and suicides have been handled.

For instance, I have a friend whose cousin committed suicide. She said someone at the visitation said to the mother something about how sorry she was that the woman’s son would be in hell for his action. What an AWFUL thing to say, or even think, about someone sick and suffering enough to resort to murdering themselves. I heard suicide referred to as murder once, and I thought it was dramatic, but now that I’m healthy and understand just how sick and sad it is, it’s true.

A man from the church I grew up in recently committed suicide. His parents are active churchgoers, and his brother is a priest. I was so thankful to hear that they had the funeral at the Church I grew up in, and that something like 5 priests helped at his funeral. The Catholic Church has turned people away in the past, refusing to do funerals for suicides. I wanted to cry for the family, despite not knowing them well. The parents are old-school Catholics, and I feared how they and the church would respond to their son’s suicide. I couldn’t have been more grateful to hear that the funeral was a loving, respectful one where respected members in the Church showed nothing but support and compassion. We have to stop keeping these things secret and viewing them as “evil.”

I don’t really believe that a deity is counting my “sins.” I think there are definitely crimes we commit against ourselves and others that are wrong, but I don’t think it goes on our permanent record, or anything like that. I think we suffer from those enough if we fail to forgive ourselves. Yet, to hear someone call despair a sin, alarmed me. Let’s not make people feel worse for already feeling bad.

Many people with mental illness, just like most people with addiction, don’t believe they really have a problem. That means there could be undiagnosed mentally ill people in the congregation, internalizing all of this. Then, they will only feel worse about already suffering. Because, let’s be honest, no one likes feeling despair. I’m thankful to be informed about my illness and have the proper support. If I’d have heard this homily 6 years ago, this would have given me even more of a reason to hate myself. I’m not trying to take on the whole Catholic Church. I’m grateful they let me stay here and show me nothing but compassion. I am taking on society, though. Something needs to change about the way we think about mental illness and suicide. Neither are any sort of weakness or flaw of character. They are medical issues that confuse a person’s idea of logic and cause them to feel despair. The least the Church, and society, can do is show some compassion. My God.