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Finding Beauty In The Pain    

Finding Beauty In The Pain

Art by FISK

By Leslie Dwight

For as long as I can remember, I’ve lived by the phrase, “knowledge is power.” Like most kids, I used to have a physical fear of falling off my bike or spraining my ankle playing soccer, but never a mental fear of learning or knowing too much. 

I think there was a large part of my childhood where I grew up in survival mode mentally. So knowing as much as I could made me feel more in control of deciding how to act. I use the term “survival mode” lightly, as I recognize that, on a social level, I was very privileged. But struggling to navigate the emotional hardship, betrayal, and abandonment I faced as a young, impressionable child induced a toxic level of stress and anxiety inside of me. 

I didn’t know how to control these emotions, or if I could control them at all, but I knew there was one thing I could always control: my actions. For this reason, I treated the truth as my friend, confident that it would guide my actions. This philosophy endured through the discomfort of painful truths, such as finding out my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer or learning that I had a brother who died in a skiing accident before I was born.

But there was a time when I uncovered a truth so sharply painful that I, too, fell victim to the misconception that the only way to heal was by hiding from the pain. 

I grew up believing I had two dads — “Daddy No. 1” and “Daddy No. 2” as my family referred to them. Over time, I became familiar with the fact that my biological father, Daddy No. 1, had passed away from a sudden heart attack when I was just a few months old, and that my mom had then married my stepfather, Daddy No. 2. But around the age of 13, the death of my biological father really began to sink in, leading me to become progressively more inquisitive about him and his passing. 

It wasn’t that I consciously doubted any of the information I had been told up to that point. I simply felt that the more details I could learn, the more closure I would have. However, after months of asking seemingly harmless questions and not receiving so much as a morsel of attention from my family on the topic, let alone any definitive answers, I hit a point of looming frustration.

It was a brisk Sunday morning, Easter Sunday to be exact. We exited the church doors to an unusual chill, a type of air so densely crisp that it fills your lungs before you can even take a breath. After leaving flowers at my dad’s grave, my siblings piled into one car with my stepdad, and I hopped into the other car with my mom. It started like any other drive — enjoying some brief yet blissful time together, singing along to “Mr. Jones” by Counting Crows, and reveling in the warmth we both felt from paying my dad a visit. But as we inched closer to home, I remember being abruptly consumed by an overwhelming sense of anxiety. I tried my best to disguise it, but as soon as we reached the bottom of our driveway, my subconscious emotions seized control. Without reason or hesitation, I blurted out, “How did Dad die?”  

I knew my dad had been weighing heavy on my mind, but I can't recall any conscious desire to ask a questions so impertinent and, frankly, so unmerited. But, despite having zero inkling as to why I asked the question to begin with, the instantaneous change in my mother’s facial expression confirmed this was a question she had been dreading. As I felt my heart sink to the deepest pit of my stomach, my mother stopped the car and looked over at me with a conspicuous mixture of emptiness and fear in her eyes. No words had left her mouth yet, but the pain screamed louder than her voice ever could. 

In a last-ditch effort to protect me from the pain I didn’t yet know existed, my mom summed up enough courage to reiterate that my dad had “of course” died of a heart attack. It was only a matter of seconds until she realized I didn’t believe her this time. With palpable trembling in her voice, the truth spilled from her mouth as tears burst from her eyes. In that moment, I finally learned a truth I could’ve never prepared for.

My dad didn’t die of a heart attack after all. He had died of suicide.

The following year was undoubtedly the darkest period of my childhood. I was lost, I was angry. But most importantly, for the first time in my life, I felt incapable of accepting the information I had received. Without a baseline understanding of suicide or mental health, I struggled to accept that my dad chose to leave this planet. 

In a naive attempt to reject the truth, I adopted my family’s act of counterfeit bravado, as if hiding from my pain might keep me safe from the newfound anger, resentment, and shame it had plagued me with. Nevertheless, “I’m fine” became my go-to response whenever anyone checked in on how I was feeling. Not only did I think I was successfully tricking everyone around me, but I thought if I continued to fake it, maybe I actually would be fine. This mentality quickly became a slippery slope. My lack of awareness about my dad and his decision to leave this earth bred a lack of self-awareness around my own mental health. 

I had been writing to my dad since learning he passed away, before I ever knew suicide was the cause. Putting the same words on paper that I would have physically said to him allowed me to feel so connected to him spiritually. But I refused to pick up a pen for the first year after I found out the truth. I was too angry to give the attention to my writing and too lost to know what to say. But the longer I stayed quiet about what I was experiencing — whether in letters to my dad or in conversations with those around me — the more deeply rooted my negative emotional patterns became. After a year of drowning in unresolved feelings of anger, shame, resentment, and fear of judgement, I was catapulted into my own depressive state. 

Perhaps my own emotional rut was the only reason I stopped hating my dad enough to restore my mantra of "knowledge is power" and to actually start learning. I slowly released my grip on the misconception that we get to pick and choose the emotions and experiences we face. This finally gave my grief the space it needed to heal. I quickly came to realize something so simple yet impactful: We all have mental health the same way we all have physical health. 

After this single revelation, educating myself on suicide and mental health didn’t feel so much like pulling teeth. It went beyond finding closure with my dad and became a necessity for my own well-being. I learned that, aside from uncovering the truth about my dad’s death, I really didn’t have a discernible reason for sinking into the hole I was in - at least not one that met the societal criteria for depression. But does an indistinguishable source of an illness, mental or physical, make someone any less deserving of a solution? Absolutely not. So with this, I begin to rid myself of the belief that I needed to establish a compelling enough argument if I was going to admit to the emotions or experiences that I inarguably had. And just like that, I took the leap of faith to start having open, honest, and long overdue conversations around mental health.

At first, my raw openness was met with a multitude of different responses. Hearing the frustratingly common comebacks of, “But why? you have such a great life” or, “Your dad wasn’t sick, he was selfish,” naturally took me off course here and there. But I persevered knowing that I wasn’t opening up to seek validation from anyone and I didn’t need a “why” in order to feel what I was feeling. 

I quickly had to accept that not everyone was going to have the same understanding of mental health that I had been chasing and wouldn’t have the tools to support me on this journey. But among those that welcomed my openness, I started to recognize a different pattern. Once I stopped hiding my own pain out of fear of disapproval, rejection, or invalidation, it was as if I broke a conspiracy of silence. My unapologetic admission of my authentic experiences not only gave me a sense of freedom, but also created a ripple effect among others, giving them the same courage to admit that, at some point or another, they hadn’t been okay either.

I came to realize how many people choose to suffer in silence. It also became clear that my dad was one of those people. I chose not to fault him for lacking the level of security to admit he wasn’t okay. Knowing that I could’ve fallen into the same trap, I recognized how easy it would’ve been to proceed forward in silence.

When I first opened the door to these raw conversations about mental health and suicide, I did so without expectation. My hope was to heal, find closure, and learn how to best take care of my own mental health. But I didn’t know what exactly my “light at the end of the tunnel” looked like. Nevertheless, I trusted it was there and that my openness would guide me so long as I kept doing my part in learning, accepting, and applying every new piece of knowledge to my actions.

Ten years later, I sit here writing this with tremendous gratitude for my journey of self-education around mental health and for the beauty that ultimately came from my pain. It did, in fact, give me the peace I was hoping for, but in ways I never expected. See, once we have the awareness that we cannot change or control the experiences that come our way, nor the emotions we feel as a result of these experiences, we actually have a much greater choice in how we act.

My awareness of mental health and my acceptance of my dad’s situation doesn’t take away the sadness I feel when I’m reminded that he is gone forever. The pain still hurts, but it has given me the greatest gift of all — the opportunity, not to change my dad's past outcome, but to hopefully change the future outcome of others suffering from mental illness. To dissolve the stigma of vulnerability by being vulnerable myself. To inject love, light, and positivity when those around me are lost in the darkness. To, in one way or another, contribute to the environment our society so desperately needs if we truly want to put an end to suicide. Mental illness might be a silent killer, but love is a silent savior.  

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. 

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.