Mysterious Barricades

I would like to share a speech I wrote for the event, “Mysterious Barricades”on September 15th. Mysterious Barricades is a cross-Canada concert in recognition of  World Suicide Prevention day. If you would like to see a recap of the events across Canada check out this video.

Let me begin with a thank you to Elizabeth Turnbull, for the great gift she’s given communities across Canada.
By opening up her grief journey with the community — by offering us the healing power of sublime music — Elizabeth offers us hope.
Yes, it is a bit incongruous to bring up hope in a discussion about suicide.
Suicide, after all, represents a devastating and personal loss of hope.
But that we’re having a public discussion today — and on other days, thanks to people like Elizabeth — is a sign of hope, I submit.
Suicide is personal to me. My own story, of a teenage anxiety disorder that blossomed into clinical depression, taught me much about how sufferers can hide their pain.
My anxiety disorder, then depression, was with me for years. It was along for the ride as I finished college, got married, helped raise three kids and also forge a fine career with The Edmonton Journal.
No one knew the gist of my inner life; the relentless, looping, self loathing and fearful thoughts.
Was I ever suicidal? I certainly thought about taking my own life, though I wouldn’t have put it in those terms.
To me, suicide was a backup plan … a fallback position. If the poison coursing through my mind and body got worse, or never got better, I could always opt out.
I got lucky. The right therapist, on the right day, asked me the right question and I sobbed out a confession of how bad things were.
I responded well to anti-depressant medication and started a journey of therapy, healing and self improvement.
And I quit drinking. That was really important. Alcohol is an easy and enticing medication, which robs the person of opportunity to grow into their potential.
And alcohol is a depressant. It offers temporary relief from problems it then exacerbates.
After I began to feel much better, I wrote about my mental health journey in a big spread in The Edmonton Journal. It’s accurate to say my work colleagues were stunned.
One of my co-workers said that she always thought I was one of most put-together, calmest people she’d ever met. Ha. I shoulda won an Oscar.
Many, if not most, people left behind after a suicide blame themselves in one way or another. I’m telling you that you were dealing with master thespians, who developed their expertise over years. They duped you.
Sufferers learn to split themselves off from the world, hide inside. They are tragically self-absorbed and self-obsessed with their dark thoughts and self loathing.
They are hiding to protect themselves and the world from the big, ugly secrets of their inner life.
This is, of course, counter productive. Relief and recovery depend on giving up the fight and asking someone for help.
I surrendered, finally. I asked for help. I turned control over to doctors and others — even to my employers — who rallied to my side.
I’m biased. But I think asking for help is the most vulnerable and courageous thing anyone can do, especially when they suffer a mental illness.
Yet that’s putting all the responsibility on the person who is struggling to hang on — who is often very ill and suffering from a loss of perspective and hope.
We all share in the responsibility to reduce the barriers to make it easier for a sufferer to get help.
People rallied to my side, when I needed them. But I know I was lucky.
What we need is a culture shift. We need communities that understand; that reject the shame and stigma of mental illness and treat it appropriately, as just part of the human condition.
Which is why I’m talking about hope and why I’m hopeful. First, because of how people like Elizabeth Turnbull know that art heals.
Art and music are being used everywhere from cancer wards to inner-city agencies for their healing power. How do they work to heal? Heck if I know.
But there is something powerful, some mysterious barrier buster, if you will, in making or experiencing art and music.
I’m proud of the City’s new Recover program of social innovation. Part of the work is to understand the aspirations of people who live rough on the streets – who are chronically homeless, often with mental illness and addiction.
You know what they told us, when we asked? They told us about how they wished for … well … this is hard to pin down …. But they wanted beauty and meaning in their lives
As one of the lead consultants said, as a community, we do a decent job of keeping our most vulnerable citizens alive. We just don’t give them reasons to live.
Elizabeth Turnbull and others in our community use art and dance and hip hop and beats and symphonies and theatre and comedy … as a way to remind us that life is about the experience of creating … and enjoying others’ creations.
Such things give us joy … and hope.
The other reason I’m hopeful is I see signs of a tipping point. Historically, we didn’t talk about suicide, which was considered in many faith traditions as an unforgiveable sin.
Because we didn’t talk about it, we perpetuated the shame and stigma — AND we showed our children that they could not speak openly about it, if they were having morbid thoughts.
The death that dared not speak its name is now being spoken about. I was invited to speak earlier this week at a vigil near the High Level Bridge on World Suicide Prevention Day.
There were three times as many people this year as there were at the event two years ago.
Two weeks ago I was at a funeral service for a City of Edmonton firefighter, Marc Renaud, a remarkable young man who took his own life.
He was 29 years old. By all accounts well liked by his mates and dearly loved by his mom, dad  and siblings.
After one call, Marc began suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. During his struggle, he made the courageous decision to go into the station and talk to his platoon.
We were told that it was a powerful time for Marc and his work mates. A turning point, maybe.
Yet Marc later took his own life, leaving his parents, siblings and the City of Edmonton community in shock and grief.
Marc’s funeral service was terribly sad. Yet it was also liberating and uplifting. I was not expecting the Catholic ceremony to acknowledge how Marc died.
Not only did the priest talk about suicide, he described it in spiritual terms as akin to an emotional heart attack, or emotional stroke.
The priest washed away, as best he could, the shame and stigma that has marked suicide historically.
He also implored people to give up self blame — the haunting, self critical and internal dialogue about how they should have done something to save their loved one.
I wish I could give that gift of absolution to Rachael Putt and her husband Craig. Craig’s mom died about a year ago of suicide.
Rachael worked in my office and is a beautiful, loving, caring, bright and funny woman. She was close to her mother in law, also named Elizabeth.
Craig is a dynamic and brilliant young man, who like his wife, is devoted to helping the most vulnerable people in our community.
Craig and his dad made a courageous decision to talk openly at Elizabeth’s memorial service about mental illness and suicide. We were all clear on that day about how Elizabeth died.
Yes, there were many tears of grief and, I expect, some of anger. Our emotions are just emotions. How could we not also be angry with someone who unilaterally decided to leave our lives.
I spoke that day. But it was Craig who captured the room with his tribute to his mom and his regret about how we lose wonderful people to suicide.
Craig and Rachael … Marc Renaud’s family … the organizers of the Bridge of Life vigil … Elizabeth Turnbull.
It is their courageous, inspiring leadership that gives me hope. That we can talk openly, honestly and maturely about suicide.
And in doing so, we will not only save lives, but change our view of community … and what it means to be alive and part of one.
Thank you.

By Scott McKeen, City Councillor Ward 6