Donna Smith, American SiCKO, is executive director of the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation
Twice in the past week, those of us who live in the metro Washington, D.C. – Baltimore corridor have seen reports about murder-suicides that had at least some component of causation related to the dead families’ money problems. In one instance, a single mother who was also a psychologist killed her young teenaged son before killing herself; in another incident, a husband killed his wife and her two children – his step-children. In both cases, recent financial stresses were cited as potential triggers. And in both cases, grieving neighbors and loved ones either denied the seriousness of the problems or seemed not to know.
These instances are on the rise during these hard economic times – we all may know that and not need much additional explanation or much of an imagination to glean why. But rather than become sound bites about our shock and disbelief in local news reports about dead neighbors, it might be wiser for us all to truly consider honestly that some of our own are troubled to the point that a tipping point to a horrific act isn’t far off.
First, the stories I referenced above can be found discussed here.
Let me say at the outset that this will not be the most cheerful piece I have written, and I know the subject generates great controversy even among those who deal with suicide prevention or family interventions on a professional level. But I won’t pull any punches about what I felt and still sometimes feel when I look back at and forward to a life of financial struggle. We cannot reach into our communities to do much helping or healing if we continue to force ourselves and our neighbors to suffer in shame and in silence. And financial problems create great big heaping loads of both.
While we espouse a belief that there is nothing wrong with being working class or poor, most Americans are indoctrinated very early on that our cultural worship of the almighty dollar and everything it affords us is what is truly sacred. The stuff of wealth is the stuff of power and influence. We say we honor those who do an honest day’s work but then we make sure those same people know full well what their rank is in our social circles, in our communities and well beyond. I was taught to care for the poor; I was also taught to aspire to wealth. The unspoken and direct pressure of that aspiration-demand was every bit as powerful as the Christian messaging to love my neighbor as myself – even if that neighbor was poor or working class.
Fast forward to adulthood when I worked hard and tried to make good all that was expected of me financially. In good times, the pressure to maintain and increase those good times often drowned out the cries for what I really wanted to do with my life. I longed to love and cherish my children more directly and to spend more time with them. Often, I worked long hours and when I was home I was crabby and distant rather than being the mom I always thought I would be. That created depression and anger for me. Sometimes I thought of suicide.
In the bad times, when I was not working a great job or when my machinist-husband was struggling to work (whether for health reasons or shifts in the economy and the need for his trade) or when I had cancer, the strain of dealing with financial obligations taken on responsibly in good times but unmanageable in bad ones became horribly pressure-filled. I couldn’t simply back off, change my lifestyle, move and satisfy creditors. The calls don’t stop from the collection agencies. Moving takes money. Employers don’t cotton to employees with weaknesses like financial, family or health troubles.
The world closes in quickly. Depression must be hidden, but it is felt. Suicide is considered. I know I considered it. The thoughts of ending it all are hard to fight off – and it was only the thought about those left behind and the costs they would have to cover that stopped me (and I suspect others) from carrying out gruesome plans considered in the dark, wee hours when the collection calls cannot come and others are sleeping. Mental health help seems a joke at those times – even with health insurance, out-of-pocket counseling costs are high and good counselors are hard to find. The time to get help takes away from the time to work and earn money. It compounds the problem causing the depression to seek help.
Oh, say some of you, what about friends and family? Think about how we all often judge those in our own families with money trouble or job trouble or health trouble. Suffice to say, from the condescending behavior of those in the more well-heeled classes around us to the judgment of those in our own families, working class and poor people stand not only alone but often harshly condemned unless they can act to all the world as though nothing at all is wrong until that horrific moment when those who judged exclaim they had no idea about our suffering. I also believe there are persons in our society responsible for so much suffering and economic pain that they are accomplices to these awful acts and should be held criminally responsible, but that’s probably a bridge too far for many.
I used to hear people say that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, but in my deepest and darkest moments, I knew that the stain of having gone broke in America was very close indeed to a permanent problem. Going broke often means – as it has meant for me and millions of others – losing the love and physical closeness of people we fought to protect. It isn’t that we cannot adapt to less stuff, and it’s more the crushing pain that we cannot adapt to less love and no support.
America has a whole lot of people hurting very deeply. From the poor among us to the working class and those who are hiding all manner of financial strain in this difficult economy, few options seem viable or potentially helpful. I was pulled from the wreckage of my silent reverie (thanks, Sarah, for that gorgeous line) by the dignity of having my story told in Michael Moore’s SiCKO and finding out, finally, that it was not my fault. And the nurses offer, always, that refuge for their patients – and now for those who are suffering in an America that has strayed a long way off course for millions of people. Join the nurses. Tell them where it hurts. Let’s heal America.
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