I first wrote this post June 2014 and am sharing it again, for the theme is still timely.
Monday afternoon while shopping at Party City for some sugary treats for my son, in front of me in line stood a teenaged girl with wrists covered in fake blood depicting gory razor slash wounds. She told the older woman she was with, “I don’t see why the school says it’s offensive. It’s just makeup.” I was tempted to step in and educate this young woman, but I did not. Perhaps I should have. She was completely oblivious to the effect she might have on others, specifically on those who suffer or have suffered from suicidality and those who have loved and lost someone to suicide. Her special effects make-up I consider constitutionally protected speech. Unfortunately, she was completely unaware of the power of that speech.
Driving home from my writers’ group Tuesday night, after having drafted this post, I remembered how flippant and irreverent I was in high school. My friends and I anonymously published and distributed around our campus a treatise entitled, “A Beginner’s Guide to Suicide.” As I recall, our “underground” collection of stream-of-consciousness writing contained no instructions for how to kill oneself. The title just suited our non-conformist New Wave quasi-punk teen angst. We meant it sardonically. One of my friends got in trouble for the publication. He managed to protect those of us who had high collegiate aspirations. I, for one, hoped to go to an Ivy League school and could ill-afford disciplinary action. That same year I wrote an article in our school paper in which I imagined receiving a rejection letter from Harvard. In the short fictional article, I wrote that I reacted by hanging myself with an attached suicide note saying something to the effect that life was not worth living if I couldn’t attend Harvard. As fate would have it, I was rejected by every Ivy League school to which I applied. UCLA, in fact, informed me that I had to attend remedial summer school before my freshman year because my SATs totaled under 700. Apparently, the Educational Testing Service had screwed up and sent the wrong data to all the prestigious schools to which I applied. That freshman year at UCLA, I experienced deep and unbearable depression and suicidality. My satiric article was prescient, but I had been completely oblivious and insensitive to how deeply painful it was to be depressed and suicidal.
Although I would never take away the right to offensive, objectionable, or insensitive speech, I do believe that we should be aware of the effect we may have on others, or at least listen to the responses we provoke and show compassion. As a teenager, I, like the girl with the fake slashed wrists, was completely in the dark as to the objectionable or offensive nature of my speech, of my writing. As an adult, I failed to engage the young woman in a conversation about depression and suicide, and how her make-up might cause pain to those whose lives have been affected by depression and suicide. Instead, I rushed to finish my errands before picking up my son from school.
Many mental health bloggers offer trigger warnings before presenting disturbing material. I argued in an earlier post that I do not, nor would I do so, that my blog’s title says it all. But, I get it. I understand the consequences of my speech, and I understand the importance of showing and teaching compassion. On the one hand, we must speak the truth; on the other, we must show compassion.