I don’t know why the suicide of Gregory Eells, Penn’s executive director of counseling and psychological services, hit me so hard, but it did. I read the headlines and I felt like someone sucker punched me in the gut. I didn’t understand why I was having such a strong reaction to a stranger’s death.
Maybe it was because it was so close to home, both literally and figuratively. We live just outside of Philadelphia and my husband is a Penn graduate. Or maybe it was the idea that he was in charge of helping to ensure that the kids at Penn never consider suicide as an option and yet, in a bizarre twist of heartbreaking irony, this was what happened to him. I am a psychotherapist so maybe it was because our society tells us that as experts, we surely must know how to avoid such tragedies in our own private lives, which of course, we don’t. “That’s it,” I thought. I must be reeling from the idea that even my own family isn’t safe from such catastrophes. I can’t prevent a blessed thing. With that thought, I went to bed.
When I woke the next morning, new thoughts emerged. “Why are so many people dying by suicide, and why so many Ivy league schools like Penn?” I began to realize what was at the core of my alarming feelings. It is the theme I see growing every year in my practice. A significant number of parents come to me because their child is struggling in some significant way and they have tried more traditional approaches with no success.
The symptoms that the child or teen manifests vary. Sometimes the child is depressed or anxious, and sometimes they’re enraged, or present with an eating disorder, or a substance abuse issue. The parents come to me in desperation and as a last resort, because the parent-focused counseling I specialize in is not their preferred solution. But they have tried sending their child to counseling which often doesn’t work. By the time they see me, they are feeling out of control and desperate. Regardless of how it manifests in the child, the theme underlying most of this is a struggle or quest to be at the top — top school, friend, student, top of their sport, their English class, SAT score. The list goes on and on over the course of a lifetime.
We, as parents, are so focused on this definition of success that is so wildly self-destructive that our kids (and even the adult professionals) are beginning to go so far as to end their lives, rather than—dare I say it—QUIT.
Why is quitting something that doesn’t work for you such a bad thing? I call it self-care! Let them quit softball if they’re not interested, or get a C in a class that isn’t their strong suit. Why don’t we encourage folks to quit a job they hate? It really is going to be okay! But I’ll tell you what is not okay: teaching our kids, who quickly become adults, that there’s no way out. Oh, except suicide or if that’s too extreme, alcohol, marijuana and the myriad of other substances available are all options. These substances will help take the edge off of an otherwise unpleasant life situation.
But what if we stopped the insanity and started to teach our children to listen to their own inner voices? Rather than teaching our kids to “go for the A,” how about we teach them to connect with their hearts and souls and choose for themselves what a right fit is for them? And given our humanity and our tendency to not always know what the right fit is, maybe teach them to honor and respect their right to simply change their minds.
What if we, as a society, could have a little less respect for conventional “success” and a whole lot more self-compassion? I bet we would see far fewer deaths by suicide, overdoses, and folks reaching for a beer (or 20!) to cope with what they simply don’t want to do but can’t find a socially-acceptable exit from. Let’s start building those exits. Right now the exits seem to be rooted in substance abuse, depression, eating disorders, and suicide attempts. We can do better. We must do better.
I recently enjoyed watching the movie Yesterday. Nestled in its adorable, feel-good story line was a critically important message. The message was “Do you really want ________?” In this particular movie, it was fame and fortune, but to me, the message was far broader. Do you really want that promotion? To be at the top of your class? To get into your top school? Think it all the way through. You may think you want all of that, but as I often say to my clients, “Beware of shiny objects in the distance.”
You may want that thing you seek, but are you ready for all the consequences that come with it? The responsibilities, the long hours, the intense work load? What if all you want to do is be a human being, rather than a human doing? What if what you really want is to just take a nap? There likely won’t be too many parties thrown for you if you do (except maybe by me), but I bet you’ll feel a whole lot better.
My greatest wish is that we can all take our collective breaths and really sit with the “why” of what we are doing and give ourselves permission to reevaluate our current life choices, at any age. Then, once reevaluated, make new choices without apology or explanation. I believe “reaching for the stars” should mean a whole lot more self-care, and less notoriety and external praise. Instead of reaching for that metaphoric brass ring, let’s reach for that silver plated one we got on sale at the local thrift store
I don’t know anything really about Gregory Eells or the events that led to the end of his life. What I do know from my almost 30 years of practice is that the happiest folks I have ever met are those doing absolutely nothing particularly special. I’m not suggesting that we stop chasing our dreams if we have them, but I am suggesting we make sure they are, in fact, our dreams and not an unconscious moving through life according to someone else’s ideas of who we should be.
That never ends well.
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