What with having a four-month-old and all, I go to bed every night at 8:30. Needless to say, I didn’t watch the Oscars. I have since, however, watched Graham Moore’s acceptance speech, and eagerly read many of the articles that praise his honesty and support his message. I’ve also watched Dana Perry’s speech, dedicating her award to her son Evan, who died by suicide. “We should talk about suicide,” she said. “Out loud.”
Neil Patrick Harris followed that up with what media outlets called “a poorly timed joke” about Perry’s dress.
Here’s the thing: I’m not surprised. I’m not upset, either. That moment after someone discloses a loss by suicide? That’s a scary-ass moment. It’s big and it’s heavy. Frankly, no one knows what to do with it, even when they aren’t on live TV. I know, because I’ve been there a hundred times.
When people hear that I’ve written a book, they inevitably ask me what it’s about. Once upon a time I answered directly: “it’s a memoir about my brother’s death by suicide.” Nine times out of ten people looked shocked, panicked, or disconcerted by my response, as though they had caused me pain by asking. It got to where I would preface my answer with a warning: “I’m totally okay now, so don’t feel bad for asking…” That turned out to be just as awkward. For a while I tried keeping it vague—“mental illness and suicide”—but that just led to more questions. The other day I actually started laughing when someone asked me. She was polite enough to laugh along with me, though I suspect she thought I was a little unhinged. I felt a little unhinged. It had finally occurred to me that even though I’ve written a book about it, I still feel uncomfortable talking about suicide out loud. Mostly because I feel uncomfortable making people feel uncomfortable.
And that’s on me. Not society. Not Neil Patrick Harris. I actually think it’s kind of great that he treated Perry like any other winner. Perry agreed. “Just because we take on a serious subject,” she tweeted, “doesn’t mean we can’t have fun once in a while.”
So that’s where it starts: with poorly timed jokes about fashion. With us—survivors—speaking the truth. Being willing to walk into that big, heavy, scary-ass moment, over and over and over again. Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. And giving everyone the space to have whatever reaction they have.
I’m inspired by Moore and Perry, and grateful to them, too. My brother died by suicide. I tried to kill myself when I was 16, too. And from now on I’m going to take a deep breath and talk about it. Out loud.