If you live in Anne Arundel county, MD, there is a sad chance that you know someone with a story similar to Meredith’s. If you live in Severna Park, there’s a greater chance that this story is one with which you are already familiar, one that you read in the paper or heard from a neighbor. On Tuesday 24 January 2012, Meredith McCandless’s husband, Jim, father of her three children and popular high school baseball coach, took his own life. He had been battling depression for over a year. Meredith’s job as a mental health consultant for Anne Arundel County made her more aware of the signs of his struggle than many of us would have been, but by their nature, depressive thoughts are deceitful, tricking those affected by them as well as their loved ones, and so Jim’s slightly unusual behaviors on that particular day didn’t seem to be red flags until they were viewed in retrospect.
In the midst of this tragedy, Meredith has been incredibly strong, both for her children and because of them. In the days after Jim’s completed suicide, Meredith’s family and friends helped her cope: “My children saved my life!” At that point, Meredith’s youngest child was 5 months old. “I had to get out of bed, even when I didn’t want to. I’ve had a lot of very lonely self-pity filled days and nights, and I fight off the bitterness daily.” Somehow having children whose basic needs had to be met served as some of the glue that kept the pieces together on the days when everything seemed most broken.
The structure of regular workouts at the gym has also helped. Meredith usually fits in 3-4 training sessions per week. Additionally talking, sharing her story, and being an open book about all of this has also turned out to be essential in her healing process. This was a choice that Meredith did not necessarily make herself: “…my devastation was front page news. I couldn’t have hidden, even if I was that type of person.” Her openness has been vital to those around her who are struggling with similar situations; currently she is in the process of assisting a college friend through the recent loss of her husband by suicide. Meredith has future goals of starting a suicide support group and a spouse support organization with a child related component. While there are some groups of this nature listed in our area, Meredith has found that they were no longer up and running.
Another staple in Meredith’s life now and one of the ways she regularly helps to promote conversation about suicide is through her annual participation in the “Out of Darkness” walk, organized by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. According to AFSP, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for adults between the ages of 15 and 64 years in the United States, and it claims more lives than war, murder, and natural disasters combined. AFSP’s mission statement targets five key goals: to fund scientific research, offer educational programs for professionals, educate the public about mood disorders and suicide prevention, promote policies and legislation that impact suicide and prevention, and provide programs and resources for survivors of suicide loss and people at risk, and involve them in the work of the Foundation. This year’s walk is on Saturday 24 September.
Meredith’s purpose in being open about her situation is to support others and also to help change the mindset around suicide and mental health. Meredith believes that the reason for the mental health stigma that exists in our culture is “ignorance about mental health as a whole. We must start thinking of it as ‘brain’ health as opposed to mental health. The brain is an organ, just like our heart or lungs. We care for these organs without the stigma of embarrassment. Why not the brain too?! Suicide is the fallout of ignoring adequate treatment of that organ. The more we talk about it, the less ignorant we are, which leads to less stigma and embarrassment.”
You can support Meredith’s walk this year by making a donation to her fundraising page and by helping to spread the word; be a part of the conversation that helps to end the ignorance and stigma around brain health.
The youth group from Our Shepherd Lutheran Church recently set out on their yearly summer mission trip to build homes for Habitat for Humanity, and while it takes a certain amount of physical strength to do the work of construction, that is not the focus of this real world story of strength. This year’s destination was White Sulphur Springs, WV. You may have seen it in the news. By Thursday of that week, the area was hit with devastating floods that washed the roads out in all directions, and like the river, the mission trip took an entirely different course. The group was being housed at the Civic Center, which in times of emergency is a Red Cross Disaster Relief Site, so not surprisingly at around 5pm, one of the youth directors, Alex, received a call from Joyce, the Civic Center Supervisor, to let him know the center was about to be activated; the gym would be opened, and people in need of shelter would be housed there. The flooding was so bad, however, that while the relief center was there, the Red Cross were not able to get in.
News of the flooding began to hit the networks, and parents started calling and texting the leaders, worried about their children. The leaders decided to gather everyone together. What they saw before them was a group of visibly shaken kids. Those kids had seen and heard about the river swelling, about cars floating by, about houses collapsing and lives being lost. They were rightfully scared.
Alex looked out at the group and gave them two instructions: “#1) Call or text your parents. Let them know you are safe. Let them know you have food, shelter, water, and that you are residing in the safest place in White Sulphur Springs, in the Red Cross Disaster Relief Center. #2) Get out of your own heads! Nothing is happening to you. You are safe and have everything you need. As of right now, our Mission has changed. We are no longer “Habitat for Humanity”. We are now the “Red Cross”. Every decision we make from now on needs to be centered on ‘How can I help these people who have REAL problems?’ They’ve lost their homes, their possessions, and possibly loved ones. You are to be the ‘Light on the hill’. Now go and help!”
And they did. With the help of some great coaching and a group of outstanding chaperones, those kids were able to move out of their own headspace, away from their own growing panic, and were able to get to work helping others. They served those in need by setting up cots, distributing blankets and clothing, feeding and sheltering people. This included people who were in shock, people who had lost homes and family, people who were trapped and uncertain about what they had lost, people with medical conditions, and people who could not locate loved ones. Those kids did all that while simultaneously batting flooding in the Civic Center itself. In the midst of their hard work and lingering concern, they were empathetic and kind. To my mind, this is one of the ways that strength looks outside of the gym. I believe that real strength is being able to put the genuine needs of others before our own self-centered and often imagined fears. More than lifting tons of gravel, swinging hammers, and digging ditches, real strength is often as subtle and quiet as momentarily taming our own insecurities to be able to help someone else in need.