June 27, 2012

200 pieces so far in my Erin portrait

As published in The Erin Advocate

It is like an English course that just goes on and on. Coming up with a 700 word essay for the newspaper every week has been a challenging project – painting a mosaic-style portrait of Erin, one small piece at a time.

This is Column 200. When I started in June 2008, I said I would strive to entertain, report accurately and treat people with respect.

I haven't had any complaints so far, which probably means I am not taking enough risks. The entertainment value would definitely be higher if I was from the attack dog school of journalism, stirring up trouble for its own sake.

I get to pick my own topics, which means there are some aspects of Erin I have not written about, yet. Some issues are so convoluted that there aren't enough hours in the week to tackle them properly.

People tell me they like what I do, and I think the reason it works is that the columns are not primarily about my opinions. I am a boring, middle-aged guy with opinions that would put most people to sleep.

I would rather interview people who are doing interesting things (and there are lots of them in Erin), or dig up and explain things that will help people learn about their own community.

The recent column about the suicide of my son was one of the rare personal ones. It generated not only an outpouring of encouragement for my family, but an unexpected flow of personal stories.

When confronted with the spectre of death, that common fear that binds us together, we often respond with symbols of life and nourishment: flowers and food. More importantly, there is an effort to reassure survivors that they are not alone in their struggles.

Many people, including total strangers, told us about the suicides of children, parents, close friends and relatives, of assisted suicides and of their own attempts. They told us about fears for the safety of their own children, and details about cases of clinical depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Then there are the issues that follow, such as long delays in getting proper treatment, the guesswork in prescribing mixtures of psychiatric drugs and the aggressive marketing of these drugs. The costs of mental illness include not only health care costs and lost productivity, but drug and alcohol addictions, violence, abuse and shattered dreams.

People have reached out to us, since the opportunity to discuss these issues openly does not come along every day. So now we know a little bit about their stories, but they do not know each others' stories, and we are not able to share them.

Suffice to say that mental illness is all around us, and we need to be aware. It is a reminder not to pass judgement on people who are different from us, or who appear weak. We often do not know what they have had to endure, or how they have adapted in order to keep on going.

So we all walk in the valley of the shadow of death. It is that shadow – that  fear – which is more oppressive than death itself.

I know some people who have given up on God in a time of tragedy. How could a loving God allow such bad things to happen? I do not know the answer to that, but our anger could be caused by unrealistic expectations.

We were never promised immunity from terrible things, but only that we need not face them alone. Perhaps that is why the lyrics of Psalm 23, written by David (the shepherd and king) have great appeal for those who mourn:

"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me."