Whenever we lose a member of our profession to suicide, and it happens with an astonishing level of frequency, our community gathers to mourn. “She was such a caring person. He was so proud of this profession. I don’t understand. Why? Why?” We look for answers that we’ll never get, scan Facebook posts for clues, and because we are an empathetic and decent group, we’ll beat ourselves up for not being able to stop it.
Another thing happens when I hear this kind of news, and maybe it’s just me but I imagine not: I get scared. I get scared because the people we lose are accomplished, successful, and talented. They are productive, have families and friends who love them. They look, on the outside, just like the rest of us, and yet they carry a burden that just becomes too overwhelming to bear any longer. And I get frightened because I think to myself, “What if I get to that point too? If it happened to them, could it happen to me?”
A Stick of Dynamite
Depression is not a personality defect, a personal shortcoming, or a choice. It comes to you courtesy of your genes, just like astigmatism and a tendency to migraines. Left untreated, it can spiral out of control. It is a stick of dynamite you carry with you for life, and being the perfectionists so many of us are, we stuff it under our overcoat and soldier on with the fuse looped over our shoulder.
We walk through life in a constant battle to keep the fuse unlit. Maybe the best we can do is get it to a slow burn here and there; sometimes it’s completely dormant, and other times it pops awake, crackling and glowing. Every day is different.
As a friend or family member, there’s not a thing you can do about the stick of dynamite, but you can help with the fuse. We work in a profession that is constantly working to fan the flames: a nasty comment from a coworker, an upset client, a sense of overwhelming debt, imposter syndrome, a tendency to take everything to heart. It’s lighter fluid.
On the other hand, the joyous and quiet moments we share do just the opposite: a card from a wonderful client, a puppy who makes it through parvo, a compliment from the boss. A quick email to check in on someone you haven’t seen in a while.
All the Little Moments Add Up
Most of the time when we have an effect on someone we aren’t even aware of it, for good or for ill. The little offhand comment, the choices you make about how to treat other people- they matter. And while we like to think we are going to be there for the big save, that some profound sentence or conversation is going to be the One Thing That Changes Everything, the truth is you’re not Yoda. Just accept that now. But all the little moments here and there, they add up just as much- or more.
I’ll start: Dr. Lori Martin out at Cuyamaca Animal Hospital did me a kindness back in 2010 that she probably doesn’t even remember. She didn’t know me, but she wrote something to me that gave me strength at a moment when the well was pretty much empty, and helped me get back to the place I am now: Good. I never forgot it. If this makes its way to you, thank you.
The entire team at DrAndyRoark (ok, it’s only five of us for now, but still) spend a lot of time talking about what we want the site to be, and more importantly, what it needs to be for the people who read it. We try every day to put things out there to decrease the sense of isolation and loneliness that many people seem to feel, to bring you a smile or a sense of pride or at least a moment of “It’s not just me.” It is just one community of many: on Facebook, on veterinary websites, over email, all mini-groups coalescing like magnets. These didn’t exist a decade ago, and it’s pretty special.
Bits of Water in the Void
So, to answer the question in the title, to assign blame in terrible situations is pretty pointless. What we can do is recognize what we have to give to each other and continue to reaffirm that it’s worth it to show kindness and compassion to each other, and be open to receiving it if we have none for ourselves. Have faith that it makes a difference. Sometimes it’s all we can do, but that is enough.
My hope is that these little moments of light are bits of water thrown out into the void, to land on whoever might be needing them on that day. So maybe I’m not so scared after all. No matter what, we have each others’ backs.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jessica Vogelsang is a San Diego veterinarian with Paws into Grace and the creator of the popular website pawcurious.com. Her writing is regularly featured on outlets such as dvm360, Vetstreet, and petmd. Her debut memoir All Dogs Go to Kevin is available in bookstores, online, and as an ebook from all major book retailers. For more information about the book and Dr. Vogelsang, visit drjessicavogelsang.com.