Sinead O’Connor is no stranger to controversy. In 1992 she tore up a photograph of the pope while signing the word evil on live television. She did this in protest against child sex abuse in the church. It was not until years later that we learned how widespread this issue was. A typical case of shooting the messenger, O’Connor was brushed off as crazy. Not much has changed in that respect over the last 23 years. She is still being honest, real and outspoken, and the media is still painting her with the crazy brush.
Sinead O’Connor is an important voice in raising awareness around mental health issues. At least: she could be. If only we would listen. As a sufferer of depression, bipolar disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder, Sinead knows what it means to live under the shadow of mental illness. One of the biggest problems in the fight against mental health issues, depression and suicide is that if you have never been touched by it, it is incredibly difficult to imagine what it is. We need to fight something that we do not understand. People who personally and successfully fight mental health issues are the people who can teach us how to survive them.
People like Sinead.
Survivors like Sinead.
For her latest album she wrote a song, “8 good reasons”, about contemplating suicide.
Don’t know if I should quite sing this song
Don’t know if it maybe might be wrong
But then again it maybe might be right
To tell you ’bout the bullet and the red light
You know I’m not from this place
I’m from a different time, different space
And it’s real uncomfortable
To be stuck somewhere you just don’t belong
But I got 8 good reasons to stick around
8 good reasons, well maybe nine now
I had a dream one night
About a bullet and a red light
You know it felt alright
You know it actually felt quite nice
If I could have gone
Without it hurting anyone
Like a child, I would have found me mum
Like a bird I would have been flown
You know I don’t much like life
I don’t mind admitting that it ain’t right
You know I love to make music
But my head got wrecked by the business
Everybody wanting something from me
They rarely ever wanna just know me
I became the stranger no one sees
Cut glass I’ve crawled upon my knees
The thoughts and feelings in this song have the power to save lives. This song teaches us about suicide awareness, knowing what it is, how it feels, and knowing how to walk away from it, knowing how to “stick around”. It teaches us that you can be there, feel that and still turn around and save your own life. You need to have weapons to fight it. Therapy, medication, meditation, music, yoga. There are so many tools you can use. You need to recognise the illness and take steps to fight it. But it is possible.
I walked past her on the street once. Actually, that’s not true. She walked past me. I still remember the exact place. Stunned by the sight of her I froze on the spot. I stopped walking and just looked at her. I was overwhelmed by her presence. There seemed to be a pool of calm air floating around her. A bubble of purple light surrounded her. It was raining, grey and miserable, but she shone. I don’t remember what she was wearing, but in my memory it feels like deep dark flowing purple and forest green velvet. She walked past me and I felt grounded and peaceful. That was fifteen years ago. No encounter so brief has ever left such a lasting impression on me.
An artist friend of mine, who moved in the same circles as her, once told me: “Poor Sinead, she struggles so much with herself”. Being completely uneducated in any aspect of mental health, I had no idea what she meant.
I went to see Sinead O’Connor play in the AB in Brussels last year. I hadn’t been following her music in recent years but I knew I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to see a living legend in the flesh. That night I witnessed one of the best performances of my life. Sinead played her heart out. Proud, loud, strong and full of love.
After the concert I got chatting to an American guy in a Sinead O’Conner t-shirt who was following her throughout her entire European tour. “Do you read her blog? She’s totally crazy”, he said. “Reading her blog makes me happy that, as a normal person, I don’t have to deal with that kind of crazy shit”. #SIGH
This week Sinead is back in the news. Following a period of bad physical health that forced her to cancel concerts, she has crashed into a mental crisis. For months she has been pleading for help and support from those around her. Her very public Facebook posts, detailing every worry, every feeling, every fear. She sounds paranoid and terrified. Her attention jumping from one drama to another. The safety and health of her children. The alleged mistreatment by her ex-partners. The fraudulent dealings of her manager.
We don’t know where the truth lays in this story but one thing we know for sure is that Sinead needs help and we can’t say that she didn’t speak up.
Last week her pleas for help became more and more desperate, until on Sunday she posted an apparent suicide note.
“There is only so much any woman can be expected to bear,”
“The last two nights finished me off. I have taken an overdose. There is no other way to get respect. I am not at home, I’m at a hotel, somewhere in Ireland, under another name.”
As she predicted, the world suddenly took notice. She survived months of sneering comments ridiculing her craziness and telling her to keep her private life to herself. Now there are more messages concerned for her safety and wishing her well. It is as if they realised that they could end up with blood on their hands. As Sinead so aptly pointed out:
“Remember the one about the people who didn’t think about what might happen if they didn’t stop tormenting a cripple? They found out real hard ‘how far is too far’. They woke up next day as murderers, believing they’d gone to bed so high and mighty, and so superior to those they’d deemed ‘unfit’.”
She is on a rollercoaster of dizzying highs and terrifying lows. From a Vegas wedding to a traumatic hysterectomy, from a fantastic European tour to fighting for her children. I see her spinning out of control and I wish I could cup her face in my hands. I wish I could make her mind still for a moment. Make her breathe deeply and calm her thoughts. I wish I could bring her to a room full of blankets and cushions. I wish I could hold her tight and tell her that everything will be OK. Because it can be OK. With the right support, legal and medical help, she will be OK. I can imagine she feels blinded right now. Blinded by her illness. Blinded by rage, by confusion, by fear, by love. Someone needs to hold her close and whisper shhhh in her ear until the storm settles in her mind.
Where are those pro bono lawyers from the TV shows who put their job on the line to defend the disadvantaged? If we can’t save the life of a well known public figure who has been crying for help for months, if we can’t spread the message that if you ask for help you will receive it, then how can we ever help the depressed single mother living underneath the poverty line? How could she ever know that there are people out there who can help her? Asking for help is the hardest part, so we have to do all we can to show that help is available if you ask. As Sinead herself pointed out in an interview last year:
“When you admit that you are anything that could be mistakenly, or otherwise, perceived as ‘mentally ill’ you know that you are going to get treated like dirt so you don’t go tell anybody and that’s why people die.”
Mental health awareness is being raised and there is a lot more education and understanding than some years ago. I only became aware of the existence of mental health after loosing a friend to suicide in my twenties. American start-up Wear Your Label coined a powerful catchphrase, highlighting that we all need to learn about mental health and learn how to keep ourselves healthy.
“1 in 5 people will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. 5 in 5 have mental health; yet no one is talking about it.”
Recently a friend told me that her 9-year-old daughter had been troubled with feelings of anger, that outed themselves in the form of tantrums and rage episodes. With the help of a counselor they are now working together to talk about those emotions. They focus their attention on finding the source of those feelings. They taught her methods to identify and deal with her anger. This gives me hope for the future. I have faith that younger generations will be taught as much about mental health as about physical health. They will know that they need to brush their teeth twice a day. They will also know how to identify and deal with negative and challenging thoughts. Irish charity Cycle Against Suicide is working hard to spread another very important message.
“It’s OK not to feel OK and it’s absolutely OK to ask for help”
This will save many lives.
I believe Sinead is strong and knowledgeable enough to fight it and stay alive. Even so, right now she should be in a safe place with support around her, not in a hotel room with a bottle of pills.
I know your heart is too big for you to leave us. I also know that having such a big heart makes it harder to stay. Think of your 8 good reasons. Add to the list. I believe in you and in your recovery. You know that suicide is not the answer. Don’t let your illness convince you that it is. Lie down for a while, take care of yourself, and recover. Then stand up and show the world the lioness inside.
We need your voice.
You can save lives.
Including your own.