On April 30, 2022 country music star Naomi Judd died. Her daughters announced that they had lost their mother to mental illness. “Today we sisters experienced a tragedy. We lost our beautiful mother to the disease of mental illness,” the statement said. “We are shattered. We are navigating profound grief and know that as we loved her, she was loved by her public. We are in unknown territory.” The cause of death will be listed as suicide, but that isn’t really accurate. Her daughters had it right. The cause was mental illness, the details of the end involved taking her own life.
The following day, May 1, 2022, Naomi’s daughters attended the Country Music Hall of Fame ceremony where The Judds, both Naomi and her daughter Wynonna, were inducted that evening. The heart-wrenching grief both Wynonna and her sister Ashley were living in was evident in their faces, their tears, and their words. Ashley expressed how much she wished her mother had been able to hang on for one more day to experience the induction. Ashley also made a point of reminding her sister that, while much was being said about their mother that night, Wynonna was also being inducted into the Hall of Fame. That fact will always be bittersweet to her. It will never come with joy. Wynonna’s comment said so much, “I’m gonna make this fast because my heart’s broken — and I feel so blessed. I mean, it’s a very strange dynamic to be this broken and this blessed.”
I haven’t said anything here that wasn’t all over the morning shows, the evening news, Facebook, Instagram, and all other sorts of media. People who really knew nothing about the Judds and their music much less their lives probably know all of this.
Naomi’s battle with what doctors termed severe, treatment-resistant depression was public. She was quite open about the times she couldn’t get dressed, times when she said she couldn’t even manage “basic hygiene” let alone get up and function. In her autobiography she detailed the battle she waged against the disease and her suicidal ideations. She spoke of it in televised interviews.
It is all so very sad. She lived with this for a very long time and couldn’t overcome it. But here’s what I hope some people take away from this tragic turn. Naomi Judd sought treatment. She took medications, got counseling, even did in-patient programs. To the outside world, she seemed to be living high and had so much. As she said in an interview with Robin Roberts, people saw her with the glitter and the rhinestones, the costumes and the music, but they didn’t know the other side of her life.
I don’t have the words to tell people fully what depression is like. I’m okay at the moment. But I always know that no matter how good I feel right now, there will be a day or days that isn’t true. People will say, “Oh, I know. I was so depressed when my mother died.” Yes, you can be and probably will be depressed over the death of a loved one. It hurts and you feel like you can’t go on. But it isn’t the same. In the normal course of grief, you become depressed due to a specific event at a specific point in time. You will always miss the loved one, but you will move on. At the moment, you don’t feel the truth of it, but everyone will assure you that you will come through and be able to live happily again. Everyone will understand that you are sad and why. They will offer support and love as you deal with this time.
When you are suffering from the mental illness that is depression, there is likely no specific event at a specific point in time that you can point to as a cause. When I have been in some of my deepest episodes of depression, I couldn’t begin to tell you what brought it on. Maybe one little thing triggered it, maybe I noticed and maybe not. Just as likely there was nothing that happened, but it snuck up on me and suddenly I was enveloped in it. And, while I know in my head that normalcy will return, my heart often tells me it won’t. And even if I do come out of the bout and live happily for awhile, I always know that tomorrow might be the day it returns.
Here’s the part that people don’t get. It is an illness.
When you break a leg, you go to the hospital, get x-rays, find out if you need surgery, have the leg set, and you get a cast and crutches. No one tells you, “Just get up and walk it off. You’re only in pain as much as you believe you are. Shake it off.”
If you are diagnosed with cancer, no one tells you, “Just snap out of it. Take a nap and then get out and do something. You’ll feel better.” No, they offer encouragement, empathy, sympathy. They help with meals, are beside you offering rides to treatment. They know that you are in a battle for your health and well-being — perhaps a life-or-death battle.
I wish I had a dime for every inane platitude I’ve heard regarding depression. “You’re only as happy as you choose to be.” So, you think I’ve chosen to be unable to see any joy, any future, any happiness? Really?
“There are so many people who have it worse than you do.” I know. And all that does is make me feel worse because I know that is true. But you don’t tell someone who had a heart attack, “Yeah, but you only have two blockages when Pete had four.”
“Your faith must be too weak. You need to pray more.” Thanks, add another shortcoming to my list that is already never ending in my mind. Ever read Psalms? I’m pretty sure David had faith. I’m also sure that he had struggles that left him in despair.
When I heard of the death of Naomi Judd what I thought about was how horrible she must have felt, how hurt and broken she must have been. I saw a bit of the interview with Robin Roberts and it was evident how tortured she was. Everything I ever read or heard about her spoke to her big heart, her love for others. And yet she came to this end.
To kill herself on the day before she was to receive the biggest award of her life, shows the depths of her despair. That she also did it on the eve of her daughter receiving the biggest award of her life belies the idea that she could have chosen to be happy. How could someone believe that she could have just snapped out of it or chosen to be happy? That makes no sense. There is nothing in her life that would indicate that she would choose to destroy her daughters as she has. Wynonna will forever be a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, but she will never know the joy, the celebration, or feel the love and acceptance of receiving that honor. Her mother couldn’t find that within herself and denied Wynonna of that.
My heart goes out to all three of these women as well as the others who love them. I’m sure they are, as Wynonna said, broken. In addition to losing a loved one, they are burdened with the self flagellating thoughts of what they could have done, how could they not have known that was the day, what did they do that pushed. Their family history isn’t all awards and music and films. For all of them there were troubled times, strained relationships, health issues, alcohol issues, sexual trauma, and career upheavals. They may be burdened with worry that they too will experience this. And they have to deal with it under the scrutiny of a very public spotlight.
You, your friends, and loved ones may not have had to deal with some of the struggles they did, but you probably haven’t the acclaim and success either. What we all need to remember one thing. No matter where a person suffering from depression comes from or how they came to the point in life where they are, they need to be understood and loved. They need people to understand that they are fighting an illness. They may need a bit more encouragement — especially encouragement to speak up and reach out for help. They need to be believed and not merely given platitudes. Your words could make a life-or-death difference for someone.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 800-273-8255
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