Was I shocked to learn on Saturday that Grammy-winning singer Naomi Judd had died from what a statement issued by her daughters called “the disease of mental illness“? Alas not, since Judd had disclosed her battle with depression so publicly and poignantly in her 2016 memoir.
In that book, “River of Time: My Descent into Depression and How I Emerged With Hope,” Judd wrote about experiencing the “boulder-like weight of my severe treatment-resistant depression and terrifying panic attacks.” She brought focus and attention to not only her condition but also to millions of Americans – about 1 in 5 adults – who suffer from mental illness.
She wrote about the challenges of obtaining a proper diagnosis: “I learned the hard way that mental health issues cover a wide scope of disorders and can be hard to diagnose.” And she noted that too many of us will “wait too long to seek help.”
Judd brought so much light and heat to her personal fight that we couldn’t just silo her as “the mom half” of the Judds singing duo, as she referred to herself. She became as much an advocate as an entertainer in recent years – and proved unflinchingly courageous in her disclosures, and uncomfortably honest in describing the depth of her pain.
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In a 2016 interview on ABC News’ “Nightline,” she explained that a medicine she was taking caused her hands to shake. “My face, I feel like a balloon. My face is all swollen because of the medication that I’m on,” she said, adding for her despicable critics, “I really haven’t been eating ice cream and candy.”
Her life – and now her death – are not just another story for me. Like Judd, I’ve suffered from depression (and an anxiety disorder), admittedly not as severe as hers. Like her, I faced stigma and ignorance, and I remember how, years ago, I had difficulty speaking properly thanks to a mishap with my depression medication. I heard later that a colleague suggested I had a learning disorder – he called me “stupid.”
Why are we so cruel, when we know so little?
How we wage our battles matters
When someone dies of a physical illness – much less a mental health condition – it’s common to say they lost the battle. I disagree with that sentiment, although it’s taken me a long time to understand this properly. Their battle may be over, but how it ended isn’t what determines whether they lost. It’s how they lived their lives. It’s the difference they made to others. It’s the stories and memories left behind that stay with us.
I’m reminded of when Celine Dion’s husband, René Angélil, died from throat cancer in 2016. Dion had it absolutely right when she said before his death, “He’s my hero. I’m very proud of my husband for fighting for our family, fighting for my career, fighting for himself. Fighting – he’s a fighter; he’s a winner.”
Naomi Judd, 76, once described herself as “one little country singer,” but, really, she was so much more. Judd was a winner.
I’m not talking about the five Grammys she shared with her daughter Wynonna or the sixth she won on her own. Nor am I talking about the 14 No. 1 songs in her decades-long career. I’m not even talking about her posthumous induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame on Sunday.
Judd put herself on the line in her effort to start a national conversation about depression and anxiety. Laura Wallace, a social worker in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who specializes in grief and loss, added that Judd helped to “give it a name. She was so real about it. I hope it gave others permission to understand mental illness is not a character flaw. It’s not a choice.”
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In the hours after her death was announced, fans and friends flocked to social media platforms. They remembered Judd for her honesty, for being open about her struggles and for raising two accomplished daughters who are continuing to help destigmatize mental illness and treatment.
Her candor inspires mine
Twice in my life I found myself on a suicidal precipice. Fortunately, I didn’t have a gun or another way to carry out the act. With help, those dark moments passed. As I’ve written, “I’m sure I had not seemed suicidal to any of my friends, and they were right – I wasn’t. Until suddenly I was.” That’s what’s so scary.
Like Judd, in part because of Judd, I’ve tried my level best to speak openly and often about my mental health challenges, to help others join the conversation that Naomi Judd named. It’s often uncomfortable, if not painful.
I’ve thought a lot these past days about what Judd wrote in her memoir: “Because of you, I can tell my story.”
Because of Naomi Judd, I keep telling my story. And I hope you will, too.
Steven Petrow, a writer on civility and manners and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is the author of five etiquette books and a m “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old.” Follow him on Twitter: @stevenpetrow