Just imagine: her failures helped save her

She graduated from college, although it was not her first choice school. Her mom died at the young age of 45, after suffering for years from multiple sclerosis. Shortly after, she discovered her father had been involved in a long-time affair. They stopped speaking. She moved away, met a guy and got married.

The marriage was tumultuous, lasting just over a year. However, she had a baby during that time. She was a victim of domestic violence. Divorce followed soon thereafter.

She became a single mother. She turned to welfare for a short time. She was overwhelmed. She was diagnosed as severely depressed. She considered suicide. She was just 30 years old.

Somewhere deep inside, she found her resilience. She liked to write. So she wrote. Her first book was rejected 12 times before a publisher picked it up.

It was called Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone. The young woman is J. K. Rowling.

Today, it is estimated that the Harry Potter franchise alone is worth about $15 billion. Rowling has accumulated a long list of writing awards along the way. She remarried and now has three children. She is known for her philanthropy. She is particularly invested in charities focused on multiple sclerosis, illiteracy and many children’s causes. She founded the international nonprofit children’s organization Lumos, which “works to end the institutionalisation of children globally and ensure they grow up in a safe and caring environment,” according to her website.

In 2007, as the seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series published, Rowling was Time Magazine’s Person of the Year runner-up. (The winner was Vladimir Putin, which probably merits a column of its own).

In 2008, she gave the commencement address at Harvard University. It was just 20 minutes long, but yielded the book “Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination.” It was published in 2015. All of the profits from the book are donated to charity — 90 percent to Lumos and 10 percent to financial aid at Harvard.

It is hard to imagine a world without Rowling and her incredible characters. Yet, 20 short years ago, her world looked so bleak, she considered suicide.

Last year, a British girl who had attempted suicide and was considering another attempt, reached out to Rowling. The girl quoted from a Harry Potter book. It was a phrase that helped the wizards ward off Dementors. “Expecto patronum.” Translated from Latin, it means “I have a guardian angel.” Rowling responded to her. The news accounts of the interaction say the girl planned to have those words tatooed on her wrist, where she had cut herself previously.

I wondered whether that small interaction could help that girl. I know the statistic that the best predictor of a successful suicide is an unsuccessful attempt. So, I did a little checking on her. She is still very much alive, active on social media and has 101,000 followers on Twitter. Maybe Rowling is her guardian angel.

Last fall, I wrote about suicide among our veterans. However, no community, age group, gender, race, ethnicity, religion or socio-economic class is immune from suicide. Suicide is now among the top 10 leading causes of death in the U.S.

I wrote that you — and I — have the power to reduce suicide. We need to shake off the fear and stigma and talk about suicide and the importance of mental health care as part of overall health care. We need to know the warning signs of suicide. If someone we care about talks about suicide, we cannot ignore it. We need to refer people who are at risk to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call it ourselves if we need help or have concerns about a loved one: 1-800-273-8255. If someone is at imminent risk, call 911. Police and firefighter/EMTs are trained to assist in crisis situations. Can you even imagine — I hope you can — the potential power we have to reduce suicide? It’s more than magical.

Rowling used her own life experiences to weave the themes of failure and imagination into her address at Harvard. Today there is no doubt, she has a good life. There are a billion reasons to admire this struggling, single mom turned prolific writer and philanthropist. Not one has to do with her net worth.


Print this story