OK, readers, sorry for the long silence. I have had much to do recently– all good things! I am back with a post of a highly personal and sensitive matter. I am putting a caveat right here: I am not a psychiatrist, physician, psychologist, counselor, pastor, preacher or guru. I am an individual with my own story. I sincerely wish my story to convey hope. If it helps just one person, then I have done my job. At the end of this post, you will find resources that may be of help to you or someone you know.
William Styron called it “darkness visible.” Sylvia Plath likened it to suffocating under a “bell jar.” Andrew Solomon has written about it as “the noonday demon.” This suffocating dark specter is depression. Millions of people suffer from some form of depression whether it is temporary as with the loss of a loved one or chronic in which the condition persists with occasional periods of relative health. Many sufferers first develop symptoms during the teen years. Some people start feeling the shade drawn even earlier. At the age of eleven, I remember the first time I felt that shade coming down. I had no name for it. I kept my feelings to myself.
In recent years, we have learned a lot about teen suicide risks with causes rooted in depression, bullying and social ostracism due to LGBT issues. We often ask, “Why didn’t that kid just talk to someone?” Really? Is it that easy? How many adults suffer through every day and every sleepless night and refuse to talk to someone? I don’t know. I am not a statistician. I do know I went through my teens and well into my twenties without adequately expressing that I felt BAD. Of course, I had periods of time in which I felt happy and “normal.” Not talking about depression, I believe, lies in a myriad of aspects. Some families refuse to admit a history of it. Other people feel societal pressure to appear healthy and secure. Many fear backlash at school or work. More often, it is hard to talk about what you feel because depression is so nebulous. As Margaret Atwood wrote in her novel, Blind Assassin: “But some people can’t tell where it hurts. They can’t calm down.” I could not describe what hurt or why I hurt. I internalized my sadness and engaged in suicidal ideation. I know my parents, some teachers and my few friends knew I needed help, but they did not know what to do or how to help me. I did not know how to help myself. For me, shame and admitting my illness was an overwhelming factor in denying myself help. Quite frankly, I didn’t think I deserved it. My self-worth was that low. Those who could help me would address the subject with fear and suspicion. I can understand why. It must be so frightening to see your child, your student or your friend act out in disturbing ways and speak of self-loathing– or spend hours cooped up in a darkened bedroom. But fear and suspicion caused me to push them away. What I really needed was understanding and a positive plan back to health.
This pattern continued, as I’ve said, into my twenties. At one point, I found myself with actual suicide plans. Abusing substances did not alleviate but only magnified my pain. I made a lot of poor decisions and stuck with toxic relationships that sucked time, money and health right out of me. Eventually, I landed in a psychiatric ward against my will. My hospitalization didn’t help. I was not committed to my own life. I just wanted to get away. I wanted to run from everything, everyone and myself.
“Why does the mind do such things? Turn on us, rend us, dig the claws in. If you get hungry enough, they say, you start eating your own heart. Maybe it’s much the same.” – Margaret Atwood, Blind Assassin.
Somehow, I managed to keep going. Occasionally, I would take medication or talk to someone. I eventually left the East Coast for California and met my husband. My son was born and I got down to the business of being a mother. Yet, becoming a mother only added to my feelings of inadequacy. I had flipped the coin. Anxiety decided to rear its head.
“But I can hardly sit still. I keep fidgeting, crossing one leg and then the other. I feel like I could throw off sparks, or break a window–maybe rearrange all the furniture.” – Raymond Carver, Where I’m Calling From.
Because of my past, I felt a great need to be the best mother and wife I could be to my family. No problem with that, right? However, I kept internalizing what I was going through. I could not stop what is known in Buddhism as “the comparing mind.” I felt my newly found joy with my little family was something that I would ruin and have snatched from me. The worry and anxiety escalated to the point of physical manifestations of my fears. I could not sleep. I could not eat. I could not enjoy the wine I love. I woke, when I could sleep, soaked in sweat. I paced and could not be still. I stopped writing. I stopped listening to music. I stopped being a good mother and a good wife. I struggled to even care for myself. As Epictetus said, “Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.” I was falling apart.
“My mind turned by anxiety, or other cause, from its scrutiny of blank paper, is like a lost child–wandering the house, sitting on the bottom step to cry.” – Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary.
And I did cry like a lost child.
“We live only a few conscious decades, and we fret ourselves enough for several lifetimes.” – Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22.
Based on my physical manifestations of my anxiety, I was convinced I was terminally ill. It sounds silly, but the fear was real. I spent hours going through websites and matching my symptoms to all sorts of frightening conditions like lymphoma, leukemia, etc. My doctor placated me by running a battery of tests. Everything came back normal. So I just kept looking up instances in which tests were false-negative. I was letting my fears eat me alive. Finally, I landed in my doctor’s office after a bought of mild bronchitis. I was convinced I was exhibiting symptoms of lung cancer. My doctor came into the room and I started sobbing. She looked at me and said, “You really need to talk to someone immediately.” She connected me with a psychologist right away and prescribed a mild sedative to tide me over until the SSRI she prescribed started working. Slowly, after months and years, I felt I was waking from a nightmare. I continued my struggle for some time. I had to go through five different medications and seek out another psychologist before I really turned the corner. In the meantime, I found myself thinking of suicide again.
Those who say suicide is a selfish act do not understand the full picture. Within that distorted view of self and the world, the suicidal person – in my experience – justifies the act by believing that those who would suffer most – children, significant others, parents, friends – would feel pain temporarily but inevitably be better off without the person and his or her troubles. Loved ones and friends of a suicidal person will feel anger and frustration with concern over the depressed person. Understand, though, that person realizes all too well what they are putting you through. Be honest. Tell the person that his or her self-destructive habits cause you pain, but you would rather help that person see it through to health. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote as Kilgore Trout, “Life is no way to treat an animal.”
I finally broke through to health with the support of my family and sheer determination. I spent many early morning and late night hours on the phone with those who loved me. I watched my son. My husband made sure I ate and helped to care for our child. Most importantly, I had had enough. I took matters into my own hands. I researched and kept trying different medications. I started exercising. I dealt with issues I had put off for a long time. I spoke to counselors and joined a support group. I took a class that informed me about anxiety and depression. I started practicing yoga and meditation. I took advantage of the community acupuncture movement. I chose to live and to thrive. Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “To venture causes anxiety, but not to venture is to lose one’s self…. And to venture in the highest is precisely to be conscious of one’s self.”
You may be asking, at this point, why did you write this? Well, I feel part of my life’s mission is to engage and to assist others. That’s my personal philosophy. I also know several beautiful people in the midst of their own crises right now. I want you to know that you are not alone. Not everything I’ve written helps with every person. You have to find what works for you. Once you hit bottom, there is no where to go but up. Sometimes you cling to the rocks and sometimes the rocks fail beneath your feet. The best thing to do is to keep your grip and pull yourself along. No one and no medication can do it all for you; they can only help you HELP YOURSELF.
You also may wonder why I spoke of depression and anxiety. To me, these doppelgangers are two sides of the same coin – or different spokes of the same wheel. A number of studies have been done that show untreated or inadequately treated depression leads to anxiety. Anxiety also leads to depression. The two are intertwined. The wheel is ever present. I am reminded of the Grateful Dead song:
“The wheel is turning
and you can’t slow down
You can’t let go
and you can’t hold on
You can’t go back
and you can’t stand still
If the thunder don’t get you
then the lightning will” -words by Robert Hunter; music by Jerry Garcia and Bill Kreutzmann.
Please, if you are in pain and suffering or you know someone who is in pain and suffering, TALK. Don’t think you are butting in or disturbing someone. Talk. Please. It helps. We are humans. We are social creatures. We need to feel as essential members of society. Someone can help you find ways to help yourself. Keep talking until you find that person. In the meantime, have you noticed all of my music and literature quotes? Music and books have saved me more than once. You are not alone. Your experience may be your own, but the human condition is one we all share.
And you know what? Laughter is truly a wonderful thing. Don’t forget to laugh and sing.
“If life seems jolly rotten
There’s something you’ve forgotten
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.” – Eric Idle, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please TALK to someone. Help is out there. Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). If you are outside the U.S., contact your local emergency number. You also may find resources at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or Suicide.org. You are worth it. Your life matters.