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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Feeling Suicidal? It Gets Better

While it's not a secret, very few people know that for over two decades I suffered from clinical depression.

At its core, suicide caused by depression is often a desperate attempt by a mind incapable of thinking clearly to seek relief from loneliness so palpable that it can cause physical pain, despair so deep you can't see any light at the end of the tunnel and emotional exhaustion so overwhelming that you just feel too tired to go on.

I know this because I've been there and have survived several episodes of clinical/major depression that twice brought me to the brink of suicide. The thing is, people (both the sufferer and those around them) often mistake clinical depression for sadness which is the equivalent of mistaking cancer for a common cold and not seeking treatment. They are distinctly different, and one is potentially more fatal than the other.

So why talk about it now? Because our country seems to be waking up to the realization that part of the solution in stopping suicides is to be willing to talk about the problem.

Most importantly, I think there's an unintended consequence when it comes to the belief many of us were taught as children (whether by our parents or society) that suicide is the "ultimate act" of selfishness or cowardice. The additional perception (by many) that needing counseling and/or medications are signs of "weakness" and these negative stigmas undoubtedly, but not intentionally, stop some people from seeking the help they need. What society (and that inner voice in our own minds) has created, and continues to perpetuate, is a culture where so much stigma and shame is connected to the act of suicide that it causes those contemplating it to hide their feelings. The result? A dangerous, downward spiral is allowed to progress unchecked.

People don't Choose to be Despressed Instead of Happy

What I can't help but wonder is this: If depressed people weren't afraid of being labeled by society, judged by their families, made fun of by friends, possibly losing their jobs or the potential to be promoted by their employers, would more of them seek help before it's too late? Ultimately the decision to end one's own life is each person's and theirs alone. But, to cast blame and label someone who committed suicide as selfish or cowardly isn't fair because suffering from clinical depression is not a choice and suicide is a decision often made by a depressed mind incapable of thinking clearly.

Statistics say as many as 60% to 90% of people who die by suicide suffer from clinical depression, a mood disorder, or another diagnosable mental disorder that they are not being treated for or they are being under treated for. IMO one of the most dangerous elements of depression is that you feel you're coping satisfactorily even when you aren't. Once you are in depression's grip, you lose perspective and the ability to think rationally at all times. Which means trying to wait out depression is often a mistake because you won't always be able to recognize you've reached a point where you need help.

The easiest way for me to explain the difference between sadness and depression is by using pictures:



We all experience sadness from time to time in the same transitory way we experience all other emotions like elation, anger, embarrassment, etc., perhaps for seconds, minutes, hours or sometimes days.

Depression is different. Depression may be a physical, mental, chemical, or genetic illness that causes emotional suffering that ranges from sadness to anguish to despair and can last for weeks, months or years and can intensify over time. It made me feel alone even when I was surrounded by family and friends. It felt like being in a deep, dark hole from which escape was hopeless and impossible. I felt like a failure (stupid, and insignificant) and was certain that, after the initial shock, people would move on once I was gone. I had lost both family and friends to death. I knew that there is a period of anger and grief but then there is acceptance and life goes on. At the time I thought it was ok to go because in my depressed reality, I was already gone. I felt so empty inside, like who I used to be didn't exist anymore. That made it ok to leave physically, because inside (mentally, emotionally and spiritually) I felt like I was already dead.

My depression began when I was a teenager and surfaced intermittently for around 20 years with episodes lasting anywhere from months to 4-5 years at a time. The concern of a friend saved me the first time I was on the brink of suicide. I was in college carrying 20 credits, had moved out of my parent's house, was working part time to support myself and suffered two significant losses on the same day. One was the suicide of someone I loved dearly. After a while suicidal urges and planning how to take my own life began occupying my thoughts. I simply wasn't able to cope. I told a friend, who told her mom who was a therapist. Her mom offered to talk to me (in free counseling sessions) for several months until I was out of danger.

Depression made my life feel overcast with just a sliver of light.

Over the years I sought private counseling on several more occasions. I also called the national suicide hotline (1-800-784-2433) and counselors there talked me through some really tough nights. If you are suffering, whatever you do, do not buy into the stigma that to need help is a sign of weakness. I'm telling you that to acknowledge you need help and to seek it out takes a tremendous amount of strength. None of us are perfect and we aren't always equipped to deal with the stress and trauma that life often dumps upon us.

The "It Gets Better Project" is creating a dialog about suicide that our society has been uncomfortable with for far too long. While "It Gets Better" focuses on the the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) community, the individual messages of resilience and recovery from suicidal feelings really transcend the LGBT community and encompass all of us and the fact that it's possible for any of us to suffer from suicidal depression at some point in our lives. It's part of the human condition.

Even social networking giant "Facebook" is putting in place a new way for members to send an alert that another member has threatened suicide on their website. CLICK HERE to visit the "Suicide" help page on Facebook.

At the time I didn't think anyone would miss me. Later, I realized they would have.

If you do open up to someone and they respond negatively or are judgmental, open up to someone else and don't be upset with the person who didn't know what to say or how to help. While some may know intuitively and others may have learned, most of us weren't raised or trained to know what the "right things" to say are in the face of suicide. It isn't that we don't care, we simply don't know how to help. People who can help include:
  • Counselors at the Anonymous Suicide Hot Line at 1-800-784-2433.
  • A Psychologist can give you counseling and psychotherapy and may have a Doctoral Degree or Ph. D.. (This is who helped me when I went through counseling.) 
  • A Psychiatrist can give you counseling and/or medications because they are a Medical Doctor (M.D).
  • Your General Practitioner Doctor can diagnose your depression and refer you to a Psychologist or Psychiatrist. They may even want to give you anti-depressent medications but they will not address any underlying cause(s) of your depression or teach you coping skills the way a Psychologist or Psychiatrist will.
With counseling I saw the possibility of moving in a new direction.

Some of the most helpful things we can do if someone tells us they are or have been feeling suicidal is to listen, accept their feelings (don't try to tell them they are wrong), urge them to seek professional help, tell them you don't want them to commit suicide and ask what you can do to help. Often just having someone to talk to about their problems can make them feel less lonely and can be a first step towards recovery. For now, you can learn some of the best ways to respond to a person in distress on websites like MetanoiaStop A Suicide, and the National Institute of Mental Health.

Common responses that are not helpful are saying:
  • That contemplating suicide is selfish or stupid. This only confirms every negative, self hating emotion the person is already experiencing and does not help. 
  • Others are worse off. While normally someone might agree, when depressed, this comment can feel dismissive of the pain they are suffering from. The pain a person from depression suffers from isn't rational or relative to any other suffering. It is what it is and the intensity of it can be unbearable.
  • That God doesn't give people more than they can bear. For many, God (or life for the non-religious) does give some people more than they can bear. Others who have committed suicide and mental illness can be viewed as proof that some of us have limitations on how much we are able to bear. To a person of devout faith they may agree with this commonly accepted interpretation of Corinthians (1 Cor 10:13, from which the quote originates) when they are in a clear frame of mind. But when suicidally depressed their faith may slip from their grasp. I don't mean this in a blasphemous way nor do I want to start a theological debate. I'm just offering a perspective of how this statement may not help someone who is clinically depressed and may cause them to feel more despair, over their inability to bear or cope with what they are going through (because now they are failing both God's expectations and yours), rather than give the comfort the statement was intended to create.
  • "Snap out of it" or to "get over it." That's not how depression works so these suggestions aren't helpful at all no matter how well intended. You would't tell someone with any other potentially fatal medical condition to snap it away or to just get over it, yet many people truly believe that overcoming depression is that easy.
Things look different once the depression is gone...

If you ever feel that suicide is your only option please call the suicide hot line and talk to a counselor before taking your own life. I'm telling you that you do have another choice. Asking for help is the other choice to suicide.

Their national numbers are

National Suicide Hotlines USA
United States of America
Toll-Free / 24 hours a day / 7 days a week

1-800-SUICIDE             1-800-273-TALK
1-800-784-2433            1-800-273-8255

Deaf Hotline
1-800-799-4889

Worldwide Suicide Helplines can be found at Befrienders Wordlwide.



The last time I felt suicidal was in 1998 and can honestly say I don't ever expect to feel that way again. I now have boundaries in my day to day life that stop me from going down the wrong path with people or situations that are emotionally unhealthy for me. I've also learned how to ask for help and accept it from others. These life skills have protected me from falling back into depression at times when previously I would have been vulnerable to it.

If you are in that dark and lonely space and the idea of killing yourself has begun to fill your thoughts, I hope this post will help you to reconsider and seek professional help. Even if you feel hopeless, like there's no way you'll ever feel happy again, my life is proof that it does get better. You just have to stick around long enough to see it happen.


These are just some of the things I've read in dark moments that have lifted me up and helped me to create the path I am on now:

Books:

The Road Less Traveled (M. Scott Peck)

When Bad Things Happen To Good People (Harold S. Kushner)

Awakening to the Sacred (Lama Surya Das)


Wild (Cheryl Strayed)

Women Who Run With The Wolves (Clarissa Pinkola Est├ęs)


Furiously Happy (Jenny Lawson "The Bloggess")

Online:

Adventures in Depression (From the Hyperbole and a Half Blog)

Depression Part Two (From the Hyperbole and a Half Blog)

What It’s Like To Be In Love When You Have Depression (Article from Thought Catalog)



The information and suggestions in this post are given from a personal perspective and should not be interpreted as professional medical advice. Please consult a professional Counselor, Doctor, Psychiatrist or Psychologist for help regarding depression and/or suicide.

10 comments:

  1. Stacie, your compassion and creativity know no bounds! I am proud to be one of your friends and colleagues. Jeff and I are forwarding this to our neighbors Vic and Mary Ojakian, whose son, and Justin's best friend, Adam, committed suicide several years ago. Thank you for making this post so personal and informative. Your word pictures and cartoon drawings really captured what depression is like as compared to sadness. I had years of depression too, and both my mom and aunt committed suicide. Let's get real, depression can be a killer like cancer, and is often just as easy to overlook. This is especially important around the holidays when everyone seems to be so happy, but many are NOT.

    ReplyDelete
  2. What I love about The Flirty Blog is it is just like life in that it encompasses everything. It segues from necessary subjects like suicide right into other necessary subjects like the best veggie tacos. I feel that part of being well adjusted is the ability to talk about both kinds of subjects and keep it all in perspective. Another great post.

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  3. Jean, I am so sorry to hear that your life has been touched in so many ways by depression and suicide. I had no idea :( My heart breaks for you losing both your grandmother and mother, for your neighbors losing their son and your son losing his grandmother, great grandmother and his best friend.

    I hope that others find the information helpful for themselves and/or for people they love.

    Thanks Carl. I think you're right. I hadn't thought about it but being able to segue from vegetarian tacos to suicide is real life. Being able to talk about everything empowers us not necessarily because of what we're saying but because when we are willing to talk about difficult subjects it frees us from fear that could otherwise hold us back and down.

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  4. Thank you Stacie for sharing such a profound subject. My mother suffered with clinical depression for as long as I can remember and still does. It was hard growing up trying to understand why. Your article definitely has been very helpful and opened my eyes even more to an otherwise silent illness.

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  5. tihngs do allways get better when you are depressed or suisidal the way i look at it out side if it rains there nothing we can do about it dosnt matter what we do we cant stop it but on the other hand if its sunny outside we cant stop that neither but its a bit more enjoyable with deppresion and suisidal thoughts they are the same except you can do something about you can talk to people and you can get help sometimes just talking to people really help you plus a lot of people who feel like this find it extremy hard to see outside a box its dark on all the walls and you cant see out things do get better you just sometimes have to belive it

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  6. Megan I'm so sorry for your mother. I was lucky that my depression didn't last so long.

    Kevin, you're right. It can be so hard to see outside the box. Sometimes it takes trusting that things will get better. And talking can help a lot. I hope more people are able to reach out and talk to others to get the help they need.

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  7. "IMO one of the most dangerous elements of depression is that you feel you're coping satisfactorily even when you aren't. "

    This is sooooo true. I came to terms with the fact that I was depressed when I realized I wasn't coping like I seemed to think I was. I couldn't even attend a parent-teacher meeting without bawling. That's not coping.

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  8. I'm glad you were able to seek help Anita. Depression is so insidious and in almost all cases, very treatable. It's such a shame so many people don't seek help even when they know they need it. Hopefully sharing our stories will help them to be able to realize it's ok to reach out and it's the first step to feeling better.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I am so glad you shared this with me. This is a great gift you
    have given to your community. I believe many people will touched by it. Your self disclosure, practical advice and great artistic illustrations provide a great avenue for those who need to hear your message.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thank you Ed.

    I truly believe that in almost all instances it isn't maliciousness or insensitivity that makes it difficult for people to empathize with those who feel suicidal or with the people who have committed suicide. It's simply a lack of understanding of what it's like to be so severely depressed that you are driven to it. I hope this post helps.

    A few people have already told me that the post has changed their perception about what depression is like and how it and suicide are connected so I'm glad I took the leap and put my story out there.

    ReplyDelete



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