The Truth About Depression and Suicide

Suicide has quickly become one of the top killers across all age groups, races, sexes and socio-economic classes. You cannot go a week these days without seeing multiple stories in the news about suicide. Celebrities. Children. Veterans. And those are just the stories the press finds newsworthy enough to report on. Across the country and all around the world, people are dying by their own hands every single day at alarming numbers. And yet it is a topic nobody wants to talk about until it hits close to home. Even then, most people would rather talk about it in hushed whispers, a shameful secret they wish would just fade away, than to openly talk about it.

I have struggled with major depression my entire life. I have been suicidal more than once. I am honestly not sure how I am even still alive today because with each of my attempts, I told no one, I secluded myself, I gave no forewarning or signs that things had gotten so bad that I wanted to give up. Though people knew I was struggling, nobody really knew how badly. I didn’t want anyone to know because I didn’t want to give anyone the opportunity to stop me. More than once, whether by the grace of God or some strange twist of fate, someone came through a doorway to find my unconscious body barely clinging to life. More than once, I woke up in the hospital not sure how I even got there.

I have also been on the other side of that fence, losing people I cared about to suicide. I have been blindsided by their death, torturing myself for feeling like I didn’t see the signs, not realizing how bad things were, not being there to help when they desperately needed someone. I have spent endless hours thinking back over missed opportunities that I might have been able to intervene and make a difference. I have been haunted by words I did not say and calls I did not make that might have made the difference between life and death.

Part of me, though, knows better than to torture myself with hindsight. I have been on both sides of that fence. I know all too well that unless you actually know what to look for, the signs are usually not even visible until someone is looking in the rear-view mirror. But by then it is too late. The crash has already happened. And you can’t turn back time. The best anyone can honestly do is to be proactive, to talk openly, honestly and regularly about their own mental health and that of those they care about. We need to make everyone’s mental health as much of a priory as our physical health.  As hard a topic as suicide may be, it’s harder still to bury someone you love. I believe this difficult conversation is long past due.

Please know that most people don’t normally wake up one day out of the blue and decide to kill themselves. Barring some drastic, life altering circumstance or great loss that seemingly destroys someone’s entire life in a heartbeat making them lose all hope in an instant, suicidal feelings usually develop over an extended period of anguish. The weight of the world is piled on again and again, making everything feel increasingly hopeless.  Eventually, you reach the point when you cannot take anymore. You’ve found the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and you collapse under the weight of it all.

You don’t go directly from life being fine to choosing to die like a car going from zero to sixty in a few seconds flat. It is a slow build. It begins with feeling overwhelmed with life itself. Everything feels increasingly too hard, too overwhelming. You begin to feel like you’re drowning, like you can never fully catch your breath. It feels like no matter what you do, nothing is ever going to change, that you’ve been dealt a losing hand and there’s no way to exchange your cards. The deck is rigged and you’ve lost big time.  Everything in life begins to feel like a struggle, an uphill battle, a fight you cannot win. You feel like you no longer have any control of your own fate.  You become mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted, not sure how much more you can keep going, how much strength you have left.

The first suicidal thoughts that creep in are abstract. You’re not making specific plans to kill yourself. You look outside during a snowstorm and ponder how long you would have to be exposed to the elements before everything just faded to black. You look at the currents of the river coursing by and ponder what it would be like to just be pulled under, swept away. When you pass a set of train tracks, you wonder where along the tracks it might be dark enough that they wouldn’t see you until it was too late. The thought of death is more of a fade to black. A sweet escape. Death itself becomes a daydream. Those abstract thoughts are commonly referred to as suicidal ideation.

With suicidal ideation, it isn’t so much about dying as it is about wanting to be freed from a life you feel is too painful to continue. The thought of death almost feels like a peaceful, sweet release. You become increasingly consumed by the thought of ending your suffering, of fading away, of just disappearing from the story, not having to fight or cry anymore, of just being free.

Most people who are suicidal honestly don’t want to die. For days, weeks, months, they’ve been soul-searching and agonizing, looking for any reason to keep going and not give up. It isn’t a decision made lightly or spur of the moment. They’ve been secretly fighting to hold on, to live, to find any reason to cling to so they don’t give up.  They have just reached the point where they feel they cannot take anymore, cannot hurt anymore, cannot go one more day living in their own personal hell.

Neither suicidal ideation or suicide itself are a plea for attention. It honestly is not about anyone else at all. Nobody who tries to kill themselves is thinking “I’ll show them!” or “they’ll be sorry when I’m gone!” like a kindergartner contemplating running away from home. By the time someone has made that ultimate choice to give up, they aren’t even thinking of anyone else beyond being convinced that others would be better off without them. They feel completely isolated and alone, in agonizing pain that they can no longer take. They are convinced their life is out of their hands and there is no way to fix anything in their life. Death is the only exit they can see in the darkness.

People often describe a loss by suicide as “unexpected” and “out of the blue”. Those who have lost someone to suicide often feel lost and confused, bewildered about how anyone could give up on life when they “had so much to live for”. The problem is that by the time someone is at that point of giving up, they have fallen so deeply into the darkness that they can no longer see any of the light. All they can feel is hopelessness and despair. And they feel utterly alone.

It’s nearly impossible for those who have not been there themselves to understand how anything could possibly get that bad, how anything could feel so hopeless, how anyone could feel so alone. I have frequently seen suicide aptly described as a bi-product of depression, heard others refer to suicide as a death caused by a person’s mental illness. Truer words have never been spoken.

Depression is a nefarious and deadly disease. It eats at your mental and emotional well-being just as surely as cancerous tumors eat away at a person’s body. And just like cancer weakens the immune system, making it harder to fight it off, depression feeds off your ability to distinguish reality and see anything but the darkness and despair that the illness wants you to see.  It systematically breaks and devours you until there is no will left to fight anymore.

Depression is not an illness you can easily disregard. You cannot just “suck it up”. It will not go away because you spew out some tired cliches about life or insist someone just try a little harder to be happy. Depression cannot be cured by taking a walk, going for a run or getting yourself a dog. It is not mind over matter or learning to toughen up. It is a serious medical condition and one that can have deadly consequences if left untreated.

People talk about being dumbfounded by someone’s suicide, of not seeing it coming. But honestly, there are plenty of signs there if someone takes the time to actually look and listen.

Has the person withdrawn themselves from family and friends, frequently making excuses about being too busy, swamped with life or feeling under the weather?

Have they stopped doing things they enjoy? Quit groups or teams? Given up hobbies they once loved? Are they spending a good portion of their time alone seemingly doing nothing?

Have their sleep patterns changed drastically? Are they laying down and sleeping more or are they up more with insomnia, tossing and turning, unable to sleep?

Has their appearance changed drastically? Losing or gaining weight? Not showering as much or wearing dirty clothes? Keeping their hair pulled back so they never have to tend to it or not shaving for long periods of time that is inconsistent with how they used to present themselves?

Is their room or house even more of a mess than usual or are they frequently wearing stained clothes like they just don’t care anymore? Do they always seem to be asking you to “excuse the mess”?

Are they frequently talking abut being exhausted, overly tired or fed up? Do they make comments about being tired of fighting or regularly insist life shouldn’t be this hard?

Are they frequently edgy, snippy and short with everyone as if they’re trying to push everyone away? Does everything seem to annoy them?

Are they frequently uncharacteristically silent as if they’re lost in their own world? Do they seem more scatterbrained than usual, life their mind is always off somewhere else?

Are they frequently sad, overly emotional or teary?

Do their emotional responses in general seem more raw, exaggerated and over-the-top as if they are feeling everything much stronger than usual?

Are they smiling and laughing less or are they pursing their lips together when they smile as if it was forced? Does their laughter seem less frequent and insincere, as if they’re trying to give you the reaction they believe you want even though their heart is not really in it?

Do they often blame puffy eyes or stuffy noses on allergies even when it’s not allergy season or they have not ventured outsides to be exposed to seasonal allergens?

Do they often insist they’re “fine” with no elaboration and claim they don’t want to talk about it when pressed, using dismissive phrases like “it is what it is” as if they have no control over their own life?

These are just some of the common signs of depression. Though they do not necessarily mean a person is currently considering suicide, it is likely they are struggling along that path. If you see drastic changes in mood and appearance, don’t be afraid to speak up and ask whether they’re okay. If someone doesn’t seem like themselves, there is usually a reason why. Don’t be afraid to call attention to drastic changes that concern you.

And please know it should never be a “one and done”. Even if you inquired once and they insisted they were fine, you can’t shrug and walk off, telling yourself that “hey I tried”. If someone’s depression has gotten bad enough that you can see multiple signs, it did not happen overnight and it is not going to be resolved overnight either. It might take multiple times of checking in and reaching out before someone is finally able to open up.

That is because depression isolates us. It gets into our head and convinces us that nobody cares, that we are all alone in the world. It is easier for us to believe that someone is asking how we are just to be nice or to make polite small talk than to believe they’re genuinely invested in our well-being.
People struggling with depression also have a lot of trust issues. Most likely, we have tried talking to others in the past and have been shot down or had our feelings minimized. Or we have heard you or others talk dismissively about their struggles so we’re unsure how supportive you’ll be for us. We’re afraid of being seen as weak or broken or crazy. We’re afraid to let anyone in only to get hurt again. Everything has felt like a fight for so long that we’re weary about letting anyone else in, too. And we don’t want to be a burden or to let anyone down by admitted we aren’t “strong enough”.

You cannot let yourself be discouraged, though. Continue to reach out every few days, even if just to check in about how they are doing. If someone seems to be cancelling plans a lot to go out, offer to come over and visit. If they make excuses about a mess, offer to help them clean it. If they claim they feel under the weather, offer to bring soup. Whatever you do, don’t let them continue to isolate. Let them know you miss them and just want to see them. Reinforce that they matter.

Coordinate with others in their life. Take turns checking in and offering reassurances. Make it clear that multiple people care and that they are not alone. Create a united front where everyone can face the depression together.
Most importantly, make it clear that it is okay to talk about whatever they are feeling and to get help. Don’t further stigmatize doctors or medication.  Don’t suggest it’s all in their head or tell them to suck it up and get over it. Don’t treat them like they’e crazy or broken. Remember that they are sick and need help. Be supportive. Be part of the solution not part of the problem.

If you are seeing yourself in these words, if you are exhausted and struggling to keep going, tired of fighting, tired of hurting, wanting to give up, please realize that those feelings are not reality. Your depression is lying to you, making all the bad in your life feel exaggerated and overwhelming and is snuffing out the light. Please know that you are not alone and there are others out there who understand completely what you are going through. You’ve got to fight this. Don’t give up. Reach out. Talk to friends, family, a therapist, a pastor. Someone. Anyone. Just don’t give up. Don’t shut everyone out. I know all too well that siren’s call that death will bring peace but it really won’t. Not for you and not for everyone in your life that you’ll be leaving behind. You can get past this.

Looking back, I am grateful I never succeeded. I feel blessed to still be here. Because now I have the ability to reach out and help others, to be the voice that shines like a beacon to light up the darkness. I am in a unique position where I understand not only the great loss that comes with losing someone to suicide but also the steep descent into the hopelessness of depression myself. Suffering in silence for years almost killed me multiple times. I can only hope that by finally speaking up, speaking out, I can help save others from succumbing to that darkness themselves.

Depression and suicide have robbed the world of so many beautiful souls. Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, children, friends. They have stolen so many lives from us far too soon. We can no longer stick our heads in the sand like an ostrich then claim later that we didn’t see the signs, didn’t know things were that bad. We are one society, one world. We have to start acting like it. We must start looking out for one another, be there for each other, truly listen and hear. The signs are there. We just have to take off our blinders and see them. We cannot pretend everything is fine because we don’t want to have an uncomfortable conversation. Inaction kills. We need to be proactive, not only with our own mental health but towards those we care about, as well. We all have the power to save lives if we are willing to actually reach out and try.

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Sorry Not Sorry: My Mental Well-Being is a Priority

It has been a rough couple months.  Horribly frigid and snowy weather, as well as a revolving door of various sicknesses in my home, have combined with my mental illness to create a perfect storm.  I endured what felt like a never-ending rotation of maladies, downward spirals and utter numbness. There were many days I felt like I could barely function at all.  I usually love the holidays but this past year, the festivities felt hectic, rushed, hollow and empty.  As much as I beat myself up for not being more present, more in the mood, more cheerful and jovial in general, I just could not snap out of the funk I was in.  And the guilt of it all was eating me alive.

After two and a half months of struggling to get from day to day, unable to even inspire myself to write, I am finally emerging like the groundhog in early February to start anew.

Periodically, this happens to me.  When life gets hard, I pull in on myself, much like an armadillo rolling in on itself for protection or a cell phone going into power saver mode so it doesn’t shut down completely.  This cycle has repeated itself from time to time throughout my life.  Whenever everything would get hard, I would pull inward, isolating and conserving my energy in order to survive.  On the other end of this pattern would always inevitably come unfathomable guilt and pressure to make my recent absence up to everyone.

I have struggled my entire life with depression, always feeling as if I was broken, as if I was always letting everyone down by not always being able to do, to be, everything others needed and expected of me.  I consistently felt like a failure.  Like I didn’t even deserve to be on any list of priorities.  After every struggle I endured, I always felt like I was playing catch up, that I owed it to everyone else to use whatever energy I could muster to make it up to everyone else for letting them down yet again.

Christmastime this past year was especially hard.  I usually do a marathon cookie bake as part of my holiday traditions.  Three days of baking. Fifteen types of cookies, plus candies and fudge. Everyone in the house getting sick delayed the grocery shopping and my baking was put off until the last minute.  What is usually three comfortable yet full days of baking was ultimately crammed into a panicked day and a half.  Pushing myself that hard utterly burnt me out.  I existed in a heavy fog of numbness for the remainder of the year.

Speaking afterwards to my doctor, she inquired, “If you only had half the time, why didn’t you just bake half the cookies?”

I started to explain that people were expecting the cookies.  My kids love all the cookies every year and give away boxes to their friends. My fiance needed cookies to bring into work.  We had friends and family that we gave boxes to every year.

She countered by asking why I exactly felt so obligated.  Was anyone was paying for the cookies in any way or if I was just doing it out of the kindness of my heart?

I began defending myself again, insisting that I didn’t want to let anyone else down.

In a perfect check-mate moment, she asked, “What about letting yourself down? Is doing for others out of the kindness of your own heart really worth burning yourself out and running yourself down?  At what point do you fit into the equation? If you only had half the time, why couldn’t you just bake half the cookies?  You’re still being kind to others that way.  But you’re also being kind to yourself.”

Our conversation bounced around in my head for hours. Days. Weeks.  Again and again, I pondered where I fit into the equation of my life and why I didn’t seem to matter at all in most cases.

I ultimately determined that I needed to restructure my priorities in order to find a place for myself in the equation.  I had to be willing to reserve what little energy I do have during rough periods on what should be most important in my life – my family and myself – without becoming guilt-ridden afterwards.  The addition of “myself” towards the top of my list of priorities is honestly fairly new and admittedly still somewhat uncomfortable.  For much of my life, I was on the bottom of the list, if I appeared at all.

That was a feeling that I desperately needed to address.

Whenever I struggle to apply my own self-love or self-care, I stop to consider what I might tell someone else in my situation.  I would never discourage anyone else from pulling back in order to take care of themselves.  I would never accuse anyone else of being a bad person for wanting to matter, too, or for feeling like they sometimes had to prioritize themselves in order to make it through to tomorrow.

Let’s be honest here.

Wanting to matter, too, is not being self-centered.  Wanting to do self-care when you need it does not mean you don’t care about others, as well.  Nobody is saying you can only choose one or the other, help others or help yourself.  The two are not mutually exclusive.

Not writing for a couple months honestly ate at me very badly.  I felt terribly guilty, like I was letting my readers down by not writing more content, not sharing my journey more frequently.  But after that pivotal talk with my doctor, I am no longer guilt-ridden.

The truth is that I had a few months where I was struggling badly.

I had a few months that I desperately needed to devote any energy I could muster into self-care and self-preservation.

That doesn’t mean that everyone else doesn’t matter, as well.  When I have enough time, enough energy, enough willpower to reach out and advocate for others, I still will.  I cherish every time someone has reached out to me letting me know my words have impacted their life. This journey is too important to give up.

I will still help others whenever I can.

But I must help myself, too.

I cannot carry the world on my shoulders, struggling to keep others afloat if it means I go under and drown.

I will always prioritize my family because they are the cornerstone of my world, but from now on, I will be prioritizing myself, as well.

I cannot help others if I cannot help myself.

I will take care of myself whenever I need, however I need.  If that means I do not write for a period of time, so be it.  If that means I only bake half the amount of cookies because I only have the time and energy to do that much, then that is all I will do.

Over the last decade, I have grown my hair out repeatedly, only to cut and donate it when it gets long enough to do so.  My hair was down to my mid-back, with perhaps nine months to a year to go until my next donation.  However, the meningioma tumors on my brain have been causing pressure migraine headaches in increasing frequency of late.  The added weight of all my hair does not help.  As much as it would be nice to donate yet another ponytail to help others, realistically it would not be fair to myself to endure almost a year more of harsher migraines in order to make another donation.  I can still help others, just not at a detriment to myself.  In an act of self-care, I cut my hair shoulder-length.  The intensity of the majority of my headaches has lessened noticeably since then.

I have entered a new period of my life, one where I learn to value myself as much as I have valued others in the past.  I will learn to set my goals and expectations based on what I feel I can handle instead of what others have decided to expect.

I will set new limitations and boundaries so that assisting others no longer harms me.

I will no longer put myself out there beyond my own capabilities in any way that will ultimately hurt myself in the process.

I will prioritize my mental health guilt-free.

I won’t ever again apologize for having to take care of myself.

Sorry not sorry.

My mental well-being matters.

Art Therapy For Depression

pumpkins

I made some paper mache pumpkins today.  It wasn’t that I was feeling particularly cheerful or festive.  It is that creating art helps me cope with my depression.  Art has become one of my favorite and most used self-care techniques in my mental wellness toolbox.

When I am struggling under the weight of my own emotions, I often write about the impact my illness has on my life.  When I am feeling numb, I prefer crafts that are multi-dimensional and messy, so I can feel with my hands even if I cannot feel with my heart.  When my life feels dark and hopeless, I use bright colors.  When I feel lost and alone, I create with warm hues, hoping to dd warmth into my life.  No matter how my depression distorts my perceptions, there is a way to combat it with art.

Some people assume that if I am well enough to create art, I must not be struggling too badly.  Honestly, the opposite is true.  I have found that I create the most, and the projects with the deepest personal meanings, when I am struggling the worst.  I use artistic expression as my lifeline back to reality.  It is the life preserver that keeps me from drowning in even the roughest of storms.

When someone is struggling with depression, the world feels dark and bleak, devoid of any glimmer of light, hope or goodness.  There is no beauty in depression.  So it helps me to create something beautiful out of my despair.  In my artwork, I am reminded that there is more to the world than darkness.

When someone is suffering from depression, the feelings can be overwhelming.  You are often raw and feel everything too deeply.  You feel like you are drowning in pain and anguish.  It helps creating something that will express what I am feeling inside, to release some of the agony that is consuming me.  As a wise Ogre once said, “Better out than in”.

When someone has been diagnosed with depression, it seeps into every corner of their consciousness.  It is exhausting and overwhelming.  It often feels like there is no escape from the prison of your own mind.  It helps to create something that can distract me from everything going on within myself.  When the creative juices are flowing, it is easy to forget for even a little while the weight of this illness on my shoulders.

When someone suffers from depression, they often feel they have no control over anything in their lives anymore.  You often feel like you are on a runaway train, with no way to slow down, stop or get off.  You are held hostage, just along for the ride.  It helps me to create something artistic because it gives me back some control.  My artwork is in my hands.  I choose what to make and which direction to take it.

When someone is struggling with depression, they often feel useless, like an utter waste of space.  Depression distorts reality and destroys self-esteem.  You feel as if you can do nothing right and that everything you touch will become damaged, tainted and tarnished by your very presence.  It helps me to create things because art is about expression, not perfection.  There is no right or wrong so even when I am feeling like a complete failure, I cannot mess up my art.

When someone who has depression feels isolated and misunderstood, it is common to feel all alone in the world.  It can feel like no one is there, nobody cares, no one could possibly understand what you are going through.  It helps me to create things I can show others, share with them, to create something to bring them back into my circle, back into my life.  Art brings people together.  It starts a dialogue where otherwise there would be silence.

There are times when someone who is suffering from depression is at a loss for words to explain how they are feeling.  You might not even be sure what you are depressed about, only that those feelings are there.  It helps to create things not only so that I can work through and understand my own feelings, but so that I can help explain it to others, as well.  Art doesn’t have to be neat and easily explained.  Art can be a messy, jumbled mess and still get its point across.

There are many reasons I create, a multitude of reasons why art comforts my mind and soothes my soul.  Using art to combat depression isn’t about clear and concise thoughts, raw talent or creating masterpieces.  It is about letting emotions out, replacing the darkness with some light and adding your own brand of beauty and creativity into the world.  Art is a wonderful tool for mindfulness because it brings you back into the moment, back to reality to focus on the here and now.

When the world feels broken and hopeless and you feel lost and alone, it might feel impossible to find the motivation to create.  Use your illness as inspiration.  Put into your words or on your canvas how you are feeling inside.  Share everything you wish others knew.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, or even coherent and understandable to anyone but you.  It can be raw and painful, mirroring how you feel inside.  If you have the urge to express how you are feeling through your artwork, don’t hold yourself back.  Art is about letting your feelings flow.

You don’t have to create based on the negativity of your depression, either, because you are so much more than your depression.  The beauty of art if that you are only restricted by your own imagination.  The world around you is full of inspiration.  Look to the future for upcoming holidays and events.  Look to the past for cherished memories.  Take inspiration from friends and family or beloved pets.  Open a window into the nature outside or look to the heavens above.  Revisit your favorite book, movie or television show.  Pick a color that calls to you or an abstract thought and run with it.  Find your inspiration in something beautiful, something that reminds you of light, happiness and hope.

You don’t need to overthink art.  Don’t question things.  There is no right or wrong.  Just go with the flow.  Focus on the here and now and the creative process.  Put yourself into your art, the person you are at this very moment or the person you wish you could be.  Art is also about possibilities.  You start with a blank canvas or empty page.  As you create, open yourself up not only to everything your art can become but everything you can become, as well.  Remind yourself that you are more than your diagnosis.  You are many things, many pieces that are not as dark, bleak and hopeless as your depression makes you feel.  You are an artist!

I created some paper mache pumpkins today.  Those pumpkins might not seem like much, but they helped me get through another rough day.  Though it by no means cured my depression, it gave me a much-needed reprieve from my struggles and a way to add some beauty to a world that would otherwise feel dark and bleak.  Art might not be a panacea, but it is a useful crutch that can help get you through the hardest of times, making you feel stronger at a time when you otherwise might not be able to stand on your own.