Powerful and crucial conversations have recently been taking place on the tragedy of suicide. Although the topic is (by nature) depressing, I am grateful that it is welcomed to the table of hard topics.
As with most hard things to understand, it requires much more education in our current culture.
I took some pills when I was thirteen. It was the rest of the Bayer aspirin we had in the cupboard. There were about 13 pills left, which I don’t think is enough to do the job. My plan was to lay down on my bed and die. I decided that my best friend deserved a good-bye, so I called Tom and told him good-bye and I would not be going to school with him anymore. He asked what I had done, and when I said “I took some pills”. I heard a thud on the other end of the line and by the time I hung up he had run the block to my front door.
Tom was angry and demanding “What are you doing?” as his parents were a minute or so behind him. Apparently he had yelled something to the effect that “Jami was dying,” as he ran past them.
Fast forward to the year after I got married. I felt terrible about myself and what was going on with me and I spent the next ten years excelling at everything I did: school, work, fatherhood, and being the picture of a good husband. I was all of these things while at the same time being passively suicidal.
I was successful beyond my wildest dreams, and surpassed everyones expectations. But the money, public approval and the beautiful family that I had did not cover the pain and self doubt that lead to more and more destructive behavior. It was like for every success I had to prove that I was not worth it by shaming myself. Risk taking behavior went from adrenaline sports and ended with what ought to have torn a family completely apart. I was too busy upping the ante to feel like a hypocrite. So I would hand out the family of the year award in our town and then go have an affair that next week. Sick and wrong. And with each cycle around the chaos addiction merry-go-round I would get closer to getting purposeful about dying.
I was depressed and no one would have ever known. I did not know how to ask for help and the hypocrisy kept getting worse. I was screaming for help but only in my pillow. The pain of admitting that I was not perfect was killing me. I needed help and as ridiculous as it sounds I could not figure out how to do it healthfully.
I went into two counselors offices, I took a diagnostic test that said my most likely diagnosis would be alcoholism, but I had not had a drink for two years and probably had a total of ten drinks in that decade, and the last time I started to ask for help and at the last second made it about some professional referrals that I could make. I remember the look in her eye, like she saw that there was more.
By the time I finally got help, I had already caused much pain to myself, to my family, to my friends, and to the community I had built around me.
How could anyone have understood my depression? How could anyone have helped me? How do you understand anyones ongoing illness? To do that, you first have to understand what depression is.
Depression is anger turned inward. It is, of course, a serious problem and a medical consult is vital. Any prolonged sadness or lack of interest in the things that used to keep you occupied is a good cause for a deeper look, especially relationships, sex, and work. The causes vary and can and do reach back to habits formed from very early on, often times in early childhood development.
What we have come to realize is that all of us build strategies to make ourselves ok. They are all customized, and often a pattern before we get to be two years old (yes this is shocking but is well documented, see Origins: The First Nine Months by Anna Paul Murphy). Mine was a common strategy. It was not to feel my own feelings and take care of everyone else’s. The other main strategy is to control and use anxiety and fear.
Taking care of everyone else works great until it doesn’t. We adopt strategies because they work. The problem is that these strategies are habits that become completely run by our subconscious process. This means that often we do these old strategies when they no longer are really working for us. Eventually, if left unchecked, they become destructive.
There are three keys to dismantling these old habits and bring them into the consciousness. These three ideas are for both those who are chronically depressed and for those who care about someone who is.
1) Humble your thought process. Sadness is not humility and humiliation is not humility. Do you think that you know it all, have forgiven everything in your life that there is to be forgiven, or that you don’t have any subconscious behaviors? Think again. Allowing yourself to slow down will allow you to see the “blind spots” that are potentially holding you back.
2) Be accountable. Finding someone that you trust to report your progress is crucial. The daily disciplines that are required to make such changes are not difficult, but are easy to allow to fall off your schedule as life gets busy. Having to tell that trusted person will help you keep the good habits, and slowly work away from the bad.
3) Be persistent. The first benefits of changing old habits are seen in as little as three weeks (twenty-one days makes a new habit). But the full benefit requires that you persist in not falling back into the old habit and this can take a year or more of vigilance.
To understand depression we must first educate ourselves on what that means. The clinical diagnosis has many symptoms listed that are contradictory. So, we understand depression by having compassion and patience for ourselves and our loved ones. We understand depression by listening to those non-verbal asks for help. If I would have been able to get the help I needed at an earlier age, I would have been able to prevent so much heartache.
My hope is provide a prevention to heartache, but to also assist those who feel like they have already created it. Allow for things to move slowly at first, and know that new habits are rarely formed perfectly. Celebrate the progress and keep moving, life is a long journey.