What does a psychologist do when despair leads to suicidal thoughts?
I see no changes
Wake up in the morning
And I ask myself
Is life worth living?
Should I blast myself?
On August 15, 2012, fed up with life, I decided to kill myself. I walked 1.5 miles to a well known department store, and purchased a hunting knife and 200 pills. I then returned to my room and scribbled a note explaining my actions and saying goodbye.
My decision to commit suicide preceded eight months of cyber bullying, harassment and a slanderous name smearing campaign which forced me to resign from two positions, destroyed friendships and family relationships. The totality of which led me to experiencing a debilitating clinical depression where I was consumed with feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. With no support, and seeing no other options, death appeared the only solution.
I have heard it said that those who seek to self-harm are themselves selfish. As someone who has held the edge of a blade against my skin in deep contemplation, I feel instead that my problem was faulty perception. I erroneously felt myself a burden on my family, and I therefore believed my death would be a relief to them. In this sense my mission of self-destruction was for the benefit of intimate others. Furthermore, I felt that my life was worth nothing; therefore, if I take my life, then I have taken nothing.
Why, then, am I still alive?
1) I was conflicted about the decision. A small part of me was searching for a reason, any reason to feel hopeful about life again. My guess is most people who consider, even those who complete the act, remain ambivalent about committing suicide. I was willing to acknowledge and give voice to that 10% of me that was not convinced death was the answer. I recalled the wisdom of an ex-supervisor: “Is it death you seek or the eradication of pain?” I wanted to live, especially if the pain lessened.
2) Although I felt incredibly lonely and rejected by those once close to me, I have a 6 year old nephew, and I cannot deny his admiration for his uncle Bill, nor my love for him. If I could not live for me, could I try for him?
3) For long stretches of time I literally spent 12 hours a day searching television or the internet for something comical. I watched everything from the cable television station comedy central, to shock jock Howard Stern. Sterns ability to make light of pain provided me a unique way of viewing my circumstances. Furthermore, his sarcastic and self-deprecatory humor gave me a much needed mental escape. Even if just for 5-10 seconds, I felt more positive.
4) Finally, through my own counseling I was reminded that it was irrational to believe that I no longer had any friends. To explore the merits of this hypothesis I made dozens of phone calls over about two weeks to friends, acquaintances, and professional colleagues. I was blessed that the first person to answer my call made a tremendous difference. We only spoke for 20 minutes, during that time I was provided with warmth, validation and understanding, I ended the discussion more hopeful than previously. In many ways she ignited a spark that has since blossomed.
Finally, my desire to live restored, next came the hard part, introspection. No matter how victimized I felt, my response to stressful events and my general life patterns no doubt exacerbated my sadness. It was time for me to confront old and new demons and challenge myself to grow in new and better ways.
This is no fairy tale; depression does not disappear with a comedy show or phone conversation with a friend. Although I continue battling depression; my intention to self-harm increasingly dissipated and ultimately vanished. Every day, I work at feeling good about me: being a better friend, brother, son, grandson, nephew, and colleague. All while remembering to give myself space from the many roles when necessary. Of course I remain a work in progress.
I have a few fears in writing this.
If I am being completely honest, I am afraid that despite the lessons I’ve learned, sometime in the future I will again feel the anguish of depression. My hope is that having experienced and survived such pain I will be better equipped to successfully endure if necessary.
I am afraid that I will be pathologized for acknowledging the intimacies of my struggle with clinical depression. For that matter I am disheartened at what I have long felt is a tendency for mental health practitioners to wield our ability to diagnose like a war hammer! This is akin to perpetuating the same dehumanizing stigma of mental health care which we condemn. My hope is that in the future, my fellow clinicians will exercise appropriate moral and ethical sensitivity when seeking to describe the emotional pain of the people with whom we work.
As a licensed Clinical Psychologist, I am also afraid that in that future clients, upon reading this, will doubt whether I have the strength to support them during their most trying times. My hope here is that because I have experienced such darkness, that I will be able to demonstrate a deep understanding of someone experiencing emotional debilitation.
I also have hopes.
I hope my nephew is aware of how special he is and much I love him. I also hope my sister knows how much I admire her and the amazing job she and my brother-in-law have done in raising such a handsome, precocious, compassionate and gifted young man.
I hope my friend knows how wonderful she is, I am forever indebted to her for her willingness to give me assistance during my time of need.
There are countless agencies and institutions for men guilty of domestic violence, drug use and abuse and other crimes. But where are the shelters for men who are hurting, or, are themselves abused? Where are the drop-in men only centers for those individuals looking to emotionally unburden themselves? There are notable exceptions (beyondblue comes to mind) but these are few and far and largely conspicuously absent. My hope is that more clinicians can address this injustice and more funds can be sought and given to mental health and masculinity.
As an African American male I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge disappointment at the lack of literature or attention to Black men and suicide. I am hopeful that through writing about my experience more dialogue can be generated about depression and suicide in men of color.
Finally, I would like to challenge each reader to “check in” with the men/man in your lives. Just an email or quick chat can be more than enough. Keep in mind that the holiday season can be a joyous time; sadly, suicide rates are also highest this time of year.
It’s time for us as a people to start makin’ some changes.
Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live
and let’s change the way we treat each other.
You see the old way wasn’t working so it’s on us to do
what we gotta do, to survive.
In Canada and the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). In the U.K., ring the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90.
Read more on Suicide.
Image credit: dexarts/Flickr