Preparation to Die

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?
—Tupac Shakur

♦◊♦

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.

Personal

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.

Professional

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.

Personal

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.

Professional

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.

—Tupac Shakur

 

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

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About Billy Johnson II

Billy Johnson II is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and the writer of a weekly column, "Dr. Bill," on The Good Life. He has previously published on racism, and reconciling masculinity. "Dr. Bill" is dedicated to becoming a more compassionate, loving, and forgiving human being. In his spare time he is working on his dance moves! You can follow him on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Your article was well written and helpful. I appreciate that you also found strength in your situation – strength which will likely be helpful to others as well; in my experience and capacity as a student, I’ve found many of the professors who are clinical psychologists have allowed the DSM to eclipse the human element. Good fortune.

    P.S. I also appreciate the use of Tupac!

    • Bill Johnson II says:

      Hi Marshall,

      Thank you for responding to my article. I was conflicted as to whether or not I wanted to release such experiences to the public domain and ultimately I decided that writing and publishing my experience was both an important aspect of my healing as well as my way of paying forward to assistance I received. Thank you again for your words and I too am troubled by the tendency of our field to pathologize. Perhaps we can continue to spread the word about the importance of normalizing and expressing genuine empathy for another’s suffering.

      Bill Johnson II-

  2. Thank you for writing & posting this, Billy.

    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts, perspectives,
    and experiences.

    All the very best to you & yours,

    Randolph

  3. Christina Cooksey says:

    As someone who knew you years ago, it is heartbreaking to read this article and picture you going through such struggles. You are a wonderful person, and a strong man. I know that depression is very hard to overcome, and I am so glad that you were able to do it.

  4. Bill Johnson II says:

    Thank you so much for your response Christina. I felt a sense of liberation and vulnerability writing this piece. As difficult as it was to actually endure the sadness that I felt, I feel equally rejuvenated at surviving and having learned so much about myself (and others) in the process. Among the many things I learned is 1) DO NOT be afraid to reach out in the midst of your anguish, 2) hold on to what ever it is that gives you hope, cling to it if you must, but do not let it go. I extend these lessons to you, and to any others who experience such struggles.

    Bill Johnson II-

  5. Kerrie Jordan says:

    Billy,

    I commend you for your courage to write about your struggle. You should be proud you your accomplishments! Hang in there friend. We never turn out
    the way we saw ourselves, however it always turns out for the best.

  6. My heart just broke. You are worth it Dr. Bill. God isn’t done with you yet, dammit.

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  1. [...] is also possible that his leaving messages on Twitter were in some way a call for help. As I said in an earlier paper published on this site, it is my belief that most individuals, even those who complete suicide, remain conflicted about [...]

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