Editor’s note: If you are suicidal, please call a suicide prevention hotline serving your area. Please consult a licensed mental health professional in your area if you believe you may be clinically depressed. Do not self-medicate. Also consult your primary care physician before beginning any strenuous exercise program.This content of this essay is the opinion of a regular person—a non-health professional—who has experienced mental illness. The author’s name is only a pen name used to maintain his anonymity.
Suicide is not a new problem, nor is it confined to The United States: over 800,000 people worldwide die due to suicide every year.
A major contributing factor lies in our attitude. Mental illness is often seen as weakness wherein talking to a health professional such as a doctor, nurse, psychologist, or psychiatrist is perceived as unacceptable—or often not even considered. That’s not to blame those who commit suicide for not reaching help, I doubt it is a question of just fear and laziness. More often it is because of these deep, ingrained beliefs that we have in our culture about asking for help.
The irony is that, often, those most susceptible to mental illness are the best among us: those who are sensitive, caring, wise, creative, empathetic people. Conversely, it is not strong to hide your depression and then take out your moods on others, and it certainly isn’t strong to mask your pain with drinking and/or drugs; it is understandable—I did it— but not tough.
David Foster Wallace, a brilliant writer, once compared suicidal depression to being trapped at the top of a building that was on fire from below. The prospect of falling from a great height remains terrifying to the suicidal person. It is the flames, the hellish existence of being severely depressed, that becomes the greater of two evils: “When the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames” (1).
He goes on to say that people down the bottom who yell, “Stop!” and, “Don’t jump!” mean well, but essentially cannot understand. One must feel the flames before one can judge.
Unfortunately, Foster Wallace said goodbye to success and fame—and his wife and friends—and committed suicide in 2008
Do some Googling, and you’ll find people in all walks of life who go through mental illness and suicidality. Some survive, some don’t. While you’re at it, find some who survived and see what they have to say. For me, seeing Sir John James Patrick Kirwan ‘come out’ and claim he had been clinically depressed was nothing less than inspirational. I was proud to be in such company as a legendary member of the All Blacks.
Here’s my advice, for what it’s worth. When our car breaks down, we take it to a mechanic. When our arm is broken, we see an orthopedic doctor. When our mind is broken, we, likewise, need a professional. Why wouldn’t we?
As you would expect, like in any profession, there are good and bad health professionals, good matches and the opposite. It’s not always easy, but you have to find a mental health professional who is a good fit. I have, in retrospect, wasted time with those who were not a good fit. Easier said than done, particularly in smaller towns, I know. But just as you would not take your car to a mechanic whose competence you doubt, so you should never trust your mind and soul to someone you instinctively know is not right for you. I have had a doctor announce triumphantly he had discovered the cause of my illness, only to then discover he had confused me with another patient.
I have also had a psychiatrist put me through hell with a drug regimen, and take me off, cold turkey. There are no words to describe the weeks of hell which followed, an internal misery from which I knew I had no escape – not even suicide, which I was then physically incapable of doing. One might expect I was hospitalised. Instead, I had to fight to be admitted to a respite facility, where I was treated like an addict. Children or no children, I could not see myself going through this again.
Here are my tips, given to me by a good psychiatrist whose blunt practicality and huge empathy helped me. Talk with mental health professional to find out if these tips may be good for you:
A controversial one, and something I don’t really want to talk about because I am not a professional. I take a low dose. Simply put, I am too scared to quit. I used to ponder endlessly how I would be off them – whether a happier, more creative me was being dulled by pills. A supervised attempt at weaning, and six subsequent hellish months, changed my mind. If I had to pick, I would rather not take them, but I take a low dose, and it’s not a big deal.
It doesn’t really matter what it is, just that it makes you work hard, release endorphins, and sweat some of the toxins out of you. Find what you like, not what you want to like – be it in a group or alone – and commit to it. I don’t believe we are wired to be sedentary animals.
Optional for some – but not for me. I was a hardened atheist growing up. Discovering God through AA was surprisingly easy. I’d tried everything else. Now, despite my doubts, this is what keeps me going. I recognise it may just be like a little kid with a favourite blanket that they think protects them from bad things. I couldn’t care less. I have been through too much shit and seen too much suffering in others, to be able to go about life if I thought it was just the result of chance. It helps me live; it helps me to be a better person. That’s enough.
I never, ever thought I would reach 25, then 30. I am married with children. I have traveled extensively, I trained and became a successful professional. I have several friends who love me. I am not boasting and write this partially to remind myself of my successes. Life remains hard. I feel blessed to be a pretty good dad, but I admit to often being a fairly average husband. I am moody, selfish, critical. I am quick to anger. I often feel like a failure. I don’t think I am particularly brave, or strong willed – I had a lot of help along the way – but you know, a glance at the history books shows life was not meant to be easy, and our best and brightest often overcome severe hardship. Abraham Lincoln was suicidally depressed and had a string of failures to his name before becoming president of the USA and freeing the slaves after winning the Civil War.
Alan Duff wrote in Once Were Warriors many moons ago, “This life, it is for those who fight”. Similarly, my sponsor in AA once told me that, even after 30 years sober, life was still just a series of problems. It depressed the hell out of me, at the time, and I was disappointed in him. Nearly a decade on, I realise he is right. Life is a series of battles – and blessings. It’s good, but it’s hard. One does not need to be in Syria, Afghanistan, or Somalia to know this.
Ultimately, our lives are our own, and we do with them what we will. I spent years utterly miserable, often letting people I was close to know about it. I wanted them, understandably, I think, to realise the pain I was going through. I also often made those close to me miserable, too, unfortunately.
So now, often, my attitude is one of defiance. F*#k the world, I say. I’ll look after myself, and my family and friends, and try to do good for people. Try to attempt the fine balance of living a life of service while taking care of material needs (like a house and food) and wants (like a flash car and clothes). But I will never say suicides are weak. I have been there, many times, and remember standing on the very edge of a step ladder with my head in a noose. Paradoxically, it was cowardice that kept me from the act. Death terrified me. Near-death would be worse – because plenty of suicide attempts are unsuccessful, and lead to lifetimes of misery and dependence.
But I am so glad I hung round. What’s more, I have seen the effect on families. If I had gone out a few years ago, I would never have known so many beautiful moments and experiences. My children being born. Getting married on a beach on a sublime summer’s day. Achievements, kindness, laughs, friendships. The sufferings too, hard as they were. There can be meaning in suffering. My children are wonderful, though I worry they will go through what I have.
Photo credit: Flickr/JaredKeener