In honour of Suicide Prevention Day, I’m making an admission. I’m maybe not a person that you’d think would have had any issues: I was in the top of my high school classes, fairly outgoing, and maybe even a tad adventurous. I can come across as out-going, engaged, even gregarious.
However, after I graduated from high school, and left home, a big shift happened for me and not in a good way. I went a bit haywire with booze and drugs, experimenting within a context of ‘partying’. I’m pretty sure at the time, and well into my 20’s, this was self-medication, allowing me to feel some sort of relief from depression and anxiety that I’d carried around for most of the time I was at university.
I’ve gone through peaks and valleys with my mental health, that is for sure. But sadly, even at times when I really should have been the happiest, with the most gratitude, I was often sullen and distanced. I was terminally depressed, even facing the most beautiful vistas and the most amazing travels. At times I was also – GASP – suicidal.
I remember once being in New Zealand on a beach at 6am and seeing the most amazing sunrise (some of those pictures I’ve used as the header for my blog), and, while I could feel awe in the situation, I felt immensely sad because I knew that moment was fleeting. That timestamp was so amazing that I almost knew it would have been hard to match it going forward. I was desolate, and just downright sad.
I’d feel as though I’d get over one hump and something else would crumble – my relationships, my finances, my job, or just my energy level.
I’ve been off and on medications, too, for years. Prozac, Effexor, Paxil, even St. John’s Wort to try to shift some of the depression or general feeling of melancholy that I had.
In 1997 I started to gain weight, and gained a lot in a very short period of time. At times I’ve been able to reduce some of my pounds, but it seems that I rest at a comfortable “2 times what most people are” size.
Verse, Chorus, Verse or the Pattern of Depression
The big problem with depression and suicide is planning for the worst, or expecting a final curtain to be drawn and making decisions based on that ‘ending’. In my case a lot of my decisions were made in this way, resulting in some bad food choices, bad money choices and possibly bad lifestyle choices, all with a focus of immediate gratification. I went through a systematic slicing myself off from my friends because I thought it would be easier to drift away than to be accountable for my actions, thoughts, etc. I did this all – of course- subconsciously; I’ve only recently become aware of my patterns in this regard.
Part of that reclusion as well is this strange dichotomy between wanting love and rejecting love. Like when I was surrounded with friends and family and I felt like no one gave two shits about my existence to even when I was standing out on the beach and not being able to appreciate and feel gratitude for something as simple as a sunrise. I wanted to invite people over, but I always felt like my apartment (or I) wasn’t ready and I’d always cancel. I wouldn’t want to participate in any family outings because I would just spend them even more upset because they weren’t going easily — but if I stayed at home I’d be upset that I didn’t go.
My cycle is this — I see something that I want to do – a concert to go to, an event, an outing that I’d love to go to and I put it into my calendar. I try not to RSVP because I’m not sure I’ll feel like going by the time the event comes around. And it’s not “feel like going” like – Oh wow, Golden Girls are on – but “feel like going” to me means if I don’t feel crippling anxiety and depression at the thought of going out that day, I’ll try to pull my shit together to come to that event. But, invariably, what happens is I start to stress about the location (will there be food I can eat?), people (how many people are going to be there, will they know me? like me? are they judging me because of my fat body?), seating (can I sit my fat arse into the seats?), parking (really, you’d think in Calgary parking would be better…) or timing (well if I go to this, then I’ll sleep in, and I won’t get up tomorrow, etc). If my brain didn’t do its hamster-wheel of decisions and freak me out, I’d go. If I did get anxious, I’d cancel last minute.. and for about 30 seconds I’d get a sense of relief, and of calm (until, of course, I’d start to become depressed because I cancelled out on that event that I’d said I’d go to).
So it’s happened in the past few years that I’ve been here – I’ve been flakey going to events, sadly absent at concerts that I’ve paid to go see, and not as engaged in things as I would have loved to have been. I saw one person’s status on twitter say, “If you love someone you make time, if you don’t love them, you make excuses”. And I was going to argue, but I imagined that for people that are in that category A, who don’t have those issues of being ill, having anxiety or knowing what that is like, they can’t grasp how that takes over your psyche to transform you almost into a robot. It was sad reading that status too because it made me think that was how my friends thought of *me*, that I hadn’t made time because they weren’t valuable, and nothing was farther from the truth. I was embarrassed almost after not having seen some people to get back in touch with them – but luckily most welcomed me with open arms. I know some really great people.
So we go back into that black hole, that depression, that area out of reach. That space where we want assistance and help, but don’t want anyone around to administer it. I wanted to have people to help me at so many points in the road but I couldn’t use the words I wanted. I understand if someone goes to a counsellor and they are posing an immediate risk to someone in a situation — but isn’t the fact that someone is going to a counsellor a step in the right direction, without putting a fear in them that they are going to go to a mental institution if they say they’ve been suicidal? I never understood that at all – and perhaps that was part of why my road has been a bit longer than it should have been. There is also that caveat that “everything is confidential” until of course there is a matter with the courts, then it may or may not be. So this led me to a lot of reading, and self-analysis, and processing. And writing.
But the process of going through these emotions – that knowing that with every ‘high’ (or read as ‘normal’ ie having energy, getting out of bed) is met with a low, but not knowing where that low will be – is the cycle of existence for those of us with depression. That cycle – that ebb and flow – moving from one set of responses to another is so sapping, and so draining: not only on the relatives or friends of the person involved in the ups and downs, but for the person themselves! Sometimes, at least for me, the most I could do to function was to get out of bed in the morning and go to work, or get out of bed and have a shower, let alone have a schedule jam packed with a million tasks to do. The idea of working *and* working out was entirely too much to process. Thus, my body now.
And I’d like to make a distinction here as well – “depression” is feeling a bit low, a bit blue, a bit glum – perhaps because it is raining out. Depression is life-altering, horrific, and feels endless, it is not simply cured by a ‘kick in the rear’ or ‘being busy’. It is all encompassing, usually needs medical attention, and – for crying out loud – does not respond well to people saying “Cheer up!”.
So I started to pull back. This was around the same time I moved back to Canada, and had expected that I was going to have an amazing job – after all I had this amazing experience with my studies in Auckland. I had two choices because I came back broken — financially, mentally, spiritually. Everything. Busted. And I tried to rebuild from there — and kept in touch with a few friends, but not many and not very often. I would reach out to people when I felt I was in a good mood, because I didn’t want anyone else joining in my pity party, thanks, and that was it. Between that, and my anxiety-ridden job – it seems I closed my eyes and didn’t look up for six years.
With being low on work in the past few months (PS Don’t try to start your own business if you are depressed, btw), I thought with summer, I would take a bit of a trip out to see people I hadn’t seen for years – my cousin who I hadn’t seen for six years, my friend up north who I hadn’t seen for four years, my other high school friend whom I hadn’t seen for 12 years. It was ridiculous. I had pulled back from everyone for so long, it was like I had been locked in a cage for the past ten years without having contact. And, to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I’d come back from New Zealand… not that I would want to have lived there, but when I packed my bags before I got on the plane, I full expected not to be alive at the end of my trip. It was something I was doing to force a situation, to try to see if there was an answer there for me.
Working and Assholery
I don’t know why I’m not surprised that my career has not taken off in the past few years. I’ve been struggling with my issues, of wanting to be here and definitely not wanting to be here, and having- what seemed like – no ruddy way for me to normalize my emotions or thoughts.
In recent years, I feel like my inner psyche was reflected onto my outer reality and especially in my work place. I was promoted quickly within an organization, and was able to jump ahead into a position that was fairly dense, but I found that I grew more and more anxious in the role as time passed. Part because my boss was trying to have me replaced with someone who had twenty-plus years experience (and lotioned her legs by putting them up on a desk at work?) and then accusing me of not “being a team player” when I was hesitant to not share my work processes. Add in a series of horrible organization-condone mental games ensued, mixed with some good old-fashioned name calling, and it got to the point where the space was so toxic I had to quit. I gave six weeks notice, gave them everything they requested before I left, and that was it. It was done. Five years given to this organization that – in the end – gave me literally nothing back.
But at the time, I new that I had my issues with moods and processes, but I wasn’t aware of how toxic of a work place this was. I had started one of my anti-anxiety drugs two years into working there because the mind games were too much to handle. I stopped the drugs half way through that year because of side effects and then started them up again two years later — but again they didn’t help much.
There was this meme that I saw a while ago that said “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, make sure that you aren’t, in fact, just surrounded by assholes”. With my tendency towards depression, I assumed that the work situation was mostly because of my lack of patience or because of my moods. In hindsight, though, it was absolutely obvious that I was, in fact, surrounded by assholes. In the Law of Attraction, they also say “like attracts like” and I have no issue admitting my part in the assholery, but I had been able to function and thrive in other environments – so why not this one? That logic never seemed to enter into my thought process, nor did the idea that perhaps I should have listened to my instincts and left after a year of being there. Sometimes there be assholes.
Lesson learned Universe.
I recently went on a diet where I cut out all of the sugar and I almost instantly started having horrid panic attacks (where ‘horrid’ for me was literally frozen with fear). These panic issues came up when I no longer had the crutch of sugar and those nice smooshy foods to eat – which led me to the idea that I – perhaps – was medicating with food (YOU DON’T SAY!). So, from there I went to the Doctor to see what they could prescribe, and I met up with a few counsellors. The doctor, without a blink, wrote me a prescription for Paxil. Supposedly this doctor also did acupuncture and I was rather excited for a blended therapy, but he just wrote me the script and sent me on my way. After reading the side effects of Paxil, decided not to take it. I went to a counsellor who was very gracious and kind, but I really didn’t want to talk to her much — what was I going to say? I was going to speak this language of depression that she wouldn’t be able to understand – even with all the training in the world. So, I stopped going to her – and I went to another counsellor that I thought might help me because I had gone to the same clinic years and years before – I met a great doctor there, but again there was only the one facet of ‘help’ at that facility.
I was sorely disappointed in the lack of treatment options that were coordinated to be honest – if I had been in a freefall, where I didn’t have a chance to remove myself from the situation – where would I have gone? The doctor gave me a script for the strongest anti-anxiety med out there and told me to come back in three weeks; the counsellor told me she couldn’t recommend any specific doctors to me to help me with the medical side of my healing. And all a naturopath was going to do was to test for low levels of B vitamins or stick a tube of water up my arse, and I wasn’t really too keen on any of that. So where is that safe space that can look at all aspects of a treatment for someone? And are doctors even looking at possibilities of depression/ suicide/ anxiety being a symptom and not a cause?
I’m not an oversubscriber to the current North American medical system by any stretch of the imagination, for sure. And I can understand others hesitancies that way as well, because it seems as though everyone looks at you through their pointed lens, instead of potentially looking at a situation holistically… the medical doctor overprescribes medications because some big pharma rep says they’ll cure all and the naturopath might not give you the medical help that is needed that will help you get to the other side. I don’t know the answer, but having an advocate for your overall health (mental/ otherwise) is crucial. Patient advocacy is missing in our current system, and needs to be addressed. MEDICINE AND/OR WHOMEVER – FIX THIS PLEASE.
So I moved towards self-help books and publications. You name it, I’ve read it. I thought for a while that I hadn’t been reading much – but realized that I have been reading a crap-tonne of these books all of which have a similar theme — “Think Positively!”. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuu. I think there are aspects of my process that could have been helped by people like this – but to be honest, all I wanted to do was throat punch anyone who started talking about chakras. Yes, I realize I was probably not very receptive at that time, but really? I wasn’t even on the same wavelength as these people, and surely did not want someone adjusting my fucking energy. And truthfully, I know plenty of people who have led long, productive lives who are – quite frankly – dicks. It was at this point, by embracing my negative thinking and almost fully rejecting the airy-fairy world of ‘positivity’, that I became a bit more comfortable with my mental state. Strange, that.
Another aspect of my depression that I learned to deal with was its existence. That it existed. And when it reared its stupid, needly little head I had to attend to it – and that it really wasn’t that horrid. If I wasn’t in a horrible way, I’d hunker down for a day or three, in my bed, listening to music. Or reading a book. It was all I could do, but at a certain point I REFUSED to feel anxious or have negative feelings *about* my depression (that I wasn’t measuring up, that I wasn’t doing what needed to be done, etc). It would almost always lift within a few days (at least that was my pattern), so I chose to sit with my depression and really feel it rather than heaping judgments on top if it as well. This helped me to become more in tune with my body and to reduce the expectations of my brain, which helped me be able to function better within the guise of depression.
My Thoughts on Suicide
I have a theory – there are those in the world that have never had a physical or mental illness in their lives, and those of us who have. When your body doesn’t work the way you want it to, it doesn’t make the appointments that you want to go to, it can’t manage its anxiety the way that it wants you to, it seems to those people like you are flaking out on the world.
Nothing frustrates me more than when someone assumes that I’m lazy, or useless, or stupid because of my current physical appearance, or that the assumption is that I haven’t had enough hurdles in my life to feel the way I do. Like there is some sort of strange game level that I’d hit with personal sadness and adversity where society would allow me to have negative thoughts.
We all have our choices in our lives – to move ahead, to stay stuck, to have kids, to go to work. Each of these choices have consequences: some are good and some are bad and most are reversible given enough time.
Suicide, however, is final and – from what I’ve seen in my own life – those thoughts are fleeting.
Getting a different perspective of some sort – even if it means jumping out of your house for the day is so important. Sometimes that perspective can be changed through music, through chores, through exercise, through visiting someone else.
It doesn’t have to be a massive step, it just has to be different.
I’ve held onto stuffed animals; I’ve listened to songs on repeat as a form of meditation to get me through the night; I’ve pulled my shit together and gone for a two minute walk, all have worked to some degree.
But the main part that has gotten me through has been thinking of my friends and family – the people that really have mattered – and what their expressions would be like if I had committed suicide. What would my funeral be like? What would happen to my mom and dad – or my friends – and how would I be remembered? In the depths of my worst thoughts I knew that no matter what my emotions were, I would never feel as horrible now as my parents would if they had to bury me. And that is the stone-cold truth; at some points in my life, the only thing that has gotten me through has been that idea, by clutching to it and not letting go.
Supporting Someone With Depression
I’ve been amazingly lucky to have a good support group – at least that I realize now – that have been there for me when I’ve gone through my mental health issues (or as some people know me – my “Liz” issues). In looking at this from the outside, though, there is only one way to support someone who is depressed and or suicidal:
Listen. Do Not Judge. Be Patient. Repeat.
This is hard for us talkers. We like to think we “know” how to get out of a situation.
Listening is difficult for us, especially when we think we know someone, we know their thought processes or their history or – even worse – what they need to do to get out of a headspace. Coming at them from a “Okay then, we need you to do this, this and this” will just distance you from their process. At points, offer suggestions, drop hints, and eventually they will get to that place where they want or need more help, and they will come to you. Listen and repeat suggestions if necessary; you can talk to someone a million times and unless they are receptive, they won’t hear you. Keep trying.
If someone is talking to you, they are still alive.
(Also, I will be writing a blog one day “Calling Bullshit on Interventions” — but that is a separate topic. )
Know those times when you have an epiphany? You know the ones, you start crying and crying for whatever reason, because it finally hits home, it finally cracks through that thick, boney skull of yours. For whatever reason, an idea breaks off from your logic brain and penetrates your emotion brain, and you get it.
Mine, unfortunately, happened when I was travelling back from Vancouver – right around the turn off to Kamloops on the Coquihalla going through to Kelowna. I had bought a copy of Regina Spektor’s album “What We Saw from the Cheap Seats” and on it is a song called “Firewood”. I listened the first time, and I started crying. The second, third time I heard it, I started crying. I cried all the way from that turn-off to Kelowna itself, where i decided to take a crying-break and have lunch.
But the song’s lyrics go like this:
“The piano is not firewood yet
They try to remember but still they forget
That the heart beats in threes
Just like a waltz
And nothing can stop you from dancing
Rise from your cold hospital bed
I tell you, you’re not dying
Everyone knows you’re going to live
So you might as well start trying
The piano is not firewood yet
But the cold does get cold
So it soon might be that
I’ll take it apart, call up my friends
And we’ll warm up our hands by the fire
Don’t look so shocked
Don’t judge so harsh
You don’t know you’re only spying
Everyone knows it’s going to hurt
But at least we’ll get hurt trying
The piano is not firewood yet
But a heart can’t be helped
And it gathers regret
Someday you’ll wake up and feel a great pain
And you’ll miss every toy you’ve ever owned
You’ll want to go back
You’ll wish you were small
Nothing will console your crying
You’ll take the clock off of your wall
And you’ll wish it was lying
Love what you have
And you’ll have more love
You’re not dying
Everyone knows you’re going to love
Though there’s still no cure for crying”
That line “So rise from your cold, hospital bed” got me. It stuck to me – stuck to my brain. “You might as well start trying”, was a strange lyric, it pierced my stupid heartbox, and was like a passive-aggressive call to action. Ya, well, I guess I should try.
And that song and driving in my car, did more for me than counselling or drugs. I know music has staved off negative feelings, or allowed me to get through a rough patch before getting to a clearing, but its never been so stark and real and truthful. It hurt, a lot. But it came at a time when I was receptive, when I was engaged in processing. It just struck that chord. Music has saved me so many times in my life. Literally saved me. This song was no different.
So. What does it all mean? I write this out not as a letter of weakness or to hold a massive pity party for myself, but more to process the feelings that I’ve had in the past fifteen or so years of being depressed, despondent, and retreating. And in the past few months of recovery, growth and learning.
I am here now and not on any pharmaceutical or recreational drugs and not going to counselling. I’m lucky that I’ve learned that because of my diagnosis with celiac disease, when I’m eating gluten I get horrible depression and anxiety. Being off of gluten? Pretty easy to manage my moods. But it doesn’t negate the hell that I’ve gone through in the past years. It’s taken me years to think that sustaining a gluten-free diet is a good, long-term idea; my thought processes before couldn’t see past a more lizard-brain response to eating: immediate, instant gratification.
The truth is, I still have a long long recovery. I still have strange sleeping patterns. I’m still functioning on a rather low setting – I try to make progress towards a goal, a small goal, and I get anxious. I get anxious because I’m not sure I’ll be able to hold up my end of the bargain. I still have to try and dig myself out of the hole of bullshit that I’ve dug myself into as well – my body has way more fat on it than I need, I’ve not got as much savings or money as I’d like, and I’ve got a million friendships to repair because I’ve called and cancelled on everyone at least twenty times (luckily it seems those that have stuck with me are the keepers, the ones that would be there no matter what). But, the tasks that I’m able to do in a day are increasing in number. But luckily, my anxiety and depression are both in ‘remission’ and I haven’t had a suicidal thought in a long, long time.
The small steps, the tiny ones, the repetitive ones are the ones that are the hardest. But I remind myself now to just need to keep trying.