The Struggle You Don’t See

Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto.
(I am human, I consider nothing human foreign/alien to me.)
Publius Terentius Afer: The Self-Tormentor;” Act I, Scene 1, line 25 (77)

In 2001, I find myself at the top of a skyscraper. It is windy this high up. The city is lovely, the air is crisp and autumnal. And I catch myself thinking something that scares me. I immediately leave the balcony, take the elevator to the ground floor, and sit on a bench. I cannot cry. I wish I could. I don’t care that I’m in public. I am terrified of myself. .  

I am a college senior. I am severely depressed. And I have just had my first suicidal thoughts. 

Yes. I do believe, when we’re brutally honest with ourselves, something along the lines of “I wish I were dead” or “they’d be better off if I died” drifts through our minds when we find ourselves in a really unpleasant situation.

But the thoughts in 2001 weren’t like that. This was not a fleeting thought. I was seriously contemplating…

My thoughts were focused on planning. The how-to’s. And you will hopefully note, I am not going into detail of that planning. 

Later that week, I went to a mall, just to watch people and attempt to distract myself. That ended up pretty much the same way. I had a GREAT plan in place for that mall. 

Alas, I over-think things. I couldn’t do that to my family. Or the people at the mall. Or….the possibilities of many people I felt I owed my continuing existence, even if I wasn’t fully convinced I was right and they’d get over it. 

Again, I left. I blinked back some tears this time. I safely drove back to my dorm and called my parents. They were and are amazingly supportive. I assured them I was not going to do anything to hurt myself, but I told them that I was scaring myself. (I think my mom said something along the lines of, “I don’t think you will hurt yourself, we believe in you, but I do appreciate you telling us this.”)  Lucky for me, a fall break for school fell on the very next weekend.My parents arranged for me to come home and see a new psychiatrist. 

I was diagnosed with “treatment resistant depression.”  This means, simply, that I can be on anti-depressants and I’ll sometimes need to “jump start” the uptake of serotonin and all those other incredibly neurological chemicals with a new medication. I did start an additional medicine, and in a short time (less than 2 weeks), I was felt–well, not depressed. More like a person who enjoyed things in life, rather than going through motions so as not to stand out. I started cognitive behavior therapy, which trains me to recognize and deal with the dark thoughts when they bubble up.

I’ve found, over the years, I’m quicker at picking up when the black dog approaches, and take appropriate steps, thanks to kind support networks of family and friends. They hug me. They don’t always accept “fine” as an answer to “How are you?”   

They sit with me in silence. We share stories. They invite me to lunch or tea (and as I heal, it becomes a happy habit.) We laugh (yes, people with depression do laugh on occasion.) We listen. Serious, hardcore listening.

In essence, they accept that I have a chemical imbalance that benefits from medicine, like many forms of diabetes. Only my chemical imbalance doesn’t occur in my pancreas, but in my brain.

I really do not talk about it online. For starters, it by no means defines me. Yes, it is a part of me, but I am more. True friends know this. They know, for example, about that time I misspoke and said “promiscuity” in a course when I meant to say “potential” …

You get the idea.  

So while the US invaded Afghanistan, I threw myself into reading about Japanese war crimes in WWII. By no means is this a happy or even “meh” topic. It’s sickening. But I had read a book (prior to the depression reoccurance) about Hiroshima. So I threw myself into my school work, and when that was done, educated myself about Japan during WWII. 

This, I realized, is how I cope. I throw myself into academics. I can distance myself from my self. It works for me.

When I learned of Robin Williams death yesterday, I was sad. 
When I learned the death may have been a suicide, I was further saddened. 

But I saw people posting things on facebook and twitter that, quite frankly, frustrated me.

Take, for example, Friend Z. Friend Z knows about my depression, but their response when I confided in them was, “You have nothing in your life to be sad about. Just cheer up and stop thinking about it.” 

Um….thanks. I cannot imagine why no one told me that before, and I also had no idea Friend Z knew everything in my life.  

So Friend Z is posting about how we need to treat depression as a real illness (agreed, because it IS). But the justification from Friend Z was something along the lines of “because we lost someone famous.”

What am I then, Friend who tells me to just cheer up or “be happy?” What are we non-famous people who suffer from depression? And yes, it’s truly suffering. What are those who have/has or are suffering from depression supposed to make of that? We’re not as important? We should just, in Z’s words to me a while back, “be happy?”

Now–to switch gears a tad, let’s fast-forward a few years. I am in a long-term committed relationship, and the person starts having delusions and psychotic breaks. I find myself on the “other side” of mental illness, and it’s really hard. It’s trying for us both personally, but I’m not leaving because of many reasons. Love is a strong bond. Staying by this person’s side and talking them through an episode is trying, but essential–at least to me. 

I’ve been asked by people why I didn’t leave at the first break. Again, love. But also…the opening quote. “I AM HUMAN….” 

Now, there is no shame is acknowledging that you don’t understand whatever the illness is; there is no shame in admitting you have an illness!

But fully, 100% deserting someone you know is suffering–I cannot fathom that. I understand being fearful of unusual behavior, changes in behavior; call a helpline FOR yourself, do not assume the person who appears ill will call just because you gave them the number. It’s a good thing to do, but calling yourself can help equip you with tools for yourself and the person. 

Sure, I don’t understand it, but I get that you’re afraid and I will hold you tight and talk you through this, or just reassure you I’m here, you’re real. And I will help you get help, whatever form that help may be. 

I think, by my own nature, I would do this for anyone. Maybe it’s selfish on my part? I don’t want anyone dying or hurting themselves or feeling alone when I could have possibly stopped it. You will not scare me away. And if I am scared, I will gather a team of people I trust, who know and understand mental illness, to help me help that person.

We are all in this life together, and we can make it better or worse for someone hurting from a wound not visible to the eye.

I understand the frustration from not understanding an illness you cannot see. I cannot claim that I was always as sympathetic as I am advocating now. Live and learn?

If Williams’ death is ruled officially as a suicide, then let’s continue to live, and let’s learn from this tragedy.

Research. Learn that mental illnesses are biochemical and what the person is experiencing may be absolutely terrifying to them. 
Reach out. You may be turned away, but keep reaching out. “Let’s have lunch at X at noon on Friday.”

I could go on, but these are just my opinion/thoughts. 

I highly recommend the National Alliance on Mental Health’s website as a starting point for more  information on mental illnesses, the politics of it, symptoms, support (for everyone affected, family members, etc.), and advocacy. 

Addendum: An attempt at suicide should not, in my opinion, be viewed as a mere cry for help or attention. It should be taken as exactly what it is: an attempt at ending your own life. 

[Crap, it’s 2014 and I have to write that?]

If you’re struggling, if you have struggled, if you’ve supported someone who’s struggled with mental illness…I send you big hugs. Nothing is alien to me. If you need help getting treatment, check out NAMI’s state chapters, your parish or county’s public health options, etc. 

The most dangerous thing is to not address this. Please, let’s keep this dialogue open and flowing. 

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