Seven years ago today I got a call that threw my entire life into meltdown.
I’ve debated for years whether or not to blog about this, because I never much liked talking about my family or trotting out other people’s personal tragedies on my blog; and this day in history affected so many people I love that it always seemed crass to bring it up in such a public forum.
I’ve recently thought better of it, and here’s why.
Seven years ago my brother committed suicide.
I won’t go into any details except to say that he was ill for a long time, at the very least an undiagnosed depressive for most of his adult life if not longer. I’ve learned to spot the signs, and thinking back through our youths (he was about ten years older than me) I think we were both depressive kids. Sometimes people are just wired that way; that’s how whiskey and art were invented.
In the months before he died I spoke to him on the phone trying to convince him to go get some meds – I knew he wouldn’t go for therapy, but at least an antidepressant might help him keep his head up until life circumstances changed.
But he didn’t listen to me. And when circumstances did change, it ended with a gunshot.
For a long time I felt guilty about that, as if I could have done more – when suicide hits your life you find you spend a lot of time asking “why?” and wondering “what if?” but you’ll only drive yourself crazy. In the end, when it comes down to it, the only person responsible for suicide is the person who commits it. That final decision was theirs, and theirs alone, to make. No one can know all the circumstances except the people who were there at that moment, so there’s no use in speculating, and it doesn’t help anyone to spend years trying to find answers that probably don’t exist.
If you read my blog at all, you know I have chronic, treatment-resistant major depression, and have been dealing with it actively since I was about 20. The longest I’ve been off meds was about a two year period that ended with my brother’s death.
It’s probably not as widely known that I have, in fact, been suicidal. I’ve had a plan. I’ve had a date chosen. I’ve had a note written. But I never went through with it.
Why not? What makes one person stop and another go through with it? My brother had children, a wife; I was alone, and at the time I hit rock bottom, basically friendless, unemployed. It doesn’t matter what your circumstances are; anyone can reach the point of desperation where it feels like there’s no other way out. But what made me change my mind and swear never to entertain the notion again?
To put it very simply: God and my Mom.
There came a night of black despair that saw me lying on the bathroom floor, waiting to die. I was terrified of death; terrified of the possibility of hell, even though at the time I was an avowed Wiccan – you really can’t know, can you, until the curtain falls? I was also terrified that there would be nothing, that I would just…stop. To this day, to be honest, that scares me, but it’s not like I can avoid death forever. One day I’ll know the ultimate truth.
Ultimate truth was not on my mind that night. All I wanted was to make it stop.
I spent so much of my life stuffing my emotions, shutting them off, that they had gone utterly numb. To me, depression isn’t an emotion in itself, it’s an absence of emotional response from a baseline state of apathy. You can’t feel pain or pleasure fully because your brain is on mute. Everything around you is watery grey, and everyone speaks like Charlie Brown’s teacher. You’re in a glass tank, with the world all around you, and you can see it, but you can’t seem to reach out.
Thus, when actual emotion breaks through the depression, it hurts so much more than it would if you were just to feel it in the first place…and I was in pain. Howling, keening misery. All I wanted was silence. Peace. Oblivion. I couldn’t imagine living another day in black and white with spikes of burning red.
It might seem like depression is an attractive proposition if your life sucks – who wouldn’t want to turn off the pain? The problem is, you can’t choose what you feel. You either feel everything, or nothing. If you can’t feel pain, you can’t feel joy. Making yourself vulnerable to one end of the spectrum makes you vulnerable to all of it, and that can be such a horrifying prospect that people never want to heal despite all the reasons in the world to do so.
So, lying there, waiting, I sort of reached the absolute bottom of rock bottom. I felt like I had already been dead for years and was just waiting to decay.
That’s about when God stepped in.
Now, I could talk about this event in a variety of different ways, but the thing that matters is this: Something, Someone, Somewhere, told me to get up off that floor. It was as quiet as the tiptoeing of mice but as loud as thunder in my head: GET UP. NOW.
And I did.
And sitting there, leaning on the toilet, I began to think about the people in my life who loved me, and what they would have endured if I had gone through with it. I imagined it taking days for anyone to find my body, and someone having to call my parents. I imagined someone telling my beloved nephews and nieces.
Then I thought about my mother, and everything she and my dad went through to adopt me, and I started sobbing.
Little did I know that a few years later I would get to see exactly what would have happened if I had taken my own life. I would see the pain, the wailing grief, and the endless questions that would go unanswered. If I had known then what I know now about what suicide does to families, I would never even have considered the idea, because the thought of hurting my parents, or my brothers, or the kids, is beyond anathema to me. I cry just thinking about it.
That night, in that bathroom, I made myself a vow that I would never, ever commit suicide – and not just because of my family and friends, but because I had this feeling – in other words, God told me – that no matter how bad things felt in my life, there was always the possibility I could do something about it tomorrow. Something must always change – that’s the nature of the universe. And if I went through with it, there was no changing my mind later. But I knew there was a way through it – going through is, of course, the only way out. God gave me the conviction deep in my bones that no matter how bad things might suck, I would find a way to survive. I could try different meds, I could try different self-help techniques, I could try therapies of all sorts. I could tell people how I felt and ask for help.
That, right there, is what I want you to get from this: there is help out there for you. Austin, for example, has a psychiatric emergency center; there are hotlines you can call (512-472-HELP in Austin); and never underestimate the power of simply telling your best friend or relative, “I can’t do this anymore, please help me.” Two heads are better than one messed-up head, believe me.
Somehow we got it in our heads in this country that depression is something you should just pull yourself up by the bootstraps from and grin and bear it – but don’t give me any of that victim-blaming crap about karma and self-obsession. If you are clinically depressed, you’ve gone beyond “think positive thoughts and do some yoga.” Depression in this sense isn’t a normal response to tragedy or misfortune; it’s an abnormal chronic response out of proportion with reality. Your brain has gotten miswired, and it needs help. You are ill. There is no shame in this. You are certainly not alone. If you had cancer you wouldn’t just try to think happy thoughts, would you? Depression is an emotional cancer. Dissect the problem and its societal causes and all that crap after you can get up in the morning, okay? First things first: get help. Talk to your doctor. Talk to friends who have the same problem – I guarantee you know at least one person on psych meds.
At the very least you probably know someone who can take you in for a few days and keep an eye on you while you’re figuring out what to do. I was lucky enough to have friends who did that for me in an earlier situation, and while it might have been a better idea to turn me over to the Austin State Hospital (for their sake), they took care of me when I was too afraid to reach out to anyone else. Get out of your house and over to a friend, and talk it out; don’t make any decisions on your own except the one that says “DON’T DIE.”
Your life is more precious than you can know, to more people than you can name. You have so much to do, so many adventures to have. And frankly, life is gonna suck giant swinging goat balls sometimes, but it’s also the most hilarious comedy ever written by a crack-addled God; you might miss the sorrow, but you’ll also miss the ice cream sundaes and dandelions and that first scent of coffee in the morning.
I’ve had some seriously rough patches since that night on the bathroom floor. There have been plenty of times I wanted everything to stop, to go away, to give me silence. But I made a vow, and I meant every word.
“I will keep fighting. I will find a way. I will make this pain count for something, damn it.”
I have never regretted that promise.Become my patron for exclusive online content and read new stories before anyone else!