Trigger warnings include depression and suicide. These are my current thoughts on a very complex topic, which will undoubtedly continue to change over time. I am not an expert on this issue. However, something inside of me feels compelled to share my story. Out of respect for anyone referenced here, I have kept the details as brief and high level as possible while still honoring my ability to speak my truth and how these situations and events affected me. If you or if anyone else you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, I urge you to stop reading this and immediately reach out to Lifeline. Finally, I hope this article helps at least one person out there and inspires them to reach out to someone, anyone for assistance.
A Hard Hit Home
I rarely panic when I receive a phone call, but something in my gut knew something was not right. Why was my brother calling me so early on a Sunday morning? It was so out of character. I knew he had hit a rough patch and I could only guess that he might (finally) be reaching out for help. I quickly pulled myself together, took a deep breath, and with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, answered the phone with a “Hey Ryan! How’s it going?”
February 5th, 2017 was a day that rocked my family. I still remember the pain and panic in Ryan’s voice as he described what found when he got home. I immediately fought to hold back tears while desperately trying to hold my shit together during the car ride back home. You know those moments when you feel you’re having an out of body experience. You are awake, and yet you feel like you just disconnected from the rest of the world and are suspended in a dreamlike state. Only this was all too real and much more of a waking nightmare.
While we couldn’t confirm it at the time, my mom had attempted to end her life and was almost successful. Her body temperature had plummeted into the mid-80s, and it took almost 24 hours before the hospital was able to revive her. Ryan had spent the night at someone else’s house and had come back in the morning, but what if he didn’t? That questioned haunted him. It haunts me and all the rest of us. Who knows if my mom would still be alive if he waited until the early afternoon?
It’s been almost half a year since I received that phone call. I wish I could say that everything is back to normal, but it’s not. True, mom is alive. True, by some miracle she had no long term physical damage to her body or her organs. True, everyone in my family was incredibly supportive to her during her recovery and for each other as a support system to cope with what had happened. I’m grateful for all of this.
On the flip side, my family is far from healed. Suicide, and the mental and emotional states that precede such a drastic action, is a complex subject matter. And while medication, therapy, counseling, and support networks are useful components in the healing journey, there are no guarantees. While I remain optimistic that my mom might get to a better place (and we just had another scare two weeks ago), there is a part of me that occasionally cringes when I receive an early morning phone call from back home. Will she be alive to watch my daughter grow up into adulthood? Or will there be a third and final attempt in the next few years, months, or even weeks? I’m tearing up just writing these theoretical questions.
My Battle With Depression
Depression can be a killer. I’m not just saying that because I read it in a book or because I’ve seen it almost play out in situations like my mom. I’m also not using the word “depression” carelessly like when people refer to a momentary blip of superficial sadness. I’m talking about the type of deep depression that causes you to become physically ill, emotionally shut down, and mentally fatigued from battling inner demons day after day, year after year.
To those that knew me growing up, hearing this may come off as a surprise. On the surface, it looked like I had every ingredient for a happy childhood. I was always at the top of my class academically and (unless my memory is failing me) I was voted “most likely to succeed” by the student body. I was born with natural athletic abilities, which made it easy to plugin to many social circles and have friends across the board. I was a good kid that never rocked the boat or got into trouble with anyone. And my mom was Joddy, one of the most known and loved staff members of a K-12 school of 2,000 students.
Unfortunately, I lived a dual life. At home, things were scary AF. My parents had a rocky marriage that led to some explosive, dare I say “epic” battles. To this day, I’m shocked that nobody was seriously harmed. This sometimes led me to some very dark places where I was more scared to be alive than take the chance at accelerating the timetable to an unknown afterlife. Things ultimately got better when I moved to college, where I had a chance to reset. Unfortunately, things turned very dark again in my sophomore year when I was battling a month long illness, academic struggles, being sidelined in sports due to an injury, and heartbreak.
No, I never made a serious attempt to end my life. However, I felt very close to the edge on many occasions. To someone that hasn’t been there, it’s hard to describe the sheer terror of feeling you were one step, or one bad day away from making such a drastic and irreversible decision.
I eventually raised the white flag because I knew I couldn’t go on living this way. It was accepting that this was a legitimate and significant problem that led me to search for help and solutions. The details of this journey will require a separate article, but the summary is that I found a lot of tools, techniques, and philosophies that helped me get into the mental and emotional state that I needed to get back to living my life without crippling depression or anxiety looming over me.
Watching Other’s Battle
My first direct exposure to suicide didn’t occur until I was in high school, but it was direct and sudden. Brian Reich was a fellow student in 100+ members of the class of 1999. We had taken classes and played on several athletic teams together, notably basketball and baseball. We shared adjacent lockers and spent quite a bit of time talking in the hallways between classes and before school started. Despite all of these interactions, I knew nothing about him and the battles he faced. If you were to tell me that one night he would take a gun and shoot himself in the head, I would have never believed you.
And yet once he committed suicide, the fallout from his death was significant. I watched dozens and dozens of students come by to his locker and weep openly. Some were obviously close friends of his, but many never interacted with him directly. I can’t say with 100% certain, but I believe just the mere thought of someone taking their life triggered something inside of everyone. It compelled them to grieve for a person they never met. People left cards. People left pictures. People felt hurt. They felt sad. They felt angry. /And universally, people expressed that “if they only knew” then they would have done something, anything to avoid this outcome./
While Brian was the first person I knew that killed themselves, he certainly wasn’t the last. MIT was notorious for being a pressure cooker with ambitious, above average students and an above average suicide rate. I always found that correlation to be so puzzling. If we were all so smart, why were we so stressed out of our minds? And yet during my first years at MIT, we had the infamous Shin case in which a female student lit her room on fire. While I never knew this woman personally, it affected me deeply and caused me to ask a lot of difficult question. How did she get to a place? Why was she willing to harm herself in such a brutally painful way? Could this happen to my friends? Could this happen to me?
Perhaps I held onto a naive to believe that if a person was smart enough, they could outrun or outwit any problems in their lives. Personally, I desperately wanted to believe that. However, after listening to friends of mine so casually talk about cutting their wrists to feel what it was like to bleed, I knew that this belief was bullshit. I knew that I needed a new strategy if I was to get myself onto the path to self-preservation and, ultimately, some form of happiness. After all, I refused to be another statistic. I refused to be one of the horror stories that orientation leaders told incoming students to try and prod them to put their ego aside and ask for help.
Why Helping Is So Hard
In the depths of despair, desperate attempts by friends and loved ones to get a person to “see the light” can make things worse. It sounds counterintuitive, but hear me out. A person experiencing severe anxiety and depression has likely tried and failed to overcome it. These repeated failures add fuel to the fire and reinforce self-defeating beliefs, such as “I’m broken” or “I guess I’ll just have to learn to live with this.” Now a well-meaning person comes by and starts rattling off how amazing life is and how if they just tried X, Y, or Z they’ll be able to get through something as “trivial” as depression in no time. Framing the conversation this way can feel downright offensive because it diminishes both the severity of the pain and amount effort already expended to heal oneself.
Now, this does not mean I advocate the opposite approach and join in with the person by wallowing in a story of self-pity. Empathy is certainly powerful because it allows us to connect and relate with others on a deep, emotional level. However, repeating and reliving all the pain and the stories we tell ourselves about what the depression and anxiety means can act as a hypnotic trance, which will only reinforce the very depression and despair that the person is trying to eliminate. This is where I’ve seen professionals advocate techniques to try and “interrupt the pattern” when a person starts to go into this type of trance. I may sound like a broken record, but this is also a tricky balance. If you don’t have a strong rapport with the person and if the timing isn’t right and if the person isn’t truly open to change, this approach can backfire.
Having lived on both sides on this experience, I can honestly say that both experiences are hard. Yes, the person battling depression faces a significant challenge and to say otherwise minimizes their experience. However, I would say that it’s less common to understand and acknowledge the pain felt by those caring for those battling with anxiety, depression, or a myriad of other mental illnesses that could lead to suicide. These supporters often have a lot of heart and determination; willing and able to do whatever it takes.
However, there isn’t always a clear map to follow. There is no guarantee of steady progress or even the promise of progress at all. In some situations, I’ve found it to be a long and tedious waiting game where all I can do is love someone and be there for them, waiting for that exact right moment to appear. Sometimes that window of opportunity appears, and a transformative breakthrough occurs. Sometimes it doesn’t, and the waiting game continues. Sometimes impatience rears its ugly head, and one tries to force a change. Like so many approaches, this can backfire… badly. I’ve been there, and it sucks, sometimes resulting in a lost or ruined relationship with someone you love and care about.
In short, depression and anxiety ain’t easy. Not for the person experiencing it. Not for those trying to help someone get through it. It doesn’t help that the stakes are high. In the best of the worst cases, a person simply never shakes it and experiences it the rest of their lives. In the worst of the worst cases, a person may believe their only way out is to end their life. I’ve been in that terrible place where one can easily rationalize that terrible option. And if you’ve ever lost anyone in that battle, my heart goes out to you. Seriously. I have no idea how much that must hurt and how much you wish you could go back in time and change it.
That is why helping is so hard. We know the stakes are high, but there are no guarantees no matter how much you care and no matter how much you try.
The Light Within
You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here — Desiderata
Here’s the good news. Yes, there may be darkness (and a lot of it) inside each one of us, but there is also a tremendous source of light. Yes, we may have forgotten it was there or maybe we never discovered it in the first place. Yes, we may be blind to it, and it may be as difficult to see as a star obscured from our view on a cloudy night… but it’s there. Somehow we may have become so detached from our spirit that we lost our ability to feel, but that doesn’t mean that our spirit isn’t there. The solution is not to push ourselves further away from our spirit, but to find and re-establish that connection.
My beliefs on this subject matter would probably take a few articles to flesh out, but the quick summary is that I believe we are spirits that choose to be born into physical form on this planet to learn, to grow, and to experience creation in human form. Yes, I realize this sounds far fetched and out there, particularly given my years and years of formal training in the scientific method, critical thinking, etc. However, I still believe this to be true based on experiences that I can’t rationalize away with science. I believe we all existed before this lifetime and we will all exist after it. I believe there is a light within us that exists and persist regardless of whether we see this gift inside of us.
Caveats and Disclaimers
Now before I go further, I would do this subject matter a disservice to only focus on the human psychology and spiritual aspects and ignore what western medicine can offer. After all, Science has significant research demonstrating how certain parts of the brain can be triggered in such a way to bring about intense joy and intense pain. And for those in an acute experience, medication may be the only thing that can anchor a person into a stable enough state to logically and rationally think through a new course of action. However, in my experience, there is too much focus on medication as the silver bullet and a minimization of just how powerful the human mind, heart, and spirit are in facing these challenges.
I’m not a medical doctor, so please don’t take my opinion as gospel, medical advice, or as the justification to do something outside of the guidance of professional care. I’m not saying this to cover my ass, but to acknowledge that there is no way that a single article like this could address the nuances of the battles that each person reading this article may be facing. My hope is that something in this article inspires you not to give up, to see there are many paths to your healing journey, and to keep going.
The Good News
If I were sitting down with you and looking you straight in the eye, I would take a deep breath and say the following as genuinely and with as much conviction as I could muster.
- I acknowledge that you’re facing a significant challenge.
- No matter what, YOU MATTER.
- You are not alone. There are many, many others fighting major battles. You may not know them or see them, but they are there.
- Others have succeeded. As dire as this may seem, there are many, many others that took on equally difficult challenges and got back on their feet.
- Others care. There are many, many people and organizations that are willing and wanting to help.
- You’re not broken. Nobody is perfect, and it’s a rare person that didn’t fuck something major up in their life at one point. It doesn’t mean you’re broken.
- You are worth it and worthy of being here.
- There may be another way. You may have already tried 100 different ways to get through this particular issue. Maybe there is another flavor. Maybe it just needs more time. But no matter how many things that you’ve tried, there may be some hidden option that you’ve yet to discover or uncover.
First, thank you for your time and attention. Just the act of getting my thoughts down has allowed me to process what has been a very challenging topic in my life. Writing this and sharing my story is part of my own healing journey.
Second, I hope you found this helpful and done tastefully and respectfully. I realize this is a difficult topic to discuss, but I also know that part of the challenge is that this is a taboo topic to talk about. Whenever I share my stories and experiences, I’m often shocked to discover how many people have become experts at masking these painful experiences and keep them from others. This is not a battle to fight alone.
Third, if you or someone you know is battling with anxiety, depression, or suicide, I hope you have the courage and determination to keep on the path to healing. I also empathize with you and the pain and hardships you’ve been going through. I hope that someday soon I get to hear your story about how you overcame it and can help others fighting the good fight.
Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash
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About Rick Manelius
Quick Stats: CTO of Contact Mapping. Author of Winning the Lottery Within. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.