I gave this talk at my Secular Sunday Gathering, KC Oasis, in August of 2014. I have edited it a bit for clarity.
I am a feminist, an atheist, a crafter, an herb gardener, a voracious reader, and an engineer. I am fantastic at many things. Except one. I am terrible at killing myself. I guess that one’s pretty obvious, since I’m standing here in front of you. I have major depressive disorder. I don’t list it in the things that I am, because I feel that it is something that takes away from my life and adds a murky layer to swim through everyday. I was diagnosed with this illness about 10 years ago, after suffering for years prior thinking that I had done something wrong to deserve these dark, ruminating thoughts. Sometimes the thoughts made sense, and sometimes I just didn’t have the energy to logic them away. As a result, I have tried to kill myself more times than I care to remember. Four of these times resulted in hospitalizations, the most recent was two months ago on June 26th.
Suicidal thoughts hurt. I don’t share these irrational and scary images. I don’t tell people that I make decisions to mitigate the fact that a future suicide attempt is inevitable.
The “I lived” commercials factored heavily into my decision to buy a Subaru. One of my suicide options has been eliminated and has yielded such humorous frustrations as, “Even if I could figure out how to crash my car in a way to make it seem like an accident, I would probably still survive. Damn you, Subaru!”
I was born and raised in South Dakota and grew up shooting at things. I own guns, but they stay with my parents in a locked safe in South Dakota that I don’t have easy access to. I never disclose to my conservative coworkers that I do not allow guns in my house because of the risk of shooting myself intentionally.
I keep all of my medicine in a tote. It is for convenience, but not of the type you are thinking. If all the medications I own are in one place, it makes it easier to forfeit them over to a concerned friend when I know I’m in danger.
I have dealt with these thoughts for so long that it has become my normal. I forget that my Kansas City family does not know these things about me. When my depression got bad enough that I did try to end my life, I ended up in the strange place of being forced to tell the people that I love and care about the hard and dark truth of my everyday life. And most people didn’t know how to react. So, I would like to explain to you some of the helpful and not so helpful ways to interact with me. I can’t speak for all depressed people since everyone experiences life differently. I can only speak to my own experiences.
After I disclosed my suicide attempt to people, I received many different responses from people. I would like to run through some of them, and what my reactions were to them.
“I still want/need you around. I’m so glad you survived.” This is a tricky one, because for a long time I didn’t agree with it. It took me days to finally be ok with the fact that I was still alive, and to entertain the thought of not trying to kill myself again. There was a reason I was on a 24-hour a day watch for an entire week.
“There are so many people in your life that love and care about you.” I know this. I have extremely loving and accepting family and friends. Depression does this awesome thing where no matter how many people love me, I still want to kill myself. Don’t take this as a rejection of your love and caring, because I do appreciate and need it. I have attempted suicide after breakups; while in stable, loving relationships; when everything was good; and when everything was falling apart. There can be triggers for such events, but sometimes there aren’t.
“Why didn’t I call/invite/stop by before it got this bad?” This is a variation of the last statement. Again, I appreciate and need your inclusion of me, but it would not have prevented the suicide attempt.
“You know that you can call me anytime, right?” Yes, yes I do. Not only can I call you, I can call my parents, my therapist, the psychiatric hospital, suicide hotlines, 911. Your offer is appreciated if it is sincere. The worst thing that I experience is when people that are passing acquaintances say this to me and then do nothing to follow up to make sure that we have a relationship/connection that would make such phone calls a safe place to express myself. This makes the offer hollow, and almost worse than saying nothing at all.
“But you always seem so happy.” Yes, I know I do. I actively cultivate this armor. A large part of what my depression encourages me to do is to not let people know I have it. Stating the way I appear positively reinforces me to not be honest with you about how I actually feel. I want to be honest, open, and vulnerable with people, but my thoughts aren’t easy, pleasant, or enjoyable on the days I need to share them the most. Contradicting the happy stereotype isn’t easy for me.
“But what if tomorrow is better?” Yep. I have been repeating that sentiment to myself for the month and a half long spiral down into this place. Wanting to commit suicide isn’t always a snap decision. In my attempts, it has always happened after a month long fight against the suicidal thoughts in my head. After fighting for so long, having the fight be over becomes more and more appealing, and suicide seems like the only way to end the pain.
After the shock of the attempt has passed, the feedback changes again. Now it is acceptable to offer advice. I know people offering the advice mean well and are trying to offer help. In fact, I have discussed this situation in depth with my therapist many times. My depression is deeply rooted in the shame I feel for not being normal. In fact, I carry around a pink permission slip pad to allow myself to not be perfect in various ways. Here are the times when I use it –
“Have you ever thought about changing your diet and not eating refined foods/red meat/all meat/dairy/grain?” Yes, I have. I have changed my diet multiple times and in various ways to try to make myself feel better. It didn’t work. When I am depressed to the point I don’t think it is worth my time to feed myself, I don’t care what I put into my body because eating is better than starving. For this tip, I have a permission slip that states, “I give myself permission to eat fast food.”
“You should try yoga/meditating/prayer/some form of woo.” My brain doesn’t shut off. Ever. I have tried many ways of relaxing and not thinking, but I can never get my brain to shut up. Even when I am asleep I have constant vivid dreams and/or nightmares. My brain doesn’t let me relax. Except when I am watching Sex and the City or anything on MTV. So, “I give myself permission to watch 2 straight hours of television (bonus points for reality television).”
“I read this book by so-and-so, and it totally changed my life and made me not depressed!” Wow, if all it took to cure a chemical imbalance of the brain was reading a book, you would think the anti-depressant industry would have caved by now. Also, there is a high likelihood that I have already read said book, and you have now made me feel worse since it didn’t work for me. “I give myself permission to read Cosmopolitan.”
So now you may be thinking, if you take everything so negatively what can I say? Here’s some suggestions –
- “I don’t know what’s appropriate to say right now.”
- “Wow, life sucks sometimes. That must be hard for you to deal with.”
- “We’re all in this together, and no one knows what they’re supposed to be doing.”
- “Let me give you a hug. And chocolate. And $100. You’re awesome.”