This week we hear from Christine O’Hagan, who writes about opening up to colleagues and others as a high-achieving Texas businesswoman. Good timing, as the director of psychology at a top-ranked U.S. psychiatric hospital wrote this weekend about this website and what his field should think about our emerging voices. It’s worth reading.
Thomas Ellis comes off as kind of nervous, but he’s trying to understand. It’s a good glimpse of why the mental health field still moves as cautiously as it does around us. “These are arguably vulnerable people putting highly sensitive information ‘out there,’ where it cannot be controlled by the AAS or anyone else,” he writes. “Or are these perhaps paternalistic sensitivities of an overprotective clinician, viewing these individuals as less resilient than they actually are?”
We tend to agree with that second part. And now, here’s Christine:
It’s been more than a year since I decided my life had to end. There had been many times when I felt I might want to end it eventually, but on Nov. 30, 2012, I had the sudden realization that every breath was more painful than the last. I was in the darkest place I have ever been, and I saw no way out. The pain was physical, mental and emotional, and it shook my body and soul. Nothing was comparable, and I’ve been through some painful moments. I’ve survived cancer and lupus. I’ve given birth without pain medicine or epidurals. I’ve been hurt emotionally and mentally but had never felt anything like this before. The pain had to stop. So when my children left for school for the day, I called in sick to work and said what I thought would be a final prayer for peace.
Now, all these months later, I understand what I could have and should have done differently. I should have reached out sooner. I could have asked for help. I might have recognized that what I was feeling was biological and not my fault. This was not a weakness or a character flaw. Now I know it has a name. I have since been diagnosed as having OCD and major depressive disorder. I have been depressed the majority of my life, and most likely it is a result of both biological factors and issues from my past. I suffered abuse as a child from a neighbor, from a significant other as an adult, and most horribly from myself throughout my life. If I had loved myself, maybe the others could have been overcome.
I also learned that depression runs in my family. I have a great-grandmother who attempted suicide, as I was told in hushed tones. She was known to have “taken to her bed” for days at a time. At the end of her life, she told me that she had to “sing her dark feelings away.” We used to sing together when I was a child, and I loved that we had our strong alto voices in common. Now I know we share much more.
My greatest coping mechanism has been overachievement. I am one of those odd personalities that loves to be tested. It’s as though the less I thought of myself, the more I had to prove. I was the first in my family to go to college. I worked the whole time I was in school, often two or three jobs at once, while being a single mom. The controlled chaos was invigorating. If I wasn’t under pressure, I was miserable and had to find a new challenge. This is why I also got into boxing, karate, marathon running and raising money for charities. I had to find something to make me feel like I belonged with all of the amazing people around me. Someone my children could look up to.
Eventually, after earning an MPA and a name in my industry, I was offered a position as a VP of a new multi-million-dollar project in an affluent area of town. I was known as someone who could get things done, even when other people said it wasn’t possible. I loved my job. I could achieve there.
That’s what has made these last few months so damn difficult for me.
My illness had been kept a secret from all but a handful of people who had to know. But now I have started to tell others.
I have been torn by my sense of obligation and my need to preserve my status in my profession. I am somewhat respected, and I know how people who have done what I did are perceived. I’m starting to learn that I am not my illness, but in 2012 I didn’t feel this way. How can I expect people who’ve never been touched by depression, let alone suicide, to understand that I’m still very capable of being trusted with sensitive, meaningful projects?
After my attempt, I was diagnosed. My hospital therapist told my family that my attempt was gravely serious and to not let me pretend it was not a big deal.
And yet, my clients never knew I was gone. I went back to work like nothing had happened. Those who knew I was gone for a short time assumed I was sick because of a flare-up of lupus. I went back to being a workhorse because I felt it was all I had left to offer.
There were several times I wondered why I survived. I really shouldn’t have, and I was told this many times. I was so angry and devastated when I woke up. But that quickly passed when I saw the look on my best friend’s face and realized that I was really sick. Maybe there was a purpose for my being here. Or, at least, I had to feel like there was one.
I felt compelled to make what I did wrong right.
I absorbed anything and everything I could about suicide, mental illness, depression and OCD. I had to understand it. What I learned was that people like me die from it all the time. Dozens have died in the time it took me to type this, and I type 90 words a minute.
I have an overwhelming sense that I survived for a reason. I want to tell my story to help people, so no one else feels like I did. I want to help the people left behind, so they don’t feel responsible for their loved one’s death. I want to speak for those who completed suicide and let people know how much pain they were in. The pain and the disease were to blame.
But talking about it means people will know who and what I am.
I have “come out” recently to some people I know through the running community. We have spent a lot of time together, and they know most everything else about me. I have a picture of myself with them, smiling, celebrating one of their birthdays. It was the evening before my attempt. I can only imagine their reaction if that had been the last picture I had ever taken. I hope they realize that no one knew how badly I was hurting that night. I am finally in a place where I can be glad I’m still here.
Most of them have responded supportively, though I could tell some didn’t understand. Some didn’t respond at all, which I get, because if this is something you haven’t been exposed to, it is very shocking.
But it is exactly these people I need to hear me. What if, one day, it is their child who is afraid to seek help?
Luckily, no one has been unkind. I know I need to prepare myself for that to happen. And I realize this could affect me professionally. After telling my running friends, I posted my story on my main Facebook page, blocking it from only a few friends I wasn’t ready to tell yet. I received a number of private messages filled with encouragement and understanding. Some thanked me for speaking out, and some shared their own stories.
I feel ready to take on the corporate world now. I am prepared to fight the stigma and know that every pain has a purpose. I pray I don’t lose my career and everything I have worked for. But I can’t forget that because of this disease, I almost lost my life. Hopefully, everything I have done in that life, and the respect I have earned, will allow me some understanding and open minds.