Post Format

‘To make what I did wrong right’

22 comments

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.

22 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. This is in reply to Christine O’Hagan: After reading your post, I was surprised to learn how very similar my experience has been to yours. Best wishes to you in all that you.do.

    Reply

    • Best wishes to you also! These are difficult waters to navagate. Knowing when to put the oars down and wave the white flag; knowing the consequences of doing so will keep you alive but just may ruin your journey. Yet to not surrender, you just *might* make it on your own, but what then. …risk the murky waters alone again so that everyone sees you as ‘one of them’ or better because you can handle it? I tried for so long secretly hoping someone would just rescue me (not that I would have let them). But it doesn’t work like that.

      Now, I am back out there again and I know when to back up and take care of myself, even though it leaves me feeling weak and guilty. I am still alive. And that is what matters most.

      I very much appreciate your comment!

      Reply

      • Christine, after many years of silence about the horrendous pain of mental ill-health, suicide attempt, and years of psychotherapy, I decided to speak out, to find no one really wanted to hear or understand. As a result, I found my own path to a degree of peace and freedom. It does not mean the pain has totally left, and I now face a debilitating, incurable, physical disease. Also not a victim and not in need of rescue, I put my experience in a book that no one wanted written–as though all of it should have been kept a secret.

      • I have gotten some not positive yet not negative feedback to my openness. My company is neither supportive nor suppressive. Although I get the feeling they would prefer I not be so public about my illness; not do so many speaking engagements; not write so many articles but this is who I am. At work and at home and it is what I believe I have to be, without ‘hiding’ to be as healthy as possible. If I had cancer, my boss would need to know if I had to be off for treatment. Likewise if I were to have to have treatment for my depression due to an intense episode. I do not believe either diagnosis should be treated any differently. My work does not suffer due to my condition. And if it started to, I would understand my needing to step down.

        You are incredibly brave for continuing in despite lack of support. I did have the unwavering support of family and friends. And I have friends at work who support my efforts and don’t mind hearing about my endeavors in volunteering and advocating for mental health awareness and suicide prevention.

        I would love to read your book. I am inspired by the people that have worn a path ahead of me.

        Thank you for commenting!

      • Christine, I understand your being in the corporate world. Being disabled, I no longer have to deal with that. Do you have a facebook page? Mine is facebook.com/authordcross with info on book.

  2. Amazing. Thank you for your brave honesty. I lost a dear friend to suicide in 2012 and i was shocked by the stigmas surrounding suicide and mental health and by how much people avoid talking about such issues. I started writing a blog to bring awareness. I actually just finished one last night about how learning about and owning my own PTSD diagnosis empowered me. I no longer felt defective, but simply wounded. We have to talk about these things in order to invoke change. It is so important that you shared your story :)

    Reply

    • I appreciate that, Laurie! And I agree with you, absolutely. Writing is a kind of therapy for me. It is much more difficult to discuss these things than write about them. Very cathardic.

      Reply

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. I live in two worlds one being work where I appear active and normal and one at home where I just want to scream and hide under the covers. I have had two failed suicide attempts and yearn for a release from my personal situation.

    Reply

    • My pleasure, Helen. I am so sorry to read of your duality of torture. I wore ‘masks’ for so long, putting forth this act of stability and responsibility, and unending energy when inside I was in SO much pain and I just wanted to go huddle in a corner somewhere and cover my head and dissappear. And that is basically what I would do when I got home. I have children and they are familiar with my Lupus flares so I would come home, either having bought drive-through dinner or throwing something quick together and tell them Mommy was having a bad Lupus flare and I would go to bed until I tucked them in. They would often come in to my room with me and we would cuddle and watch tv (they would while I would just be there, as a numb bump on a log). These are most most guilt ridden memories, even more so than my attempt. My children deserved the person I was at work, I was just too exhausted to pretend in my ‘safe place’ which was always where they are.

      I am very glad your attempts failed as well and I hope you have found a bridge between those two sides of you. Therapy has helped me so much and so has connecting with other people who feel this way. I know now I am not alone in my dual worlds. And my worlds are more intertwined now and it has made a big difference.

      There may not be “release” but there is some relief and there can be healing. Dont stop working for that. Well wishes for you, Helen!

      Reply

  4. On December 17, 2008, I had a near-fatal depressive episode (suicide) resulting in a bullet to my chest. It took some months for me to be abel to put my experience into words. The past 5 years have found scores of people who have been abel to identity with my experience of being enveloped by an impenetrable fog of depression. The resulting stupor rendered intent or purposeful thought virtually impossible. Even though I knew what was going to happen and could see it happening I had no more control over the outcome than if it were happening in a movie. It took about 5 months to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder but less than a minute realize I had been victimized by it for forty years. In hindsight, it was easy to see: the mood swings with their increasing severity and accompanying consequences. But mental illness is just that, an illness. And it just doesn’t seem reasonable to expect someone to change behavior resulting from a mental illness any more than to expect someone to change the results of a physical illness like cancer or heart disease. You didn’t do anything wrong or make a mistake. You, like most of us with this shared experience, were ill. It was not your fault or a deficiency in your character. You are working hard to regain control and I have no doubt you will. Rest assured, it does, and will, get better.

    Reply

    • Thank you so much, joelkobren61. I am beginning to forgive myself for what has happened and the pain I brought into my family. And I am trying to make up for this, in a way, by becoming an advocate for mental illness awareness and suicide prevention. I am speaking out and am no longer embarassed about my illness. I am not proud of the things I have felt or done while sick but I am proud of how I have addressed it recently.

      I very much appreciate your reaching out to me!

      Reply

  5. I too am fighting the internal battle between keeping my positive professional reputation and disclosing my major clinical depresson and status as suicide attempt survivor in order to help others. Thanks for all your inspirational comments!

    Reply

    • Thank you for expressing your shared experience here with me. It is a bit of a (selfish) omfort to understand I am not alone in this. We can still be successful; we just have to manage our illness. Your comment inspired me, Darlene!
      :-)

      Reply

      • Maybe it’s because of my age (62 now, 57 at the time of the gunshot) but the more people tried to make me feel guilty because of “what I had dome to them”, the angrier I got and the more determined I became to try to educate them on the true dynamics of mental illness, suicide and the problematic language we use: “failed”; “attempt”; “tried”; “kill your/my self”; “committed (suicide)”; attempt/loss “survivor”; and pretty much the entire vocabulary used to discuss the topic. Would any of us feel guilty if we had cancer, or a heart attack, or a stroke? Would we need to forgive ourselves? No. Of course not. We would be concerned or feel bad if we knew we were going to leave friends and family behind, but it’s not a choice. And neither is mental illness. When family members say things like, “How could you do this to me?”, I’m amazed at the selfishness and stupidity that the question shows. Now I’m not suggesting we just get angry, but I am suggesting that we learn to plead our case effectively and educate those closest to us if we are ever gong to educate those farther from our center. And sometimes, in an extreme rare case, if need be (as in my case), move our center from the “family of origin” to a “family of function” where love & acceptance replace anger and judgment. Somewhere on this site is a short essay I wrote (but posted by a friend) called, “Why talking about suicide is counter-productive”/”An illness no one saw coming”. We have to take charge of eliminating the stigmas and prejudice of mental illness if they are going to go away. In the words of Bob Marley, “Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights.” Be kind to yourself Christine, you deserve it. You did nothing wrong. You only got sick. Strength – Peace – Love

    • From the age of 8 through 58 the feeling of wanting to die was my best friend and only comfort. It was only after well administered therapy and medication that, for the first time, that feeling finally dissipated and the world looked clear and full of possibilities. Depression, as an illness or a symptom (BiPolar, Schizophrenia and other affective disorders) are serious illnesses that need not go unattended to because of stigma, shame or embarressment. You’re probably in a lot of pain. It might be triggered by something happening in your life or it could be spontaneous, overwhelming all ability to escape it. Either way, don’t ignore it. If you want to talk I’d be willing to post my number for you. It WILL get better. You’re not alone.

      Reply

    • I wish I knew why some of us have tha pull towards death, when one of the most basic of human impulses is to protect one’s own life. I am not a professional in this field, but a survivor and one who battles this pull still and I imagine I may always do so. We have to find our purpose. Our reasons to be here; even IF this reason is to help others find a path through the pain. That to me is reason enough. I hope you remain on your path. Shelley.

      Reply

  6. Is there any group or website to help parents figure out how to help their teenager struggle through major depressive disorder? So many of the things you say you hear that don’t help, I find myself saying… I get so frustrated and even mad… I truly do not understand how my daughter can feel that she doesn’t deserve to live or to have happiness. She is a good kid who has never done anything wrong. She has so much to live for and yet she tells me she sees no future and she has no desire to get up every day. She has been hospitalized, is on medication and sees a therapist and a psychiatrist…I don’t know what else to do. Thank you.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s