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‘I no longer fear suicide’

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This week’s post is by Jennifer Garing, an epidemiologist in Texas who works closely with the state suicide prevention coordinator and surveys youth on a variety of risk factors in their lives, including suicide attempts. “I collect the only statewide data on adolescent suicide attempts and suicidal ideation,” she says.

As you’ll see here, she comes at the topic with some personal experience.

I was 13 the first time I tried to kill myself. Luckily, or unluckily, I lacked a certain sophistication with pharmaceuticals. I woke the next morning with a horrid hangover and the even more horrid realization that no one had noticed my attempt. It seemed ridiculous to point it out. After all, it wouldn’t further my cause. I hadn’t done it to gain attention. I was looking for an exit. So I quietly moved on, working most of my teen years in a chain drugstore and stifling my urge to purchase sleeping pills.

It was in college that I was finally diagnosed with and treated for the depression that had rattled me for so many years. They carefully doled out my medication so that I wasn’t able to overdose on it, but they just didn’t understand. There is an etiquette to suicide. At least, for me there is. Using antidepressants to commit suicide is completely against that etiquette. Why would you use the means to your salvation to affect your demise? And why would you when there are so many other options? There is an etiquette to suicide. But they never believed me.

Perhaps because they knew what depression can do to a person. Depression is a life wrecker. It swings in and topples your life and leaves you buried in collateral damage and in absolutely no condition to clean it up. As you lay there in the darkness, you see nothing but darkness. There are no memories of past happiness, of love, of hope, of sunlight. Why would you think it would ever be any different? Suicide is the rational option. It is the glowing red exit sign. It’s the one right in front of you. You have to listen, listen very hard, for that oh-so-quiet voice of reason that is buried somewhere in the rubble. The voice that says, “You can come back.”

You’d think that it would get easier once you come to understand it. But it doesn’t. Being suicidal almost becomes a steady state, and looking for lethal objects becomes like looking for an emergency exit _ your just-in-case solution. Looking back, it’s a terrifying way to live. I used to be able to devise a suicide plan with any three objects. Name them. It might not be quick and it might not be pretty, but I could do it. That’s how far gone I was.

In my mid-30s, I was obsessed with carbon monoxide poisoning. Then I woke up one night
to an ugly realization. I had already destroyed my own plan. For my very first new car, I had
purchased a hybrid, a car that didn’t idle.

Regardless of what my mind had planned for me, I fought to stay in control. But my mind always had some evil trick, some plan to send me off the rails. With each episode, it would have some new play that it would turn loose on me.

During that episode in my mid-30s, I had one thought that nagged at me continuously. It was probably my fifth or sixth really bad life-shattering episode of depression. My mind bombarded me with questions. How many times are you going to have to claw your way out of this same hole? How much time are you going to have to spend picking up the pieces? How much do you have to lose? How much longer are you going to work your butt off climbing out? When do you get to say you’ve given it your best shot, but you’re tired and you’re done?

I finally voiced these thoughts to my therapist and he had one simple answer: “Not yet.”

In my late 30s, my depression became treatment-resistant, and I sank into another episode. Although I had learned that you cannot control your mind, I had found that you can control your surroundings, your support system and your work situation. What could have been a life destroyer wasn’t. I took leave from work, my mother and father came to help me out and my close friends and coworkers were somewhat prepared for the fallout.

I had lost a beloved great-aunt a decade earlier to Alzheimer’s while I was finishing my masters thesis. Slowly, over a 20-year period, she slipped away and disintegrated until she became someone who bore no resemblance to her former self. A contorted vegetable, she could no longer feed herself, leave her bed or make any contact with another human being. I had quickly decided that that was the worst way to die. Not surprisingly, my mind was obsessed with the idea that I would spend the rest of my life dragging myself out of depressions until Alzheimer’s took hold of my brain, losing the mind I had spent my whole life fighting to keep. The fear was nearly unbearable to live with, but I numbly fought back.

In the throes of a depression, your personality gets peeled away layer by layer until you are
a mere ghost of yourself haunting your own life. You go through the motions, but they don’t
mean anything. I remember during this depression asking my mother if I had ever been happy, because I had no recollection of it. We sat there at my kitchen table, both wracking our brains for a solid memory of my happiness. Truth be told, my mother has the worst memory for these types of things, and I should have asked anyone else. But what we came up with was a piece of pure magic.

It was a Sunday afternoon when I had visited the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and they had a butterfly exhibit in part of the conservatory. Late in the afternoon, I was alone in the exhibit. I remember sitting on a bench staring at the beautiful creatures fluttering around me and regaining, for the first time in years, that childhood sense of wonder _ that feeling that anything is possible. And remembering those emotions, I could see beyond the darkness and hear that quietest of voices: “You can come back.”

It helped that even in the depths of depression, I had myself anchored to the outside world, my parents, my sister, my nephews, my friends, my cat and my dog. By this point, I was bound and determined that this depression that had taken so much from me would not get the balance of my life, and I would not be an accomplice in my own demise.

I no longer fear suicide. There are things I feel unsafe around _ high open balconies, exposed beams, straight-edged razors _ but I don’t think it makes me less of a person to avoid such things. I know my limits. I don’t think I would ever actually hurt myself; I just don’t like how these things make me feel. It’s kind of like the same unsafe, out-of-control feeling I get on roller coasters. I suppose some people like to feel like that, but I’ve felt out of control enough of my life. I don’t need to put myself in those situations.

These days, I anchor myself to my surroundings. I hold tightly to the things I love. I keep
reminders of those things that give me hope and remind me that the world is full of wonder and possibility. Because I know that there will be days when I need to be reminded of these facts. I will do everything in my power to prevent these days from happening, but I know they will come.

The one thing I will always know for sure is that the only constant in life is change. No matter how bad things get, they will always get better, even if they have to get worse first. I cling to that.

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27 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. What a beautiful, brave, and powerful post. Thank you for blessing us with your words.

    Reply

    • You are very welcome. And thank you so much for the kind words.

      Reply

  2. Although my health, emotionally and physically has improved tremendously in the past few years, I feel like I’m at a stand still in my life. Working with the Office of Vocational Rehab is a joke. The man only forwards jobs that I’m not qualified for and they won’t train me because of my education. I’m sorry but the thoughts of suicide are very strong in me. I am however, happy that you have found hope in your life and a way to get away from it.

    Reply

    • Joan, hang in there! Having a job you don’t like can be very upsetting, but there is, and can be, much more to life than that. You say you are at a stand-still. Well, life does not stand-still forever. Like the end of this article says, “The one thing I will always know for sure is that the only constant in life is change.” Look around on this site and related places for resources to help you. And brainstorm with yourself, and others, about ways to bring more joy into your life. Good luck!

      Reply

      • I found a place called Career Services that connected me with a free class at the community college. The class was 9 weeks long and not only got me out of my apartment two days a week but also helped me gain confidence. It helped us with stress management, interviewing skills, communication and resume writing. I graduated on Thursday. Backing up to November, I gave notice to my landlord from hell and moved to a much better apartment. I’m much happier. I’m away from the negativity that was making me depressed all the time. Oh yes, I also have a new kitten. :)

      • I am so happy for you, Joan!! This is all wonderful news. You really took control and made change happen. Keep on moving forward. I know you’ll succeed!!

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. Once again I am struck by how much I can relate to somebody else’s struggle. The one thing that sticks with me is your comment “In the throes of a depression, your personality gets peeled away layer by layer until you are a mere ghost of yourself haunting your own life. You go through the motions, but they don’t mean anything”.
    That comment really struck a chord with me. As you have found hope, it gives me thought that I may too.
    thanks again for your sharing and for your honesty.

    Reply

    • I always find myself identifying with others’ writing as well. I think we all share some common chords in the way we experience our lives. There is always something in someone else’s description of mental illness that will resonate with me right down to the soul.

      Don’t worry about finding your hope. It will come to you. Find your connections and build your support system. That will bring you stability. Hope will follow. And keep on hanging on!

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  4. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us – you are a very courageous person and I respect you so very much. It is personal accounts like yours that help us understand. It especially helps me understand what my mother went through.

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    • Oh, Allysa, thank you so much! If I could give you one spec of understanding or take away one ounce of your pain, this whole leap was worth it….

      Reply

  5. You are extremely courageous and have a strong inner core that will hold you in your storms. What a beautiful narrative you bravely shared!

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  6. Very courageous of you to share this with us, Jennifer. Thank you and keep at it!

    Reply

  7. I have to admire your courage for being open about your own struggles given the work that you do. I have not been able to do that. Have you found people to be accepting, or how did they react?

    I no longer think about suicide on a daily basis like I did for several years. I can’t say I no longer fear it; I worry that some event will come along and put me back in that same space.

    Sometimes you have to hold on a REAAAAALLLY long time before things get better. But one day, they do, and you find yourself grateful for hanging on that one extra day.

    Reply

    • I, also, have been open about my struggles throughout my career. I have found people to be accepting, I think because they only see the “well” me. I’ve always been able to keep the “happy face” on until things really fall apart; then they just don’t see me for a while till I’m well enough to put the happy face back on.

      I have been open because I think hiding my illness only perpetuates the stigma. And encourages rumors. I have been gratified when people came to me with questions about their own or a loved one’s symptoms. And I have informed many people about how my brain gets depleted of some chemicals and I can no longer think right. I am pretty happy that I have been able to educate some people.

      I can say that I don’t fear suicide, but for a different reason than Jennifer’s. Suicide is just my old friend, and is always my Plan B and comforting potential way out. Kind of like Jennifer called her “just-in-case solution.” I do think about it on a daily basis even though I’m “well.” Just kind of a check-in to see if my old friend is still there. Hard to explain. But I am glad that I haven’t killed myself. There is a lot of good in the world and a lot of joy.

      I happen to think that those of us who have sunk into the black pit of depression are also capable of feeling greater joy than your average bear. It’s almost as if that black pit leaves a place in your soul that can also be filled with happiness.

      God bless you all, and do hang on!

      Reply

    • Wow. That is a really difficult question.

      Years ago, I took the tact that I would be completely open about my disease with my colleagues and it was a nightmare. I worked in chronic disease prevention at the time and you’d think that people would have gotten the whole chronic disease aspect of bipolar, but they really just didn’t get it. I had a depressive episode and after just weeks they lost patience with me. It seemed like they were saying, “Really, you’re not over this YET?” And outwardly they portrayed themselves as really empathetic toward people with diseases but the reality was they just didn’t understand what it was like to live with one.

      That’s what made going public now so terrifying. But i think that this time I really did things on my own terms. I didn’t just say I’ve been suicidal for 30 years. I described in deep, dark, graphic details what it’s like to live like that and I think that really struck people. It gave them an insight that they didn’t have. They’re not thinking of me as “suicide girl,” they’re thinking of me as, to borrow a friend’s term, “fierce.” And I controlled that by using my voice and my experiences to populate their ideas of what my illness is.

      I still don’t know for sure how all of this is going to affect my working relationships. Many of my close coworkers already knew about my disease, but again, not in so much detail. The folks I work on suicide prevention projects with had identified me as a suicide survivor, but just the wrong kind. I gave them a heads up before this blog came out so they would hear the truth from and not read it online. They have been super supportive. I’m optimistic now more so than I was a week ago. I didn’t realize the power my words had. I hope I answered your question. :)

      Reply

  8. I am not suicidal, but my mother was hospitalized for mental illness and I lost my younger brother when he was 21. I now work with suicidal people on one of the online internet fora. It is the most rewarding work I have ever done in my life.

    Thank you for sharing your experience with all of us. Candles light up the darkness.

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  9. I don’t know how I happened to come across your post, but I’m so glad I did. There are some similarities to my situation – at age 48 I’m on my 6th major depression stint, now treatment-resistant and lasting two years and counting. I am also sure that if I ever recover from depression I will slide right into dementia. I don’t have any family support; actually I’m looking after my aging parents as best I can.

    It helps to know that others are coping and finding hope. I appreciate the honest talk about suicide. I don’t ever talk about it because people freak out. But it’s an inherent part of this disease, at least for me. Thanks so much for sharing your experience and hope.

    Reply

    • Helen –
      I can’t even begin to put into words how overwhelmingly positive the response to this blog has been. With more than a little sense of terror, I posted it to my Facebook page and the comments it has received have brought tears to my eyes. More than 20 friends and family members have re-posted it and the wonderful feedback keeps coming. I never expected anything like this. I guess I expected kid gloves and cursory compliments.

      I guess my point is this – you have to give people the opportunity to step up. You can use my words if you don’t feel comfortable expressing what you’re experiencing. But at least give friends the chance to understand that you’re a warrior who is fighting something they probably can’t begin to understand. Let them respect you for your courage and your perseverance. Two years is a freakin’ long time! I respect you for your courage and your perseverance and I don’t even know you!!

      Just hang in there. You’re doing the best you can with what you’ve got to work with. That’s all you can do. I wish you all the best.

      Reply

  10. Thank you for sharing your personal experience with depression, SI, and attempt. I still cannot share what attempts and feelings I have with others.

    Reply

    • You’re welcome, Angelina. You’ll get there when you’re ready. It took me thirty years. :) This was how my father first heard about my suicide attempt. I was never able to bring myself to tell him. You find your way to things. You’ll figure it out when you’re ready. Until then just keep doing the best that you can and be good to yourself. That’s what’s important.

      Reply

  11. I came back here to read your ‘coming out’ story. I find several similarities to your story and mine. I always knew that I could not be around guns, although I am not against other people having them. I was just aware of it being an unsafe thing for me. I realized this even before I was fully aware that I was suicidal. In my blog (crissi23.wordpress.com if you are curious or bored) I also talk about not being able to recall ever being “happy”. Only I talk to my Dad about it. He asks me what it is like to be depressed so I explain it to him in the best way I can. I then ask him to explain to me what it is like to be happy. Not being in pain is ‘happy’ for me. I suppose it is all relative.

    My great-grandmother (Grandmom Goldy, was her name) was a Ziegfeld Folly. ‘They’ talk about her being famous in the 20’s, or as famous as people were then. She was a dancer and a singer as I was when I was younger. We were very close when I was small because she said she saw herself in me. I think it was my voice and my ability to sing note for note anything I heard on the radio when I was barely old enough to talk. I have blogged about her telling me she found peace in “singing the darkness away”. She married a wonderful man (John Goldy) who had polio and still worked hard everyday to make sure she maintained the lifesyle she was used to as an entertainer after she had her daughters. But I believe she was chronically unhappy. He literally would drag himself from his truck to house as a coal delivery man, over and over because he was paralized from the waist down but never would complain. His life was all about making her happy. And her life was all about being unhappy. I didn’t know this until recently. He died fairly young, many years before I was born and she never remarried.

    I bring this up because she also ended up with Alzheimers. No one else wanted to or was able to care for her so my parents took her in and we spent a lot of time together. I listened to her stories and she listened to me sing. She would sometimes sing with me, but I knew the years took her pretty voice away and it made her sad. Eventually, she would have moments of detachment and say things that scared my mother (once accusing my 2 year old baby brother of trying to kill her because he jumped up on the couch beside her to try to give her a kiss) and she was placed in a ‘home’ or so I was told. Not too much later I learned she passed away. There was no funeral service and that was that.

    Recently I found out the ‘home’ was a mental hospital and she killed herself there. She did not get a funeral service because the insurance she had did not cover suicide and my parents could not afford (and no one else would pay for) a memorial. I am so afraid this is how I will end up.

    Reply

    • Hi Christine,

      I read parts of your blog and I think you are incredibly courageous.

      I am so sorry about your great grandmother. My great aunt used to sing and play the piano too. One of the last things she still responded to was singing. I would go in to visit her and sing “Bicycle Built for Two” and for just a second, I could see her in that mess of human tragedy. It terrified me. I used to worry that she was still in there somehow and knew what was happening but just couldn’t get out. I’ve been assured by neurologists that is not the case, shown photos of the Alzheimer’s brain to prove how degenerating it truly is and how impossible it would be for her to maintain any form of consciousness through to the end. Her funeral was a waste. No one came except close family. All her friends were already dead. And she hadn’t made new ones for fifteen years. It was sadder than her death, which in all honesty was a blessing.

      I’m not suggesting that your great grandmother was better off without a funeral. Memorial services and such are for the living, not the dead. We need them for closure and to take that time to celebrate the life that was lost. Can you tell I’m Irish? No other culture would suggest a funeral is celebratory. And don’t worry, you won’t wind up like her. I can tell from your blog that you have many people who love you dearly, who will take care of you no matter what. Your daughters will surprise you. My friend who I mentioned in my last blog has devoted so much of her time to suicide awareness and prevention and remembrance of her mother. It’s heartbreaking really, but in a positive way. Her devotion is inspiring.

      To read about your conversations with your parents in your blog almost hurts. I think about my own exchanges with mine. I sent them this blog when it was first posted and that was how they found out about that first suicide attempt. My father said, “Where was I in 1983?” And I thought, I don’t know. Where the hell were you? My mother kind of glossed over it and told me how wonderful the writing was. They do their best though. My mother is hyper-concerned about the depression coming back. She’s always checking in with me. And every time I have a migraine she questions if it’s partially the depression as well. (I think she knows your lupus trick…) I know they would do anything and everything for me, so I can’t hold it against them that they were elsewhere when I was 13 or that they never saw through my act when I was 20 or 22, not until the hospital. That kind of gave me away.

      Anyway, we need to continue this conversation via email. Perhaps Cara can introduce us?

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  12. Thank you for relating your story. I strongly identify with the deep sense of devastation and life ruin wrought by through depression. Repeated episodes of severely treatment-resistant depression have destroyed my ability to hope, love, enjoy, or even endure life.
    I am very happy for you that you were able to find hope and joy in a childhood memory. For some, memories lose all enjoyment and context. I have come to accept that.
    Friends, family, coworkers and others are supportive and understanding. To a point. Everyone has their limits. Employers tend to be least accommodating and unemployment soon follows. Others gradually drift off as years of depression and its devastation accumulate.
    This most recent episode has increased in severity over the past 7 years. Despite all efforts, the past 2 years have left me virtually incapacitated. Death appears an oasis of relief. Any chance of hope or optimism slipped away long ago.
    It is good to hear that some people will improve and find ways to survive and thrive. Others may not be so fortunate. Every treatment has its percentage of estimated success at remedying depression. Suicide has a comparatively high percentage of success, and I view it as my best treatment option. I have discussed this decision with others and they respect my decision. It’s an understandable choice when faced with a life of pernicious and malignant depression.

    Reply

  13. Chip, WAIT!!! You obviously have not all ability to “hope, love, enjoy, or even endure life,” since you then immediately say that you are “very happy for you that you were able to find hope and joy in a childhood memory.” So your senses of joy and compassion are very much alive, even if they seem inaccessible.

    I know that it seems as if “memories lose all enjoyment and context.” BUT you then talk about your co-workers, family, friends, etc. There must be some senses of enjoyment and context because otherwise you would not be able to identify such groups and the people in them. Again, you think that your ability to feel positives is gone, but it is most certainly not, just harder to uncover.

    You say “Death appears an oasis of relief” and “Suicide has a comparatively high percentage of success, and I view it as my best treatment option.” Suicide is not in any way a treatment for depression. It is a tragic ending of a life, and lives always encompass so much more than any one thing, even depression, as overwhelming as it might be. It is not a treatment option, because it is not a treatment. It says that your life is only depression, and that simply cannot be.

    “”I have discussed this decision with others and they respect my decision.” They may say that now, Chip, but I promise you that your family and friends and co-workers and others who know you WILL be devastated and it will have sad ripple effects on all of them. I can tell from your post that you are a truly compassionate and thoughtful person who brings so much to the world and whom we cannot afford to lose! Chip, DO NOT take this step, as once it is taken, it can NEVER be reversed!!!

    “It’s an understandable choice when faced with a life of pernicious and malignant depression.” I know the last 7 years, especially the last 2, have been so difficult. But as it was not as bad before, it will be better once again. It wraps itself around your mind and makes things seem worse than they actually are.

    Please, Chip, don’t follow through with this. Call the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at 1-800-273-8255, or the Samaritans at 212-673-3000. You can call me at 914-319-2562 or email me at jonathan.henkin@gmail.com. The AFSP Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/AFSPnational) contains other sources of support. Chip, whatever can be done for you, let us help you.

    Reply

  14. Amazing story. Thank you so much for sharing. I’m sure you’ve given many people hope. :)

    Reply

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