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.