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‘A lot of very hard work’

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This week’s post is by Debi Strong, who first reached out to this site earlier this year, around the one-year mark after her attempt. She has been a National Parks ranger, a law enforcement officer and a criminalist while fending off depression.

After the end of her post, you’ll find an invitation to complete an unrelated survey put together by a group of suicide prevention and awareness groups for people between the ages of 8 and 24 who have survived a life-threatening attempt _ or for loved ones of someone in that age range who died by suicide. It includes a link to the survey.

Here’s Debi:

When I was invited to write a guest post for this blog, I thought, “Cool…this will be good for me!” And so I sat down a few days later and started to write. And I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, and then decided I was going about it all wrong. (If this had been the “old days,” I would have had many crumpled-up sheets of paper, torn from my typewriter, lying around the waste paper basket.)

I had started by writing out the details of my suicide attempt, on March 20, 2012, almost minute by minute. I wrote about that day, the weeks leading up to it, then the years leading up to it, and it just started getting way too long and, honestly, very depressing.

So I stopped and regrouped. I pondered all the aspects of my suicide attempt: the approximately 56 years of depression and suicidal thoughts leading up to it, the various traumas and dysfunctional situations that caused and fed my depression, the self-harm behaviors, the numerous less-than-helpful therapists, etc. etc. etc. Honestly, to anyone reading this blog, this is all stuff you probably know in one form or another.

But the reason I am still here and able to write this column, now, that might be something more interesting and helpful. Because I truly believe that if I can make it through almost a year without a major depressive episode, then others who feel there is absolutely no hope left can make it back to a hopeful place, too. I’m not perfect, I’m not always happy, my life is not filled with sunshine and roses 24/7, and most of the time that’s OK. And I take it one day at a time, because I know that the monster that is depression is ever lurking close by, waiting for the right opportunity to strike me down again.

So, I am here because of several factors: Luck, as I was found and airlifted to the hospital before I died. My sister, who did the research to find an excellent place to get help. An incredible group of professionals and wonderful peers at The Menninger Clinic in Houston, Texas. The love and support of my family. And a lot of very hard work.

I spent nine weeks at The Menninger Clinic last year. In those nine weeks, I learned more about myself, depression, and suicidality than I had the rest of my life. From sun-up to bedtime, there were classes, individual therapy sessions, group therapy, a variety of more loosely structured activities and the most integrated support network of peers and professionals that I could ever have imagined. In fact, it was the closest thing to family that I had ever experienced. Imagine that: Being in a psychiatric hospital was probably the best nine weeks of my life. (Well, actually, the first four weeks sucked, but they were necessary to make the transition from unhealthy to healthy.)

One of the biggest revelations was that medication is not the total answer. My family somewhat assumed that by sending me to a psychiatric hospital I would be “cured” by doctors finding the “right” medicine. Over the years, I guess I had fallen prey to this notion, too: that somewhere there was a magic combination of drugs that would make me feel better and think better. Initially, Prozac had worked that way for me. I had been on a low dose of Prozac since 1989, after my mom died and my “regular” depression took a turn for the worse. I had balked at going on any antidepressants up to that point, but I was bottoming out and needed to do something. Within weeks, I felt so much different. I remember thinking, “This is how normal people must feel,” because my thought patterns were not always circling back to suicidal ideas and the negative side of everything. But that feeling was not to last.

What I have learned over the years, and what is absolutely supported by research, is that dealing with depression is a multi-faceted challenge. For me, to make a long story shorter, the answer started at an excellent psychiatric hospital with a combination of that same low dose of fluoxitine, intensive psychotherapy with a variety of therapists and psychiatrists, cognitive behavioral therapy, a supportive environment away from home with people who really “got it” and my own willingness to learn and practice what I was being taught and to trust the process of healing. As I began to improve, I realized that the fluoxitine was necessary to help my brain work properly so that I could do the rest of the work – but it wasn’t enough to “fix” me. (I knew, from experience, that I was a total, suicidal mess without any fluoxitine, but if I took a higher dose it made me very sick; other medications I had tried had not worked, for a variety of reasons.)

At Menninger I got what I needed, including the push to do the work. For years, in therapy and out, I had said to myself and others, “I’m trying to get better,”  “I’m trying to do this program,” “I’m trying to…” whatever. In the end, my healing truly began when one of my doctors said, “You kind of need to give yourself a kick in the ass and DO this stuff and trust the process. You can’t just ‘try!’” I know this sounds simplistic, but it’s turned out to be true.

I will also say this: When I got to the clinic I was truly at rock bottom, and this place was my last vestige of hope. I wish someone had found it for me years ago. Then again, maybe I couldn’t have summoned the energy and effort before. Who knows?

The unit I was in was named Hope, which seemed laughable when I arrived. But I met and made friends there. Some were very young, with their arms spider-webbed with cutting scars. One woman celebrated her 70th birthday while we were there. A young man from Guatemala and an older woman from Mexico were part of our “gang.”  By the time I went home, I truly loved all these people with whom I had shared so much, and I knew they loved me.  Bottom line:  Those of us who improved the most were the ones who were willing to let themselves be seen at their most vulnerable and then were able to learn to accept the love and acceptance of the rest of us. 

When I left, I was petrified to go home. Although I felt capable of managing my depression there, I wasn’t so sure about whether I was capable of doing it on The Outside. The thought of going back to the same environment that I had come from was nauseatingly scary, even though I loved my family. Many, if not most, of the people leaving when I did were going into step-down programs – halfway houses where they could slowly reintegrate into the real world. I had to go home, cold turkey. I felt I needed to get back to my family. It was hard, really, really hard, going from so much support to very little.  It seemed like one day I was at a place where everyone spoke the same language, and the next day I was at a place where I had to teach that language to others.

So here I am, more than a year later, and I have not had a depressive episode. I have had
sad/bad hours and sad/bad days, I have had plenty of thoughts about suicide and my life experiences with these thoughts and depression, but I have not been sick with depression. I remember watching a DVD about depression during one of my first days at the clinic, and the narrating doctor had research that said if one could stay in recovery from depression and not have a major depressive episode for five and a half months, then they would have excellent chances of maintaining their recovery. At the time I thought, “I can’t do this. I am doomed.” But I did do it. I am doing it.Two days ago, for the first time ever, I actually thought, “I am so glad to be alive! I really love where I am, right at this very moment! I am glad I survived to see this day.” I know that every day can’t be like that, but I also know that I can have more of them. One of the big lessons I learned in my nine weeks was that perfectionism is poisonous, and “good enough is good enough.” Today may not be asjoy-filled as the day before yesterday, but it’s good enough. And, so, the work continues.

_____

The National Center for the Prevention of Youth Suicide is proud to take lead on a national effort to determine the warning signs for youth suicide. We hope that you will consider completing the attached survey in order to help us learn more and change the way we approach youth suicide in this country.

What are you being invited to do?

You are being invited to complete a survey about an individual between the ages of 8 and 24 years who died by suicide or made a life-threatening suicide attempt requiring at least one overnight stay at a general, not psychiatric, hospital. This survey may be filled out on behalf of someone close to you whom you lost to suicide or about yourself, if you have made a life-threatening suicide attempt. The entire survey should take no more than 5-10 minutes to complete. All of your responses to these questions are completely anonymous. There is no method of tracking individual responses back to their respondents.

Why should you complete this survey?

The National Center for the Prevention of Youth Suicide (NCPYS), in partnership with the American Association of Suicidology (AAS), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide (SPTS), the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), the Jed Foundation, The Trevor Project, and Aevidum are sponsoring an expert panel meeting in mid-August focused on identifying warning signs for youth suicide. In addition to identifying key warning signs, the panel is being charged with seeking methods to share this knowledge as broadly as possible. As a survivor of suicide loss or a survivor of a life-threatening suicide attempt, we believe that you, too, are a valuable expert in this area, and we are requesting your input and insight into our discussions.

What if you need to talk with someone?

We recognize that completing this survey may bring back painful memories of the loss of your loved one or the struggles you have personally faced. If you believe that you may become overwhelmed with completing the survey, we ask you to consider not completing it.

How can you participate?

If you believe that you may have something to contribute to this conversation and share with the expert panel, we encourage you to click on the link below:

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/NCPYS_survivor_survey

The survey will remain open until August 7, 2013. Thank you for your consideration. Please forward to any individual or groups that you feel may be able to respond to the survey and contribute to this effort.

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10 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. You are lucky to have family. If you don’t have family, you’re just yesterday’s garbage in this society. Over and over again, I hear stories of recovery thanks to family. Sorry to sound bitter, but I wish I had family to help…trying to make it all alone is…nearly or definitely impossible.

    Reply

  2. All you really need is one other person who knows you and cares about you. They do not have to be family by blood. The need to belong–connection with others– is a basic human need. When you are isolated and feel like an outcast, it is easy to become bitter. In my experience, depression definitely made me isolate myself and distance myself from others. You are right: making it all alone is very difficult. Can you find a support group or a good therapist to help you? Also, have you ever heard of Brene Brown? I highly recommend listening to her TED talks… http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html is the first one. See what you think.

    Reply

    • I agree, Debi. You really just need one person. I don’t even have one person who is both able and willing to help. And there are very practical matters – housing, finances and access to good mental health care. I found good care in another state, but lost my housing. Now I have (temporary and very tenuous) housing in another state, but no access to good mental health care. The instability is causing extreme anxiety and panic attacks, which is interfering with my search for employment and I am running out of money fast. So, I worry about being homeless. It’s all a vicious cycle and without the help I need, I see no way out other than ending my life.

      Reply

      • Sarah,
        Maybe if you share what state you’re in, there might be someone on this site that could suggest some possibilities for more help. Good mental health resources are definitely hard to come by…I feel your pain where that’s concerned. It’s one of the reasons I am working on getting a peer-led support group for depression/suicide issues going in my community. But I believe everyone that needs help should have access to the kind of care I got at Menninger…that would be my hope for the world, and something I’d like to see the mental health community work toward.

        I am thinking of you,
        Debi

      • One other thought, Sarah…are there any AlAnon or CODA groups, or other
        12-step type groups in your area? They are free, the people are usually pretty non-judgemental, and it is a good way to start re-connecting with people who share and struggle together and can offer some good ears to listen with, shoulders to cry on, and suggestions if you are open to them…

  3. What a brave blog. I wish that it had been done before we met, but this might help you know who. It’s a start. Thanx. I love you and am so happy for you. It’s hard work, but it must also be a great relief. BTW I don’t know if they told you this, but every thinking person has to guard their mental health. As you’ve found out, it’s pretty easy to fall off the edge.
    Great work! I love you.

    Reply

    • Roberta,

      Honestly, I never have felt this way before either…it’s a very new feeling and it is not continuous. But the fact that I feel it occasionally is amazing. In fact, a few months ago I wrote to another blogger who posted his story on here and asked him how he got to that place of feeling glad to be alive, because I didn’t feel I could ever get there.

      For me it has been a matter of trusting the recovery process, I.e. keeping on doing the work of cognitive behavior exercises: becoming aware of my thought processes that are not helpful, changing those thoughts, and doing that over, and over, and over, and over again, with many different thoughts. It can be exhausting — it IS exhausting to start– but it does eventually work.

      I have to tell you, from my heart, that if I have made it this far I know others can too. I really, really believed that I was beyond help. If I hadn’t believed that there was no hope for ever, ever feeling good, I would not have tried to kill myself. But I was wrong.

      Take care of yourself,
      Debi

      Reply

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