This week’s post is by Ebonie Freeman, who is a Texan, a wife, an Army brat, a middle child and a newly accepted graduate student. “I do want to make it clear that my story is just one Black woman’s perspective/experience with mental health as it relates to self-harm, suicide and depression,” she writes. “It’s a taboo topic in society, and within the African American/Black community it’s even MORE taboo! I can only share what my Black experience has been.”
First, the news: We’re officially a movement. The national Alternatives conference, for people with mental health experience who now work in the field, will feature at least three attempt survivor-focused events when it comes together next month. “Suicide attempt survivors are changing the way we think and talk about suicide and approach prevention,” the schedule says. “Join us for a conversation about the shared values of our growing movement.” It’s a great sign of progress. A new, separate conference early next year shows a similar spirit.
We’re happy to point out the first statewide newsletter for attempt survivors, newly launched by the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network and featuring first-person stories. One is by Samantha Nadler, who now supervises a crisis program in the Nashville area.
Here are links to other first-person stories we’ve come across recently: At the Best American Poetry site, Gabrielle Calvocoressi begins a conversation with her post “The Year I Didn’t Kill Myself.” And Clay Russell writes a follow-up post about his suicide attempt, “My Favorite Failure,” for Maria Shriver’s website, with a welcome dose of humor. Here was his first one.
Finally, a doctoral candidate, Laura Frey, is looking into stigma and family interactions following suicidal thoughts or behaviors. She invites people 18 or older who are attempt survivors or have thought about killing themselves to take this 20-minute survey.
I believe that each person is given a purpose in life and that we are given talents, abilities and personality traits that make us who we are. But I have experienced struggles that challenged me on multiple levels and made me question, “Why?”
There’s a line in a song called “Shout” by Kirk Franklin: “The pain was preparation for my destiny.” Those words eventually brought me a new and comforting meaning. All the pain and confusion _ as well as the victories I have experienced _ has been preparation to serve others. It was because of people who were strategically placed in my life, and knowing a sovereign God, that I was fortunate to make it through those dark times. I have had to endure those times so that I could come out on the other side and be a voice for the next person who may face them. I strongly believe that I have been given the gift to serve others.
In my work, I have encountered youth who are from broken homes, who have low self-esteem, who are in the juvenile probation system, who are sexually active and who engage in self-injury. Many of the girls were facing challenges that I had gone through. I soon came to realize that if I had not faced my own challenges, I would not have been as effective.
Early in life, I struggled with not knowing how to love or accept myself. I grew up with very low self-esteem. That led to my battle with depression, binge eating and self-injury. I did not know until I was older that I suffered from various forms of mental illness. While growing up, I had believed that mental illness was specific to certain cultures. I did not know of anyone else who looked like me who experienced mental illness.
Growing up, I believed that you did not cry in front of people, because that was a sign of weakness. You did not show people that you were hurting. You had to be strong and keep it together.We started going to church when I was in middle school. I once believed that as a “Christian,” I should not be depressed because good Christians who had a strong faith did not suffer from depression. I thought that if I was depressed, it was because I was not praying enough or I was not doing something right.
I was 21 and at a crossroads in my life. One night, I was in a very dark frame of mind. I was living with a friend from college and her husband. Something inside me was trying to convince me that I would be better off dead. I wanted to punish myself for not being good enough. I felt tired of trying and failing.
I took an eyebrow shaper and pressed it as hard as I could into my left wrist. At first it hurt, and I did it again. Then I swiped the eyebrow shaper across my wrist and began to cut in different directions. It was like an out-of-body experience. My friend and her husband found me passed out on the floor. This was the beginning of my battle with depression, self-injury and suicide.
That life-altering experience has given me a desire to help people who are facing, and have faced, the stigma and debilitating pain that mental illness can cause. People are naturally scared of what they do not know, and therefore they judge and criticize. I was one of them. Out of a lack of understanding, it did not make sense to me how someone could want to hurt themself or or kill themself.
Although I have struggled with thoughts of suicide, severe depression, binge eating and low self-esteem, that does not mean that I am a bad Christian. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness; in fact, it is a sign of great strength.
During a counseling session, my counselor shared something that deeply resonated with me. In Greek mythology, Chiron was the archetype of the “wounded healer.” He was wounded with an arrow and suffered in eternal torment. In Chiron’s search for a cure, he discovered how to heal others of their suffering. I was able to relate. This was someone who could reach beyond personal hurt to help others. I believe that healing can be a possibility through helping others heal their pain.
I have learned what it truly means to have empathy for someone and sincerely want to help them heal. The Buddha once said, “Our sorrows and wounds are healed only when we touch them with compassion.”
I aspire to help erase the stigmas that surround mental illness, as well as to educate those whose loved ones are affected by it. I want to help take the shame and fear out of seeking help for mental illness and help bring resources to families and communities that are unaware help is available. The particular populations I wish to reach are the African-American community, the religious community and youth.
A soldier who just returned from his fourth duty tour in Iraq. A young boy who is getting bullied and is too afraid to tell anyone. An employee who received notice that they no longer have a job. People of all ages are in need of resources and education on how to cope with all kinds of challenges. We live in a society where pop culture rules and women are bombarded by the media’s standard of beauty. Self-esteem issues manifest themselves through self-harm, drinking, anorexia, bulimia, overeating and unprotected sex. Programs and mentors are needed not only for young people but also for adults who struggle with the same issues.
My husband is a blessing. Throughout my struggles, he was by my side. He hurt when I hurt and cried when I cried. Even though at first he didn’t understand why I would feel like I didn’t want to live, or why I would want to hurt myself, he was willing to learn and understand. He would take me to counseling sessions and even sit in to better understand what I was going through.
Once I was able to lift my head above water, I could see how my struggles affected him. How much he hurt. The love he showed me made me want to try to get better, for him as well as for myself.
I didn’t share with very many people when I tried to kill myself, to cut or things of that nature. For one thing, I was ashamed. And when I did try to open up, I felt misunderstood and went back into my shell. Lastly, I thought that I would be doing people a favor by not being here anymore. People would not have to put up with my being sad all of the time.
A huge part of my recovery was going to my county mental health center, seeing a crisis counselor regularly and having a handful of super-supportive friends and family, my husband and my faith. I didn’t have insurance or financial means, but I was very blessed to have my counselor help me find resources that were free or very little cost. I was on depression medication for a while, and I personally didn’t like it, so we came up with a plan to help me stop my medication successfully.
I’ve come a long way! Each and every day, I pray and ask God to help me use my experiences to help others and to help myself become a better person. I’m here for a reason, and God knew that.