This week’s essay is by Sunkiss “Guy” Sundara, who came out to friends and family earlier this year in a Facebook post. “I simply wanted to,” he says in an email. “I wanted to take those small steps to help break the stigma of mental illness.”
But first, the news:
The New York Times on suicide: Columnist David Brooks writes about the new book “Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It.” But it’s far more interesting to read the 470 comments that were posted in response. Once again, a clear indication that a rich, complicated, public conversation on suicidal thinking is waiting to happen. A few samples of comments the Times highlighted as notable:
“I attempted to take my life almost 20 years ago. … If I had been diagnosed with cancer, fought it and recovered, people would call me a ‘brave hero,’ and deservedly so. I faced the greatest challenge of my life, and with the help of professionals and loved ones, I fought it and I WON! I deserve to call myself a ‘brave hero,’ and I do.”
“It was not a cry for help or an attempt to punish others, as suicide is often described. I had totally lost control of my mind and acted because of an uncontrollable compulsion. My wish is that mental illness and depression could be understood as the life-threatening illness it actually is.”
“I just hate this kind of column, because it implies that the ‘healthy’ people … can figure out what makes the ‘sick’ people do this terrible, unspeakable thing, and can then stop them by showing them how wrong their ideas are and how right the ideas of the ‘healthy’ people are. Talk about arrogance. I agree with previous comments stating that unless you have had some experience with this, directly or indirectly, you can’t really understand it.”
And here’s a notable passage from the book, by Jennifer Michael Hecht:
“It makes sense to give thought to these issues. If we try to suppress the whole subject, if we quarantine suicide from our consciousness and from public conversation, we run the risk of suddenly confronting it, alone and unarmed, when we are most vulnerable.”
New online peer support groups: Get ready for a new generation of grad students and post-grad professionals who are open about their experience with mental issues, including suicidal thinking. The Lived Experience Research Network has launched two private Google groups called Users and Survivors in Academia, with the goal of advocacy, research and support. You can join here.
In April, Guy Sundara broke his silence about his suicide attempt, and he choose to do it on Facebook. Aside from wanting to help others understand the issue, it was also a practical decision: “Another reason was to inform friends and family all at once without repeating myself and that the information came straight from me and not from what they heard elsewhere. I thought it was important that they know.”
These were some of the responses:
“Beautifully written. If you didn’t think you served a purpose in this world, I hope and believe that you do now.” “Reading this really touched me and made me forget everyone always has a mask on.” “Didn’t know how to respond to this at first. Still don’t really. I guess what’s important to say is that I am so thankful and glad you are still with us.” “I love you soooo much!”
Months later, Guy is working on his graphic design, video and photography freelancing, and he continues to work on his health and motivation. “I still feel like yesterday since the incident. It’s been like rehabbing a torn muscle,” he says.
Here is his Facebook post:
March 26th I woke up from a failed attempt to suicide. My goal is to inform family and friends, quiet down any hearsay, and to mainly educate everyone on mental illness. By no means is this an attempt to gain attention or pity. I can assure I don’t want your pity, nor do I want your empathy because I don’t wish upon anyone to know what it’s like to have these feelings at all. There is a huge stigma surrounding mental illness. I hope for you to gain understanding. Just a couple of weeks ago my wall would’ve been filled with messages of friends grieving and expressing their disappointment, but I’m here now exposing my vulnerability to measure my courage for those like me.
That first week since going into the ER, I spent 7 days being stabilized under the care of clinicians. By the time I was able to regain some rational thought I was faced with a question that everyone might be thinking,“What led me here?” To me it was more like, “Why am I always here?” I’m usually good at problem solving and finding patterns in events, but this was a tough riddle. Even before I knew the symptoms for major depressive disorder I already knew I was fucked up in the head. Besides the obvious anhedonia, self-doubt, feeling worthless, guilt, grief, and self injury-I knew there was one annoying thing about me that stuck with me since I was child. It was how my mind was wired to trip off a self sabotaging mechanism. It’s what causes me to quit on things like jobs, goals, school, friends, and love. All designed to make me feel worthless. It’s always an internal struggle because there is always a part of me that wants to follow through, but a dark voice seeps in finds a way to make me give up things I love and pushes it away. All because of past traumatic events it created self destructive pathways and chemical deficiencies in my brain.
So here I am learning that sadness is only the tip of the iceberg of depression and what you don’t see is below is pain, hopelessness, and nothingness. Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky nicely put it as “A biochemical disorder with a genetic component and an early experience influences where somebody can’t appreciate sunsets.” It turns intelligent people into zombies, you become pathetic and you know it.
I will share what I recently read in my first week of my intensive group therapy session.
The pain and fatigue of my depression can be tolerated, I learn to cope with the physical. But it steals your soul. Like a demon it seeps into my bones and poisons my brain. It takes away everything it means to be you, and replaces it with a person you barely recognize. Yet unlike those with Alzheimer’s, you are completely aware that you are lost to yourself. Consciousness doesn’t leave, only control. And how am I supposed to live as someone that is not me? I read the adjectives I used to describe myself in school essays and I don’t now know this person anymore- outgoing, confident, creative, ambitious, adventurous, articulate, intellectual… these have become scared, hopeless, cynical, lonely, and exhausted. I am not my depression, but my depression has enveloped all that was me. I don’t want to die to be dead, I just can’t continue living like this. This is not a life. The purpose of being alive is not just to breathe but to live, and I am not living, I am only existing. Depression does not give me introspective and deep thought; it only gives me pain and loss. I just no longer want to be me. I no longer want the nightmares of my unconscious at night, and the continued nightmares of my conscious in the day. I am pursued by a horror unknown to me horror and yet no tangible fear or memory is causing this continued horror. I suffer without cause or reason so how do you treat, how do you address what doesn’t exist? Fear of death has got nothing on fear of life. I just want to be happy, it seems so simple yet so impossible. I don’t need to cure cancer, I don’t need a greater purpose, I’m not asking anything from life as if it is an entity that is supposed to give me something. I just want to feel alive for once. Every type of help I’m supposed to pursue, I’ve done. Everything I’m supposed to do to make my life better I’ve done, I don’t know what else to do anymore. I’m just so tired. I’m just so alone. Currently my only desire is to be hit by a truck. I want my mind to be blank. I’m not strong enough to do this on my own anymore, and I’m too damaged and ravaged for anyone to love. I am simply a shell of what I once was. Each day is like being Atlas trying to hold up the world and it’s too much. I have nothing left. I’m too broken down. The tears are dried up. My body is devoid of energy from the non-stop treading water just to barely keep myself afloat. I’m tired. I live each day like I’m counting down- to what, I don’t know. To the end of this life or to the beginning of a new one? Which will come first? But I’m here in group because loneliness and the desire to be understood has to be sort of safety mechanism that drives us to seek the company of others. And people who don’t share this desire are considered sociopathic. I look forward to sleep because it’s the highlight of my day because I exert most of my capacity not to kill myself. And then I wake up because I cling onto the compassion of a few friends, family, and mostly strangers. If there is peace, I will find it.
But then I read this the previous week to my first group of what I have learned up to that point.
Spending 7 days at North 7 I had only one job. To figure out what the hell is wrong with my brain. This is not normal. I was born to end my own life. That doesn’t sound normal to me. So my journey to understand me began. So how do I understand me my mind if I don’t know how the brain works? A nicely put analogy describes the brain is like symphony orchestra, well tuned, and well disciplined. The brain is made up of groups of players that work together to produce a particular result such as movement, thoughts, feelings, memories and physical sensation. In the actual physical brain itself, most of the brain activity is due to a very special class of cells called neurons. Better yet described as little school children that like to gossip and constantly passing notes and whispering to one another. These secret conversations and notes are mainly about sensations, movement, solving problems, creating memories, and producing thoughts and emotions. And they pass their messages through gaps called synapses. And the actual message that flows across the gaps are called neurotransmitters that we often know of as serotonin, which influences depression, dopamine which influences sensation of pleasure, and epinephrine aka adrenaline in response to stress anxiety and fear. So when neurons bond, they bond like friendships. They get into a habit of passing the same sort of messages back and forth the way old friends reinforces each other, judgements about other people, events, and experience. These are called mental habits. So the beauty of all this is you don’t have to be annoyed when people say you can be whatever you put your mind to. We are not bound by our mental illness or our repeated negative thoughts and behavior. The brain has this cool thing called neuronal plasticity, which is its capacity to replace old neural connections with new ones. And after being in group therapy I realized that everyone, staff and patients here is teaching you just that. With monitoring your medication to balance out those neurotransmitters, and also most importantly teaching us ways to reframe our mental habits. Rerouting those neurotransmitters on how we think about ourselves. Making us realize that we are not hopeless, worthless, shameful, and every other negative thought that brought us here. And what brought us here was pain and suffering. Things we refuse to confront, avoid, push away with codependency addictions. Things we refuse to develop positive personal responsibility to try to manage because we deliberately believe in lies while knowing they are not true. Being here was the perfect opportunity to figure out my true self. Maybe not entirely but I know the things I am not. I’m not worthless, I’m not shameful, and I am not hopeless. So I ask each and every one of you to find out what you surrendered. Why you chose to be in a prison that you created in your mind/heart.
The more I learn about this and myself the more I realize this is and will be a part of me. I risk my relationship with whoever reads in hopes that they will understand but not empathize. I risk that I may get feelings of shame or guilt for my actions but I can assure you that I found enough compassion for myself that it will have no effect on me. But not everyone may be as strong as I to endure, or have the courage to speak up. I want you to think twice when you see someone sad and think that they are “choosing” to be “difficult.” We didn’t choose this. A little compassion and understanding will go a long way. People should not suffer blaming themselves for their depression, when they are suffering enough.
As for now my plans are still the same. I want a life with modest goals, someone who loves me and is committed to the relationship. Some type of work where I am appreciated and make a difference. The truth is I have become fundamentally and deeply skeptical that anyone who does not have this illness can truly understand it. And, ultimately, it is probably unreasonable to expect the kind of acceptance of it that one so desperately desires. It is not an illness that lends itself to easy empathy… No amount of love can… unblacken one’s dark moods. Love can help, it can make the pain more tolerable, but, always, one is beholden to medication that may or may not always work and may or may not be bearable… But if love is not the cure, it certainly can act as a very strong medicine.