Last year my father-in-law shot himself. He died.
For all the hundreds of hours I contemplated my own suicide throughout my life, I never thought I would know someone– someone in my own family– who felt that all encompassing desperation and pain with which I was so intimate. My father-in-law was ex-military and earned several degrees. He was funny and never left my husband’s presence without giving him a full body embrace and the words, “I love you, son.”
As much as I want to call my father-in-law a fucking idiot for taking his own life, there is that part of me that knows the darkness, the inexplicable and crazy pain of hopeless depression. It’s only been about a year since my husband has started to truly understand the clinical reality of my own depression and anxiety. I’ve had to break it down through lists of medications, detailed accounts of therapy sessions, exploration some of my writings and my own intense efforts to ritualize the moments when I break down and need help. It goes something like this:
“I’m feeling a dark scream or big cry sitting in my chest. I feel it coming. Something isn’t right and I need to stop what I’m doing.”
My husband knows what to do. A glass of water, a hot shower, anxiety meds, a dark room. I cry and cry and cry until I feel my brain is about to separate from the rest of my nervous system. Rampaging negative thoughts mobilize and move in for the kill. All the while, I am verbalizing exactly what is going on in my head– however crazy or scary it might sound. He is strong and still and reassures me. “It’s not real. It’s passing. This is the storm.” Sometimes I hate his words and fight against them. Sometimes I fold into his arms and allow myself to fall quiet. And then it passes. It always passes.
I wish I had known that my father-in-law had it in him to reach those mysterious, sinister depths. They are tricks of the mind– that part of your brain which shuts down completely in the throes of pure anguish. It is a spiraling, tornadic grip that makes no sense to anyone except the sufferer. For the sufferer, it’s so clear. “I do not want this pain anymore” and “I have done my time here. I want to move on.” and “People will get over this. They are better off without me.” Lies. All of them. And i’ve been on the critical receiving end of those lies many, many times.
Because of circumstances, I was responsible for arranging everything around his death– cremation, memorial service, obituary, reception. Strangely, I was glad I had so much to do. When I was 23, I had to do the same thing with my own mother who had also died unexepectedly from a massive heart attack. She was only 51. So not only did I have experience as someone with depression, I had already gone through this parent-dies-suddenly-way-too-young scenario. And it sucked all over again.
I kept calm and focused through most of it. I was there for my husband, my child and did my best to coordinate a farewell that would ease so many people’s pain. But in my gut, I was terrified that once the initial chaos and activity passed, I wouldn’t do so well. I could feel the tension in my body, lack of sleep, no eating (which is not great for balanced blood sugar which is critical for staying well). And one day after the memorial, it hit me. I had a panic attack, followed by depression. I didn’t want to move, but it was different this time. I felt a deep sense of shame– shame for all the times I considered suicide and leaving everyone behind. I felt ashamed of my condition and hated it profusely. I was angry and bitter and felt trapped beyond description. This was made even more intense by the fact that somehow I’ve managed to protect and preserve that part of my consciousness which is aware of my disease and can identify when my brain is not functioning properly. This is not to say that my emotions weren’t normal. They absolutely were. But for someone who suffers from clinical depression, these experiences are dangerous triggers which can spark, like a match, a deep burning which enflames and engulfs your sense self. It’s awful.
So, as always, I came out of it. I stopped, slept, walked, and forced myself to eat something every 2-3 hours because, for me, my blood sugar is a monumental key to stabilizing my neurology. My psychiatrist slightly increasesed the dosage on my medication and prescribed something new for more intense bouts of anxiety. After two weeks, I felt like myself again.
It’s taken me a while to figure out the area in which I am truly an expert. Like many depressed people, I am a “highly sensitive person” which is a neutral way of saying that I feel things, like, a LOT. I am a passionate person with deep interests and substantial preoccupations with doing “great things” in my life. I want to explore my talents to their absolute fullest, love without consequence and steer the wave of unending ideas and plans that I have to help people, bring change and create art. In the long stretches when I am exceedingly healthy, I get to think about cool stuff like multiple universes, better ways to get books to kids in poor neighborhoods, sketches for my subversive stitching projects, the power of love.
But when you suffer from depression, you can get stopped right in your tracks. That beautiful poem lies there unfinished. The “free food” garden in my yard languishes, the novel moves into a bottom drawer for fear of being rejected more than it can take. My healthy mind is wrapped in duct tape and sits, paralyzed, in the shabby and dangerous basement of my illness. The intense desire to express and create is boxed up, even though you can still hear the pleas for help. In other words, I’m an expert in real clinical depression. Real. Clinical. Depression.
Mind you, I have been dealing with it since I can remember which technically qualifies me as someone with “early onset major depressive disorder.” That sounds downright Oscar-worthy. But the fact is that– like being poor or double jointed or a socialist– I just didn’t know there was any other way to be. I thought everyone had an annoying chorus of negative thoughts and weekends spent in bed and a dull sense that there had been a mistake in my being born. I had fantasies of joining the unknown in my sleep– my soul and neurons and unleashed bliss could rejoin the cosmic soup which has played a cruel yet hilarious joke on the whole of humanity. I was convinced we could all experience peace and joy when the lines between “me” and “others” could finally be dismantled in death.
This is what I’ve always thought about– since I was 9 or 10. I can’t really tell you the exact age, which is one really terrible quality of depression. I have virtually no long term memory of years, places, people, experiences. But I do remember how I felt. I can tell you how I felt when I was three years old, seven years old, 12, 19 and on and on. But I depend on other people to give me back my memories. The memories I have are given back to me through filters of sympathy, confusion, judgment, remorse, victory and emotional peril. I take people’s word for it that I have always had an infectious laugh, a nice smile and a way with words. I don’t need to remember those times, because the smiles and laughter are my rewards for cutting through the infection of my disease, and that’s more than good enough. It’s good enough because every breathless, hysterical laughing fit, every happy tear, every sincere smile is mine and lives in me somewhere. For months and even years at a time, I can feel them running for their lives like the last living people in a zombie wasteland.
Lack of memories is a big reason I became I writer. I thought I needed to remember every last detail of my life– like soaking up Game of Thrones determined to watch straight through without needing to go to online forums to figure out what the hell is going on. But I don’t need to remember it all. What I do need to remember is that for every self help book or spiritual practice I have explored, I always left out some critical key ingredient in understanding myself, my pain and my place in this world. My brain… and its smaller than normal hippocampus.
It’s taken a long time to come to this point, fully realizing that only about 1/3 of people with depression and anxiety ever get diagnosed. And even if you’re diagnosed, it may be weeks, months or years before you literally stumble upon the right combination of meds and the right dosages. You have to be your own advocate, which is particularly challenging when you’re not at your best. And if you can find someone to talk to and guide you through the complex minefield of your mind with actual clinical research and facts, that’s even better. I take extra Vitamin D, fish oil and other natural protocols. It’s all a work in progress– it’s all an intricately designed plan to help prevent me from ever going to that dark, unforgiving space where thoughts of suicide live and thrive.
I will miss my father-in-law and I am so very sad for my husband, who will never know how thoughts can lead to such violence. I am grateful he will never know, and that I can bear that knowledge for him and truthfully say, “It was never about you. There was nothing you could do. Absolutely nothing.” I can erase that guilt for him because he knows that I know what it feels like to be that hopeless. I’m not ashamed anymore of my former suicidal ideations, because I know it’s helped some people who are mourning to let go of my father-in-law without blame. And that’s something.