My social media feeds these days are flooded with messages regarding depression and suicidality: it’s hard, get help, speak up, reach out.
Suddenly, in light of the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, everyone is seeking to understand that same world I was fighting my way out of not too long ago.
However, had these events occurred during those horrible months of my struggle, I am not sure if those messages would have really helped.
While I am glad that we have taken steps to break the stigma of feeling alone and hopeless, suicide rates have actually climbed higher this week.
Maybe we focus too much about why people die, and not why they survive.
I wonder if this merits a space for me to share my story.
As someone who has contemplated suicide since childhood, I have come pretty close to that zone of danger, at times. (However, I have never had true suicidal intent, and there’s a difference. I’ve stood on that line without crossing over.)
And more importantly, I am someone who is eager to share not how I wanted to die, but how I endured.
In the fall of 2017, I would wake up, day after day, with an unwelcome voice in my head, clearly not one of my own. Good morning, ugly! Oh geez, another day….can you believe you’re still here? It’s a perfect day to die. You’ve got no purpose or worth.
Morally, this was dissonant. I believed that there was a God who loved me enough to give my life meaning, to give me worth, to provide for tomorrow.
Each day felt so heavy, like I was dragging my feet in leaden chains, with a wrenching pain under my heart that made it tedious to breathe.
Already, I had been carrying this voice with me for a long time. A funeral drum that I couldn’t resist marching in sync, as it rang out, louder and louder each day.
I only began to take it seriously when I had an unnatural instinct to make marks on my own body. They weren’t permanent, but they were physical evidence of my internal war.
Intellectually, I knew something was wrong with that. I wrote about it. I asked about it. I went for help. I searched online for answers. I got my mom to come and visit me from China for a week, for which I am ever-grateful.
When I fought those urges away, even darker thoughts overtook me. I couldn’t march to the beat of my own drum, when I was straining to make it out. In fact, I stopped marching altogether. (And still my heart beat on.) Standing at the edge of the pit, I sniffed the vapors of death, and tried to turn away.
I told myself to have a day, if nothing else. I wrote about it. I did my research. Skimmed my way through possibly hundreds of papers on causation, treatments, and statistics. I talked to (select) people. I tried to seek comfort in the fact that I wasn’t alone.
I am thankful I was already looking to save myself before I started truly sinking.
But a few hugs and nice words weren’t going to be enough to patch me up. Seeing the media shared on timelines this week probably wouldn’t have helped much, because I was reading similar things, and I understood them already. Taking more time for myself wasn’t going to magically heal my thoughts, either.
Although these elements helped, I didn’t need to become aware of something I was already acutely aware of. I needed tools that were more powerful than what my debilitated mind could muster at the moment.
For me, those tools turned out to be medication, therapy, and prayer.
I showed up to a professor’s office hours one afternoon, intending to ask a question, but breaking down in tears instead, when asked how I was doing. Having been trained in Mental Health First Aid, I knew the most likely follow-up question to this response: Are you thinking of hurting yourself?
I answered honestly, and soon found myself crying quietly in a series of offices, meetings, and counselings — which sought after one thing: to get me better help.
I was finally referred to an off-campus psychiatrist, who asked for my two-hour life story at our first meeting. And then I got my prescription.
Antidepressant medications can take several weeks to begin showing effect, if at all. I was lucky enough to feel it immediately, so much that we had to actually decrease the dosage.
There was still work to be done, but the worst of the symptoms were alleviated. I had the crutch to help me walk while the leg healed.
And the slow work of therapy began.
We waded through the residues of the week, and examined the details of my past. Was this helping? I had my doubts at times, but I suspended this disbelief. I enjoyed coming to this space, and tried to make the most out of every session.
Even when I was tired, weak, or verbally incompetent, I was helped in better understanding my own feelings. I was reminded to be compassionate to myself. It was a gift to cast my cares somewhere that wasn’t on my own back — and then to have them carefully handled and repackaged before being returned to me.
When I made my way through that initial series of appointments, they generally wouldn’t let me go without asking what I’d do if I felt unsafe. My answer was simple: I pray.
Often, that wasn’t satisfactory. But what if that didn’t work? Okay, I’d call a hotline.
The thing though, is that prayer is a hotline, one which puts us in direct contact with God, the most powerful and loving being in the universe.
Prayer is simply a conversation with God. If that’s not a powerful and comforting thing to carry around on speed-dial, then I don’t know what is.
I called upon God to help me daily. Here was someone who cared for me, someone who would listen to me like a father to a child. I could speak what was on my heart, and what weighed my soul down, without hesitation or filter of pretense.
After his victory on Mount Carmel, Elijah himself, one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament, had prayed to die.
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he prayed that he might die, and said, “It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!”
Then as he lay and slept under a broom tree, suddenly an angel touched him, and said to him, “Arise and eat.” Then he looked, and there by his head was a cake baked on coals, and a jar of water. So he ate and drank, and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came back the second time, and touched him, and said, “Arise and eat, because the journey is too great for you.” So he arose, and ate and drank; and he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights as far as Horeb, the mountain of God.
1 Kings 19:5-8 NKJV
Shortly after this, God showed him that he wasn’t alone. Specifically, he was pointed to three people: Hazael, Jehu, and Elisha.
How similar was my story! That nearly unbearable period may very well have lasted forty days: most of October, and the beginning of November. My dying mind held to life, but only because God was the one sustaining it.
In December, God reminded me that I also had to eat. Without fully realizing it, I had been starving my body for nearly a semester.
Truly the most powerful tool I could ever have wielded and fought with.
Personally, these were my top three. A different mix may have worked for others, but for myself, medication, therapy, and prayer gave me the support to access my own inner resources, and to build a better life around those foundations.
I am thankful that my life allowed me to strengthen and integrate these tools. It makes me wonder where I’d have been without them. If I would have been able to rely on the other things I had:
Art. Violin. Blogging. Simpler pleasures (i.e. tea and lotion). Books. Nature walks. Food as medicine. Sleepovers with people who supported me. Laughter. Worship. Hope. Lunch and dinner dates. Family. Dancing in the dark. Photography. Guitar. Helping others. Adopting a cat. Memes. Giving thanks. Time.
In the end, I believe I made it through, because at my core, I believed I had something much greater to offer to the world, and to myself, than the confusion that lived inside of me.
“I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.”
On The Road, Jack Kerouac
Lately, I’ve been reevaluating my tagline, which I’ve kept for the last two years.
I survived because I didn’t believe that I was nothing more than my struggle. Despite the lies of my psyche screaming to do otherwise, I learned to stop dismissing my worth.
If our lives turned out to be little accidents on a forgotten speck in a corner of space, how disappointing, indeed. But I would rather believe that because we are here, and because we know how to love and hope, that we are worth something.
They say that suicide is an illness, not of the individual, but of society.
We are so quick to judge people for their worth. What passport they hold, who they believe in, who they love. How much their salary, how much they weigh, how valuable they are to society.
Yes, yes, we’re trying. Yes, although the solution to a societal problem isn’t immediately obvious, initiating a conversation helps. Yes, sometimes the culture has to worsen before it gets better.
When the students of Parkland got onto the stage for the Tony Awards this weekend, and sang about Love amidst their grief, resistance, and division, I was moved to a place beyond tears.
Maybe I’m just idealistic, but having made it out of my own darkness, I am ready to believe that we, as a society, can be healed together.
So I ask this question to the world: how do you measure your life?