Well, I didn’t see that coming.
While I was writing the blog post about what it’s personally like to ride out a suicidal crisis, I probably decided at least two or three times over that I would never be able to publish it. This is better as a cathartic exercise than as something other people should actually read, I thought. But I kept returning to the piece. I cried while I tried to grip what I’d just come through by writing and rewriting. I deleted whole paragraphs in shame, only to have them pluck themselves out of my keyboard again, a little leaner but determined to take their place.
I wadded more tissues into the dirty tea mug, which I kept forgetting to take to the dishwasher.
It was close to midnight when I read the whole thing out loud to myself, which is the last thing I do before publishing or filing any piece.
I decided to publish it. Maybe a client or editor would read it and let me know my services weren’t needed anymore because of my obvious mental instability. Or maybe a few people who know what depression is like would read it and remember that someone else knows what they’re going through.
I published it in the early hours of the morning and then went downstairs and made a piece of buttered toast to settle my aching, jangling stomach. My head was buzzing with exhaustion. I got in bed and fell asleep.
I had no idea what the next few days would bring. Some posts on this blog have occasionally gone a bit viral over the years, but for the most part it’s a reasonably quiet corner of the Internet. I just don’t have that perfectly-timed zeitgeisty zing that gets a Tumblr or an Instagram account tens of thousands of followers within days.
But as the social media shares on my suicidal confessional that was, let’s face it, probably pretty fucking terrifying for everyone (including me) climbed into the hundreds and the hits topped the thousands, the messages and e-mails began to come in.
Many people chose to respond to the blog on social media or in the post’s comment thread, but many others — friends, folks I haven’t spoken to for years, strangers — began writing to me. I published the piece in the wee hours of Thursday morning, and when my fibromyalgia flared up badly the next day, I had to cancel all my meetings.
Of course I brought my laptop to bed, and at around six o’clock on Friday, I realized that I’d spent most of the “day off” answering people who wrote to me about the blog.
At first I was simply awed by the support they expressed: they said the piece was brave and beautiful and they would help me anytime I needed it, even though they hardly know me, or at least know little besides what I share in my writing.
Being a writer, with the constant, complex internal dialogue that goes along with the never-ending need to research, analyze, and tell the story, is a double-edged sword. It’s impossible to get bored, because so many nascent articles are sitting in your brains, good as channels on the TV. On the other hand, that tendency to go inward and think means black moods become an agonizing wormhole full of invisible verbiage sharp as broken glass.
But when those responses began to pour in, I realized what a boon it is that I’m able to write about depression. One of the worst things about depression is the lead blanket of isolation and silence sufferers feel. Without the ability or chance to put what they’re feeling into words, or the choice or platform to share it widely with others, most people with depression might never know the influx of support I got on the heels of that blog post. I feel like it’s an accident of my career in the media that I got to experience this in one of my darkest times.
I never got much past algebra in math, I couldn’t run a mile if a horde of zombies was after me, I couldn’t solve a Sudoku puzzle to save my life, I failed my teenage driving test twice because I couldn’t parallel park, and I see any and all tax forms as a devilish mystery. But I can make words do what I want them to do.
What I wish is that all people, whether or not they have the chance to put their experience with mental illness into words and share it, could experience the flood of support that I did when I published that essay about what it feels like when you want to kill yourself. I’m certain that most people who are suffering with these problems have a community, including hundreds of people they don’t even know, who would rally around them if they could speak up about what is going on inside them.
So I thought I would anonymously share a few of the most poignant or incisive thoughts that others wrote, and, if you’ll let me, dedicate them to anyone who needs to hear them.
“Consider yourself hugged. I wish I could hug you in person,” one wrote. She also pinpointed something that every depression sufferer needs to hear: “through no virtue on my part, I don’t suffer from depression,” she wrote. “I have nothing to offer you but my love, the sure belief that you are not to blame, and the hope that you will find some good, non-destructive way to deal with it.”
Even folks without experience of this illness know the truth: this problem is not your fault.
Many others shared their own experiences with suicidal thoughts or depression, expanding my awareness of all the different effects this disorder can have:
“When I get depression, it manifests itself so physically — extreme exhaustion, but also insomnia. Forgetfulness and brain fog…like driving home and then not knowing where I am or how I got there.”
If more people were able to talk about the different ways depression affects them, we might be able to recognize and combat it better.
Others wrote not because of their own depression, but because they’ve struggled to help someone else through it.
“I am now dating someone who struggles with similar problems,” one reader shared. “I love him dearly but do not know how to be there for him sometimes. I don’t find his illness scary, but frustrating, because of my own inability to help him.”
Her boyfriend narrowly escaped his own suicide, she confided. “He is in no way a selfish person and is painfully conscious of the way his illness affects those around him…Your article came at the perfect time to remind me that it is not some choice he makes.”
I could repeat that gracious truth 100 times. We did not choose this.
Another reader pinpointed a little-known truth about supporting a friend who experiences suicidal bouts: “I’ve been able to talk her down in those moments, but of course, it doesn’t mean that she won’t feel the same way later. We’re both simply comforted by the fact that after our conversations, NOW is not the time she will die.”
While it might sound like a tenuous way to move past a crisis, there is a lot of wisdom in this. Some people coping with loved ones in deep depressive episodes make the mistake of believing that they haven’t made a difference unless the suicidal person promises never to harm themselves: not tomorrow, not next week, not next year, not ever. The truth is that these crises unfold in moment-to-moment agony, and it is enough to be and listen and live in that moment. Yes, the crisis may return, just as with a chronic physical illness. But when things are at their worst, it’s enough to keep breathing in the now without making demands of the future.
Another response that especially touched me was from someone who admitted her journey, not through her own mental illness, but through her understanding of others’ illnesses.
“I used to be a naysayer when the issue of depression came up,” she wrote. “I had no idea what it meant.”
But after someone in her circle of friends died of an eating disorder, it was a big wake-up call: “How could someone who is just doing something for attention and ‘faking it’ take it to such an extreme? The answer: she was truly sick. The same is true for many who battle depression. It’s a real sickness.”
I think it’s worthwhile to compare depression to a potentially fatal eating disorder. Both are badly, widely misunderstood: many people think depression is a case of feeling blue or not trying hard enough to cheer up and get proactive; many people think eating disorders like anorexia are borne of vanity or an urge to get thinner. But the real root of a problem like anorexia isn’t a desire to lose weight or get attention; it happens when something about a person’s life becomes tragically, unbearably unmoored, and they grasp desperately at a way to regain some kind of control (in this case, centered on food). I think this is true of a host of manifestations of mental illness, from a refusal to eat to compulsive behaviors to the self-harm that is sometimes associated with severe depression (I have plenty of old razor scars myself).
Even if your body is starving, or trapped in a groove of fruitless actions, or dripping blood, you can’t escape on your own. You’re seeking a feeling of control when nothing else makes any sense, as the grip of that mental illness destroys your life in ways healthy people can’t or won’t comprehend.
If some readers came across my essay about suicidal depression and gained a new understanding of depression as a “real” illness, I’m about as thrilled as a seriously depressed lady ever gets (yes, I am still capable of thrills: bring me Haagen-Dazs and note my expression). Because while depression is getting a lot of airtime nowadays for the demon it really is, there is still a lot of misunderstanding out there. Recently, I came across an article in the Facebook feed that lumped depression in with what the writer claims are spurious “spectrum disorders” that pharmaceutical companies have supposedly invented for their own profit. I hope no-one believed that garbage.
Another response bowled me over in a different way. When an editor I work closely with e-mailed me with nothing in the subject line about a current assignment, my heart seized up a bit. Maybe she regretted offering me that contract.
“I just read your amazing blog post about the tough time you’ve been going through,” she wrote. She said if I ever need a little slack on the job while I deal with this, I should ask.
“You are honestly one of the most reliable, careful and trustworthy freelancers I have ever worked with,” the editor added.
I share this because if you’re depressed, the conviction that your efforts aren’t up to snuff can grow on your workdays like mold. You also might be terrified that somebody finds out you have a mood disorder and judges or treats you differently because of it. So many articles about depression allude to the patients’ growing inability to clean their house, work a job, or even get out of bed and brush their teeth. If I had a megaphone (and this blog will have to do, for now), I’d shout that while depression shows up in many ways, being depressed and being a highly functional professional in a competitive field are not mutually exclusive.
What a ginormous relief it is to know that my editor still sees me for my skills and not my illness. Maybe there are more people like her out there than we know.
When you’re depressed, friends and even complete strangers, through the Internet at its best, can be a lifeline. But I also want to be sure no-one mistakes this blog post for an assurance that we can cope on the support and advice of fellow sufferers. Don’t try to ride out depression without getting help from a responsible, properly certified health professional. There are many avenues of treatment.
“Why is life so damn freaky?” I asked a friend who’d been out of touch for years, who messaged me to confide that she also struggles with suicidal thoughts.
“Beats the heck out of me,” my friend answered. “And you think it should settle in at some point and be less freaky, but NO.”
Because what’s more freaky than a sparkling purple fawn talking to me about mental illness?
There you have it, guys. Life is freaky. But we’re in it together.