Humans have told stories since the beginning of time. History, family and culture, have been passed down from generation to generation through storytelling. Stories affirm who we are, and allow us to experience the similarities and differences between ourselves and others. Stories help us find meaning in our lives. Stories help us learn from the experiences of others and if we are wise we will learn from both the mistakes and the triumphs of others.
In that vein, I want to share part of a very personal and intimate story. It is a topic few are comfortable discussing, which is why I am sharing it. It is a story of my struggle with suicidal ideation and hanging on by the thinnest of threads.
The first question most people will ask is “what happened”? The strange but true answer is, it does not matter what happened. The circumstances surrounding this 10 months of emotional hell is nothing but window dressing. It matters not who betrayed me or why. Who lied to me or about me and why. Or the numbers of friendships that have been damaged beyond repair. None of that matters. What matters is how I arrived at such a dark place and how I climbed out of that pit and began wanting to live this adventure called life again.
While I have struggled with depression my entire life, when the darkness descended I was happily married, gainfully employed, a member of a wonderful community of faith, was financially sound and had a small group of intimate and loyal friends. I was coming off a period of 5 or so years of unimaginable stress, filled with a personal cancer diagnosis, eleven surgeries, several deaths of family and friends, moving twice, building a home, planning a wedding, getting married, totaling a vehicle, a pet being killed, two other pets dying, having my niece move in with us, then my mother-in-law moving in with us, etc. But by August 2017, life had finally started to settle down and was looking brighter. Then the phone rang.
The information I received during that phone call was unbelievable and an extreme distortion of facts. I was shocked. My character was being assassinated. The professional reputation I had spent 31 years building without a single complaint, and dozens of commendations, was being drug through the mud. I sobbed as I have rarely sobbed before.
This transpired on a Friday. By Monday I had convinced myself it would blow over and those whom personally knew me would see through the untruths and half-truths. But by the following Monday, after no movement had been made in my situation, I determined I could not take the pain, the sting of betrayal and could not possibly be strong enough to defend myself against the evil lies and exaggerations. Subsequently, I made phone calls to confirm the death payout of my life insurance policy. I wanted to confirm how much my wife would receive upon my death. Sadly, with a brand new home, the death benefit was not enough to leave my wife financially secure.
Let me be clear, before I go any further … I never wanted to die. I wanted … no I needed … the pain to stop. Suicide is rarely about wanting to die, rather it is about a deep commitment to stopping pain by any possible means.
One morning the following week, I found myself in our bedroom closet with a 9mm gun in my hand, inserting the magazine. As I stood there, it was as if I was watching myself in slow motion from outside of my body. My thoughts were interrupted when I heard the garage door open and realized my wife who had previously left for work, was returning to the house for some unknown reason. I quickly returned the gun and the magazine to the case and sat down on a stool in the closet. That was the first time I realized I loved my wife more than I hated myself. The next morning I told my wife she should remove the gun from the house. Which she did … and the first knot was tied in the thinnest of threads to which I was clinging.
Early the following week, I had the thought it might be easier for my wife if I died on a day the housekeeper was coming, so she would not find me or have to deal with the EMT’s, police, etc. The housekeeper was scheduled for Tuesday of the following week. I decided that would be the day. I would have my wife take our dogs to day care and once she left I would close the master bedroom door, take a cocktail of sedatives and go back to bed. I had the pills ready and set aside in old prescription bottle and I had purchased juice at the grocery store to hopefully help the pills not upset my stomach. However, as I have often heard, the devil is in the details. Monday before the “day” the housekeeper texted and cancelled saying she was going out-of-town to help a family member and did not know exactly when she would return.
As one day turned into another, then into another week, I found myself riding around town searching for places to die. I located a park that seemed private. I could park in the back, be found by a stranger and the police would be called. This would be the easiest for my wife.
Looking back it is insane how much my suicidal ideation was seen through the lens of how it would affect my wife. I was attempting to be protective of her, even as I was planning to carry out an act that would devastate her. Which supports the fact it is impossible to make rational sense out of something irrational.
One day, as I was riding around town, I stopped at a local grocery store to buy a few items. From the parking lot of the store I called a friend. I am not sure why I made that call, but I did. I began to tell her how I was feeling and that I could not take the pain any longer, but I was struggling with leaving my wife with a new mortgage debt. She stopped what she was doing. She talked to me about an hour and then prayed for me. It was one of the sweetest prayers I ever heard. That one small act on her part, took the edge off and I got through another day … and another knot was tied.
One morning shortly afterwards, a neighbor called and asked me to join her on her morning walk. I did not want to go on a walk, but for some reason I said sure. We walked an hour, talked a little, but mostly just walked. For that one hour I was convinced I mattered to her, which gave me a glimmer of hope. At the end of the walk, she asked if I wanted to walk the next morning. I said I did. We have walked every morning, weather and schedule permitting, since that first walk. That one small act of kindness, started many dark days on a brighter note. There were, and still are, many days that morning walk makes a huge difference and sets the tone for my entire day … and another knot was tied.
After roughly two weeks of walking, I called and made an appointment with my pastor. I am not sure what I looked like when I walked into her office that day, but I do remember asking her if it was a safe place. She affirmed it was and gave me her undivided attention. During the course of our meeting she offered to go with me to the hospital if I needed/wanted in-patient help. That one small act of kindness made a huge difference. We met routinely after that first meeting. To know she would walk beside me in the valley, without condemning me, profoundly moved me. In the days to come, she treated me in the same loving way as always, without any condemnation. She did not treat me as a broken person who needed fixing, but rather a wounded person who needed healing. She helped me feel worthy of love … and subsequently worthy of life … and another knot was tied.
My pastor gave me the name of two therapists. One name was the same therapist my friend with whom I walk gave me. I called and made an appointment with her. The compassion and empathy of the therapist touched my heart deeply and made me feel safe. I began seeing her multiple times a week. As time progressed I moved to seeing her weekly. Now, some 10-months later, I am still seeing her monthly and participating in group therapy … and another knot was tied.
As time went by and the suicidal ideation began to subside, I no longer fixated on ways to kill myself, but on a bad day I would purposely do something risky, hoping I would get “lucky” and accidentally die. Most of this revolved around taking increasing amounts of medication before bed and hoping I would not wake up the next morning. Other days I contemplated stopping my cancer treatment and let nature take its course.
On one of my more clear thinking days, I created a safety plan. This plan consisted of what I could do if suicidal ideation began to creep back into my mind. The plan listed things to do and people to call until the ideation passed. I shared this plan with my intimate, inner circle and it served me well. It was helpful to me to have a plan of what to do before it was needed, so I did not have to rely on clear thinking in the midst of pain. This was also an extra step in me taking personal responsibility for my mental health … and another knot was tied.
As far as that distant incident goes, looking back 10 months later, it was one of the top 5 best things that has ever happened to me. It helped cleanse the palet of my life, unlike anything else could. Now my life is much more free and peaceful.
I learned several lessons from this experience. First, there is no shame in suicidal ideation. There is no shame in depression or any mental health condition. There is no shame in taking medication for mental health conditions. The only way the stigma surrounding mental health issues can be overcome is through honest communication, transparency and vulnerability. Most people are not comfortable talking about suicide. It is my hope that by sharing part of my story, I will encourage someone else to feel safe telling his/her story. To reach out, to stop the downward spiral by shining light on the darkness.
Secondly, I did not become suicidal because of one incident. Generally, no one becomes suicidal after one event. I now know it was a lifetime of holding things in and stuffing emotions. It was a lifetime of refusing to be vulnerable with others. It was a lifetime of trying to control my emotions and wanting to seem to be ok, when in fact there were (and are) times I am not okay. It was a lifetime of not comprehending it is okay to not be okay. It was a lifetime of consistently putting the needs of others before my own. I now understand completely why we are told on airplanes to put our oxygen masks on first, before helping others. Without proper care, we are unable to help ourselves or others.
Because of my neglect of my emotional and mental health, my tool box of emotional resources and coping skills was completely empty when this incident happened. When this straw, fell on the back of the camel, the only resources remaining were instinctual and primitive. With emotional pain building at an increasing rate, and with my resources depleted, the only option to stop the pain was to stop breathing, stop waking up, and stop participating in life.
Thirdly, I am a giver by nature and unfortunately never cultivated the skill of comfortably receiving from others. That combined with having developed a pattern of surrounding myself with acquaintances whom are takers, set up the perfect storm of emotional collapse. I am now learning, through therapy, how to receive things from other people. How to allow people to love me, support me, and care for me. I am also learning how to stop running to the rescue of others, but rather help them help themselves.
Fourthly, it was necessary for me to cut dead weight from my life. It is impossible to champion every cause. It is impossible to meet every need I encounter. It is impossible to live a life as a giver and never receive. It is impossible to be all things to all people. I must decide what are my priorities and values and live a life which reflects those. I must learn to say no when appropriate. I must learn to be motivated from within, and not pressured from without.
Lastly, I am learning it is of the utmost importance to stay in-tune with my feelings and to insist on authentic, transparent conversation with those whom are in my inner, intimate circle. I have to be honest with myself to be honest with those around me. While I was responsible for doing the work of getting to a better place; small, consistent acts of kindness by others made all the difference. With every knot that was tied in my thin thread, the thread became stronger.
Mental health conditions and emotional pain should not be taboo subjects. By keeping them in the dark, we give them a sinister power over our lives. It is time to be open and honest, speaking truth to the fear of vulnerability.
If someone you love is suffering from a mental health condition and/or is in emotional pain, know you do not need to “fix” anything. You simply need to do consistent acts of kindness to let them know they are not alone. In essence, unless you are a mental health professional, all you need to do is be a genuine friend. Please do not be afraid to reach out to them. Love them well through human contact, but remember they must do the work to change or manage their situation.
If you are suffering from a mental health condition and/or are in emotional pain, reach out for help. Reach out with the same confidence you would if you were in physical pain. Please do not let the darkness overtake you. Your pain matters. It does get better. You are loved. You are enough. You story is of infinite importance.
If you find yourself alone and in need of someone to talk with, the information below can be helpful:
National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Suicide Text: Text HOME to 741741
Suicide Support for Hearing Impaired: 1-800-799-4889
Learn to love yourself well … you are worth it