(Photo from NPR)
Depression sucks. This is not news. Though I think people get the wrong misconceptions about it sometimes. I think generally it’s because of how it’s portrayed on T.V. in various ways. Most of the times when people see depression it’s on commercials for some type of medicinal treatment where people generally look mopey or tired and then the next minute they’re running through fields with some pretty person and a puppy. There’s also a sort of stigma around it and I think people, in general, don’t know how to handle not only having depression, but how to interact with someone who is suffering from it. For most people it is not a temporary thing. It’s something that is always there, kinda lurking in the shadows, just waiting for an opportunity to pounce. Often it happens when you least expect it. Things can be fine one minute and then the next you catch yourself thinking about all the negative things going on in your life and how nothing works out right and everything sucks and it never gets better and why should I even bother trying and everyone and everything is annoying and I’m just so tired and I wish I could just make everything go away and why are they staring at me like that? Oh right, because I’ve been staring at the same spot for the last 5 minutes looking like a comatose patient.
People tend to have varied reactions to depression. For some they just don’t want to get out of bed. Sometimes it physically hurts. For me I just generally feel like hammered crap and little things make me feel like I want to just curl up in a ball and die. It doesn’t take much to set you off into an internal rant of self-loathing. You feel very alone. You intellectually know that there are people who love and care about you. They may even try to cheer you up, which sometimes can only make things worse despite their best, well intentioned efforts. Often I crave solitude, because it just takes too much effort to interact with people and try to be “normal” when I feel this way. Ultimately suicidal thoughts aren’t too far behind. It doesn’t take much to set it off. For me, the bigger stuff doesn’t bother me nearly as much as small things. When the “big” negative stuff happens it generally just pisses me off and makes me want to fight back. It’s the little things that needle me and set me off into depressive, often borderline suicidal, bouts. I’ve been feeling that way a lot lately.
I went back and looked at what I wrote about depression and suicide in my book Down With the Thickness. I wanted to see if, a few years later and in the midst of depression, I’d feel the same way. Here’s a bit of what I wrote then:
What aided me most in helping other people deal with depression and suicidal thoughts or tendencies was simple: life experience. I may not have a doctorate, but I do have a lifetime of experience battling depression and suicide. In that regard, I’d consider myself somewhat of an authority on the subject.
Dr. Phil can bite me.
I was eleven years old when I tried to commit suicide. Let that sink in. Eleven. Years. Old. It wasn’t a joke. I wasn’t playing a game. I really intended to do it.
Some friends of mine were hanging out with a new kid who had just moved in and I felt pretty left out. I didn’t have a lot of friends at the time. My dad worked nights so I only got to see him maybe for an hour or two out of the day, if that, just before he went to bed or just after he woke up before he got ready for work. My mom loved my sister and me very much, but she was left alone to tend to everything while he was gone and the stress, mixed with a lot of other factors, meant she had her own issues she was dealing with. I knew, intellectually, that friends and family members cared about me, but when depression sinks its talons into you what you know doesn’t matter nearly as much as what you feel.
I think I’ve established that I was picked on constantly at school. Most of my aforementioned “friends” were my friends when no one else was around, and tended to be less friendly in a crowd. After all, I was the fat kid, the hang-around. I was the kid they tolerated and let hang out with them out of pity or so they’d have someone to mess with and amuse them. I felt like no one cared, that I was alone, and that I always would be. You may think that those are pretty deep thoughts and feelings for an eleven year old, but kids are like that beneath the surface. They’re just little people who may not be fully developed yet. They can be just as complex and deal with just as many issues that are, to them, as serious and stressful as those that adults deal with every day.
For me, I decided that I wasn’t worth much and maybe it was better that I just end it.
To be honest, I just wanted to see that people cared. It was like having dueling banjoes playing in my head; feeling like no one cared and wondering if after I was gone they’d miss me. I wanted to make my “friends” feel bad for the way they treated me. I wanted attention and to know that I mattered.
I got attention all right, though not in the way I’d hoped.
The new kid had a skateboard ramp in his back yard. Like I said, he was the cool kid everyone wanted to hang around. Having a skateboard ramp of his own made him the center of attention in the neighborhood. After all, this was the early 90’s when skateboarding was a big thing. So I decided that I’d show them. What better place to go out with a bang? I found a length of rope and tied it to the top of the skateboard ramp, tied the other end around my neck, and slid off.
The rope was too long.
I was probably lucky that I didn’t seriously hurt my neck. The rope was just long enough that my tip toes could reach the ground, but short enough that it was still doing a pretty decent job of choking me. When I realized that I wasn’t going to die, I did the next best thing that an eleven year old starving for attention could do – I faked it. I stood there like that, half choking myself, and waited for the other kids to get back from wherever they had gone to. When they finally did come around the corner into the back yard I didn’t get the reaction I was hoping for.
They started laughing.
Considering I had my tongue lolling out of the side of my mouth in the classic “death pose” I can’t say I really blamed them. I started to laugh with them and played it off as a joke. I knew that if anyone really believed I’d tried to kill myself I’d be in big trouble. Even then I knew there was this stigma surrounding suicide, and I didn’t want to sacrifice whatever “cool credit” I had with these kids and go from being the fat kid they kept around for laughs to being the crazy fat kid that tried to hang himself. Needless to say, my parents didn’t find it nearly as amusing as the neighborhood kids, and I spent the rest of the summer sporting a very trendy rope burn around my neck.
I remember being afraid of how my parents would react. I knew that they’d freak out, obviously, but I wasn’t sure how far they’d take it. Would they take me to some doctor? Would they have me committed in one of those places on T.V. where everything is padded and white and you aren’t allowed to have shoe laces?
Well, I was right. They definitely freaked out. They weren’t mad at me like I was afraid they’d be, they were just really scared. I mean, their kid just tried to hang himself. Who could blame them? My mom wanted to take me to see a psychologist, but my dad convinced her that I’d be fine; that it was just a stupid thing that I did and I was just dealing with a phase. In reality I really wasn’t fine, but I think my dad was so scared for me that he just really wanted to believe I was. He needed to believe I was.
Incidentally, no, I haven’t seriously attempted to kill myself since, but I’ve had moments where it was a very close thing. Being suicidal isn’t something that just goes away on its own. It’s not a “phase” that you grow out of. I’m in a war with myself every single day of my life. Depression is an enemy that is always there, always striking, and some days it hits harder than others. Some days outside factors: people, events, stress, act as mercenaries for the enemy’s side and can overrun your defenses. It’s on those days that you literally have to fight for your life. In that regard, I’m Patton.
I can’t profess to know what it feels like for other people. I only know how it feels for me. It starts as a sort of pressure, not just on your chest but all around you. It’s just this blanket of gloom that drapes around you like one of those old, heavy quilts. People tend to associate negative things with coldness, but when depression first strikes me it’s never cold, it’s hot. It’s got its own kind of warmth to it that grows and pulses the deeper you go. It’s not a comforting warmth, but oppressive, like the hot fog of a sauna that’s far too thick, and it helps to amplify every negative thought and emotion I have.
That’s really the problem with depression, at least for me. It’ll start out small, just a feeling of irritability or melancholy; but for every negative thing that happens, be it something someone says, a small event like accidentally dropping something- small things, it stokes that fire inside. Things that you’d normally shrug or laugh off suddenly makes you want to scream and lash out. The really frustrating part is I feel all this pressure building up inside but I don’t know how to vent it. There’s just this impotent rage building and I just can’t let it out. When I do finally end up exploding and start cursing at the top of my lungs or hitting stuff, I end up feeling like a complete moron for acting that way afterwards. That only helps to feed the frustration even more and it becomes a self-sustaining cycle. It’s when it gets to this point that my overly creative and active imagination takes over.
Normally my creativity is a positive thing. It’s the reason I’m good with kids. It’s what makes me (I hope) a good writer. The flip side of that is it can also be used for negative things. When I’m really angry, if I let it, I’ll play out scenarios in my head: replaying negative events, arguments with people that never took place, violent daydreams that I’d never actually do in real life.
When it’s really bad a lot of that stuff eventually stops being about other people and is replaced by negative thoughts about myself: Nobody understands. Nobody cares. Nothing I’ve done has ever really made a difference. My life has been a waste. I’ve been nothing but a burden to the people I care about. I’m worthless. I wish I’d never been born. I never asked to be here. What if I just took that knife and ended it? Would anyone care? Mom would freak. My family would be devastated, but would anyone else care? Would it really matter? I could stop hurting. I’d be at peace…
This Little Light of Mine
Being suicidal is a very dark place. It’s like being caught in a tide or the pull of a black hole. If you don’t manage to pull away as soon as it starts happening, you just get dragged deeper and deeper until thoughts and dark daydreams start to become actions. Often we try to reach out, desperately, to find someone or something that’ll make it alright. That makes it incredibly unfair to the people trying to help us. You’re so hypersensitive, like a bundle of raw nerves, and it’s always hard to tell just what might set us off and make things worse. What you might think of as being comforting could just end up, from the other side, sounding trite and cliché.
As a couple of examples: the popular “Well, it could be worse” line, or comparing the depressed person’s situation to someone who is “worse off” are two of the worst things you can say to someone who’s already depressed and/or suicidal. First, by saying “it could be worse” you’re not giving them anything positive to focus on, instead you’re just pointing out that it could be worse.
“Well, I feel like there’s nothing positive in my life, and everywhere I look it’s just negative, but thank you for reminding me that it’s possible that my situation can get worse. I appreciate that.”
Of course you don’t mean it that way, but you can see how it’s easy for someone who’s already in a bad frame of mind to flip it around to something negative. My favorite response to “Well it could be worse” came from Mark, who instantly deadpanned, “Give it time, I’m sure it will be.”
If we look at my second example, by comparing their situation to others you’re basically invalidating the way that they’re feeling. Just because their situation isn’t as bad as X doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to feel the way that they do. Again, this may not be your intention, but to be honest, in this type of situation your intentions don’t mean anything, the suicidal/depressed person’s perception does. Remember, the road to Perdition is paved with good intentions… and so is the road to an emotional breakdown.
I’ve found the best thing to do when someone is depressed and verging on being suicidal is to just listen to what they have to say. Let them vent. Show support, speak when you feel like you need to and let them know that they’re loved. Don’t let them drag themselves down any further. Be the light in the darkness. However, in the end it comes down to choice, and the choice ultimately isn’t yours.
I’m lucky in that I have a lot of good friends and family that care and listen to me vent. Sometimes I feel bad, though, because you get tired of talking. You get tired of feeling like you’re complaining about the same things all the time. Ultimately, I think, its a control issue. I don’t feel like I have any control over how my life is going and like I don’t have the power to change my situation. Everything I’ve tried has failed to improve things. I feel like I’m left having to rely on others for everything and nothing I’ve done, nothing I’ve accomplished, has ultimately meant anything in the long run. I’ve always tried to do the right thing, treat people the right way, help as much as I can, be the kind of man that would make my family and the God that I served so diligently proud. I served faithfully as a youth pastor for almost a decade. I graduated top of my class with three degrees. Now I can’t find a job and any interview I sit in I’m told that my resume is impressive but they go with someone else. Often times I can’t help but feel it’s because of my physical/medical issues. I’m a health risk. I can’t physically do what other people can. There’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve seen the specialists. I’ve been on the medications (which I can’t really afford any more). I’m stuck this way for the rest of my life and there’s little to no room for improvement. In all honesty I’m only going to get worse from here as I get older. It’s just the reality of the situation and at the age of 31 it’s hard not to feel incredibly cheated.
I know there are a LOT of people out there who feel the same way, to some degree. There are a lot of people out there struggling. A lot of people hurting. I’m incredibly lucky that I have family and friends that are helping me. I have a roof over my head and food to eat because they provide it. So far I’ve managed to find a way to pay what few bills I have left each month. I’ve been able to buy the medications I need because of those same friends and family sacrificing themselves to help provide it. I am really very appreciative of that. Many people don’t have that sort of support system. I just hate that it has to be that way at all. I guess there’s really no other point to this rant than to just express how I feel and put it out there so that others that are struggling might find some comfort in the fact that they aren’t alone. Sometimes that’s all you need to help get through the day- just knowing that you aren’t alone, that others are going through stuff like you are too. i don’t have any quick fixes or answers. Nothing I can say will take away the pain. Just know you aren’t alone, and feel free to sound off in the comments section if, like me, you just need to vent a bit.
J.R. Broadwater is the author of the non-fiction book Down with the Thickness: Viewing the World From a Fat Guy’s Perspective, the sci-fi detective novel You Only Die Twice, and the fantasy novel The Chosen: Rebirthing Part 1- all available now in digital and paperback formats. Sample chapters and more information about these books can be found here.