Sometimes, when I stop to think about it, I cannot believe I am still alive. Those who suffer from major depression account for 60% of all suicides in the United States. We don’t talk much about the lethality of mental illness but make no mistake — it can kill you dead.
I’m in one of the highest risk groups there is. I’m white, early 40’s, college-educated, and a gun owner. With a storied history of major depression. An Actuary once will told me that the chances that I’d end up killing myself were high.
I came close many times. My depression was severe, and my social supports limited, and of course there was easy access to a gun. It would have been over in a millisecond.
Major Depression (major depressive disorder or clinical depression) is a common but serious mood disorder. It causes severe symptoms that affect how you feel, think, and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or working. To be diagnosed with major depression, the symptoms must be present for at least two weeks.National Institute on Mental Health
This kind of thing happens to tens of thousands every year. In 2017 alone, 47,000 Americans killed themselves, and most of them looked exactly like me. That number increases every year, by the way. It seems the entire country could benefit from a safety plan.
Day after day and night after night, my malfunctioning brain tried to sell me the act of suicide:
Thoughts of a world without me, plugging along without a care. Family members and friends looking relieved, even happy. The sky a brighter shade of blue, the birds chirping.
It was a convincing pitch.
As my life spun more and more out of control, ending it made more and more sense. The marketing for it was intense, and oh how I wanted to buy what my brain was selling.
Sight unseen. No questions asked.
It went on for 12 years.
Perhaps I’m a coward. Perhaps I was afraid of blowing half my face off but surviving and spending my remaining years deformed and alone. Perhaps it was guilt. Perhaps God still has plans for me. Perhaps he just likes to draw things out.
I’ll never know the truth, though not for lack of asking.
If you spend enough time plagued by suicidal ideation, you will learn to hate the platitudes of well-meaning friends. God has a plan for you. Everything happens for a reason. Look on the bright side.
I loathe those words.
The suicidally depressed don’t think this way. They don’t find comfort in such clumsy words.
Here’s what I have come to believe:
- Some things happen for a reason. Some things go according to a plan.
- But the thing that makes a tragedy tragic is the utter senselessness of it. In a real tragedy, there is no lesson to be learned, no growth that occurs.
- If you grow from it, was it a tragedy? Or was it just something that didn’t kill you? There’s an ocean of difference between the two.
It Gets Worse Before It Gets Better
When you are the victim of depression, not only do you feel utterly helpless and abandoned by the world, you also know that very few people can understand, or even begin to believe, that life can be this painful.— Giles Andreae
In November of 2008, while Barack Obama was busy being elected President, I was on the third floor of a psychiatric hospital in Florida.
My parents had found me in my bedroom with a loaded gun. That was during the fourth year of my bout with major depression.
One of the side effects of major depression is memory loss. And because of that, there are entire years that are gone.
I remember that I was married for 10 years. I don’t remember hardly anything about it. A few fleeting memories here and there. When I try to focus on them, they scatter like roaches.
They say it protects you from trauma, though it just makes me feel old — far older than I am.
I don’t remember the hospital either. Slivers of memories here and there. A nurse feeding me. The worry on my mom’s face. A psychiatrist glancing at his notes and then talking to me.
My wife came to visit a couple of weeks after we had separated. She came because my mom had asked her to. I still remember her expression as we sat in the hospital cafeteria. She looked like she had somewhere more important to be.
I wish the trauma had blotted out that image, but it stays with me 10 years later.
Every day I struggled to find a good reason to stay alive.
By 2008, I had grown so depressed that I could no longer function, so the prestigious boarding school where I worked decided to let me go. That was right when the economy crashed, so finding another job was impossible.
Even if I had found one, I doubt I could have summoned the strength to leave the house. With major depression, everything is like trying to mow your lawn underwater.
My wife, by this point, was done. When I could no longer pay the mortgage on our brand-new home, she started looking for one-bedroom apartments. Wedding vows are supposed to hold us accountable in times of sickness and in health, but often they do not. Nobody wants to stay married to a depressive.
By 2009, I had lost my mind, my career, my home, and my marriage. And that was only year five. I had seven more to go.
|Major Depressive Disorder: The Facts|
|The leading cause of disability in the U.S. for ages 15 to 44.|
|Affects 16.1 million American adults, which is almost 7% of the population.|
|Average age of onset is 32.5.|
|Strongly linked to suicidal behaviors and co-occurring substance abuse disorders.|
|Affects more women than men.|
Prolonged unemployment made things far worse.
Unstructured time is soil for the weed that is major depression. You have nothing to do all day but sit in a black cloud of despair.
It’s incredible, too, how quickly friends will abandon you when you’re depressed and unemployed and getting divorced.
Movies love to embrace this trope (Will Ferrell in Old School, Michael Douglas in Falling Down), though I no longer have a sense of humor about it.
I woke up every morning in the grip of a panic attack, trying to convince myself that there was a good reason to stay alive.
It’s harder than you think.
Asking a severely depressed person to find a reason to live is like asking a terminal cancer patient to endure a hundred more rounds of chemo.
At some point, enough is enough. At some point, you are ready for it to all end. At some point, you start to look for ways to make it happen.
It was during that third year that the suicidal ideation started. It would last for another nine years.
That’s the thing about suicide. Try as you might to remember how a person lived his life, you always end up thinking about how he ended it.— Anderson Cooper
Illicit Drugs Only Made Things Worse
I was probably depressed my entire life. I know I had suffered from anxiety as far back as kindergarten. My earliest memories were of being afraid.
Things came to a head though in February of 2005, when I was outed as a drug addict at the school where I worked. Not my finest hour. The school though was sympathetic. For awhile.
They gave me two choices — get clean or get out. I flipped a coin and the next day I was in rehab.
It turns out that I had been self-medicating for years, which, not for nothing, is why most addicts stay in active addiction. Marijuana, benzos, pills — anything to dull the pain.
On the outside, I looked successful. Senior staff administrator at a prestigious military academy. Master’s in education. Published author. A pretty blonde wife who had her MBA. I was popular with my students, and their parents adored me.
Inside, I was rotting.
I did a masterful job of fooling everyone.
I’m sure that some of my friends saw some of the symptoms of mild depression, but I kept the suicidal ideation from everyone, even my wife.
That part of my psyche was code-word clearance only. I even minimized it to my psychiatrist, for fear he would commit me. I had bills to pay, you see, an important job.
Nobody benefited from my hospitalization, and certainly not me. This is the way you think when you’re battling major depression.
I was skilled at the art of deception. My wife worked evenings at the restaurant she managed, so she was unaware of how bad my drug use had become. I used alone, so no witnesses. I dressed conservatively and kept my hair short. My friends never had the slightest suspicion.
When I got busted, everyone was shocked. I fooled them all again with my depression, too. I used humor as a diversion as most clowns do, and I excelled at it. Nobody suspected a thing.
I was an expert at self-deception, too.
I got clean on February 7, 2005. On February 6, 2005, I had no idea I had an actual problem with drugs, and I’d never thought of myself as an addict.
Throughout the ten years that I used, I had convinced myself that everyone else on the planet was crazy. I had stumbled upon this incredible way to escape from my problems, and I thought everyone else was a chump for dealing with reality.
Not me. I had shit figured out. I had a plan.
Then I got busted by the Head of Security at the Naval Honors School where I worked as a senior-staff administrator. He was a retired homicide detective, and when he questioned me, I broke in thirty seconds. He made me sit in his office while he phoned the headmaster.
Eventually, he escorted me to Administration. The headmaster was waiting for me in his office, along with my pretty blonde wife.
She was glaring, eyes alight with the fire of humiliation. She worked for the school, too, so my problem was a reflection on her.
The headmaster agreed not to fire me, as his wife was a psychologist who explained to him that addiction was a disease. I was a high-profile member of the school, too. Firing me would have been bad for business.
Politics saved me in that regard. Private schools are always so concerned about their image.
The following day I went to rehab, my brain foggy from years of use. Ninety days later, I came home, beaming. I had “graduated” from rehab and picked up my 90-day chip from Narcotics Anonymous. I asked her if she was happy for me.
She walked into the bedroom and didn’t talk to me again until the following night.
My depression started getting worse shortly after that.
On Thanksgiving Day, 2005, I experienced the onset of what I can only describe as a massive nervous breakdown. Eventually, the psychiatrist would qualify it as a Severe Major Depressive Episode. But that term doesn’t begin to do it justice.
When it happened though I didn’t know what it was. It felt like I was drowning.
My wife and I were at a friend’s home for the holiday. That evening, while we were talking about work, I felt an icy claw grip my heart.
Panic started coursing up and down my arms and legs like little waves of electricity. My stomach turned. I began to sweat. I couldn’t concentrate, and I felt like my bowels would release at any moment.
I excused myself to the bathroom, shut the door, turned off the lights, and started weeping. It had overwhelmed me with the speed of the stomach flu.
One moment I was eating turkey. The next, I was buried in the throes of depression.
Sometimes with major depression, there is a catalyst. Two weeks before, I had come home from a Narcotics Anonymous meeting with a 9-month chip to mark my clean time.
That’s a big deal in Twelve-Step Circles. They tell you to stay clean one day at a time, and this was my 270th. I was elated.
When I showed my wife my chip, her reaction was the same as it had been six months before. “You shouldn’t have been getting high in the first place,” she told me, then walked out of the room.
That was what did it for me. That was the straw the broke my back.
I knew then that my marriage was over.
Two weeks later, the major depression hit, and it didn’t subside for the next 4,380 days. It was a chilly day in November. I had just turned 30.
The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.— Friedrich Nietzsche
Things That “Cause” Major Depression
There is no single cause for major depression.
For some, depression is situational. You’re in a bad relationship or working at a job you hate. For others, it is environmental. You live in public housing, or your home is filthy, or you have no friends.
Still, others are consumed with trauma. Sometimes, it’s a medical reason, like hyperthyroidism.
For many, it’s a chemical imbalance in the brain. Often, a negative core belief is the culprit — I am worthless, or God hates me, or I am unlovable.
Often, it‘s a combination. I know it was for me. Years of drug use had compromised my cognitive functioning.
I had woken up one morning only to realize that my marriage was doomed. I figured it was also a matter of time before my career imploded as well.
I felt isolated and misunderstood. My self-esteem was gone. And of course, the Serotonin and Norepinephrine levels in my brain were dangerously low.
It was the third and fourth year that was the worst for me. I still can’t believe I survived.
Sometimes I wish I had gone through with it. When you fail so spectacularly at life the way I had, maybe the only honorable thing to do is end it all. That was one of the thoughts that plagued me.
By 2009, my career was in ruins, my house was in foreclosure, my finances were bankrupt, my friends had abandoned me, my wife had divorced me, and my dog had died. I was 34 years old and living in my parent’s spare bedroom.
Be honest — if you were dealing with all that, would you think about killing yourself, too? Of course you would.
Killing yourself is a major commitment, it takes a kind of courage. Most people just lead lives of cowardly desperation. It’s kinda half suicide where you just dull yourself with substances.— Robert Crumb
My dog’s death hurt most of all. Kadee was an anxious and high-strung Pit-Boxer, but she was trustworthy and reliable and an excellent judge of character.
My wife and I had lived in the girl’s dorm at the school for many years, and Kadee was a de facto parent to about 22 teens. At some point during that period, she developed the liver disease that would eventually kill her.
Kadee kept me alive during the worst part of my depression. It was after I had lost my job but before I had lost my house. I would wake up every day in this home that my wife and I had just purchased and be reminded every second of every hour of every day that I was going to lose it. And I knew what that meant, too.
If a man can’t keep a house, he doesn’t deserve to keep a wife. That’s just common sense.
Major depression is so much more than feeling sad. If passion is the color that paints your life, depression is the bleach that chokes it out of you.
Severe depression is a study in contrasts. You have insomnia when all you want to do is sleep. You starve when all you want is to eat. You are worthless and insignificant, yet the entire world wants to see you dead. You care about nothing and everything. You feel panic and resignation in the same breath.
Every morning I awoke in hell, and at night I would stay awake for hours because sleep was a respite that you don’t get when you’re severely depressed.
Minutes stretched to hours in what seemed like slow motion. I would count the time to my next cigarette break because for those few moments I would distract myself from the torture. That was years three and four.
I’d take Kadee out to pee, and I’d sit on the deck in our backyard and think of ways to die.
Sometimes I’d bring my pistol and set it beside me, on the off-chance I worked up the courage to pull the trigger.
Kadee always seemed to realize something was wrong. She’d watch me from the yard as she sniffed around. I would avoid her gaze, thinking instead about bullet velocity and blood spatter.
Every day I would convince myself of two things:
First, if I did kill myself, no one would be around to walk Kadee.
Second, if I did shoot myself, the last thing I wanted was for my wife to come home and find Kadee licking my blood off the wall.
Welcome to my brain, everyone.
Kadee, meanwhile, had one more year to live. I didn’t know it at the time, but her liver was slowly killing her. Had I been able to work, I might have been able to take her to the vet, and maybe they could have saved her. Instead, I woke up every day to thoughts of suicide while my dog slowly rotted from the inside.
Suicide Begins to Sound Appealing
If you are of the opinion that the contemplation of suicide is sufficient evidence of a poetic nature, do not forget that actions speak louder than words.— Fran Lebowitz
The thing you have to understand about suicidal ideation is that it becomes an obsession. You can’t stop thinking about it, even though you desperately want to. I was having suicidal thoughts two or three hundred times a day for more than 18 months. Do the math on that. Assume 250 times a day over 18 months. That is 136,875 times my brain entertained the thought of suicide.
After a while, you get used to it. After a while, you start to forget what it was like to not have them. After a while, you start to listen.
So, does a person with suicidal ideation and major depression become obsessed with killing themselves? Not exactly.
Imagine you’re a passenger on a plane. Turbulence is knocking you around. Outside, lightning pierces the darkness and rain distorts your view. You have this terrible fear that the plane is going to fall out of the sky and crash, killing everyone on board.
Usually, you’re not a fearful person, but everything about the situation you’re in suggests to you that it is just a matter of time before you plummet thousands of feet to a fiery death. The last thing you want is for the plane to crash, but you can’t get that idea out of your head.
That is suicidal ideation.
I ended up in the hospital at the end of the fourth year, because I couldn’t stop thinking about killing myself and I had absolutely no reason to live. By that point, I had convinced myself that everyone would be better off if I were gone — my soon to be ex-wife for sure, but also my parents, my friends, even my dog. I figured someone would adopt her after I died and give her better care.
These are the types of things you think about when you can’t stop thinking about ways to die.
Bankrupt, divorced, unemployed, mentally and physically ill; it was no wonder my thoughts turned to suicide. The wonder is I never went through with it.
It would have been fairly easy, too. It is one of life’s twisted ironies that some of the most devastating things we can do to ourselves often require only the most cursory efforts on our part. Consider the ease of swallowing a pill, or of pulling a trigger. Barely any effort at all.
What Saved Me
We need to change the culture of this topic and make it OK to speak about mental health and suicide.— Luke Richardson
By late 2010 I was working again, this time at a juvenile detention center in the town of Hastings, Florida, which is exactly as small as you think it is. A few months before, while attending group therapy sessions at a hospital in Jacksonville, I met a counselor who saved my life.
For the first time in my life, a professional explained what major depression was, and more importantly, how to cope with it. That man saved my life, and I don’t even remember his name. He literally inspired me to go back to school and I can barely picture his face. I sure hope he’s doing well.
2010 was a busy year. My marriage officially ended in divorce in March, I declared bankruptcy in May, I started working again in October, and my dog died in December.
Not surprisingly, the depression never really went away, though.
This nightmare droned on for six more years. But I was working again, and at the end of 2011 I relocated to North Carolina and went back to school. Three years later, I had finished my masters in counseling, and gotten engaged to my childhood best friend. Life ended up being pretty spectacular.
But that last part is lie. I mean, you know that don’t you? Depression never really goes away. You just learn to manage it.
The truth is, this shit went on for six more years. During that time I had earned a masters in counseling, gotten engaged, and earned two professional counseling licenses. I’m still practicing. All is well on that front.
But major depression cost me a fiancé, it drove more friends and family away, and it cost me thousands of dollars trying to treat it. I wish I could tell you that some sort of deus ex machina event happened, that I found Jesus or something and everything got better.
That’s not what happened, though.
What happened was the kind of thing that happens when you’re brain stops working right. I had times when I was okay, and times when I wanted to shoot myself in the head. Eventually, after therapy and medication and 12-Steps and everything else you can imagine, I ended up getting ECT.
That’s what ended up saving me. Six sessions of ECT at the Wake Forest Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
I hope you weren’t waiting for some story about how something miraculous happened at the eleventh hour and boy did I ended up learning a lot from the experience. That’s not what happened at all.
In truth, major depression tortured me for years and in the process ended up killing me.
I look in the mirror these days and I see a man who simply does not look like the one who started this journey twelve years prior. I’m so tired, people. I’m just so, so tired.
I’m not depressed anymore. I haven’t been for about 36 months now. I’ve had an issue with anger that is working itself out, but that shouldn’t be surprising. You’d be angry too if you had just survived a twelve-year-long battle with major depression.
Perhaps you will read this and see something about my experience that I don’t. Maybe you’ll think I’m a better person because of it.
I’m not sure I’m ready to accept that.
It actually took me more than a year to write this essay. More than a year after that to publish it. The reason it took so long was that every time I opened the document, it felt like I was returning to the scene of a crime. Like I had been violated by something, and yet here I am, volunteering night after night to spend time with my attacker.
I will say that I’m happy with my life now, though that’s a recent development. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.
If you struggle with depression, my only piece of advice to you comes from a legend I once heard about Winston Churchill. After World War 2 ended, he was asked to speak at a graduation, and instead of delivering a speech, all he did was pound his fist on the podium and shout to those in attendance: “Never give up. Never never never never never never never never never give up.” And then he supposedly sat down to thunderous applause.
So my advice is this: don’t give up, but don’t be foolish enough to think that some magical pill exists that will solve all of your problems.
Recovery is an action word, and to do it well takes perseverance, tenacity, and a willingness to overcome it. It’s hardly an easy task, too. People die from major depression — tens of thousands of them, every year.
Find something that works for you. If you see a therapist and it doesn’t work out, find another one. If that one doesn’t work, go for number three. Go to the gym. Set goals. Try a different routine. See a doctor. Get on meds if that’s the right thing to do. This is your life we’re talking about here.
Just don’t give up. That’s what major depression wants you to do.
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