No, I don’t want to talk about it. Except sometimes I do. And sometimes I don’t want to but probably should and possibly need to. Right now, I’m simply moved to share.
While perusing some of the blogs of people that like my posts, I came across this article: Depression, Suicide, and Courage by Cristian Mihai. The past couple of years my depression has started to flow back in again and it’s not something that I talk about mostly because of the difficulty of dealing with the responses people, even well-intentioned family and friends, usually have to it. To be honest, it’s hard enough just dealing with the depression.
But Cristian’s article made an impact on me today. Short, yet meaningful, his post got me thinking about how important it is to shine light on our darker experiences. He starts with a quote by David Foster Wallace.
The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.
It’s hard to understand what anyone else endures, especially in such misunderstood areas like depression and suicide. My suicide attempts as a teenager were always dismissed and even speaking about them now is hard because so many people wave it off and say things like “but you had so much to live for!”, “bet you’re glad you didn’t succeed” and “look at where you are now!”
I don’t know if other survivors get these same kinds of responses, but this is so typical for me that I just don’t talk about it, or when I do, I only do so when I’m amply prepped and braced for having my struggles dismissed. As a woman of color, this kind of bracing is unfortunately commonplace for all aspects of my life.
But I get it, someone’s experience with suicide is an awkward and sad conversation that most people don’t want to have. The knee-jerk response is to add a silver-lining to make the situation more comfortable for the non-depressed listener. The thing is, if it’s that hard to hear about, just imagine how difficult it must have been to share that painful experience let alone live it!
At minimum, these statements are insensitive and chip away at the vast amount of work it takes to get to and sustain a healthier mind-space. However, more often than not, they are very hurtful. They minimize the seriousness of depression and suicide while simultaneously marginalizing how much work and effort it takes to combat depression and how much help people need to cope and even function at times.
While my attempts were over twenty years ago and I’m far healthier and safer now with no suicidal thoughts in over a decade, I still have depression. It’s 75% less than back then and that’s incredible to me. Going through what I was going through as a teenager was horrific, I was always in a kind of everlasting pain with no end in sight. All that was compounded and made worse by the fact that no one seemed to care. When I finally decided to commit suicide (I attempted twice), the decision felt like a kind of relief. For me, suicide was a fear and pain that would at the very least end as opposed to the terror and pain I experienced that seemed to go on forever.
Even though I had my own reasons, I found it hard to see other’s unseen reasons for attempting or committing suicide. Almost 10 years after my own attempts, while talking to my spouse I admonished an in-law’s suicide attempt because the reasons shared seemed so frivolous compared to the horrors I endured. When her family gathered to support her I was angry and incredulous rather than understanding or being open to helping her. I thought “How dare she? What does she have to escape from?”
During that time, I never once delved deeper into the thought that obviously she did have something she felt the need to get away from, otherwise she wouldn’t have tried to kill herself in the first place. I didn’t even think to ask what she was struggling with because as someone who had also attempted suicide I couldn’t envision anyone attempting it without having endured similar tortures, powerlessness, and hopelessness to my own.
At the time, I couldn’t understand why she would try to do that when she was living what I considered a ‘dream life’. I’m sure that the awful responses to my own attempts didn’t help my world view or my understanding of what to do when someone else suffers thinking of the same morbid solutions to life, but that doesn’t make what I did right.
Later I learned about other factors, but knowing or not knowing those factors shouldn’t determine whether to help someone. Sharing a similar event in life doesn’t necessarily give you insight into another person’s mind, what they are thinking, or how it impacted them. And it’s so integral to understand that different experiences than our own should not be treated as less worthy of recognition or help.
What can others do then? Honestly, I’m not certain. Survivors of trauma don’t automatically get imbued with a sudden knowledge as to how others can help or what others can say that doesn’t make it worse. That’s why so many people turn to therapy. We need someone to help us troubleshoot emotions and human relations and coping mechanisms, etc. Because if I’m being real honest here, most of society and American culture does an awfully poor job of it.
However, I can give an example of a response that wasn’t hurtful to me. It actually came from one of my children. A kid she went to school with committed suicide at 12 and she wanted to know why someone would do something like that. Since the student’s story was unknown to me, I did my best to explain how someone might feel that suicide is the only solution to feeling trapped, powerless, hopeless, or scared. In the end, I used my own experience as an example and also to show her that not all suicide attempts end with the person dying; it’s possible for survivors to lead happy, successful lives in their future.
Afterward she just sat for a moment to process and then said,”That’s so sad. I feel sad for you. I’m glad you’re here. Do you want a hug?” For such a simple response, she managed to show a lot of understanding and empathy. My spouse and I can’t take all the credit, our children are far more emotionally healthy then we were at that age and I swear they are smarter than we were too because they are awesome people in their own right. But I digress, here’s why that response worked well…
First, it valued my experience. She recognized that I was hurt and felt sad for my pain. It’s important to acknowledge a person’s struggle and experience. Second, she expressed that she was happy I was alive. Now, possibly because at the time this was coming from a tween who had for the past couple years openly expressed how annoyed she was with her mom (and everyone else in the house too 😉 ), I can’t express how significant it was to know and feel that I mattered. Because people can know they matter but not know they matter. It’s important to hear it. It’s important to know.
And lastly, she asked if I wanted comfort. I really need to point out here that she didn’t just try to hug me even though she’s perfectly comfortable plopping quite literally on top of me on the couch or in my bed for snuggles. Nope, she asked me if I wanted a hug. Consent is absolutely imperative. Not everyone wants that type of interaction, especially after talking about something painful every time. (Note: We hugged.)
She didn’t dismiss my feelings or struggles, didn’t insist I should ‘look at it this way!’, didn’t glaze over my experience with a silver-lining comeback, didn’t minimize the effort it takes to live with depression, didn’t degrade me for needing/wanting help, didn’t force her preferred method of comfort onto me, and didn’t marginalize my experience in any way.
In the end her simple response valued my experience, established my importance to her, connected by sharing her own feelings, and asked if I wanted comfort/help with coping. You might notice that the basis of her response was about making sure the hurt party was taken care of while still expressing her own emotions. Like so many things in life, in that situation, less really was more.
I wish I could say I taught her this somehow or that there is some key I could share that could help us respond with more kindness and understanding to each other but I don’t. Obviously I’m biased and will think she’s amazing since she’s my daughter, but I’m not blind to the fact that she’s human and also makes thoughtless remarks sometimes or gives hurtful knee-jerk responses. We try to be better today than we were yesterday. Sometimes we are, sometimes we take a few steps back, but just like coping with depression it’s an ebb and flow. We just need to keep trying and help each other up when one of us falls.
I know my usual posts don’t address serious issues and most likely it will stay that way. This particular venue is my stress free getaway space, where I post things that simply make me happy and that’s such an important thing to have. I’ve found, at least for my own experience with depression, that it’s the tiny and many times just the silly seeming things that help me get through the day. We rarely see all the thought and process that happens behind the camera or screen, and we inherently know this. If we cannot know what goes on behind the lens even with a wealth of story, dialog, and imagery attached, how can we expect to know precisely what goes on behind someone’s eyes when so much is left unknown, unsaid, and unseen?