I received some sad news this week. An old acquaintance committed suicide. She was 48 and left behind at least two teenage children and possibly a third. I don’t know for sure because we lost touch years ago, so all I really know of her life is from third party anecdotal snippets. She was once my sister’s roommate and best friend. As a result of that connection, we had occasions to talk in social settings or when I called to speak to my sister or stopped by for a visit. We all went on “girl’s weekend” trips and the like. Like most friendships that begin as single women, things changed with marriages and motherhood. For a while we’d run into one another at my nieces birthday parties or out and about in town. We were not friends per se but she was a part of my life for a time. And I knew her well enough to know there were some issues with depression lurking beneath the mask she wore.
You would have to get past first impressions and really talk with her to recognize it. Or maybe I saw it because I have also struggled with depression and like recognizes like. She was a very pretty blonde with startling green eyes, a sweet manner of dealing with people, a wicked sense of humor, and an engaging personality. If you looked no further than that, you’d never know that there was a roiling cauldron of self-doubt, low self-esteem, fear of rejection/abandonment/ failure, and depression beneath the surface.
I call out the depression apart from the other issues because they are not always linked. Much as one would love to believe that if one just gets over their self-esteem issues, faces their fears, or conquers self-doubt, then depression will magically disappear; the reality is that for some it won’t.
As one who’s been fighting depression since my teens, I know what it is like to stand on the edge of that mental abyss and contemplate ending it. I know the allure of having the mental (and physical) pain just stop. I know the frustration of trying medication after medication with no real improvement, or worse, trading the pain for some sort of anesthetized existence where you don’t quite feel the pain but you don’t quite feel anything else. I know the joy of finding a medicine that works and experiencing life like a non-depressed person does, followed by the despair when your body builds up a tolerance for the medication and it stops working. I know the alienation when others find out that you are depressed and act like it’s a contagious disease. I know how it feels to be judged by others as being somehow defective because of the stigma of “mental illness” and that this makes you unreliable or not stable enough to handle things. I can totally understand why a person might choose to step off the abyss and I can see it from their point of view. They aren’t being selfish, they truly believe that they are doing everyone around them a favor, they are in so much pain it has clouded the reality.
So why do some of us become victims of this disease and some of us survive?
To be clear, in my opinion, if you call yourself a victim of depression then you have just upped the odds of your stepping off into the abyss at some point. Victims tend to be the ones who commit suicide. I am a survivor. That isn’t to say I haven’t thought about it. I always laugh at the question the doctors and mental health workers ask a person with depression. “Have you ever had thoughts of suicide?” If you have depression, at some point, you have thought about ending it. I believe the answer in preventing suicide can be found in the follow-up questions that never seem to get asked. Why didn’t you? What was it that made you decide to keep living? What do you think is different this time? I think if more mental health care professionals would delve into these questions instead of rehashing your relationship with your parents or self-esteem, it might help more people become survivors.
In talking with other depressed people (we seem to be drawn to each other when we need to talk), what I have noticed is that those of us who are still kicking around after 20+ years of fighting are those who can deal with change, refuse to accept a “victim of…” label, recognize and embrace their unique gifts that come with depression, are able to openly acknowledge that it is a real disease, and decided not to let the ignorance of others define us. These things seem to combine in some fashion to bolster one’s innate survival instinct so that we can stare into the abyss and say, “No. This is not the way for me.” It gives us the strength to face and push through the pain; to smile, to laugh, to live even while experiencing depression every single day of our lives.
When I hear about people who’ve stopped fighting, I grieve for them and for their families.
Too many will be quick to say she was selfish and didn’t care about anyone but herself. These are the words of someone who has never walked in the shoes of depression. You don’t get it, you never will, and to say such a thing is unkind and cruel to anyone she loved and who loved her. Think this if you must but keep these words to yourself. The last thing her kids need to believe is that their mother didn’t love them enough to live. You don’t tell the child of an alcoholic that their parent didn’t love them enough to stop drinking; you tell them their parent was ill.
Her family and friends may wonder what they could have said or done to change it. Some will blame her husband and god help him if by chance the marriage was on the rocks. A phone call unreturned or an apology never given may haunt a friend with “what if” and “if only” but they need to be let go. Some may blame her doctors for not spotting the problem. Some may question her faith. Truthfully, there wasn’t anything you could have said or done. She was the only one who could save herself and for reasons only she could explain she chose not to.
Please don’t misunderstand the message of this post; I do not believe suicide is ever the answer. I understand it, but that doesn’t mean that I accept or condone it.
To save lives, we need to change the conversation. We need to stop the stigma and judgments around depression. If you don’t understand it, educate yourself. Read. Study if you’re so inclined. Help your children and teenagers develop strategies to cope with change, failure, and disappointment early on in life. If someone tells you that they are depressed, listen, don’t judge and don’t tell them their feelings aren’t valid even if they don’t make sense to you. Help those you love see themselves as you see them.
To “Blondie”, rest in peace.
Mairead Walpole is the pen name for a somewhat introverted project and contract manager who has 20+ years of business and technical writing under her belt. In her spare time, Mairead writes paranormal romance among other genres. Her first novel, “A Love Out of Time” is available through Second Wind Publishing (www.secondwindpublishing.com) or Amazon.com.