It’s an ugly word, but it needs to be said

Sunday, September 16, 2018


He had talked several times about doing it, especially when his mood was off. One day after he had said yet again that he was going to kill himself, he and I sat down for a talk.

“If you would ever do that, I really don’t know how any of us would deal with it,” I said.

He had smiled shyly and said, “I know I say that sometimes, and I shouldn’t, but I would never do that. I promise.” He said that on a good day. It was about three months later that I learned in a telephone call he could not keep that promise.

The words were said to me so calmly that in my mind, I pictured him having an accidental injury that a quick trip to an emergency room could fix.

“Well, is he OK?” I asked the bearer of bad news. I was calm, too. I did not see it coming, or maybe I refused to.

“…No,” the caller said, sounding confused by my question. “He’s dead. He killed himself.”

Losing him sparked a grief within those who loved him that will never fully heal, but the way he died altered the paths of many. His death by suicide left behind endless questions, assumptions and regrets. That’s what suicide does. I easily understand his final act, it’s true. Still, experiencing some of the consequences of that act led me to hold onto his memory as a warning, some type of lesson.

That’s how he and I became such good friends, I think, because we knew where the other was coming from, always swinging from highs to lows in terms of mood and emotion. The lows can be dangerously deep, swirling with strong undercurrents. We would talk about this sometimes and feel a little less like odd people out.

“What about thoughts of suicide. Have you had any recently?”

“They pop up here and there but I haven’t seriously considered it in a while.”

“When you say seriously considered — “

“I mean I haven’t come up with a plan.”

This is a conversation I have had many times with both my therapist and my doctor. I’m not the only one. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, I am one of 43.8 million American adults who experience mental illness in a given year. Of that number, 10 million live with a serious mental illness. Mine hangs around like a fallen guardian angel. I can’t see it but it’s always there, and when it makes itself known, there is no doubting its power. The exact diagnosis doesn’t matter, in my opinion, only the symptoms.

Though it has been a burden I’ve dealt with since childhood, it wouldn’t be until early autumn 2013 that I finally broke and said, “I need help or I will end my life.” After years of going on and off medication that hardly curbed symptoms, and self-medicating in other ways, I headed to therapy, off and on, and tried a new prescription. I fell off the wagon, so to speak. Over the past year, however, I began going to therapy regularly and started taking a new batch of pills — mood stabilizer, two anti-depressants, thyroid meds (that thyroid can make you crazier, y’all) and Flintstone vitamins.

(I just like the taste of the vitamins. Also, this column was getting too serious. However, vitamins are important.)

You might be asking yourself, “Why would the editor of the newspaper choose to tell the world that she struggles with depression and thoughts of suicide?” A few reasons: September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. People who live with mental illness still struggle with the stigma unfairly placed on their conditions or symptoms. We need more attention from society on mental illness and suicide. And so the many people reading this who relate to me can say, “I’m not the odd person out.”

If someone has a cold, no one really thinks twice about their symptoms, they simply address each issue. People feel in control when they can fix a problem themselves. Headache? Aspirin. Cut? Bandaid.

But how do you heal the person who has been in bed crying for two days, even though they have no clue why? How do you cure the symptom of icy coldness that suddenly envelopes your mind during those mood swings when you’re on edge?

(…But, like, I’m good right now. I’m downright delightful.)

When the average person is sad, angry or feeling whatever emotion, there is usually a reason, even if it boils down to just having a bad day. This makes sense to people. For many others and myself, though, there is plenty of confusion. Many times I will be curled in a ball, crying, for no reason I can think of. Still, I am so overwhelmed with hopelessness that I can physically feel the weight of the emotion. Sometimes I don’t understand the brimstone-and-fire-like irritation that simply manifests.

The people who don’t understand it yet try to are those closest to me. They’ve seen me tear through my life as an emotional mess until it truly became, for me, fight or die. They ask if I’ve taken my medicine. They ask if and when I am going to therapy. A few years ago, that annoyed me, made me feel like I was weak or incapable of being normal (turns out I’m actually not normal, but it has nothing to do with my health). Today, I understand that it’s their way of showing me they care and reaffirming to themselves that I am doing better, that I am working to stay on top, even when my mood sinks. It’s not easy for me sometimes, but I know it’s not easy for the loved ones and caretakers of someone struggling with emotional or mental issues.

I’ve been at the point where I have held the gun in my hand, considering the next move. I have pulled razors across my skin, testing my resolve to push below the surface. I’ve stared inside my medicine cabinet, wondering what would make the strongest combination. I’ve eyed bridges, wondering if the drop to the water was sufficient. I’ve made lists of who gets what when I die. I tell you this not to alarm you or garner pity, but so you know what some people experience. This isn’t only my story. My story is similar, if not identical to, that of others.

I’m not excited or proud to admit those things. I am thankful to say that so far, I’m still standing, because it’s hard to fight something that, despite being invisible, bleeds into every aspect of your life. Something that takes control of you without your consent.

If mental illness seems bogus or intimidating, just remember that it’s only because we are still learning so much right now. There was a time when women were involuntarily institutionalized because they were experiencing the symptoms of PMS and menopause. Years later we know these women were actually fine, but everyone else was clueless.

In 2002, an LSUE psych professor began a new semester by posing this question to a class: “If I gave you a broken toaster, could you fix it?” The idea was that the average person is no master at fixing even small things. When most of the class mumbled ‘no,’ the professor asked, “Then how can you expect someone to fix their own brain?”

Suicide is a dark topic that we all wish did not need discussion. Many of us, whether suffering from suicidal thoughts or simply loving someone who struggles, have a hard time approaching the topic, too.

But it’s like any serious problem. Ignoring it will not help anyone or make anything better. If we were willing to have open discussions about suicide, I think many who are considering the action would be more willing to seek help or talk about their concerns with loved ones and professionals. The loved ones of those who struggle need to be just as open with their concerns and hardships.

I know from experience that it’s hard, sometimes pride-shattering, to acknowledge certain personal struggles. I’m just sayin’, I also know from personal experience that losing someone to suicide is much harder.

P.S. Seriously, I’m good. No one panic.