Each year, May is recognized as National Mental Health Awareness Month. I thought that I might write about a revelation I had early this year, regarding my own struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, but I didn’t realize it would take me so long to complete it. This subject and this post have been very difficult, both for me to face and for me to share. The fact that I was so uncomfortable with it convinced me even more that this was important to follow through with, despite the anxiety and tears. It took me nearly the entire month to move past my own avoidance and blocks to complete it, and I hope that it is helpful to others.
For a long time, I was misinformed regarding suicide. I believed the misconceptions that I saw in the media, whether tv, movies or the news, as well as the stories of those around me. The only other time I remember hearing suicide discussed was in junior high, but even then I can’t remember if it was during class or a school-wide presentation. What I took away from that lesson was to watch out for loved ones who suddenly began giving away prized possessions, because that was a sign that they could be planning to commit suicide. That was the extent of my knowledge and understanding of suicide and suicidal thoughts for a large part of my life.
Due to this lack of information and guidance, for a long time I believed, as do others, that suicide was a selfish act. I believed that someone who committed suicide was only thinking of themselves, and their own pain, and did not give any thought to the pain and suffering of those that would be left behind. They didn’t give thought to the burdens, both emotional and practical, that their loved ones would be faced with in the aftermath. I remember being very angry with my uncle, who died by suicide in December 2009, for the nightmare he left for his family to navigate. I remember thinking, “How could he do that to them!”
By the time I heard the news about an old high school friend’s death by suicide in 2013, I had read a lot more about suicide, talked to others who live with anxiety and depression as I do, and had a better understanding of some of the ways that those with severe and/or chronic depression think about suicide. I knew that many individuals who died by suicide, or had attempted to, believed that their loved ones were better off without them. Many believed that their act was one of selflessness; a sacrifice for those they love.
For a time, I understood all this as a concept, but I didn’t really get it. I believed that I would never attempt to take my own life because I wouldn’t want to put my loved ones, especially my daughter, through that kind of pain. I continued to believe this until the beginning of this year. 2017 was an incredible hard year for me and my family. We suffered the premature birth and death of our son, Lincoln, in April (our second late pregnancy loss in 3 years) and an early miscarriage in November. At a certain point, I felt like I was grappling to the point of suffocation as I tried to manage my life. I wasn’t mentally present for my daughter, which added to my feelings of guilt and inadequacy. I was impatient and harsh with my husband, subjecting him to my mercurial moods, which heaped even more guilt onto my conscience.
I remember struggling to make it through the work day, and coming home with no other desire than to collapse in my bed. There were many days that I did just that. When my daughter would want to play, I would tell her that mommy didn’t feel well, or that mommy had a headache. I felt terrible, because all she wanted was my attention and companionship, and I just didn’t have it in me to give it to her. I began to think of stories I’d heard, of adult children talking about how they had to tiptoe around their parent’s mental illness, and I wondered if that’s how my daughter would look back on her childhood someday. Mom closed off in a dark room, while she had to stifle and withdraw herself. I began to feel sorry for my husband, having to step up and take on more of the burden of the household, all while dealing with my ever-changing moods that went from loving to pissed at barely a moment’s notice.
That’s when the lies of my depression started to get louder in my head. I couldn’t stop thinking about what I was putting them through because of my mental illness, and my inability to manage it. I started to think that I was making them suffer now, and that it could only get worse and more damaging as time progressed. I felt ashamed and scared, and I thought about how much easier life could be for them if they didn’t have to deal with my issues. That they’d be better off without me, and that I would be saving them from having to endure it all any longer.
I just as quickly realized that this is what people were talking about when they said that some individuals who attempted or even died by suicide truly believed they were making a sacrifice for their families. That it was for the best. Once the thought came to my mind, it felt like looking at one of those Magic Eye 3-D picture books. It’s a distortion, but once you adjust to seeing the picture in a different way, it’s difficult to stop seeing it that way. Now that I’ve had thoughts that my family would be better off without me, I can’t uncross that line. And it’s hard not to feel the weight of shame that comes with it.
In spite of that, I know I have to be diligent to also have counter arguments to the lies and distortions in my head. Shortly after I thought about my family being better off, I talked to my husband about these feelings; I also talked to my therapist. I honestly don’t remember the conversations themselves, only that I have an agreement with myself to be honest about these thoughts and feelings, so that I don’t allow them to fester and grow. The conversations were difficult, but also reassuring. It’s hard for my husband to understand the way my mind works, but he’s always open in a safe and non-judgemental way. My therapist helps me to remember that these thoughts are not abnormal, considering my depression and the recent hardships we’ve handled, and that I’m taking the right steps to face them.
I’m working on my feelings of self-worth, and building a positive image of myself. I’m working on lowering my expectations of myself, so that I don’t feel like a failure. I’m working on remembering that I am a perfectly imperfect person, and that I am worthy of the love and admiration of those around me. Most importantly, I’m working every day to remind myself that both I and my loved ones are much better off with me, than without.
However, it’s still a work in progress. Whenever I share these types of posts, I try to end things on a positive note. I try to share tips or tools that have or are working for me. I don’t want to just share a sad story, have others pity me, and leave it at that. But I don’t have a tidy bow to wrap this one up in. As I said, once you see things a certain way, it’s difficult to unsee that. Simply talking to my husband and therapist about these thoughts and feelings haven’t made them go away. Working on how I feel about myself has not made them go away. Whenever I lose my patience and temper, or struggle to be present, with my husband or daughter, I have a niggling thought of them being better off without the turmoil I bring. There’s a possibility that this will be a life-long struggle for me. But as my husband said, honesty is an important part of any recovery. I don’t have this figured out. It doesn’t have an ending. All I have is the honesty of my truths, and the hope that that is enough for me, and for you.