What Suicidal Depression Feels Like

"The Crazy Ones" Press ConferenceI don’t know if you have noticed, but ever since Robin Williams died, I have removed the filter from my writing that keeps me safe of jaw dropping, disappointing head gestures, and all kinds of judgments that authentic writing invites. I just really don’t care anymore what people think because lives are at stake. If this brutal beast of an illness is strong enough to kill someone with the passion, determination, and genius of Robin Williams, than we must do everything we can to protect those who are more fragile. That means being brave and writing as honestly as I can, on a taboo subject so few people understand, even if it means getting disapproving stares from other parents at my kids’ school.

When I first heard about Robin’s death, my first reaction was this: “The poor guy sneezed.”

I know that probably doesn’t make sense to anyone who has never experienced severe depression. But if I can, let me try to translate the urgency to take one’s life into language you might grasp. Suicidal depression is like having to sneeze. The impulse can be so strong, that you simply follow your body’s command without thinking too much of it. You don’t think about your family or the reasons not to do it. All you’re feeling is an incredible itch to sneeze, and you’re certain that anything short of sneezing wouldn’t relieve you of the sensation.

American novelist David Foster Wallace gives us a better analogy:

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.

I was talking about suicide with my mom the other day. Her younger sister (my aunt and godmother), at age 43, took her life.

“I was never sad when she died,” my mom said, “because I saw the torment she was experiencing throughout so much of her life. If anything, I was happy that she was, at last, free.”

I recently attended a funeral of the wife of my former running partner. (He was 85, which gives you some indication of how slow I run.) I had a difficult time with it, but not for the reasons you would suspect.

I wasn’t sad that she had died.

I was sad that I hadn’t died.

I was jealous of her, the one in the casket, who had lived a full and beautiful life and could now rest. That, then, brought to surface feelings of shame for having those thoughts. Before too long, I was crying—from all the self-bashing and in longing to be on the other side. But a funeral is a perfect place to break down.

I was disturbed by my thoughts because they are so opposite of what is presented in pop culture. When I confided in my online depression support group, I learned many of them had the same thoughts, sometimes elicited at funerals. I was consoled, especially, by what my friend Melissa wrote:

In your words, I see the acceptance of death … this imaginary foe we are taught to fight. We hide the signs of aging. We wear sunscreen in our 20s to prevent wrinkles years down the line. We play computer games to increase neuroplasticity. All in this vain and futile attempt to delay the inevitable.

Some day we all will die.

And that fear of death that ironically propels most to live does not serve the same function for those with mood disorder plus suicidal ideation.

And because of that, we have to find something to live for. That we enjoy. That we can sit with and be present in that very moment. Peach nectar sweet and sticky on fingers. The purple ember in a bonfire. The nuzzle of a furry friend. The words that show acknowledgement and being heard.

Because we accept death and at times welcome it, or live with thoughts of death as a comfort, we have the unique ability to hold steadfastly to a moment, study it, replay it, before letting it go.

It’s so true. People who are depressed don’t fear death, and because of that we have to be proactive in compiling reasons to stick around, especially when we are hit with the urge to sneeze.

I know that this statement will make absolutely no sense to someone who has never been depressed but I am going to say it anyway and risk feeling uncomfortable when I run into to someone here who has read this blog: The most difficult thing I will ever do in my lifetime is to not take my life. I have swam across the Chesapeake Bay, given a talk to 3,500 people, and stayed sober for 25 years. None of that is as hard as making a decision to stay alive, feeling that overpowering desire to sneeze, and not giving in to it.

Image: time.com

Originally published on Sanity Break at EverdayHealth.com.

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15 thoughts on “What Suicidal Depression Feels Like

  1. Therese,
    No one else can understand what it is like to look at a day as an endurance event rather than a experience to have. My friends cannot conceptualize the imagery that I see when life is nothing but a pain full experience of emptiness or overwhelming anguish.
    I pray that I can just have an iota of hope every day. I pray that yes, after 27 years of sobriety, that I can want to be here another day.
    I cry as I write my words about my life. There is nothing more difficult than knowing that I cant see farther than the tip of my nose.
    I hope your holidays have some warmth and relief for you.
    Warmly
    Jim

  2. There are others who are writing books containing much of the same information you have in your writings.
    One manuscript is close to being published, just waiting to locate an editor and publisher. This book has much of the same but is from a slightly different perspective. Any interest in discussion?

  3. This article is great! I get it! I think even the people who give you the funny looks get it — they just are not willing to admit it. Hope and keep hoping that there is nothing you cannot get through. Thanks for sharing your true thoughts.

  4. Great article. So true unless you have had major depression, Bipolar or a mental illness. Dealt with constant death thoughts.. I do not think you will truly understand this article. Hopefully in my daughter’s or grandchildrens life time mental illness will be accepted like all the other chronic illnesses. Keep fighting our fight. I realize the fight is difficult and frustrating and tiring. Praying one day our fight will not be necessary. God Bless You

  5. Therese,

    I have been getting your emails for awhile now and they really get me through many days (not to sound cheesy). I am a wife, mother, grandmother, daughter, sister and a registered nurse. I have fought and continue to fight this treatment resistant depression for many many years. Your words remind me that I’m not alone. I can console, teach, get help for so many people struggling with depression yet when it comes to myself, I am lost. The urge to sneeze is a perfect analogy because that is exactly what it is. Please if you can keep up your great work. I am just one of a million that it helps! Bless you!
    Wanda

  6. Therese,

    I have been getting your emails for awhile now and they really get me through many days (not to sound cheesy). I am a wife, mother, grandmother, daughter, sister and a registered nurse. I have fought and continue to fight this treatment resistant depression for many many years. Your words remind me that I’m not alone. I can console, teach, get help for so many people struggling with depression yet when it comes to myself, I am lost. The urge to sneeze is a perfect analogy because that is exactly what it is. Please, if you can keep up your great work. I am just one of a million that it helps!

    Very Sincerely,
    Wanda

  7. I am so blessed to have found you and your blogs, articles and books. I get it. And I am soooooooo glad you bear your soul. Thank you so much!! Merry Christmas…….and praying….for you and all who fight this horrible illness.

  8. I am a mental health counselor with years of experience in counseling depressed people. Im getting ready to retire soon- which to me, means i will work less hours weekly. I never volunteered to specialize in suicidology, But life events, personal & professional events drove me to learn all I could about sneezing, ie suicidality. As I near the end of my usefulness, (perceived or real), I hope & pray to leave a legacy that wiuld enable sneezing victims to withstand the power of the impending sneeze. Should i write a book? Should I start a website? Should I be a prayer warrior?

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