Like most of the nation, I’m still reeling from the recent suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and television personality Anthony Bourdain. Last week John Hall and Kathy Emmons had me on their Pittsburg radio show to discuss my recent post on Kate Spade, to try to make sense of both losses, and to talk about where we go from here.
I couldn’t help but go back to those days when I experienced the kind of despair that convinces a person that taking his or her life is truly the only option.
I remember standing in line at the grocery store doing “death math,” when you add up all the ages of your ancestors’ deaths to determine how long you have to go until you arrive at a natural death, when you can “respectfully” be spared of your suffering and avoid leaving a mess for others to clean up. I came up with the age of 76, which meant I had 32 years to go.
By the time I got to the cashier I was bawling. The thought of enduring one more day was sheer torture, let alone 32 more years.
From my car I called a good friend and mentor.
“I can’t do it, Mike,” I muttered through my tears. “I can’t hold on any longer.”
“Don’t think about tomorrow,” he said. “You only have to hang on for five more minutes, or five more seconds if that’s too long. One foot in front of the other. That’s all.”
The People Who Saved My Life
Mike saved my life that day, as did other friends and family members at points throughout that harrowing year. Whenever I reached a breaking point and lost the stamina to fight the cruel beast another second, there was someone to pick me up and carry me until I could trust gravity again and put my feet back down on the ground.
I remember my sister-in-law showing up with my favorite green smoothie, sitting with me on my back patio while I cried. I remember the beautiful pink roses that my editor sent me when I felt like an utter failure of a writer. I remember the daily texts from my swim friends, checking in to make sure I was alive. And then there was my husband, who simply held me for months on end, consoling me much like an infant with severe colic.
I am alive today because of those gestures of kindness.
Not only did they fill the aching cavities of my soul with love and acceptance, they gave me hope – the ultimate antidote to suicide. These people could see past my sadness and my sense of worthlessness to the person I really was, and afforded me that perspective, as well. For a few moments each day, I became more than the pathetic shell of a person that my depression had convinced me I was. I could see my symptoms for what they were.
What It’s Like To Be Suicidal
It’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t battled intense suicidal thoughts just how difficult it is to preserve your life when you’re in that state. Having just swam 4.4 miles across the Chesapeake Bay with strong currents and cold temperatures, I can make the comparison that completing that swim is like lifting a paper clip compared to the energy you expend in surviving a day when you are suicidal. Ignoring the loud command to stop your pulse is like resisting the urge to sneeze when you have a gnawing itch. It’s counterintuitive to say the least.
Not taking my life is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done and probably will ever do—including an emergency C-section that was started before the meds kicked in and giving a commencement address to 4,000 people. If I don’t accomplish anything else in my life, I will consider myself a success because I was somehow able to persist through that ominous darkness until I could see the light again.
But I don’t take full credit.
Suicide: A Community Problem
I believe suicide is a community problem, not a personal problem. I fully realize sometimes there is nothing we can do to influence a person’s decision. But so often there is. We are just too uncomfortable to go there. If you know someone who suffers from depression, risk the awkwardness to be there for her. If you recognize suicidal signs in a loved one, be the one who saves his life.
Hope: There Is Always Hope
Thankfully I haven’t done death math in a long time, and when I do think about growing older, it’s with the hope that I’ll be around to see my grandchildren graduate from college. I’m excited about my new job, passionate about helping people with depression and other chronic illnesses find a path to healing. I have hope once more in my life. Lots of it.
Now I can clearly see that I didn’t so much want to die, as to be relieved of my pain. As soon as the pain subsides – and it always does – you are able to experience joy again. But we all need reminders of that. Especially in those critical moments.
With a little bit of kindness, we can save lives.
If you are having thoughts of suicide: Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com for a list of additional resources.