Dear Friend, This Is Depression


LetterI wrote the following letter as a response to a conversation with a friend I have known since college. She wondered why I used the term “death thoughts” in my writing. But I wanted to publish it for all of the people closest to me, who have never seen me wail from the hollow place in my heart or throw things across the room in rage of this illness. I am writing it for my friends and relatives who wonder why I choose the words I do, if I’m exercising a creative license to keep a reader’s attention. This year my purpose has been made clear—to help people who are tormented by constant death thoughts, just as I am. This will mean rejection from those closest to me who cannot understand what I mean or why I would disclose such ugliness to the public. But it also means I have tapped into the freedom to do what I was born to do.

Dear Friend,

Thank you for being honest the other day when you told me that you found the words “death thoughts” in my writing to be jarring, that they make you want to stop reading, that they make you think I am different from you, like a Rain Man sort of character.

I appreciate your honesty because I think a lot of people feel that way but never tell me.

I spent some time thinking about how I could soften the phrase “death thoughts,” but there was no way around the reality that I think about death when I am depressed, about ways I can get cancer, or accidents that I can stage, or just calculate over and over again the average lifespans of relatives from both sides of my family to come up with the number of hours that I have to hang in there for.

I know this must make you terribly uncomfortable, like when I read the word “retarded” or a pejorative term for an African American. The unbecoming terms make me want to stop reading, as well.

I asked my husband if he found my use of the words “death thoughts” to be jarring. I told him you thought they were. He explained to me something I guess I never realized: I have hidden my worst depression from you. In fact, I have hidden it from everyone in my life except for him.

He is the one who has caught me in the bedroom closet on my knees, begging God to take me. He found my stash of prescription drugs meant to flatten my pulse. He has held me when my body convulsed with acute anxiety and held my hands when I sat at my desk wailing, crying tears of frustration and anguish and rage.

He has seen what my death thoughts look like.

“I don’t think the term is jarring enough,” he explained. “Not to someone like me who has lived with severe mental illness. Yeah, it’s an ugly term. It’s unbecoming. It sounds as though you are exaggerating things, being melodramatic like a typical writer. I suspect when my family reads that, or your family reads it, they think you’re throwing in an extra adjective and adverb, that you’re making up a good story and trying to get a reaction. But I know the reality. To me, the term isn’t jarring enough.”

You’re right in that they are obsessions. They are like Rain Man stuff. But I can’t just call them obsessions. Because the kind of suffering involved when I panic about being alive is different than when I obsess, for example, about saying the wrong thing at a dinner party. There is a hopelessness that absorbs every ounce of joy in me, a darkness that steals my smile. There is a peculiar desperation in obsession about death—like I am running out of air and desperate to find the way out of the haunted house that is life.

I suspect my frank writing is why so many of my family and friends don’t read my stuff. They wish I would stop using those ugly terms. But I don’t write for them. I don’t write for the people who are reading Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project.” I am writing for the five percent of people who experience the same kind of raw death thoughts that I do. I suspect they haven’t met anyone who is as frank as I am, and so they might cry once they hear that someone else in the world adds up the ages of all their relatives to get the mean average of hours they have left on the planet.

That’s the person I write for.

I want her to know that death thoughts can make you feel so terrified that you only see one way out, that they can cloud your thinking for days and weeks and (in my case) years on end. But that they don’t stay in one’s brain forever. And they are just thoughts. Painful, convincing, manipulative, harrowing thoughts. But JUST thoughts. You never, ever have to follow through with their directions. You don’t have to move into action, even though they threaten you with all kinds of repercussions if you don’t, kind of like those annoying chain letters you get from friends. They are not real. They just hurt like they are real.

And sometimes, not always, when you have them as often as I do, it’s possible to know what triggers them, aggravates them, makes them louder and more frequent.

For example, I now know that anything made with white flour or sugar will create death thoughts, and not exercising even for one day does it too. I have to live my life with the discipline of Lance Armstrong or an Olympic athlete, because even one piece of bread or a shortened workout, and I’m again back to averaging the ages of Grandma and Grandpa Johnson and Grandma and Grandpa Staley, hoping that I discover a weak or defective gene in the family that causes premature death.

I did make a video once of a bad day. I thought I’d share it with you. Not many people would publish such an unflattering video. But it’s my way of showing the world that I’m not a phony. I’m not making it up. I’m not throwing in extra words for better prose.

I was glad that you feel so comfortable with me that you could laugh when you read my quote, “the hardest thing some people will ever do in their lifetime is stay alive.” But here’s the thing. It IS the hardest thing I will ever do in my lifetime. I wasn’t overstating that. Weird, right? It doesn’t make sense. Why would staying alive be so hard? If you are asking yourself that, though, you probably haven’t experienced severe depression. And so, you’re probably not the person I am writing for. My guess that anyone who has fought suicidal ideations for longer than six years (continuously), as I have, would nod in strange relief, not laugh.

So, I thank you for your feedback, but I’m going to keep the term “death thoughts.” Unfortunately, there isn’t a better way of describing the kind of rumination that happens when I’ve hit a fragile spot.

Maybe some day, when I feel really brave, I will show you what my death thoughts, or my severe depression, looks like.

Thanks for your friendship.



Originally published on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.

Join the conversation on Project Beyond Blue, the new community for persons with depression.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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17 Responses
  1. Lizzie

    Most people don’t want to hear bad things.Especially talk of death. For anyone to understand mental health takes a lot of insight which a lot of people don’t want to explore.
    Listening to your Video I understood your pain and the biggest message is “yes this too will pass.” My experience is that there are a very few people who want to explore your personal journey with you . But you are lucky if you have at least one person who does.
    I hate having depression it alway surprises me when it comes back. I hate the fact that life stops and dispair replaces it.
    Thank you for sharing this .

  2. Nicole

    I have suffered depression from the age of 10. Today I am 29, soon to be 30, years old. I have been diagnosed as bipolar, which I am struggling with. I hide my depression, anxiety, manic episodes and even “death thoughts” from everyone. My boyfriend has seen a few bad moments but the truth is its a small fraction of what I go through daily. Your writing has helped me so much. It’s nice to read someone else’s struggle and think maybe it isn’t just me with thoughts of veering off the road to end all the pain. Anyways I just wanted to say thank you for not sugar coating anything. For being so honest about how you feel and giving elope, like me, someone to relate to. Thank you.

  3. SunsetKid

    I embrace and appreciate every word you wrote. Those are the words of my heart, every day. Oh yes, accomplishing the daily challenge of “just staying alive.” And some palm readers have told me that I have a long life-line! LOL. Whadya do with that??!!

  4. Tracy

    I was trying to think of alternate words or another expression that would carry the same weight – but death thoughts are just fine. People generally want nothing to do with people with mental health challenges until school shootings occur. Then they might weigh in. My own brother accused me of making up my diagnosis 🙂 If opening people’s eyes to the world of MH is achieved through an expression that makes them squirm? The outcome is that it kicks the door open wider – making more room for awareness. There’s power in words.

  5. When I’m candid about my symptoms they become uncomfortable which makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like being uncomfortable. Its why I blog anonymously. Your response here is excellent and very admirable.

  6. Mary Noel

    I appreciate your honesty in talking about your ‘death thoughts’ and I have to agree with your husband that those descriptive words are really tame and nice when it comes to the tortuous darkness that fill the mind of someone who is trying to survive a severe depressive episode. I admire you for having the courage to stand your ground on stating the truth and reality of what I refer to as ‘terminal’ depression. I like your description and find it to be encouraging to the audience you are writing to because you stress the fact that they are “JUST THOUGHTS”. Thank you for writing in truth and in knowing that this is what you were born to do. My family can’t stand or ‘under’stand for me to tell the truth about how dark my world can become and it helps to have a place where I can come to see that I am not a freak. I have also found acceptance and encouragement within the supportive groups offered in my area by NAMI and learned alot about my ‘triggers’ from exploring my inner self better through an insightful counselor.

  7. I don’t even know where to begin. You have hit the nail on the head. Death thoughts. I couldn’t believe it when I first read the term a few days ago – it was exactly what I have felt for the past ten years. I used to have similar thoughts as a kid – like if I got hurt, somehow the people who were mean to me would wake up and realize how special I was and the the thought of kiang me caused them to change how they felt about me. Now I have them because my depression in the midst of my life with three young kids is overwhelming.. Your video was so powerful – I had the same urge the other day – almost to prove to someone what I was going through. I couldn’t being myself to do it so wow, thank you. And I definitely sighed that strange sigh of relief.

  8. marilyn

    I too have had death thoughts, my sisters just don’t get it, nor do my friends, they seem to think that it is something I can control, but its not, thank God I haven’t had them for the past yr, I don’t know why, the meds don’t work, sometimes I don’t eat for days, and sometimes I can only eat junk, I seem to crave sweets, I have put on 20 lb over the winter, I am going to try the Eat to Live diet, Ive had cancer, acute pain every day from fibromyalgia, I hate my house because I have OCD and have hoarded for 30 yrs. I will be 70 this yr, and I still want to fall in love again, so I guess that’s a good sign. I feel for you with your death thoughts. Love, Marilyn

  9. Therese,
    I am so glad to have found you again. I lost track of you being a former follower of you on Beliefnet.
    I think the term “death thoughts” is the best description I can think of but maybe not jarring enough. Maybe those who have never experienced it will never fully understand the depths of depression. It is only by the grace of God that we cannot just will ourselves dead. If that weren’t so, I would be dead many times over. Maybe that’s the safety mechanism, to actually kill yourself you have to do something but you are so depressed that you can’t. Even taking a handful of pills takes some effort. Or maybe it’s the fear of failure, to turn myself into some kind vegetable instead of successfully ending it all.
    They say we are all given the desire to live. I’m not so sure about that. I remember being nine years old wishing it were all over. That was the first time.
    You are so fortunate to have a husband who loves you so much. I hope and pray that one day God may grant me such a loving companion and partner.
    Soon I will face my greatest fear, the loss of my mother. She is the only person in this world who has never disappointed me. The hospice nurse says she may have a few more weeks. Due to the dementia she is almost completely gone.
    I have no idea how I will survive. All I can do is to continue to take my meds, see my therapist, pray, hope and trust in God.
    -Laura G.

  10. Tamala Poljak

    Thank you Laura, for your work and for this article. I’m new to the group and so I’m just saying hello. I have so much to share with you and others. You and I have a very similar story, so as my heart breaks for you, it breaks for myself also. I’m slowly inching along toward my Masters in Psychology and to becoming an MFT in hopes to help others, much like you are. I truly believe that being of service, when we are able, may be the most helpful “treatment” of all and I’m right there with you in having tried everything and anything. I’m so happy to have found your blog. Be well and keep writing, you are so valued and appreciated <3 Tamala

  11. Angela

    “Death thought” is the perfect phrase in my opinion because my depression is not always sad. Sometimes death makes perfect logical sense and I’m not sad at all. “Death math” is another of my favorite phrases that you use. The scary part about this clinical depression is that it isn’t always sad. Sometimes it’s cold and calculating, logical and unemotional. Those are the most dangerous times, when plans and preparations are made. It really separates the blues from the darkest depression. A depression so dark that the mind makes up its own reality; like a strange ongoing dream.

  12. mf

    I had a really rough week trapped in bed. I am so thankful I found this blog. I don’t even remember how, but I am glad I did and sincerely grateful for all your hard work and dedication to this blog.
    Thank you.

  13. I check my email every day to see if you have written something new. Your life inspires me. I asked my therapist if she had heard of you. She wrote down your name immediately when I told her about you. Whatever your thoughts are today, know that someone you will never meet is taking your words into battle as she, herself, fights the unending war. Peace be to you and to us all. Teresa