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

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20 Responses
  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.

  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. Peggy

    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!

  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,

  7. Judy

    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. Dan Hoffman

    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?

  9. Denise Patch

    It’s odd, I never noticed this posted to the top of this site. Maybe it’s better I didn’t notice during the past 4 or 5 yrs when I was passively suicidal full stop and could not stop fantasizing and openly talking about death constantly. I had no idea how difficult this must have been for my husband as now that I’ve had 2 rounds of rTMS (only a teeny bit effective) and resorted to returning to an MAOI, that my husband feels he has his wife back. I am struggling with terrible insomnia and other side effects made worse or complicated by also going through menopause and I worry about taking this drug-worry I might be going manic ’cause I just don’t want to go to sleep (I’m not bi-polar). But my husband sees me as being so much better so I can only assume sometimes it is hard to see the forest for all the trees (or something like that). It takes me an hour and a half to stop the crazy chatter of anxiety every single time I return from a simple grocery shopping trip. I still hate leaving the house and love that we are in a pandemic so social stuff is now cool to avoid.

    In the thick of depression I think that instead of being afraid to die like “normal” people, I am mostly petrified that I could live another 30 years or more. It feels like panic when I think about it. Even now that I am “well” or at least a little weller than I was (to make up my own word), I still feel like I’m done here. The thought of living another bunch of decades seems exhausting and disappointing because I have to live them in this body with this brain no matter how I wish and wish I could be someone else. When famous people like Robin die from suicide I feel angry. I think that if they couldn’t stay, with all their resources, riches and immense talents than how on earth am I expected to keep on living with no support, falling through the cracks of society with nothing but the guilt of leaving my dog and cats behind, as a sort of super glue to hold me like gravity to this place. I’ve never figured out the answer but I’m still here.

    1. Debbi

      I am bipolar with hypomanic instead of manic. I relate so much to your reply and to this article. Jealous because it was someone else and not me. Why or how should I expect to stay if someone famous can’t manage it.
      I hope you’ve found peace. I hope you’re still here.

  10. Vanity

    Everything in your article hit close to home for me. Many years ago I told my mother and brother in law about my depression they didn’t believe me. But now that a young girl from church is going through it now all of a sudden it’s real to them. It’s been many years since i felt like sneezing I would like to help this younger girl and prevent her from sneezing.

    My mother is a very Christian woman don’t get me wrong I try and follow the Christian values. Just recently we had a heart to heart and I tried explaining to her that you can’t see beyond the darkness that swallows us we feel like there is no light no right no wrong only deep sorrow even though we know there is a God and Satan but when blinded with the darkness who can tell up from down? To be honest I am surprised I’ve made it this far I’ll be 31 in August I just wish I had someone there for me in my darkest hours

  11. Faith H. Leibman

    Terese, you writings are GREAT! I wish you would write more often. I dont think I have seen anything from you in years.