The Limits of Knowing

This post is about suicide and mental health issues.

I was listening to the live stream of Roxane Gay speaking in New York last night at the PEN World Voices Festival. She said “When you write and gain attention for it, it can be really overwhelming because everyone thinks they know you when they do not.”

She writes about very personal issues  – of her sexual assault, her body issues, her feminism. Even with some intimate issues subjected to the public eye, she is a private person. She said that what she puts out in the world, she’s prepared to have out in the world. Managed discretion. Personal boundaries.

canstockphoto7950236I began to think about how much I’ve written on this blog about my childhood and my personal development struggles – about what gets edited out, the issues I skirt, the misdeeds that I leave in the recesses of my brain, but mostly the dark moments when I think I just want to rest. I don’t want to struggle anymore. I’m so tired of feeling this way.

I’m at a point in my life when I recognize this creature, this mental hobgoblin that lures me with the idea that it could all stop. It took my father in his late 30s, nearly took my mother in her teens, called to me repeatedly as a teenager, and beckoned me to sit on the bathroom floor with a straight razor in hand when I was 23.

Once, when I talked about my depression with a friend, she asked if I wanted her to call a crisis line. She didn’t realize that she was the crisis line. This embarrassed me and felt like a betrayal of intimacy, this lack of understanding. Some people don’t know that to say something out loud is to lessen its power in one’s head. Perhaps it is an unfair burden. That incident stigmatized me for several years, made me crack jokes even as I felt the darkness descending.

canstockphoto14959499People are still surprised when those with celebrity status and/or material fortunes commit suicide. It doesn’t surprise me at all. That suicide is on the rise in this country is also not a surprise. When we know people by their production values, their presentation, we don’t see the cutting room floor. We don’t see those moments of despair when the cameras are off and the distracting crowd goes away.

The only value in me writing about this perhaps lies in the fact that I am still here, at age 50, over a decade older than my father when he composed a 17-page suicide note, closed the garage door, attached a hose to the exhaust, and asphyxiated. I am here, writing, reading, living with a family who loves me. I am here, still in the struggle to stay out of the shadows. I am here to experience joy, surprise, delight, and sometimes a comforting sort of melancholy that does not overwhelm me, but fills me instead with words.

The odds were against me. My parents met as patients at an outpatient psychiatric clinic. My family history is riddled with mental illness. In my late teens and early twenties, I began to self-medicate with booze. A drunk who could go from an acquaintance’s bed to brawling to blackout in the course of one evening. I leaned on compulsive tendencies to fill this inexplicable void – a void that leaked like a sieve.

canstockphoto8316983On the outside, I showed up on time, I worked hard, I laughed and smiled. I had friends and boyfriends and ambitions. Then there were the weekends when I could not get out of bed. I would not answer the phone or the door. The curtains were drawn closed. Every nerve was dulled. I stayed in a cocoon of darkness and silence, because anything else took too much energy.

This absence of life, of feeling, this moment in space where nothing matters, is the stage needed for the hobgoblin to do his act. It starts out with the idea of darkness that seems warm and comforting compared to all the pain, the sharp edges, and the endless road of sameness ahead. It gives us visions of our futures – futures filled with the same kind of wounds we are experiencing at the moment. Why go on?

The thing is, we’re not very good at predicting outcomes and depression lies its ass off. I had no idea that I would go on to a life that gifts me every day. I had no idea that I would feel loved or that I’d wake up feeling pretty good. I had no idea that I’d get opportunities over and over to create a better life for myself. In the darkness, I could see nothing, just those emotions I had in that minute.

Like so many people, I’m tempted to write good advice, post suicide prevention numbers, go on about the state of our mental health system. That information is out there, everywhere now. But for the person who is in that moment, all of that means nothing. It takes energy and wherewithal to call a number, find a therapist, get help. Those are all good things to do, positive things to do, but those things rarely happen on the razor’s edge.

I am here now, because I waited.

Perhaps I understood something, because of my family, not in spite of them. I understood the volatility of emotion, the impermanence of situations, the idea of nothingness – the space where nothing would ever change again. I waited. And when I was able to get off that bathroom floor, it wasn’t with clarity of purpose. It was all based on maybe. Maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow, maybe something will be different. I was not prepared to give up my maybes.

canstockphoto9737189When I was strong enough, I sought help. I learned tools to cope with the vagaries of my mind. I built a gentle life that gave me room to care for myself in those darker moments. I asked for help. I learned to give words to these feelings and found people who did not shy away when I spoke.

I did not know where my life would go and I don’t know what it will be in the future. Circumstances can change on a dime. What I do know, is that no hobgoblin gets to take away my maybe.

40 thoughts on “The Limits of Knowing

    1. I hesitated. I wanted to write about it without ransacking my personal history for material, but maybe that’s what writers do. I get a little irritated with the social media narrative that sometimes surrounds these issues. People want pat answers and solutions and the frustrating part is that when it comes to mental health, there’s no single answer.

      Liked by 3 people

  1. Michelle,
    You are such a good writer. I always enjoy your posts, but this one is so much from the heart, and so in keeping with what the professionals advise, without being condescending, that I’m awed. I’ve always claimed that the best thing about therapy is that it helps people find words for their feelings. You said it, too. Also, the practice of hospitalizing someone who is acutely suicidal is a method for making them wait long enough for the urgency to pass. Usually, people will be grateful that they are prevented from acting in that black moment.

    Unfortunately, friends and family sometimes made it worse because they get so anxious. They need to understand, too, that a quiet presence can be more healing than anything.


    1. Thanks, Katherine. I’m always amazed by people who do things like admit themselves to the hospital because they’re afraid of self-harm – it takes such self-knowledge to do that. I don’t know that it would have ever entered my mind.
      When it came to family and friends, I rarely helped my own cause, often adamantly and brusquely rejecting any offers of help, which felt like pity and condescension (my own twisted take). Now, though, I can say straight up that I’m in a bad place and this is what I need. It’s very freeing to be able to do that and so much healthier for my relationships.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Michelle,
        I don’t believe your take was twisted. Many people simply don’t know how to react and do resort to pity or condescension. Sometimes the depressed person has to help them help you, even though it takes a lot of patience and more energy than seems worthwhile.

        Apparently, though, you’ve figured a lot of this out for yourself.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience and your reflections, Michelle. They are so authentic and so important (and also beautifully written). I hope this is read by many and shared where needed.


    1. Thanks, Donna. There’s always a hesitancy to write about something so serious in a casual forum. I keep asking myself what purpose it might serve, but I suppose I was spurred on by all the conversations happening this week.


    1. Thanks, Walt. I kind of hate that I wrote something timely, due to the subject and the fact that I generally try to write out of step with the news. With so much coverage, anything one writes on a topic seems derivative. But it’s the story I carry.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I relate to this so much. I’m still here because I thought, “If I stick around, things could get better but if I end it all now, they definitely won’t.” For me that little “could” has been enough to keep me from making a permanent decision. I hope that “could” and “maybe” and waiting will always be enough but I can also understand how people who have fought this battle for 40 or 50 or 60 years might scrape the bottom of their well of coulds, might find their maybes less convincing and can wait things out no longer. I mourn them, Robin Williams was the hardest for me, but I don’t wonder how or why. They fought long and hard and all fights must end, hopefully in peace, but sometimes in defeat. Thank you for sharing your story, Michelle.


    1. When it comes to living with mental illness, by the time you get older, you’ve likely gone through all the iterations of your particular illness, as well as the many, many combinations of fixes. It’s exhausting to stay on guard against one’s own brain. There are other ways to think of it, but essentially it’s protecting yourself against yourself.
      Combine that with external circumstances and the vicissitudes of aging, I would imagine one finds that old solutions don’t work and you just feel worn out. Sometimes I worry about how I’ll age and the life circumstances ahead of me – then I have a conversation with myself not to feed my anxieties and just to get on with things.
      Sometimes the funniest people have difficult issues. When I listen to Maria Bamford doing standup, I think of people like Robin Williams. She addresses mental health directly, as part of her routine. I hope that it is as useful to her as it is to her fans.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Your are fortunate that your thoughts have remained somewhat rational, even in despair. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

      For people who experience depression and suicidal ideation, it is often the case that they are convinced that others would be better off without them. I feel compelled to make this point, because some conversations characterize suicide as “selfish” without understanding that depression lies to a person, that it can convince them that there is only one solution and that it’s the right one.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are a brave person and writer.

        Since my teens and into decades of maturity (so far), depression and mood swings plagued me. I know too well the hopelessness and devaluation you describe in your reply. Suicide ideation, wanting the pain to stop, impulses and plans are not foreign to my experience.

        A core of spiritual, physical and mental practice brought me to the point of being able to feel yet to listen to a loving presence and know that LIFE is essentially a gift. That resources beyond my knowledge at that horrendous life event would help me if I would only give them a chance. I am glad I listened.

        Thanks for your insight and wisdom. May you grow to know peace and certainty of yourself as a Divine being capable of amazing things!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. What a moving post Michelle. I’m sure it was hard to write but relieving once it is out there. On my blog, I deal quite frequently with my Aspie traits and experiences with depression brought on by being deaf. I am so moved by your willingness to put yourself out there so that others might learn from your experiences and to know that they are not alone. Isolation is such a big part of many people’s problems in life.

    I hope you don’t mind that I have snapped a paragraph from your post that I will use in a future post. I can use it anonymously or give you credit if you like.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, RJ. Please feel free to use the post with credit to me. I tend to follow Dr. Gay’s policy of not putting things out there until I’m ready.
      Thanks, too, for sharing your perspective, which illustrates the spectrum and variation of mental health issues. This is why it’s such a difficult issue to grapple with – but the more people who are willing to tell their stories, the closer we come to dealing with this like we do with medical issues – directly, without stigma.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you Michelle, for waiting. And for sharing. And for giving voice to your pain in a way that is instructive and non judgmental and should be read by everyone. I’ve known too many people who did not wait, and they all left us sad, confused and wondering why. There may be no definitive answer as to the why, but your insight helped me to understand the struggle that is the impetus for the act. If we can help someone get through the struggle by listening, not being afraid of the painful or unpleasant interaction, maybe we can be part of a better outcome. I will share.


    1. I’m sorry that you’ve lost people in your life to suicide. Of course, the problem with asking “why” is tough, when the thought processes that get someone to that point are often irrational and not to be reasoned with. What we’re seeing over the last ten years are more frequent conversations about mental health issues, raising awareness, convincing ourselves that it is okay to ask for help. I have to believe that is progress, albeit slow for those lost along the way. Thanks for sharing this.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Michelle, I linked to this post and The Green Study in my latest post. This really moved me, and I couldn’t think of an appropriate comment at the time I read it. It’s really just everything true and also hopeful. I’m glad you wrote it, and I hope a lot of people find their way here.


  6. I first read this when you posted it, and returned to it today to again appreciate its richness, honesty and intelligence. Thank you for the courage and sensitivity it took to write such a powerful, poignant and well-articulated piece.


    1. Thanks, Cate. I still have a sense of slight chagrin at posting it, but mostly because I reference my parents. Figuring out when someone else’s story is yours to tell is tough, but it is hard to tell my own without telling theirs. I imagine this is something that memoir writers struggle with on a larger scale.


  7. A beautiful meaningful post. I’ve dealt with depression being a widow. The “waiting” says so much and is so true.


    1. Thank you. So many people experience depression whether it be through chemical imbalance or life’s circumstances. In this society, we’re so often exhorted to “fix” things as expediently as possible. There are quite a few situations where waiting and patience can be the solution.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This is quite an expressive write-up. You bared it all. In Africa where I live and come from, these issues are yet to be given this sort of topical treatment. They’re real but everyone just pretends not to see them. People would rather “spiritualize” them down here.

    This touched me deeply,

    “Like so many people, I’m tempted to write good advice, post suicide prevention numbers, go on about the state of our mental health system. That information is out there, everywhere now. But for the person who is in that moment, all of that means nothing.”

    This is a rich post I must say. And an eye-opening one, too.

    Keep up the good works, madam!


    1. Thank you for reading and for sharing your perspective and kind words. I was curious at the statistics for suicide in African countries and was surprised to read that at least 18 African countries are in the top 50 countries for rates of suicide (the US is 48th). It feels like we’re just starting to talk about it more frankly in the U.S. and there’s still a great deal of stigma around it. I can’t imagine how difficult it is for people who live in countries where it’s taboo or re-framed as something different than it is. One can only hope we’ll reach a time when we can be honest and capably address mental health issues.


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