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.

The Nostalgia of Depression

canstockphoto8316983There are mornings when I wake up and I feel low. Something rotten I did years ago pops in my head and I cringe. Or I get a birds-eye view of my life and it looks less like happy mediocrity and more like grist for the mill of humanity. Small, unimportant, irrelevant, pointless. I remember news stories that illustrate how awful the world is and imagine all the cruelties happening at this very minute.

This is what depression looks like for me. It’s not debilitating. I recognize it for what it is, just a familiar shadow that darkens my doorstep on occasion. It’s the not-so-secret secret I’ve lived with my whole life.

As I’ve aged, my depression is less something I fight, get over, work through or fix. I lay down with it. I settle in. I ride it out. I end sentences in prepositions, smile slightly at my moroseness, eat comfort food and talk to friends.

Even in my depression, I recognize my good fortune. I know in the present that it will end. I know at my core that the next morning or the next or the next, I’ll wake up, the veil lifted from my eyes, the fog from my brain – everything will be okay.

I come from a family where everyone is officially and unofficially diagnosed with something. We talk about it openly, with an odd note of pride that we have a solid grasp of who we are.  We nurture twisted humor, a buffer against the realities of mental illnesses.

We speak of “funks” and moods, of OCD and bipolar as if talking about vacation plans. Some of us have tried medications, rehab, old-school sanitariums. We know the twelve steps, tough love, interventions and rock bottom. Many of us drank, did drugs, ate too much, gambled, slept around, lost jobs, lost children. Some of us died.

Dysfunctions, addictions, dcanstockphoto5275349isorders – this is the language we know each other by. We were ahead of the cultural shift, talking about things that other people were masking behind tight smiles. Sometimes I feel that my depression is all that binds me to my family history.

My father committed suicide. I didn’t know him well. He left when I was 5. I found him years later, but it was too late for a relationship. I was embittered by abandonment to an abusive stepfather. My nervous smile when meeting him masked a simmering rage.

A few months after seeing me for the first time since my childhood, he killed himself. It left an indelible scar. The 5-year-old in me saw causation, correlation. I was unlovable when he left and unlovable when I found him again. I learned years later that this hadn’t been his first attempt. It wasn’t about me… it wasn’t about me…

For the first decade and a half of my adult life, I drank a lot. I smoked. I took risks. I did not care for myself. I survived because I am a gritty soul, finding humor in the darkest corners and with a self-perception that was eventually my saving grace. I found friends along the way – crutches, muses, bandages, lost souls like me. I learned that whatever lurked in my mind, it was survivable.

History. Depression opens it wide. Every loss, every bad relationship, every thing I’ve ever done that was unkind, dishonest or thoughtless, rises to the surface. I’ve never found a way to settle those ghosts once and for all. Some of them, I just think wryly “hello, there old friends”. Others make me foul-tempered. Enough already.

It used to be that when I felt like this, I’d fix myself a hot cup of coffee and have a smoke. It soothed me, this ritual of caffeine and nicotine. The long, slow draw made me breathe, sighing smoke and sinking into thought.

canstockphoto23114415I gave up smoking years ago. I gave up regular booze about the same time. Then I couldn’t sleep and had to cut back on caffeine. I focus on getting exercise. I write the rawness away. I indulge myself with comfort food and entertainment until I can no longer sit still. Until the fog is burned off by the sunlight.

My depression isn’t what it used to be. Binge watching Burn Notice with a plate of mashed potatoes, is a far stretch from the good ole’ days of waking up hungover and wondering where I’m at or where I’ve been. These days, I know where I’ve been and I know the shadow that sits comfortably beside me. It won’t always be there, but it will likely always come back. I’ve traded in destructive coping for active self-care.

I’ve lived long enough so that this trickster of the mind, this misstep of synapses and neurotransmitters, has mellowed with age. I’m one of the lucky ones.


National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline:
1 (800) 950-6264

National Suicide Prevention Hotline