It Gets Better (#740)

My son just turned 16 this week, and as parents do, my wife and I were discussing the myriad new ways this milestone would enable him to put his life at risk, mostly behind the wheel of a car.  Yet in talking with other parents over the years, I know that few of the external things that could impact the lives of our children are quite as frightening or quite as misunderstood as depression and teen suicide.

As a “survivor” of nearly seven years of what I now understand to have been as much confusion as depression, I find myself tearing up every time I come across another of the YouTube videos featuring people from all walks of life sharing their story and a simple message of hope – it gets better.

While the videos are largely aimed at victims of bullying in the gay and lesbian community, the message of hope is a universal one – and the knowledge that tomorrow can be better than today saves lives.

So while I’ve told much of my own story before in my books and tips, I’d like to share it in a slightly different form here. It’s longer than these tips usually are, so you may want to print it off and find a quiet time to read through it.  And if you or someone you care about are feeling down, perhaps as you read you will find the seeds of hope inside…

 

From the age of 13 until I was around 20, I alternated between depression and mania, barely able to get out of bed on some days and barely able to get back into it on others. My attempts to self-medicate with alcohol, tobacco and other less legal substances never seemed to work for more than a few hours, and as the various cocktails I mixed up inside my body got more elaborate, the feelings (and my ability to deal with them) got worse.One particularly bad night, while studying at university, I remember collapsing into fits of uncontrollable sobbing in my dorm room. While this was not as unusual an occurrence as I would have liked, this time it was considerably worse, and when the sobbing hadn’t stopped by 1 a.m., I recognized that I needed help. I managed to drag myself down to the infirmary, push the ‘night call’ button and collapse in a heap by the door.

After what seemed like hours but was probably only a few minutes, a night nurse came to the door. She took one look at me and, no doubt ignoring years of nursing training and university protocol, cradled me in her arms and began reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

She kept encouraging me to join in, and as I didn’t have the energy to explain that I only knew the words because I’d recently played Peter in a deaf-theatre production of Jesus Christ, Superstar, I joined in for all I was worth, choking out each line between huge rolling waves of sobbing.

After a few minutes of rocking and praying, the sobbing subsided and I began to feel a sense of peace. Perhaps if I’d been a bit riper for conversion I might have chalked it up to the power of God and converted to Christianity on the spot, but I was still very green in the ways of religion and instead marvelled at this woman’s ability to ‘love me’ back to some modicum of sanity.

She then took me to a doctor’s office to wait, assuring me that the doctor would help make me better. The doctor, a fine southern gentleman in his early fifties with thick grey hair and a charming smile, asked me a few questions, including whether or not I had thought about suicide, which I answered truthfully that I had.

‘How long has this been going on?’

‘Since I was 13.’ I paused, then added encouragingly, ‘But only daily for the past month.’

He didn’t seem unduly encouraged.

‘Come with me.’

He led me down a long hallway, up a short flight of stairs and back down the same hallway on the second floor. It was late and we were seemingly the only ones in the hospital. Opening a door with a set of keys he carried around his neck, the doctor led me into a pristine hospital room and encouraged me to lie down on the bed and rest. Exhausted as I was from hours of sobbing, that was a very enticing prospect.

‘I’ll go get something to help you sleep and make you feel better,’ he said. ‘We’ll admit you in the morning.’

When the door shut behind him, I had a moment of incredible clarity – I was at a turning point and my life was about to change forever. In a way, the choice I had to make was simple. If I stayed, I could just hand my brain over to the doctors and let them try to sort it out for me; if I left, I was going to have to find a better way of dealing with the feelings that had overcome me like waves for many years.

I opened the door to the hallway, but my nurse friend was now sitting at a desk at the end of the hall. She didn’t see me and I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was running away. I stepped back into the room and walked over to the window. While the room was on the second floor, the window opened out onto a sort of portico, a mini-rooftop over the mock-Roman colonnades that were all the rage in institutes of higher learning at the time. Gingerly, I opened the window, stepped out onto the roof and jumped the 10 feet or so down to freedom.

Less than a week later, I was back up in my dorm room and I had an experience where I felt as though my body was being sucked out of a dormitory window. Clinging to the wall and absolutely terrified, I phoned the Samaritans suicide hotline, only to be answered by a busy signal. The irony of this made me laugh out loud, even at the time, and I calmed down enough to phone a friend to come get me and take me somewhere where I would be safe for the night.

But that night was a turning point for me.  Up until that evening, I had thought the fact that I thought about suicide meant that I actually wanted to do it.  The more I tried not to think about it, the more I thought about it, and the more important and real it began to seem.

From that day forward, rather than continue to treat the ‘suicide thought’ as an important problem to be solved, I recognized it for what it was: just a thought, no more significant than ‘chicken or beef’ or ‘plaid or stripes’.

After a time, the ‘suicide thought’ faded out of my daily routine, and even now, more than twenty years later, it comes to visit just occasionally. When it does I greet it as an old friend, reminding myself of how far I’ve come and that I probably need to take a little bit better care of myself at that moment.

In Beth Henley’s award-winning comedy ‘Crimes of the Heart’, three women re-unite at their old family home to deal with the troubles in their lives, ranging from their mother’s suicide to the youngest daughter’s attempted murder of her wealthy fiancée.  In the end, they draw the conclusion that both the mother’s suicide stemmed from her having ‘a really, really bad day.’

When all their stories have been shared and a new level of understanding has been reached, the middle daughter comes to a remarkably unremarkable solution to all their problems.

“We’ve just got to learn to get through these really bad days’.

The simple truth is that when your mood is low, the world looks bleak; when your mood is high, you feel like you can take over the world. The difference is never in the world – it’s in the thoughts through which you’re looking at the world.

And if you let it, your mood will lift. Well-being is your nature, no matter how long it’s been since you last felt it, and like someone trying to hold a beach ball underwater, you’re only ever one moment away from it rising back up to the surface.

And when it does, the world will look more beautiful and the future a bit brighter. Because no matter what you’ve been through up until this moment in time, know this:

It gets better.

With love,
Michael

PS – There are two organizations I have been particularly impressed with in their response to the feelings of hopelessness that overcomes people from time to time:

TO WRITE LOVE ON HER ARMS

A beautiful site and incredible organization – here is their mission statement and the first line of their vision:

 

MISSION STATEMENT:To Write Love on Her Arms is a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide.  TWLOHA exists to encourage, inform, inspire and also to invest directly into treatment and recovery.

VISION:

The vision is that we actually believe these things…

You were created to love and be loved.  You were meant to live life in relationship with other people, to know and be known. You need to know that your story is important and that you’re part of a bigger story.  You need to know that your life matters.

Please get involved and offer your support at www.twloha.com

THE CENTER FOR SUSTAINABLE CHANGE

I have been a huge fan and supporter of Ami Chen Mills-Naim and the work that she and her colleagues do at the Center for Sustainable Change for several years now. They so more than just offer hope – through their work with troubled teens, prisoners, schools, and in some of the poorest communities in America, they share the principles behind life and enable people to find the resources inside them to choose and to change.

To support their work and learn more, please visit http://www.centerforsustainablechange.org

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