Warning: This post contains serious subject matter and may not be suitable for all readers.
Three years to the day my brother killed himself, I had a breakdown.
Doesn't that conjure images of wild, matted hair and covering yourself in duct tape and tin foil and breaking stuff? Hurling a book out the window like in Silver Linings Playbook? Doesn't it bring to mind every idea you have about crazy people? Every stereotype?
It wasn't like that for me. It was very quiet. It took about three weeks and then I found myself in a psych ward in a different country.
It takes a lot of courage to shower, wash your hair, get dressed and go to a psych ward to ask for help. You take a number at the emergency room then you get a special green bracelet for psych patients and you wait again for over an hour and then you get invited into the office of a dispassionate psychiatrist with a name tag who asks you if you know where you are. You do. You know exactly where you are.
You get advised to check into the facility. You ask with a low, shaky voice what this facility is like, praying that it's got expansive green lawns and badminton hour like in the movie Frances, but you know it won't be anything like that because the other patients, huddled outside this door, also with green bracelets, are rocking and shaking and mumbling.
You saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and so you ask just when -- if -- you decided you wanted to check in and stay for a while, you inquire just when you would be released?
When we decide, the doctor says, writing something down studiously.
He asks if you have had "suicidal ideation" and you lie and say no because you know if you say yes you're going to the ward no matter what. So you lie.
You don't tell him how you have been hoarding sedatives and have made an elaborate plan to take them all, drink a bottle of vodka and wade into the sea with heavy clothes and rocks in your pockets. Like Virginia Woolf. No, you don't say this.
How did I get here? It is three years to the day my older brother shot himself. To the day. We were three years apart. Now he is no longer older than me and he never will be again. And a whole chapter -- most of my childhood -- went with him. The memories only he and I shared. I wrote a book about the experience, hoping it would bring me some closure. I suppose it did, in a way. But I discovered that the doorway to grief is still open and that there is not enough time on heaven or earth that can possibly heal that wound, that gasp, that wrenching howl.
And now I am feeling suicidal. How could I? How could I feel that way knowing what suicide does to a family? Here I am in my green bracelet.
Triggers. I had some triggers.
A few things run in my family. Red hair, prominent Scottish chins, freckles and suicide. Two of my great-grandfathers killed themselves, my cousin tried five times, my brother tried multiple times before he succeeded and a close relative overdosed. I found her. I drove her to the emergency room.
I have suffered from anxiety and depression most of my life. The thing with having anxiety and depression is that you are usually a totally functional person -- often with a public persona that is very exuberant and fun. The tears of a clown and all that.
I'm no doctor, but I hesitate to put anxiety and depression in the same category as all mental illness. In fact, I hate the stigma around mental illness in general because too many lives have been lost out of pure shame.
These are mental health issues. There, that feels better. But anxiety and depression as I experience them are not mental health issues that involve hearing voices or losing sight of reality. It's actually quite rational. That's what makes it so lethal. It's like carbon dioxide poisoning. You don't even know it's creeping up on you until it's too late.
There is only one aspect of depression and anxiety that is irrational and that is the idea that you do not need your medication. I don't know why this is. I have thought about it a lot. Is it shame? Why can't taking meds be just like putting on contact lenses every day? Why does it seem so different? For whatever reason, I had gone off my meds over a year before my breakdown. And I was fine! I was fine.
Paradoxically: Going off your medications because you feel fine is a hallmark of needing to stay on your medications.
I was perhaps two days from taking my life before I got help.
What made me go to the doctor? Something inside me knew I couldn't do this to my family. It's not that I didn't want to do it to myself. I wanted to. But I thought of my kids, my little sister and my parents. How could I put them through that -- again?
Over the preceding three weeks, I had turned a strange color of grey and lost at least 10 pounds. No food passed my lips; everything tasted like cardboard.
So I took a shower, washed my hair, got dressed and with a heart like a rock full of shame, I went to the hospital and got cuffed. It was among the most humiliating moments of my life.
I was too fearful and ashamed to check myself in, so I opted instead to go to a different, smaller clinic to see a private psychiatrist. He loaded me up with more sedatives (Really? For a person already hoarding? But he didn't know that.) And made an appointment for 10 days from then.
The sedatives made me so sleepy and apathetic I could not function very well. With the help of a social worker, I found a different doctor, willing to check in with me more frequently. Willing to sit with me at length even though I did not have an appointment and others were waiting outside his door. Willing to listen and look me in the eye and speak to me as an adult. I am, I think, on the mend.
Now, with a new course of medication and constant supervision, I have begun to regain some traction and hope. I know I'm in "pill spring" right now -- when your meds have kicked in enough to make you feel better but a time during which you are still vulnerable to sliding back into the darkness. I take each day very slowly.
So what was the trigger? I think it was three-fold. Being off meds for over a year; the anniversary of my brother's death; and a financial surprise of the nasty, daunting but not insurmountable kind. But it felt insurmountable to me.
They say suicide is a permanent solution for a temporary problem. But here's the thing: That logic does not work when you are the one feeling suicidal because in your mind you are the problem.
You face something or other -- heartbreak, financial stress, legal problems, some kind of perceived failure -- and every synapse in your un-medicated brain rapidly collects evidence, at the speed of light and in a constant loop, of every experience in your life that is in any way connected to the current problem -- it's a brutal inventory taking that calculates that solutions cannot be found because you are the problem. It is you. It will always be you.
Because the pain of the illogical, out-of-control inventory taking is too much to bear, it then follows in your mind that the pain that your loss will cause others is nothing but a regrettable fact because it does nothing to relieve your pain now. And all you want is relief. Just relief from those thoughts. Just relief from yourself.
People who feel suicidal are big liars. I lied to everybody who knew I was upset about something.
Because once you say you are feeling like ending your life, somebody might try to stop you and if they stop you, they will take away the one relief you know is there for you. In upside-down crisis mode, only the idea of killing yourself gives you hope. It will stop hurting. It will all go away.
When you are in the throes of it, you feel that there are two solutions: an immediate end to the trigger at hand (which usually involves magic or a lottery win or time reversal), or your death.
You can imagine that it is taking a great deal of courage for me to expose myself in this way. I am writing about it because I want others who feel suicidal to know that there is a third option -- not feeling suicidal. From where you are, wanting to live sounds like a distant murmur, like the TV in the other room that you wish someone would turn down. About two months before my brother committed suicide, in exasperation I asked him, "Pete, do you want to live or do you want to die?!" I want to live, he said.
He was too far from feeling better. And when you begin to feel better, solutions rise to the surface. Your mind begins to clear. The drumbeat softens and dies down.
First comes the hardest part -- you have to get over the feeling of shame that you need to seek help. I ask you -- would a diabetic be embarrassed to go get more insulin? Would a person with high cholesterol be ashamed to eat more oatmeal and take medication? Of course not. And neither should you.
Admitting to a friend or family member that you are thinking about ending your life is very hard to do. Am I being a drama queen? Do I just want attention? No, I want help. I want solutions. And because I am feeling this way, in a constant play/rewind/play that I am a failure and that I cannot ever get anything right, my judgment is very impaired.
Here is what saved my life. I admitted to my best friend that I was feeling suicidal. Darcy took me seriously and did not freak out -- at least not to me. No, she took action in the form of arriving at my house in one hour flat. It was she and my boyfriend who gently, non-judgmentally persuaded me to get up the courage to go to the doctor. My boyfriend got me in the car and held my hand for the entire journey to the hospital and waiting in line and getting my bracelet. He never let go. He and Darcy took turns being with me. I was babysat.
Then Darcy formed Team Julie. She, her husband and my boyfriend were the first members. After I balked at the idea of checking into a psych ward with no apparent release procedure, Darcy and her husband took me to another doctor and sat beside me. I felt so reassured. I was able to quell my overwhelming feelings of being a crazy, bad, wrong, nuts person. With loving friends at my side, I felt like I had an illness and I needed help and I got it. It was okay. Things were going to be okay.
With the help of my budding team, I gained the courage to reach out to other Team Julie members. I told my family and a few very close friends. Immediately, I received phone calls and emails and visits. I got love, support, some cash, food, and brainstorming.
From this recent, painful, humiliating experience, let me tell you some dos and don'ts when someone you love says they are thinking of ending their life:
Do take that admission very seriously. It wasn't easy for them to tell you.
Do hug your friend very long and very hard.
Do NOT freak out -- because that makes your friend feel a thousand times more freaked out.
Do pretend to be calm even if it's hard for you.
Do NOT give your friend one iota of judgment -- about anything. Nothing. Zero. They have already been their own judge and jury and given themselves a death sentence. Trust me on that.
Do NOT ask too many questions now, do not try to diagnose or direct the person beyond getting them to the doctor. Now is not the time for logical arguments about the legitimacy of their feelings. Ask questions later -- much later when your friend is again stable.
Do NOT downplay the problem; it seems huge to your friend. Please don't patronize them. They already feel very vulnerable. They are suicidal, not stupid.
Do know that telling that person you love them feels nice but they are still in I-have-to-find-a-solution-mode -- so help be a part of the solution.
Solutions might be bringing something hot to eat. Or simply sitting and talking.
Solutions might be brainstorming about the perceived or real problem, and helping gather some ideas about how to solve it.
Solutions might mean loaning some money.
Solutions might be offering a free therapy session or three.
Solutions might be accompanying your loved one to the doctor, the hospital, the grocery, a pharmacy.
Know this: When you are that suicidal person, you feel SO vulnerable and ashamed. You know you are putting people out, you know you are scaring them. You know that you are asking a lot. Which is why I didn't reach out until I was very close to the end. I didn't want to bother anybody.
I'm still not out of the woods, but I feel better. A team of people and doctors galvanized around me and formed a bucket brigade. With their help, I have found solutions. I am back on my medications. I found a doctor I like a lot. My Team Julie still checks in on me frequently. Together, we are all making sure I never get to that place again, where dying felt like a really good idea.
Right now I feel like a broken mirror, taped up with scotch tape. But I'm getting better. I'm beginning to get back to work, I am writing this.
The stigma around mental illness is enormous. So this is me, a successful person, a writer, a mentor, a public figure, a mom, a friend, a sister and a daughter outing myself: I have a mental health issue and I almost lost my life to it.
There may be some who will think of me differently now that I've outed myself, but I care less about that than I care about you, that one reader somewhere who is in the grip of this. Or you, the person worried about a friend or family member. I'm talking to you.
Know that someone who is feeling suicidal is not thinking straight right now; their judgment is very impaired. They need a doctor and a team around them. They have a condition that medication and therapy can and will help and it won't take long until they begin to again feel hopeful.
If you know someone who feels suicidal, be that team for them. Form your own bucket brigade. No judgment, no questions, just solutions and support. Create a circle of love and support around that person so that they do not feel alone or embarrassed. Shame is one of the strongest feelings they are experiencing so do everything to negate it. Everything.
Again, and this is so important to repeat, saying I love you is nice and it is how you feel and it is instinctive, but be aware that the sufferer is obsessed with the perceived crisis or problem and feel that they are the cause of it -- and always have been and always will be. That's why solutions, brainstorming and sharing that you have had similar problems are good. Not that you had similar problems and YOU didn't freak out- - just that you get it, some problems feel really huge.
I am not a psychologist or an expert on anything except story editing and the hell I just went through. If you feel too embarrassed to get help, on a painful and very real level, I get it.
But you MUST screw up the courage to ask for help. Not only to save your life but also to help be a part of de-stigmatizing needing the help you deserve and the same help somebody with any other medical condition would ask for without a problem.
Call a suicide hotline. Do it now. Call your best friend. Call any friend. There is nothing to be ashamed of. It only takes a minute to ask for help. It might take awhile to heal but there is no problem that is you -- there are only situations that we all go through.
You have a condition that like sirens pulls you closer to those rocks with lies that sound very seductive: It is you. You are a failure. You do not deserve to live. I am here to tell you: Those lies aren't true. We all make mistakes, we all experience disappointment, embarrassment, heartbreak and loss. There are medications you can take that wipe those lies out and help you regain perspective.
Once you get that help, if you don't like your doctor, find another one. Find a social worker. Find someone who gets it. Be escorted to the doctor by somebody -- anybody. Take your medication. Don't ever decide on your own that you are done with your medication. Don't do that.
You're gonna be all right. Everybody loses their religion now and then. Some of us just do it more painfully and publicly than others. Will some people see you differently? To hell with them. To hell with stigmas.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
I would like to thank Darcy Hopwood for saving my life. Also Yaniv Goldsmith, Dr. Yossi Azuri, Kobi Koren, Angela Whiting, Steve Martinez, Shirley Maya Tan, Jeff Lyons, Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, Theresa Cullen, Kevin Mosley, Jon Braslaw, Dianna Zimmerman, Gabriel Gonsalves, Mordechai Kashuk and the inimitable Dahlia Lithwick, who gave me the courage to write this and edited it with aplomb. And most importantly, thanks to my mom and dad who from 9,000 miles away made me feel their unconditional love and support and who loved me through this and continue to.
For more by Julie Gray, click here.
For more on mental health, click here.