January 3, 2018- During the fall of 2009, each day began in the exact same way: I would be wide awake at 2:00 a.m., nervously shifting around in my bed. As the minutes ticked by and the window gradually gave way to sunlight, I became increasingly consumed with fear. What was this terrifying thing that was happening to me and why couldn’t I do a thing to stop it?
According to my doctors, I was suffering from depression – a term I had used cavalierly throughout my entire life. Surely what I was experiencing could not be something as innocuous as depression?
While everyone’s experience with depression is unique, mine went something like this: a July that didn’t feel quite right, an August defined by escalating fear, and then, as of Labor Day weekend, a two-and-a-half-month period of suicide-obsessed hell. I thought I was losing my mind.
I was 36 at the time, but I might as well have been five years old. I had gone from being a bubbly, high-functioning professional and loving family member and friend to a woman totally incapable of caring for herself. I had no appetite and would never eat more than a third of what was put in front of me. I put zero effort into my personal hygiene, my physical appearance, or my home’s cleanliness. My whole body was shaky. I could not laugh or cry. My once strong voice had transformed into a raspy whisper; eventually, I stopped talking altogether.
If you looked at the external appearance of my life at the time, none of this made any sense. I had a great job, a loving husband, supportive family and friends, and a clean bill of health following treatment for breast cancer. Yet during those months, the world I once knew ceased to exist. I found myself gone from that world, and never thought I would live to see it again.
If you have a loved one who is suffering with suicidal thoughts, perhaps my experience will give you some ideas about how to provide the support they need.
First, from the time my suicidal thoughts took hold until the time my depression began to lift, most of my waking moments were spent contemplating ways to escape the pain. A huge part of my anxiety was living with thoughts of suicide, but not being brave enough to articulate them to my loved ones. I did not want to scare them, and it seemed an enormous burden to bring others into my frightening world. When my family eventually broached the topic of suicide with me, they did so without mincing words, and it was an incredible relief. Please don’t be afraid to talk directly with someone you think may be contemplating suicide. It may be scary for you, but it is terrifying for your loved one to be alone with those thoughts.
Most of us with suicidal thoughts have a crippling fear that our life is on the verge of falling apart, and a loop of negativity is often playing on “repeat” in our minds. Encourage your loved one to express these thoughts out loud or in writing. The more your loved one addresses their fears head-on, the less power those fears will have over them. In fact, until I was able to clearly articulate the depths of my anxiety to my psychiatrist, I didn’t make an ounce of progress. Once my doctor recognized that anxiety was the dominant emotion of my depression, he treated it with the aggressiveness it required. This was a game-changer for me.
Next, and I know this is a tall task, but your unwavering confidence in your loved one’s recovery is essential. Please find the strength to look your loved one in the eye and say with confidence, over and over again, that they will get through this and that they will get back to their old selves. They likely will not believe you, but do not be deterred. Try saying things like, “I know you think you will never get through this. I know you think life will never be the same again. I know you think no one has ever experienced this pain and that no one can help you. But I am here to tell you your brain is playing tricks on you. You WILL get through this.”
Regardless of all your kindnesses and demonstrations of support, please know that your loved one may be terrified of losing you. I cannot underscore enough the importance of reassuring your loved one that you are not going to give up on them and that you will never leave. When I first told my mother about my suicidal thoughts, she said something that kept me going through my darkest moments: “You will get through this. I will carry you on my back if that’s what it takes to get you through this.”
When your loved one is depressed, they know that they are asking a tremendous amount of you and this probably makes them feel guilty. Depression often renders them incapable of feeling, much less expressing, love for you or anyone else in their lives, which compounds their guilt. Your loved one realizes they are pushing you away, and it likely breaks their heart. Please know that once their depression lifts, all of the love that was once there will come rushing back.
Finally, your loved one knows you cannot wave a magic wand and make it all go away, although they know you desperately wish you could. What matters most is that you simply walk with them through this valley, and that you never, never, never give up.
Having a caring conversation is the first step in getting help. To find support, click here.