And the ghosts that we knew
Will flicker from view
And we’ll live a long, long life
~ Mumford & Sons, “The Ghosts That We Knew” (2012)
A day in May, 1999.
The intake nurse asked, “Why are you here?”
“Because I’m not perfect,” I said.
Backing up. Nine months into a new job back in my hometown, I became inexplicably withdrawn, and my heart beat a mile a minute, or so it seemed. I dropped about 20 pounds in a month, without trying.
I ate and drank, but everything went through. The worst part was the complete inability to sleep. Nothing worked. I found myself at a local ER several times. One time, my dad drove me in the middle of the night, as I tried to sleep at my parents’ house but to no avail.
The physician gave me a very strong drug in my hip. He also made a call to a local psych hospital but they wouldn’t take me because they didn’t accept my insurance.
I’d have cussed if I’d not been catatonic.
The drug in my hip had a horrible effect. I developed what felt like lockjaw. I couldn’t contain food in my mouth; it spilled out and so did water. I drove the four miles from my parents’ house to my apartment with my head tilted to one side, another effect. I couldn’t walk straight.
My parents had out-of-town guests visiting, and I was terribly embarrassed. My mom eventually took me back to the ER. I remember holding a towel to my mouth in the waiting room because of dripping saliva. They gave me Benadryl and it straightened out my horrible symptoms but not my severe depression.
Fear became my clothing.
By this time, I was well-connected with a church and its clergy. Through them, I found a local family practice physician who tried a couple of medications.
His bedside manner was, and is, unparalleled. I don’t remember anything he said, only the compassionate look he gave me. The first two drugs drove me even more into orbit. As you may know, it takes time for such drugs to get into your system, and I felt like time was running out.
Also by this time, I found a therapist who one day said to me, “You will get better.”
I wanted to believe him so badly. I kept water with me at all times because my mouth stayed dry from my anxious, racing heart.
As thoughts of suicide took hold, I called my therapist from a private area at work. I drove to his office. He asked if I was thinking of harming myself. I said yes, that I had the desire to hurl myself off a downtown bridge.
I couldn’t say then, or now, that I sought death but rather a great escape from the pain. My therapist walked me across the street to the hospital.
I was six months into my 30th year. Now I’m about 20 years removed.
My emotional nosedive into a deep abyss has been, without question, my single-most hell, as well as a singular gift. Nothing before or since compares to its lessons and impact.
The upside: most other crises, disappointments and challenges seem smaller. The downside: I’m hypersensitive to the symptoms of depression. I’m sometimes afraid the abyss will re-open.
Woven through my event and my life, however, is something even deeper than this hard thing: Far down in pit of my soul is the place where God resides. That is my Center.
Love is there.
In the locked ward of the drab hospital, my room contained only a bed and a nightstand, inner symbols of a stripped-down life that was perilously close to the end.
And yet, how freeing in its barrenness — symbols of a simple grace.
It was in this same locked ward where I found sleep again, other patients who could identify, and the slow journey back to myself.
The sleep itself was bliss.
Upon release, I began to notice leaves on trees. Laughter and humor and a sense of normalcy returned.
I read everything I could get my hands on. The writers Kay Redfield Jamison and William Styron and Andrew Solomon became like friends.
To this day, I stay on top of my depressive tendencies, just like someone measures sugar for diabetes, or another goes to AA. I’m grateful to have a wide and deep support system.
Why do I tell all this? Because if I can survive, you can too.
Whether you suffer similarly or if your life is so stable you are blinded by its light, I want you to know that pain and health come in all shapes and sizes and ages. And that even people who are bright and funny and highly educated may be undergoing things invisible to the eye.
We all don’t live under a bridge.
I want you to know that hope is a very stubborn and wonderful thing.
“You will get better.”
I don’t believe in suffering for suffering’s sake, but I do believe in its redemptive qualities. My experience helps connect me to others in ways that don’t have to be spoken. That is the gift of it. I have no patience for lines in grocery stores, oddly enough, but I have an abundance of forbearance with suffering.
I don’t know why I survived and others do not. It’s a great mystery. I don’t know that I was stronger, whatever that means. I have close friends with a parent who completed suicide. A young woman in our church took her life several years ago.
Thing is, we all have baggage. The question is, how do we make good use of it? How do we carry it?
In 2016, there were 44,965 recorded suicides in the U.S., up from 42,773 in 2014, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). On average, adjusted for age, the annual U.S. suicide rate increased 24% between 1999 and 2014, from 10.5 to 13.0 suicides per 100,000 people, the highest rate recorded in 28 years.
The national suicide prevention hotline: 1-800-273-8255