This was a tough post to write. Not only because it is such a sensitive subject, but also because it is so personal to me. The reasons are complex and I won’t go into much detail, but by doing this I know I am exposing myself to a level of scrutiny I’m not entirely comfortable with. And I am fully aware that people who know me and read this post will see me differently–something I don’t particularly like. But I feel that this post will give my readers some insight into what severe depression is like. Especially for people who have never suffered from it.
I was in graduate school when I finally got treatment for my condition. By that time it had gotten so bad that I really had no choice. It was either get treatment or I would eventually kill myself. I ended up doing two semesters of one-on-one counseling and over the summer I did group therapy. I found the treatment to be helpful and worthwhile. It didn’t change my life in any dramatic way–at least not right away. But it was worthwhile and it helped me deal with some things that needed dealing with.
I remember one of the therapy group participants saying that no matter how bad things got he would never seriously consider killing himself. And I suppose that’s how it is for most people. It’s difficult to understand unless you’ve been there. And I suspect that for people who have not been there this could be a tough post to read.
A Living Hell
I would describe my depression years as a living hell. I started to feel really depressed after my family moved from California to Idaho, right in the middle of high school. It was around this time that I started to have suicidal thoughts. I had few friends and was not a social person. I think I went on maybe two or three dates. From the outside I looked like a normal, good-looking, shy, teenage boy. I was talented, for example, in music. I was always pushing myself to be better at things I enjoyed. So I had ambition and drive. But I kept a hangman’s noose under my bed.
I hated my last two years of high school. So much so that I didn’t even attend my own graduation. I drove to school the next day and got my diploma from the principle. He tried to improvise a kind of ceremony but I was just glad I never had to go back.
I graduated from high school with a GPA of about 2.10. I was accepted to Idaho State University, provisionally, on the condition that I play bass guitar in their jazz band, which is what wanted to do anyway. I took all music classes and got pretty good grades.
When I turned 19 I served a two-year LDS mission in Africa. I did suffer from insomnia which made things very difficult. I had suffered from insomnia for years but it became more apparent to me on my mission. I was still withdrawn. I still felt disconnected from those around me. But I don’t recall having any suicidal thoughts. My mission was otherwise quite normal.
I came back from my mission and transferred to Ricks College, graduated with an Associate degree, then to BYU to get my Bachelors.
In high school I had been tested for dyslexia. While at BYU I went through some more testing and was found to have attention deficit problems. The learning disabilities made school more difficult. Depression, insomnia, and concentration problems are a very difficult combination to live with. I was probably getting 30-35 hours of sleep per week. I could almost guarantee that at least one night a week I wouldn’t get any sleep at all. Learning, socializing, school, friends, and work were all extremely difficult. Socializing was a bit confusing.
It seemed like life was happening all around me and I was a spectator.
I had always been the type of person who didn’t “get” interpersonal politics. You know, the clueless person who was not aware of the high school drama; who was dating who, conflicts between friends and coworkers. I just felt like I wasn’t part of anything. In this respect church helped because it was a way for me to be part of something. I never quite felt accepted at church; but I never felt unwelcome either. I tended to believe I was tolerated by good, kind people who just felt sorry for me. If a girl was interested, she was just being nice and felt sorry for me. If a guy invited me to do something, he was just being polite. I never thought of these people as mean; they were actually really nice. But neither would they miss me if I wasn’t around.
It seemed like every other year was especially bad. My grades would tank. I was nearly expelled from BYU. Life went on and I was going nowhere. I had to spend all of my effort just to keep from drowning.
I stayed in school. Partly because I had dreams and ambition. But also because I had nothing else to do with my life.
I was 30 and still in a university singles ward–I looked much younger than I was. One night there was a church activity. They showed the movie “The Singles Ward“, a quirky LDS romantic comedy. I went by myself. I saw all the couples and friends sitting together. They looked so happy. Everyone was having a good time. I tried to stay but I couldn’t stand it anymore. I went home and started taking pills. I think I took about nine before I stopped. I decided to delay my suicide for a day–maybe I would feel better tomorrow.
That was the first time I had ever taken steps to end my life. And I knew if I didn’t get treatment it wouldn’t be the last.
I would say age 30 was the tipping point. I got counseling through the university. I started to put on weight because I was getting older–I wasn’t such a beanpole anymore. But there were other changes. I started to notice things I hadn’t noticed before: friendship dynamics, work/school politics. I even found it a little easier to pick out song lyrics from the radio. The changes were small but noticeable. It was as if someone had turned up the light just barely enough to notice it.
I was about 35 when I found an effective way to mitigate my insomnia problem, which helped a lot. My social skills were slowly improving.
I was able to eventually complete my Ph.D. But literally, I spent 18 years at university–I consulted my many transcripts to confirm this. I didn’t make more than about $16,000/year until I was 37.
I graduated, got a good job, and eventually dated a wonderful woman who I married. I’m 42 now. Its been over ten years since I got treatment and I don’t have suicidal thoughts anymore. Sometimes I wonder how I survived.
What about life experiences and depression?
My life growing up was very normal in most respects. I’m from an active LDS middle class home–four sisters and a brother. I was hardly ever bullied. I was never abused physically, sexually, or verbally. My parents never divorced. They never fought in front of the children. I’ve always been active in church. I’ve always paid a full tithing. I have never used drugs. I have never had an alcoholic beverage. I have never questioned my sexual orientation–I’m hetero. I’ve never been mentally ill. I’ve never had hallucinations–though I do have a tendency to talk to myself sometimes. On the outside I’ve always been a very normal looking, normal acting guy.
For a long time I thought of my depression as normal. I though suicidal thoughts were normal. I believed that life was like this for everyone. What else would it be like? When I began to realize that this was not the case it surprised me. Really! You mean, most people don’t think about killing themselves? Wow!
My mental states
One thing I have come to believe is that people who are thinking about killing themselves are probably not thinking clearly. Suicide is not the rational choice. But, when you are in that state of mind you believe it is. You believe people won’t miss you. You believe they would be OK without you. In a severely depressed state of mind you will honestly, sincerely believe those things. I did.
I want to point out that not all depressed people have suicidal thoughts. But people who are having suicidal thoughts are very likely severely depressed.
From my experience, when I was having suicidal thoughts there was more going on then just not taking pleasure in life. There were times when I believed that killing myself made sense. I believed my friends and family would be fine without me. But in reality, it makes no sense and my death would be utterly devastating to my friends and family. I would try to anticipate the next bout of severe depression hoping to prepare myself for it. This was in vain. When I went back into the worst levels of my depression I would have suicidal thoughts.
I also found it difficult to learn. When I was at my worst it was nearly impossible for me to do math or physics problems I wasn’t familiar with. But when I was feeling better I could solve them with reasonable effort. My concentration problems would also become more severe and I tended to talk to myself more than usual. My insomnia was always bad and medication for depression and my insomnia did not help.
I understand that it’s difficult to determine what causes what: attention problems, insomnia, depression, a sense of social isolation, poor academic performance, suicidal thoughts. But I feel very strongly that most people who are having suicidal thoughts are not thinking clearly, and probably cannot think clearly.
The Gospel and Suicide
There is a sense in the Church that if you live the Gospel then the emotional baggage that holds you down will go away. For example, the Eternal Marriage Student Manual has a passage that reads,
…the one who confidently looks forward to an eternal reward for his efforts in mortality is constantly sustained through his deepest trials; when his bank fails, he does not commit suicide… (Eternal Marriage Student Manual: Modesty and Morality)
Here is another example from the October 1973 General Conference.
…so instead of shooting himself, he did a little analyzing and he discovered that his mind had been operating like a giant junk factory, turning out all kinds of mental, emotional, and spiritual junk…[He] decided to change himself…he dumped overboard a lot of his bad habits of liquor, tobacco, and irresponsibility. He decided to adopt some good attitudes, think like a man, be responsible, and go to work. (“A Fortune to Share”, Sterling W. Sill)
Those two examples do not reflect the Church’s official position but they do reflect a broad sensibility held by many, many, members. A more official position is this:
Although it is wrong to take one’s own life, a person who commits suicide may not be responsible for his or her acts. Only God can judge such a matter. Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has said:
“Obviously, we do not know the full circumstances surrounding every suicide. Only the Lord knows all the details, and he it is who will judge our actions here on earth.
“When he does judge us, I feel he will take all things into consideration: our genetic and chemical makeup, our mental state, our intellectual capacity, the teachings we have received, the traditions of our fathers, our health, and so forth“ (“Gospel Topics: Suicide“, LDS.org)
Elder Ballard’s talk “Suicide: Some Things We Know, and Some We Do Not” is very good.
Most passages about suicide found in church publications deal with people who have suffered a sudden financial or personal loss, a loss of health, or had sinful personal habits. I can see how someone in those circumstances might contemplate suicide. I also believe they could possibly roll up their sleeves and work their way toward better mental health. I also suspect they have a much better chance of surviving through work. But it wasn’t like that for me.
Some of you might be thinking, “But you didn’t kill yourself! You made it. You must have done all the right things.” But I didn’t work my way out of it ether. When I was at my worst there was nothing I could have done to change my mental state. It can be tempting to believe that those who survived somehow rolled up their sleeves and those who didn’t somehow failed. But human beings are more similar than they are different; significantly more similar than different. Which is why we can understand one another; which is why psychology, social science, and medicine are possible. I believe my experience is similar to what other people have suffered. But sadly, many of those who didn’t survive aren’t here to explain.
Politics and Suicide
In 2010 Roseanne Barr had some very harsh things about Marie Osmond and the Mormon Church regarding the suicide of Marie’s son.
“Marie Osmond’s poor gay son killed himself because he had been told how wrong and how sick he was every day of his life by his church and the people in it. Calling that ‘depression’ is a lie…Hey, I want her and all the gay kids in the world to know that they are just fine being gay and that they deserve love and respect instead of insults and rebuke!…I know so many Mormon kids who were gay and committed suicide, and I just cannot and will not stay quiet in order to not offend bigots anymore. (“Roseanne Barr’s Swift Attack on Marie Osmond and Her Anti-Gay Church“, queerty.com)
I have several problems with Roseanne’s statement. But the main issue is that she tried to explain why Marie’s son killed himself: “because he had been told how wrong and how sick he was every day of his life…calling it ‘depression’ is a lie.” I realize that for many gay people, and for friends and family of gay people, this is a sensitive subject. But Roseanne’s statement borders on a diagnosis. She shouldn’t attempt to determine why another person was having suicidal thoughts. She has denied depression was a factor and simplified a condition that is likely to be complex. The subject of suicide should be treated with special care.
Certainly a person’s beliefs will affect her thoughts. A gay person raised in an environment where being gay is condemned will likely struggle to feel accepted and have emotional conflicts. The point I want to make here is, when you’re confronted with a person who has expressed thoughts of suicide, don’t simplify or judge, avoid knee-jerk reactions, and please avoid trying to diagnose the problem. Help them get qualified treatment.
Centers for Disease Control
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention some of the risk factors for suicide are: previous suicide attempt(s), history of depression or other mental illness, alcohol or drug abuse, family history of suicide or violence, physical illness, and feeling alone. Protective factors are: effective clinical care for mental, physical, and substance abuse disorders; easy access to a variety of clinical interventions and support for help seeking; family and community support (connectedness); support from ongoing medical and mental health care relationships; skills in problem solving, conflict resolution, and nonviolent ways of handling disputes; cultural and religious beliefs that discourage suicide and support instincts for self-preservation. (“Suicide: Risk and Protective Factors,” CDC; see also “Understanding Suicide,” CDC Fact Sheet.)
If you are thinking of suicide, whatever you do, don’t kill yourself. Seek qualified treatment. There is no shame in talking to a therapist. I did. If you are thinking about killing yourself, put it off, and keep putting it off. You can survive. There is hope.