A Face Behind Suicidal Thoughts

I’ve had training in suicide prevention. I know the statistics.* It is the tenth leading cause of death. Firearms are the number one method. Men complete suicide more than women. Men over 80 years of age and those between 15 and 24 are at the greatest risk. White men kill themselves more than any other race. The Golden Gate Bridge over San Francisco Bay is the most popular place to end one’s life. Reasons vary from loneliness and illness among older people and relationship troubles among the young. Only about 30% of people leave a note.

I know something else. All these statistics are sterile. They are gathered from death certificates annually, calculated by people who like numbers, and published for public consumption. There are no faces to go along with the stats. No mention of the psychological pain that would cause one to make such a permanent decision. No names of friends and family left to grieve, forever accompanied by the unsolvable mystery of WHY. No impact statement about the immediate and lasting effects. They are boneless, fleshless numbers that mean nothing to most and are too late to do any good for suffering survivors.

I cannot show you the face of someone who has completed suicide; their voice is silent. But, I can show you the face of someonePanther Canyon (3) who has seriously thought about suicide. It is my face. As I write this, I am fighting back tears as I think about the only difference between them and me is, I didn’t pull the trigger.

I have walked beside a river fighting the strongest urge to jump in. The thought of my brother, who was walking with me, drowning trying to save me was my only restraint. I have heard the whistle of a train speeding through town and wished I could stand in front of that giant diesel-electric locomotive, and be released from my pain.

I have looked at a pistol I owned, held it in my hand until I knew the feel and grip of the gun.  Purchased ammunition, loaded the clip. Over several weeks I practiced with the unloaded gun until it felt comfortable against my temple. I got as far as putting in the clip, but before I chambered a round, I called a friend for help.

For four-and-a-half years, from the spring of 2000 to the fall of 2004, I thought about suicide every day. I prayed earnestly for death to release me from my physical and emotional pain. In the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, I drove too fast for the winding, twisting, climbing, and falling narrow roads. Sometimes, in the back alleys and lanes of Appalachia, I entertained the silly notion of being hijacked. The scene rolled through my head something like this: the perpetrator would force me to drive. Along the way I gained speed and slammed into some unmovable object that results in both our deaths. Thus, intentionally ending my life, but leaving my family and others to think otherwise. It was a boyish fantasy, but I was searching for some way to die in a way that appeared legitimate.

As I have written before, my melancholia turned to clinical depression in the summer of 1999. By October of that year, I was in agonizing pain from Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I didn’t have constipation or diarrhea, I had incapacitating pain. For the next 12 months it was relentless. Some days it was moderate, other days it was severe, but I was never without it. Two trips to the hospital, multiple med changes trying to find relief, a referral to a Gastroenterologist, and participating in a clinical trial for a new IBS “miracle” drug resulted in no change.

Pain was the direct cause for my thoughts, but the consequences added to my despair. For 26 years I did nothing but prepare and serve as a pastor/teacher. I didn’t want to do other things. I had planned to be in full-time Christian service for life. I was poorly prepared to work in the secular world. However, it was plain to see by my worsening condition that I wouldn’t ever pastor or teach full-time again.

The church I pastored was virtually trouble free and growing rapidly. We were quickly running out of space and had recently purchased 12 acres for relocation. When the IBS and depression sidelined me, it all came to a screeching halt. My wife tried to hide the stagnation and decline from me, but on the rare Sundays that I was able to attend the evidence was all around. I had become a roadblock to progress; resigning was inevitable.

At some point, we decided my wife needed to get a job. My pain and depression brought an air of uncertainty into our family that never existed before. At 17 our daughter announced she was pregnant. I blamed myself for causing the family to destabilize and fear. The tight father/daughter relationship we had became strained. Eventually, my depression became too much for my wife and she pulled away from me, too.

By the spring of 2000, I was having suicidal thoughts, but it wasn’t until a summer family camping trip to a southern Indiana park that I told my wife. The two of us were strolling along in the camp grounds on an evening walk when I told her I wanted to die and was thinking about killing myself. She told me how hurtful and harmful it would be, but neither one of us spoke about it to anyone else. It was our family secret.

The longer the pain and depression lingered and the more loss I experienced, the more I wanted to end my life. My wife was taking me to another doctor’s appointment when I told her that I had reconciled in my mind leaving her and our children, leaving my aging and ailing parents, and leaving all others. The only thought preventing me was the spiritual destination of my soul.

Again in 2007, 2008, 2013, and 2014, I had briefer, but as or more intense suicidal thoughts than before. I voluntarily hospitalized myself four times.

Today, I can say I have had no suicidal thoughts since November of 2014 – the longest period I have gone since 1999. IBS hasn’t been an issue for several years now and I am at peace with my depression. For years afterward I grieved the loss of the church I pastored and my full-time ministry, but I have come to accept it. God answered my prayer to die with a, “No,” and I am very thankful. Life is worth living.

I taught my wife to ask the question, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” when I appear deeply depressed. She had to ask it a few weeks ago. I thanked her for asking, gave her a hug, a kiss on the check, and gratefully said, “No.”

If you are contemplating suicide, please call someone or go to your local emergency room. Give hope a chance. I am alive today because of hope. Sometimes it was as thin as a spider’s silk, but it never left me.

The LORD is with you.

*Some of the statistics were verified from the CDC. All statistics are for the United States.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline     1-800-273-8255

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Choose Your Insanity, Part I

Untreated or Under-Treated Depression

Image may contain: house, sky, tree, outdoor and natureOver the past 19 years I have learned the consequences of untreated and under-treated depression. And, I have picked up a thing or two about the side-effects of antidepressants. Either can drive you mad.

The first sign that my 30 years of occasional melancholia was turning into clinical depression was in the summer of 1999. It started with what the doctor called, “cluster-headaches.” It was painful and came in cycles of repeated headaches followed by periods without them. The doctor prescribed sunglasses. (He probably gave me a medication, but the sunglasses are all I remember). It may be a cool look to wear shades, but imagine me in church on a Sunday morning leading worship and preaching with sunglasses on. Believe me, it makes eye-contact pointless when the congregation cannot see your eyes.

The second sign began in the fall of the same year. After multiple trips to the hospital and the doctor, it was determined I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). The pain was severe and disabling. Nothing I was prescribed helped. I was asked to join a trial study for a medication that reportedly “was the best thing since toilet paper.” Because of some bleeding, I had to have a colonoscopy. Every medical person who was part of the trial study was interested. My procedure became the main attraction of the day with a regular stream of doctors and nurses coming in and out for a look. Hey, bottoms up! After no noticeable change, I was referred to yet another specialist who prescribed a medication that finally worked. But, with the pain gone, the true culprit appeared with a vengeance – depression.

A moderate to severe depressive disorder can have serious effects on your physical and mental health. Besides headaches and digestive issues, depression is often accompanied by back pain, stomachaches, chest pain, achy legs and arms, sleep problems (insomnia or hyposomnia), and weight gain or loss. It can make it harder to get over the flu or other seasonal illnesses, too. Studies have shown that people recovering from a stroke or heart attack and have comorbid depression are at double the risk of death than a person without depression. One study concluded that an “episode of clinical depression is as dangerous as smoking in causing heart disease and heart attacks.”

Depression also affects your brain. Sluggish thinking, difficulty concentrating, trouble remembering, problems making both minor and major decisions, and difficulty focusing are common. Recent studies have determined that untreated or under-treated depression can cause the brain to shrink. In most cases the brain will recover, but it can become permanent if the depression is left untreated over a long period of time. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning has shown that depression is related to abnormalities in the memory center, conflict-resolution area, and the planning and executing parts of the brain.

My under-treated depression was partly my fault. I was inconsistent about going to a psychiatrist or a mental health counselor. After a while, I thought I could forego the travel and hassle of seeing a psychiatrist and let my family doctor prescribe my medications. One general practitioner gave me prescriptions covering a whole year. One annual appointment was really convenient for me, but not healthy.

Finding a counselor with whom I could stay engaged was difficult. On the second visit to the first therapist I tried, she told me that maybe God was finished with me. After my next visit, I was finished with her. Other times I used the miles I had to travel or the money I had to spend as an excuse. You see, I had yet to lose confidence in my ability to handle my own depression. It was not until after four hospitalizations and losing nearly everything in my life that I held dear, that I decided it was time to see a psychiatrist and go to counseling consistently. During that time, I had frequent, long and persistent episodes of suicidal ideations. The first lasted four and one-half years, the second and third one year each, and the fourth two years.

Untreated or under-treated depression carries a high risk of suicide. Thoughts can grow worse with time. My last round of suicidal ideations was so severe that it took every ounce of will I had to not jump in the swift river I walked beside or run and step in front of the train whose whistle I heard. Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and visions of an aimless future gripped my soul. At one point, only the thought of spending an eternity in hell prevented me from completing suicide to escape the pain. Suicidal ideations can also express themselves in reckless behavior, risky situations, and dangerous circumstances.

Relationships can be damaged beyond repair. Family and friends can feel ostracized by your changed mood and behavior. Irritability, isolation, anger, lashing out at loved ones, and a disinterest in most things including sex do not make for healthy relationships. During my under-treated depression, my marriage ended and I became estranged from my children and grandchildren. God seemed far away.

Careers can become a casualty of moderate to severe depression. Accumulating sick days, unproductive efforts, lack of energy, and diminished concentration is not a recipe for a good employee. Both of my careers – pastoral ministry and counseling – were lost and are now unrecoverable. Students can lose interest in or find it difficult to study. Class attendance can be sporadic and assignments are late if they get turned in at all. Aimlessly sitting around thinking about your symptoms, sadness, and misery can interfere with decision-making and make matters worse.

Substance and/or alcohol abuse, addiction, and self-injurious behaviors are possible.

Yes, untreated or under-treated depression can put you into a sad and worsening state of affairs. Psychotic breaks from reality, catatonic features, catalepsy, posturing, echolalia or echopraxia, anorexia, obesity, and leaden paralysis are possible.

Is there any hope? There is always hope. Proper treatment can go a long way toward restoring a new normal. However, that “new normal” can come with its own challenges and its own brand of insanity.

Come back next week for a look at the common side-effects of anti-depressant medications and the issues they cause.