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


My Depression and My Spouse

Image result for wife holder her depressed husbandLast week was a really bad week for me. Although I am never really symptom free, I am able to manage. But last week the bottom fell out and I lapsed into a deeper depression. As I write this I am gaining strength and I can see the light getting nearer. Because I am somewhat drained mentally I asked my dear wife to give me a suggestion for what to post this week. She hesitated for a moment and then said, “Write me a letter about what you want me to do when you are [depressed].”

Charity and I have been married for less than 18 months and she had not personally witnessed me in that state. Oh, I told her everything long before we started talking marriage. Early in our renewed relationship (we were high school sweethearts) I was hospitalized twice and went through a year-long-ordeal as a result of my major depressive disorder. Her eyes were wide open when she agreed to be my wife. But, letters and phone calls, and dates and discussions are not the same as living with it and seeing it for the first time.

Therefore, the following is my response to her request. . .

Dear Charity,

Thank you for asking me what I want you to do for me when I am in a depressed state. Your desire to help and respond appropriately are refreshing. You truly are a gift from God.

I want you to . . .

  1. Reassure me.

You are well aware why I ask this of you. During the 19 years I have lived with depression, it has cost me a lot – significant damage to my connection with God, my previous marriage and many other precious relationships, careers, freedom, most everything I owned, and nearly my life. My marriage ended 14 years before it became official and depression was the direct cause. Charlene was not able to adapt to or live with a person with depression. Our marriage and I became the least of her priorities. Those 14 years have left an indelible scar of fear upon me.

Charity, my love, I know you are not her. Still I need you to tell me that you love and respect me. To tell me that you are committed to our marriage and the vows we shared before God. To tell me that you believe in me. Relieve my fears by telling me that you will not leave me either physically or emotionally. That you will give me your support through my dark hours and beyond.

I want you to reassure me that I have an important role in our family. Before, my place in the family was absconded and to this day it has never been returned. Therefore, I was and am unimportant, dishonored, disrespected, discarded, and destroyed. Queen of my heart, tell me that my role in our family as friend, husband, father, grandfather, and protector is valued.

  1. Let me isolate for two or three days.

It is when I am alone in the dark with the door closed that I can process my thoughts, assess the severity of my depression, and plan for the next step. It is the way I charge my batteries for the task ahead. You are welcome to come in and check on me, but ask me if I am able to see anyone else before you send them in. There are exceptions. If you see me sleeping all the time or wandering about the house aimlessly all night, unhygienic, and generally unable to function, it is time for an intervention.

  1. Act normal.

Please, sweetheart, act as normal as is reasonably possible.  I am not mad at you and you have done nothing wrong. It is NOT your fault. Be patient with me, you did not cause my depression and you cannot cure it, if it can be cured at all. Neither hover over me nor withdraw from me. Do not be either angry with me or indifferent toward me. Show me compassion without condemnation. In other words, be balanced, be normal, be your own beautiful self.

  1. Encourage me.

Depression is not a way to avoid responsibilities. It is not a phase. I cannot “just get over it.” For me, honey, it is a serious disease of my brain. I apply the tools I have learned to try to manage it, take my medication as prescribed, attend individual and group counseling, and have gathered a support group around me, of which you are such an important part, to prevent free falls into utter darkness. I wish I could tell you that it works every time, but that is not true. Sometimes the severity of my depression overwhelms all personal and medical efforts to control it.

Encourage me to take my medicines and do spot checks to see that I do. Encourage me to keep my psychiatrist, counselor, and group appointments. Ask me what I have the strength and will to accomplish today and accept the answer I give you. You can challenge me to go beyond what I feel I can do, but please do not nag or ridicule me if I cannot do it or fail in the attempt. You are such a comfort and confidant and I need you to be my wife and friend, and leave the cajoling to my doctor and counselor.

  1. Ask me if I am having suicidal ideations.

Do not ask me by saying, “You’re not thinking of doing anything stupid, are you?” I may answer, “No,” not because I am not thinking about suicide, but because I do not think it is a “stupid” idea. Ask me in a straight forward manner, “Are you thinking about suicide or harming yourself in any way?” Ask me in such a way that you expect me to tell the truth and will not act shocked and upset by the answer. You do not want me to give you the answer you want to hear, you want me to tell you the truth. If I answer, “Yes,” then it may be time to take me to the hospital. Be strong, my precious princess, look me in the eye and ask the question.

  1. Educate yourself about my depression.

Do not rely on what you have heard from others or learned on television. Get recommendations for good books to read. Glean through the medical transcripts that I have stored at the house. Make an appointment to talk to my counselor. I will sign the necessary confidentiality waver to make it happen. I want you to be informed. I want you to know.

You are my hero in so many ways, Charity. You reached out to me in my darkest hours with encouragement and support, believed in me when all the evidence for doing so was negative, and loved me for who I was and not for who you wanted me to become. I thank God for you every day.

With all my love and gratitude,