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

Depression: A Way Through, Part I

According to a 12 month study published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), over eight percent of the female population and nearly five percent of the male population of the United States had a depressive episode in 2014. Among that population over 65% were diagnosed as severe. Depression is the fifth leading cause of disability in the U.S.A.

It has been a year and nine months since my last severe depressive episode. This is my longest stretch of relative stability since becoming clinically depressed in 1999. Although I am no expert I would like to share with you some of the things that have helped me along my journey.

Admit that you have a problem.

Studies indicate that the number of major depressive episodes a person has is a predictor of future episodes. There is a 50-60% chance that a person with one major episode will have another. That number increases to 70% for those who have had two episodes. And for those who have had three or more episodes there is a 90% chance that they will have another.

After 14 years, four major depressive episodes, and four hospitalizations, I was still mostly in denial that I had a long-term illness. When I was well enough to get going again I always returned to the same old lifestyle and pressures that contributed to my depression. Nothing changed. By just sheer will and determination I thought I could handle it. Counseling was sporadic and I used a family doctor instead of a psychiatrist for medication adjustments and refills. It was not until I faced the reality of my illness that I began to take steps toward stability.

The events leading up to my last hospitalization scared me enough to face facts. Suicidal ideations came on so strong that they nearly overwhelmed me. Broken, powerless, with no internal resources left, I stumbled into an emergency room and admitted I had a need I could not handle anymore. You may think this sounds like the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) (We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.) and you would be correct. Perhaps the first step toward wellness of any mental illness, disease, or addiction is coming face to face with the wall that alone is unclimbable.

Get on the right medications.

See a psychiatrist. Family doctors are notorious for under-medicating their mentally ill patients. Also, your family doctor, however great s/he may be, does not have the expertise nor does s/he keep up with the medications available with the same intensity or proficiency that a psychiatrist does. Find one that you can trust and with whom you can have a rapport. If you are like me and have to see the psychiatrist that is available at your local mental health agency, do not be a sheep. Take charge of your care and do not settle for what s/he is giving you until the medication(s) you are taking works for you.

During my effort to find the right medication I have taken Zoloft, Paxil, Effexor, Prestiq, Wellbutrin, Trazadone, Lithium, Abilify, and Brintellix; and a multitude of dosage changes. It was not until the fall of 2014, 15 years past my initial major depressive episode, that I found a cocktail of medications that worked. Persistence and a psychiatrist that was willing to work with me paid its dividends.

Do not expect medication alone to have you clicking your heels and living a happy life. Depression is a journey hundreds of miles in length. The best medication can do for you is get you out of bed and perhaps into the car. The rest of the trip depends on you.

Go to professional counseling regularly.

Attending regular one-on-one counseling sessions and professionally led support groups is essential to stabilizing and living with your depression. Find a counselor who is knowledgeable about mood disorders and stays current with his/her field. Choose one who is compassionate and understanding, but is not afraid to confront you with your “stinkin’ thinkin’,” to borrow a phrase that Zig Ziglar made famous. And, believe me; we that have a major depressive disorder can have any number of false beliefs. As with a psychiatrist, do not settle for the first counselor you meet until you know for sure that that person is helping you wade through your morass.

I paid the price for not going to counseling on a regular basis. My work suffered, my marriage fell apart, my family was uncertain, and more. Often I would see a counselor once or twice and quit. “It’s too far to travel,” “I do not have the time,” or “I can do this on my own;” were some of the excuses I used. For nearly 15 years I started and quit, started and quit, started and quit. In May of 2014, after admitting I had a lifetime problem, I started with a counselor and have not quit. Ask for weekly sessions at first, twice monthly sessions if that is what you can get, or a minimum of once a month. You do not have to settle for less.

Find a gender specific, professionally led depression group. Gender specific, because it is easier for men and women to discuss their issues and feel understood and accepted when in a single sex group. Professionally led, in order that s/he will help the group stay on task, guide the discussion, and recognize when one particular member needs the support of all.  Peer led groups are good and worthwhile, but I have found that a professionally led group is far more focused. Personally, I attend a men’s group twice a week. Contact your local mental health agency or your local NAMI chapter for information on groups in your area.

The Costs and Blessings of Depression: Freedom, Part I

People diagnosed with depression are roughly three times more likely than the general population to commit violent crimes such as robbery, sexual offenses and assault. This is the conclusion of a widely published 2015 Swedish study conducted by the Oxford University psychiatry department. The latest figures for the U.S.A. put the percentage between two and four percent. An article, Jailing People with Mental Illness, published by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) states that “Nearly 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition.” Caring for the mentally ill in America’s state and federal prisons has become a national health crisis.

The following is a story of one such man who went to jail for committing crimes while seriously mentally ill. Here is his story in his own words:

Depression was always a part of my life from the time I was a youth. It was never very serious, but there were days when it was hard to cope. In my 39th year things changed. I was diagnosed with clinical depression, severe, recurrent. My life took a radical turn.

I was pastoring a wonderful congregation in the Midwest. The church had grown by nearly 50 percent in three years. More people meant more responsibility, but I loved it. The congregation had voted to purchase 15 acres for a new campus and we were talking about going to two services. God was so good and life was fulfilling for my family and me. And then, I became deeply depressed and it lingered on for days, months, years.

Despondency overtook me. The temptation to complete suicide was a battle I waged every day for the next four and a half years. Medication, and the belief that suicide is a sin, kept me alive. My family struggled with uncertainty and the presence of a body that looked like their father and husband, but could not function like one. My marriage took a hit from which it never recovered. I tried counseling, but when the counselor said, “Maybe God is finished with you,” I became angry and quit. Later, I tried intense counseling over a three-week period. Although it helped, it was too little too late to save my ministry. I resigned soon thereafter.

Forced into the secular job market, I was poorly prepared for the disdain the secular world held for my Master’s of Divinity degree and the executive and educational experience I gained from 21 years in the ministry. I was desperate. My wife took a full time job for the first time in our 20 year marriage. After consulting with her, I began to cast wider and wider circles in an attempt to find a job. But, when I found a hot prospect that required us to move, she put the brakes on.

We argued. I was moody and hard to live with. Our marriage was falling apart and I was helpless to stop it. She re-prioritized her life; I was near the bottom. The day before Father’s Day she told me that when we vacated the parsonage she was going her own way and I was not invited. Our separation was short, but our marriage was essentially over.

At last we decided to return to the southern states from whence we came. Housing was available and friends were there to help. My family was safe for the moment. My wife was quickly hired into a new job and a friend helped me to find a job that appreciated my skills. We prospered in our employment. She spent more and more time at her work and so did I. I went to saying I was number 25 on her list of priorities and she did not object. Communication failed between us. The harder I tried to repair the breach the worse things became. I became an angry man.

Eventually, the depression dissipated. I was able to go off my medication for a couple of months. There were several promotions at work and I went back to school for a second master’s degree. Then, the bottom fell out again. Within six weeks I had four major, negative life events. One morning I sat up on the side of the bed preparing to go to work when I burst into tears and could not stop crying. My wife rallied to my side and tried to be helpful and compassionate. I tried to cope on my own, but eventually had to go to the hospital. It was my first hospitalization and lasted for 10 days. I experienced two severe episodes of catalepsy while there. (Catalepsy is characterized by a lack of muscle response, a stupor. One is not unaware, but unable to respond.) It was not the first time, but by far the worst.  A dark side appeared that I did not know existed within me when a doctor failed to recognize I was in a catatonic state and treated me very rudely. When I “awoke” I went after him, but stopped short of attacking him.

When I returned to work they demoted me and stripped me of my responsibility as a supervisor. To say the least it was hard to accept. I had taken a department that was weak, underutilized, and losing money; expanded it, hired more employees, and showed a profit for the first time in several years. Upon my demotion they split my department into three units and hired three people to take my place. Things at home began to disintegrate, too. After an initial show of support my wife withdrew from me more and more. I became angrier and was very difficult to live with.

Our home environment became very hostile. I practically got on my knees again and again and begged my wife to change the culture in our home. She ignored me. At a time when I needed order and structure, she became more disordered and unstructured than ever before. Although she was never a good housekeeper, she grew worse and the house became unlivable. I tried to help, but I could not keep up. On one particular weekend I was home alone and decided to give the house a thorough cleaning. It was spotless, ordered, and neat. Within ten minutes of her return it did not look like I had done a thing. I gave up. Eventually, I went to work, came home, and went to bed. My depression grew deeper to the point that I withdrew from all social contact, including church.

As the depression worsened I found myself crying on my way to work, in between clients, and on my way home. Suicidal ideations returned forcefully. I checked myself into the hospital for the second time. During the eight day stay, my wife visited me once. By the end of the week after returning home she asked me to leave. Little did I know that our separation would last four years.

(Watch for more of the story next week.)