Why didn’t they ask for help? Thoughts on suicide and depression
In the stories we tell ourselves (and others) about depression and suicide, we ponder questions such as, “Why didn’t they say anything? Why didn’t they ask for help? They should have asked for help.”
I’ll share this.
On Wednesday, I banged my head on a wall—so stupid. At 3 o’clock in the morning, I was sitting on a chair at the airport. I miscalculated the distance from the wall and hit my head so forcefully that everyone around me did that hissing wince, with a lot of “ouch!” and “oh!” The migraine came right away; the pain wrapped its tentacles around my neck and also lodged itself at the center of my brain.
Once I got home, I went straight to bed (which I later learned is the absolute no-no, in case there’s a concussion) and, when the pain woke me around 10am, my vision was spotty. Calling the pain excruciating would be putting it mildly. But here comes the real scary part: I could feel depression set it. “God, not this, please.” I knew how bad it could get. By mid-day, I was so distraught that I started avoiding my usual breaks. I didn’t want to allow myself to think and, on Thursday, I continued to work despite the pain.
On Friday, I was finally forced to cancel all my meetings and take the afternoon off. By that time, all I wanted to do was cry. January had been so fulfilling—I’d dealt with everything like a boss. I’d been focused and energized. Work had been a series of accolades. My days had been well balanced. I’d even been on a health kick. (Turns out if you want to lose 15 pounds, all you need is to consume balanced home-cooked meals for a month. Who knew?) But, of course, my depression had nothing to do with anything anchored in reality. Or with the physical pain, for that matter. (The migraine had only been the trigger for something darker.) That’s depression for you: it doesn’t need a real reason.
On Saturday, I finally considered asking for help—not for the migraine, but for the desperation I felt.
Who would I call? I know a lot of people, but I don’t have many close friends because:
1. I work a lot, mostly to avoid my own thoughts. And friendship needs to be curated. Most of the texts I get everyday are from clients—people who need something from me.
2. I’m a little weird. I say weird things. I’m socially awkward.
But I do have friends. And I recognize that people are busy dealing with their own anxieties—moving, kids, husbands, work and promotions, responsibilities. One friend was helping a sick aunt. Another was on a date. Another spoke about herself without interruption as soon as she picked up and when it was finally my turn to talk, I was in too much (physical) pain to talk.
Once I start thinking that it’d be nice to just vanish out of thin air, I know I cannot keep quiet anymore. So on Sunday, I finally mustered the willpower to open up.
I chose someone who’s part of my support system and I didn’t beat around the bush. In fact, I was very explicit: I explained that I was not feeling myself, that I needed their support. Voilà!
Again: In the stories we tell ourselves (and others) about depression and suicide, we ponder questions such as, “Why didn’t they say anything? Why didn’t they ask for help? They should have asked for help.” But I’ll tell you a few things:
1. You were probably busy when I considered calling you. I know I, myself, am often too busy for other people.
2. Opening up is a process. If you’re not perceptive enough, you might not even realize that there’s something urgent the caller wants to share. We (who suffer from high-functioning depression) spend most of our time “faking it.” We’re experts at hiding that something is wrong, and we often have a high threshold for physical pain. I entertained family members on Friday night and sang karaoke despite the throbbing in my head and my hands. This morning (Sunday), my husband had no idea that the migraine was still as bad as Thursday. Yeah, I’m on the computer. It’s spotty. But I’ll do what I have to do to avoid introspection.
3. Talking about depression brings the worst out of people. Despite what you want to believe about yourself, you DON’T want to hear about someone else’s crappy day. It makes you think about your own fallibility, and you WILL judge your friend’s situation. “What can’t she just keep it together?”
But I asked for help.
This person—we’ll call them “Joe”—offered to listen. And they did. For a few minutes. But the tone changed after a little bit, imperceptibly at first, but soon it was clearly accusatory. By the end of the conversation, they were reminding me how difficult I was. As they say in Creole, se sa l pa sonje l pa di. If I didn’t feel worthless before, now I sure did.
And to be clear:
1. This person usually likes me and we have a relationship I actually put effort into—which is not most of my relationships.
2. I told them clearly that I was feeling very down and needed them.
3. I was not emotional when I asked for help. I was measured, matter-of-fact.
4. I was specific about my needs: “Can we just chat about little nothings?”
5. I see them often enough that they could have easily waited to give me my report card.
You might think, “What an ass,” but most people simply can’t handle the idea of depression. If, by their standards, everything should be going well for you, how dare you challenge this paradigm?
When I got home, I was so devastated I sat in the car for two hours, just listening to myself breathe. Now I felt down AND betrayed. I had no energy to climb up the stairs to the apartment. I had no energy for another conversation. For a mundane exchange about dinner and laundry. I just wanted to be scooped up and swallowed into a hole within a hole.
I’ll tell you what saved me—and you’ll understand why I’m a workaholic. Why I’ll never have time for you. Why my computer is so damn important. Why I’ll take a client’s call over yours.
You want to know how I was able to put myself back together?
Somebody texted me about work. They knew I had a migraine but wanted updates on a writing project I’d been working on.
And suddenly I had something else to focus on. And it required imagination.
For once, I was thankful that I had my work phone on me on a Sunday—which says so much about the way I don’t balance life and work.
Sometimes, imbalance works in my favor.
And writing. Always writing.
I shared this post on social media and was reminded that I do have a tribe. Many people texted me, wanting to know that I was okay. "I'm willing to listen whenever you want to talk," a friend wrote. "And I truly mean that. My best friend suffers from depression, and I have learned so much from her. Feel free to reach out whenever you want."
"I love you and I thank you for writing this," Faby wrote. "This is so vital, especially for those who don't understand depression and think we can just snap out of it, think we just feel blue."
From Kelly: "Depression and anxiety are unwelcome guests that don't know when to leave. Wish they'd get the hint with deep breathing, gratitude, and pints of Ben & Jerry's."
From Monica and Grecia: "You aren't alone."
According to Denise's doctor, an inflammation in the head can trigger episodes of depression. Sounds like this is what happened for me after banging my head—for Denise, it’s sometimes triggered during allergy season, when she's experienced very intense sudden-onset episodes of depression. "Maybe it sounds too obvious or kooky, maybe you already tried it for the pain," she said, "but at least for me, 400mg of ibuprofen can help take the edge off of the mood symptoms."
My friend Stephanie contacted me on Facebook, and I received the support I needed.
Another friend (interestingly, also named Stephanie) also offered to lend me an ear. She shared that, "One horror to me is reaching out to a mental health professional who either doesn't call back or doesn't have an appointment available for like two weeks. They, of all people, should know how much effort it took to make the call, right? But to have a friend so uncomfortable with being a good listener -- that's such a deep disappointment."
Nilsa echoed Stephanie's sentiment: "It’s Ironic how so many of us are living in the cages of depression yet we can’t seem to be there for each other. So many people on survival mode."
I learned that:
1. "Joe" was not the best choice today. Make sure to identify your Joes and your Stephanies! Be wise.
2. Stephanie knew that I needed help because I reached out. Do not underestimate the power of reaching out (to the right person). Stephanie's had a lot of experience with anxiety and suggested strategies such as deep breathing, counting backwards from 100, and meditation (quiet time, Tai Chi, or yoga). We also discussed affirmations.
3. Movement helps. "Yoga, dance, run, jump, breathe, just get the energy moving," my friend Jessica suggested.
4. It also helps to create acronyms. Martine suggested PEAS.
Pray Exercise eAt healthy Sleep
She created it a few years ago when she, too, was going through a difficult time. "It sure helps till this day," she says. "And remember that everything is temporary."
5. Funny pictures of dogs and children can bring a smile too, particularly when curated by someone as funny as my friend Scott.
Jennifer had some good advice too. "When going through a crisis, Only talk to people who understand the condition. Friends or family members, although they may mean well, may end up saying something that makes you feel worse, due to their unfamiliarity with depression. They may think it’s self-pity, it’s seeking attention, and just push you farther down the spiral of sadness and guilt. In any case, I think that talking about depression, which is a taboo in Haitian society, helps with raising awareness--and you should be proud of yourself that you are disclosing what you are going through."
I'm so sorry if you're going through depression right now. I hope you get the support you need. I hope you muster the energy to write and share your own story. I send big hugs to you.
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Are the usual depression books helping you find a path to healing? No? Try this poetry collection especially for those dealing with mental illness and for people closest to them.
Create hope for the future. Paloma is faking it. On the outside, she’s A-Okay. She’s electrified at work, there is a cadence in her step as she walks her dog, she posts memes on Facebook, and she keeps up with most relationships. Looks can be deceiving, however. Inside, Paloma is just going through the motions, and she feels like things are spiraling out of control. But when things are at their darkest, dawn arrives with clarity and focus, and with it, healing. Paloma learns to value small glimmering moments of joy rather than searching for constant happiness, thus building hope for her future.
A manifesto for life. Happy, Okay?: Poems about Anxiety, Depression, Hope, and Survival is not simply a narrative spun in verse by a masterful poet. It is an invitation to readers to shake off the stigma and silence of mental illness and find strength in the only voice that matters: your own. It can be an electric roadmap to healing and a manifesto for wholeness.
In this inspiring and heartwarming book, you will:
Understand how to make happiness a decision, even when you don’t feel it in your bones
Find out how to exercise patience and self-acceptance
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