XO, O.

I put a lot of thought into making the significant and intentional decision to expose a part of my life that I considered to be wrong and shameful for a long time.  Social stigma and cultural norms led me to believe that having depression is a weakness.  The lack of general understanding about this illness convinced me that depression is something you can shrug off if you can just “stay positive” and “focus on the good things.”  Oh, if it were that easy, we’d all be skipping through life.  (BTW, do not say these things to a depressed person.  It’s like telling a zebra to shed its stripes – not gonna happen.  Not gonna help.)

Shortly after I began blogging about my history and present experience with depression, I received an email from a concerned friend who had been rattled by my writing – understandably.  I wrote about suicide.  About my experience with suicidal thoughts.  I posted freshly written poems and journal entries and poems and journal entries I’ve written and hid over the course of 15+ years I have lived with depression.  To the reader who has not experienced clinical depression firsthand, hearing or reading the thoughts that circle in the mind of a depressed person can be worrying and frightening.  So, how can these worrying and frightening thoughts be shared with or understood by those who haven’t had these thoughts course through their minds day after dismal day?  I think about this often.

I appreciate that my friend reached out to me from a place of concern and care, but I am also thankful that she shared her thoughts about the broader issue of public conversation about suicide.  I’ve been wanting to share our correspondence with you, dear reader, for a long while.  I hope that it brings some clarity to the experience of mental illness, as a whole.  It is my hope that it will unearth how I, among many, have been and continue to experience life with depression.  It is my hope that more people will reach out, talk.  It is my hope that more people will listen.

***

Hi Odawni,

You’re scaring me with your posts… I probably didn’t share something with you, and though not a secret, is not something I generally talk about, but your dark posts have motivated me to let you know my take on a subject you seem to be giving much attention to – my father committed suicide when I was in my early teens. He was a manic depressive (bi-polar), had Seasonal Affective Disorder and one day made a permanent decision. I don’t pretend to understand what compels someone to take their own life. But I’ll tell you 2 things I know. First – People don’t talk about suicide in general terms for good reason – it’s contagious. That’s why it’s illegal. For whatever reason we have a lemming quality in us and talking about suicide, knowing people who have actually done it, increases your chances. I don’t think it’s entirely taboo, but talking about it in general terms, not for the sake of getting help or researching to help people is more dangerous than anything else. Why focus your attentions on taking your own life? It’s kind of like teen pregnancy, though on different ends of the life cycle. haha. Two – if you are thinking of it, writing about it, reflecting on it, wondering how you would do it – it’s very much an issue. Treatment for mental health issues have a long way since my dad, and I always wonder if he’d been able to hold on a bit longer, if he couldn’t have found a treatment that worked for him. I sincerely hope that you are as insanely proactive for your own depression as you are intelligent, inquisitive and personable. I really hope that the right combination of treatment, environment, nutrition, exercise, familial and friend support, climate, etc. will eventually make things better for you. Odawni – you’ve got to point your mind in a new direction, stop the dangerous path… Hope you don’t mind my message. I have fond memories of our times together and I remember laughing a lot. I hope you can maintain the laughter and screw everything else.

Concerned friend.

***

Friend,

Thanks you so much for your message. I really appreciate that you opened up to me and shared your personal experience with and thoughts about suicide. First, I am very sorry that your dad suffered from mental illness so much so that he decided to take his own life. I’m sure it must have been a very difficult thing to go through for you and your family.

As someone who knows the pain of losing a family member to suicide, as well as the first-hand struggle of a seemingly insurmountable condition, it’s important to me that the topic of suicide finds its way to society’s general realm of discussion. My intent on sharing my experience with it is to do just that. I in no way condone the act of killing oneself. I believe life to be worth living, and I believe that all people, at their core, feel the same; no matter their mental state. But the mind plays tricks on you when you are in such a dark and seemingly hopeless place that you truly feel you want to end it all and it seems to be the only option to end the pain.

I do agree with you that talking about suicide in generalities can be dangerous, and I thank you for bringing this to my attention. As I write about it, my purpose is merely to educate and expose its existence, so that we, as a society, pay attention to it. The first step of tackling a problem is talking about it, and if we can understand it better, we can provide more support. I realize this is tricky because, as you say, talking about suicide has the potential to trigger a ‘lemming’ reaction from someone who is thinking about suicide as an option. However, having this conversation, if worded and presented in a particular way, has the powerful potential to save the life of someone who is suicidal.

I’m sure you are already aware of everything I’ve written. I just want you to know that I am incredibly passionate about finding ways to help those who are in such a difficult place. I mean no disrespect by what I share and write, and I hope that you don’t feel I have disrespected you and your family. Suicide is a sensitive subject and I don’t want my references to it to seem insensitive.

I thank you so much that you’ve shared your thoughts with me because you’ve helped me realize that my writing could be misconstrued. More specifically, I appreciate that you’ve outlined the difference between referring to suicide in generalities vs. making clear statements about wanting to fight this epidemic. I’ve decided to edit all my posts about suicide to include a statement that it is my intent and goal to help in the fight of saving lives and will provide links to support resources. I volunteered at the Crisis Line for a year so I know how powerful those types of resources can be.

Learning more about and addressing suicide has always been something I’ve felt strongly about, and now that I have come to a place where I understand it enough that I feel I can help, I am that much more passionate about it. This is something I am dedicating my life to, but I want to go about this in a way that will help. As I write this, I am realizing how tremendously helpful your email has been in giving me a clearer path to how I can be most effective. I am still trying to figure out a way to write about my experience without causing concern to friends and family. That you have taken the time to reach out to me and share something very personal to you, means a lot to me.

I want to reassure you that, though I have been to the place of wanting to end my life many times, I have made the final decision to live. I have been lucky enough to be able to tease apart symptom from reality, but I proudly state that it has not all been luck. I have worked years and years to get to this place. I’ve tried many different therapies, medications, and methods to get to this place. It has been a very difficult and exhausting journey but worth every moment of pain. I don’t pretend to think that I have conquered depression to the point that I will never sit in darkness again, but I know that it is manageable, and I believe that every single person who has sat in the darkness can get out of it. I want to help.

I’d like to share text from an email I sent not long ago. I think it will help to explain where I’m at with depression and suicide, as well as the intent behind my writing. Actually, I should have included you on this email, as you have also helped me to get through the really difficult times. I pasted it below.

Thanks for offering to let me share your message. I’d really like to write about this on my blog….

XO,
O

Email I want to share with you:

For some of you, you’re hearing from me from out of the blue, and for others, this email may have elements of redundancy. Whichever angle you are reading this from, thanks in advance for taking the time in your busy lives to ‘listen’ to lil’ ol’ me. I’ll try to keep this brief.

As some of you know, I have clinical depression. It’s been a part of my life for over 15 years. At first I had no idea what it was. I thought that it was a part of who I was. I know now that that’s not true. I finally feel like I can embrace my depression enough to find a way to manage it. It’s a work in progress, as it always will be. Years of medication and therapy have helped me get to this point, but writing – writing is the constant that saved my life. I’ve been writing for as long as depression has been a part of my life; medication and therapy came in to play years after it began.

I now have a completely different relationship with mental illness. I don’t want to hide it, and I have accepted that it is a chronic disease, but I will not allow it to swallow me whole. I will not give it the satisfaction of snuffing out my aspirations. I am turning to writing again as a healing practice for myself, but I also want to share it to serve as a tool for others, be it for those with mental illness, relatives or friends of someone with depression, or for people who want to learn about and understand the experience of depression. I started a blog a year or so ago as a sort of blank canvas for creativity and have decided to also use this space to write about mental illness, creatively or otherwise. This is my small contribution to not only help others, but to also chip away at the stigma associated with mental illness. I invite you to participate in this endeavor with me via visiting my blog. Just so you know, if this is not for you or if you don’t enjoy my writing, I won’t take it personally.

Aside from sharing the above with you, I also wanted to thank you. Each of you has helped me through this whether you are aware of it or not. I am so grateful that you have played a part in lifting me up to this place. Friends and family are truly a key ingredient in getting through each day. I am so incredibly thankful for you, all of you – friends and family.

 

Synthetic baby steps.

“If depression is creeping up and must be faced, learn something about the nature of the beast: You may escape without a mauling.” – Dr. R.W. Shepherd

***

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

***

“The mornings themselves were becoming bad now as I wandered about lethargic, following my synthetic step…” – William Styron (Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness)

***

:: Journal entry ::

I find myself questioning whether I truly am depressed.  I seem to care less and less.

I’m exhausted.  I want to find meaning in something but everything appears plastic and hollow.

I don’t feel suicidal but I want to close my eyes and sleep forever.  What is that called?  Is it possible to break free from this?  Do I have the energy to claw my way out of this?

Written Monday, 11.15.10.

***

I was in a different head-space when I wrote the above journal entry than I am now.  I’m farther along on the never-ending road to recovery and I know that I can ‘claw my way out’ when the darkness descends, but experiencing a higher frequency of depressive bouts does not equal each successive bout to be easier.  The undertow of feeling hopeless and defeated can pull you under no matter how many times you surface.

I don’t know which phase of depression is more difficult, when you’re trying to hang on to hope long enough to conquer depression’s suicidal siren, or when you’re working your way through the lightness/darkness state of limbo as you try to pry the barnacles of negativity from your skin fast enough to stay afloat and come ‘back to life’.  I’ve been experiencing waves of the latter phase over the past few months.  For a few days or a couple of weeks I feel energized, awake, focused, social, content; dare I say, ‘happy’.  And then I sink.  I sink, I sink, I sink back under the comforter.  Again, my body and mind want rest and darkness.  This will last a few days, and then I will be back to washing my hair and singing along with ‘Wilson Phillips’ on my way to work in the mornings.  And the see-saw continues to see and to saw.

I know that I can get myself out of bed on the lead-limbed mornings, but I’m not always convinced, and then the morning swallows me whole and the rest of the day is shot.  Each time after I tell myself that I will not allow myself to be fooled into shutting down again, I find that I am making the same exclamation not long after, and again, not long after that.  I want to get off this merry-go-round but I know it takes time.  I try to remember that every mood is temporary, and, as with reaching any goal, it takes patience, persistence, diligence and faith.  It also requires taking, as Styron puts it, ‘synthetic step[s]’.  As daunting, overwhelming, or impossible as a task may seem, it’s best (and possible) to get up and go through the motions.  I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always practice what I preach, but I’m getting there.  Steps, steps.  Synthetic baby steps.  And in the meantime, I seek out tools that help to widen and strengthen my stride.

One of the most powerful practices I’ve found has been to expose myself to things that help me to feel understood in the context of having a mental illness.  For instance, I refer to William Styron’s memoir about his experience with depression to gain comfort in knowing that what I experience with depression is real, and that other people, including successful people, have known and know the disease as intimately as I have and do.  Once you get to this place, it’s easier to believe that you are not your depression and your depression is not you.  Depression is manageable!  Who knew?  Though, the operative word here is “manage” and this responsibility is up to you.  Managing my depression is up to me.

Part of managing depression is learning about it.  During my quest to check out as many books about depression as I could from the Bothell Library, I came across a book by Julie A. Fast and John D. Preston, Psy.D., ABPP entitled, “Get It Done When You’re Depressed: 50 Strategies for Keeping Your Life on Track”.  I admit, I almost grazed right over it because the title and cover appeared uber self-help hokey but I was desperate to seek out anything that might help me to bouy up from depression’s deep end.  I am so glad that I found this book.  I highly recommend it if you or someone you know are/is trying to manage depression.  It’s a practical guide that respects and appreciates the depressive experience.  Julie Fast is a writer who has depression and has found a way to cope with it while leading a functional and successful life, and Dr. Preston is a professor of psychology; together they are able to provide examples of personal and patients’ experiences.

The main thing that I am struggling with right now is to find a way to manage my depression when I’m in a dip during the work week.  I am extremely fortunate to work with a team that has been beyond supportive and understanding over the past year, but I need to find a way to work (literally) through the rough spots.  As I stated earlier, managing my depression is up to me, and so, I flip to chapter 14, “Feel the Depression…and Do It Anyway”, for guidance.  Here are a couple of thoughts to consider from Julie:

“Working when you’re depressed is harder and sadder than working when you’re well, but it’s important that you focus on the outcome and how you want to feel when you get to bed.  When you can acknowledge to yourself, I did what I could today despite feeling so sick, you take control — perhaps more control than you thought possible.”

“Expect to cry, feel terrible, be less productive, and feel like quitting…and then do what you have to anyway.”

Ok, Julie, let’s do this thing.

Do this to me.

In memory of Madogay.

I think about suicide a lot.  I mean.  I think about what it means, the part it’s played in my life in terms of being a depressive symptom.   I am to a point at which I recognize it as I am experiencing it and can be mindful of when I feel suicidal; enough to know that, at my core and despite what the wicked voice in my head may tell me – I. want. to. live.

I also think a lot about how misunderstood suicide is by the general public.  It’s one of those, “you had to have been there” things.  How can one understand what it is if one hasn’t experienced the feeling of being suicidal?  And yet, a person who doesn’t have cancer can easily, almost instinctively, have compassion for those with cancer, or diabetes, or any other aesthetically tangible condition.  It’s no big secret that mental illness is not perceived or treated in the same way.  In many cases, the disease is ‘invisible’ and hidden from view.  This phantom phenomenon of mental illness intensifies the struggle for those who live with it.

Suicide must be talked about.  The word, “suicide”, must be uttered in public conversation as “breast cancer” or “AIDS” have been entered in to the public arena of discussion.  We cannot address what we deny.  This is something that tugs at my core.  I will keep this conversation going.  As suicide survivor JD Schramm proclaimed during a TED presentation, “because of our taboos around suicide, we’re not sure what to say, and so quite often we don’t say anything… It’s a conversation worth having.”

***

As part of the conversation, I’ve included in this post a quote, a poem, and a song.  The quote, by writer William Styron, centers around the experience of depression.  The poem and song are about suicide.  I wrote both with my cousin, Madogay, in mind.  She shot herself about a year ago.

***

:: Quote ::

“In depression this faith in deliverance, in ultimate restoration, is absent. The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come- not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. If there is mild relief, one knows that it is only temporary; more pain will follow. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul. So the decision-making of daily life involves not, as in normal affairs, shifting from one annoying situation to another less annoying- or from discomfort to relative comfort, or from boredom to activity- but moving from pain to pain. One does not abandon, even briefly, one’s bed of nails, but is attached to it wherever one goes. And this results in a striking experience- one which I have called, borrowing military terminology, the situation of the walking wounded. For in virtually any other serious sickness, a patient who felt similar devistation would by lying flat in bed, possibly sedated and hooked up to the tubes and wires of life-support systems, but at the very least in a posture of repose and in an isolated setting. His invalidism would be necessary, unquestioned and honorably attained. However, the sufferer from depression has no such option and therefore finds himself, like a walking casualty of war, thrust into the most intolerable social and family situations. There he must, despite the anguish devouring his brain, present a face approximating the one that is associated with ordinary events and companionship. He must try to utter small talk, and be responsive to questions, and knowingly nod and frown and, God help him, even smile. But it is a fierce trial attempting to speak a few simple words.”

William Styron (Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness)

***

:: Poem ::

(untitled)

In the moment it’s decided,
during the research and planning, and fantasized exit strategy stage,
there is no color scheme
no white or black
it’s neither irrational nor rational
it’s neither immoral nor moral
it’s neither selfish nor selfless.
It feels as a primal tug does;
an emotional drug
it makes sense
and gives relief
it’s not ugly and dark as you may view it to be.
If given the choice,
we all want to ‘be happy’,
if we had it our way,
we’d live to 102.
Do people choose to get cancer?
Or choose to lose a child in an earthquake?
Would you choose to eat hemlock?
Or give a jellyfish a long, warm embrace?
It’s true,
suicide is a confusing, shocking, sad and inexplicable thing,
but it is what it is
and will be what it will be
and will continue as it has
through history.
But we have a choice to acknowledge it
and give it a voice;
let it speak.

Written Thursday, 8.4.11.

***

:: Song ::

The photo was taken by Odawni Palmer on Thursday, 6.3.10.

The song* was written and performed by Odawni Palmer on Sunday, 8.7.11.

*The ‘scribbling’ track in the background is a recording I made of me writing out the lyrics to the song, as they’re sung.