Through the deep waters.

In memory of Robin Williams, 1951-2014. 

Whose work made me think, and laugh, and try harder, and whose hidden sorrow and untimely death brings me here, in the hope that together we can save a few.

Rest in peace, Lonesome Robin. 

When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee. 

-Isaiah 43:2

I don't talk about depression very often around here - or specifically about my depression. I'm actually not that sure why, except that, especially here, I choose to focus on happiness, optimism, my blessings. And laying this stuff out there is hard, I'll be honest.

But man. For the second time in two days Mr. Robin Williams has propelled me to step back out. So I will provide fair warning: heavy stuff ahead.

Yesterday I cried.

I cried for Mr. Robin Williams, along with the world's world's cries of shock and bewilderment and sadness. But I also cried a little harder for him. Because for me, it is terrifyingly easy to imagine the level of pain and loneliness and darkness that surrounds such a decision, such a deliberate act as suicide.

And so here I am talking about it. And please, If this post gets to you somehow, consider it a sign:

Do not end it. 

I was first treated for depression when I was still in high school. So let's say 20 years, give or take. And on and off until about 7 years ago, when I went on (treatment) in a long-term way. Like a for the rest of my life kind of way. I've had a long time to assess the situation, a long time to figure out and accept three things:

  1. Depression is not our fault. Not weakness of will or lack of faith or lack of nutrition or effort. It can be deadly, and should be treated and monitored like any chronic physical illness.
  2. Depression is so, so much more than melancholy, or a passing squall of grief and tears. It can be deadly, and should be treated like any other life-threatening illness. 
  3. Depression is treatable, but it's like walking on sand. It changes states and degrees over months or even days, evading 'cure' and requiring (for many) lifelong treatment and vigilance. 

Depression is Not Your Fault

I've experienced a lot of misunderstanding in the last 20 years of dealing with, suffering through, and accepting the fact that this simply IS a part of my life. And I will say that it takes a really long time to come to the point where you can look yourself in the mirror and say, this is not my fault. This dark and desperate and powerless way I feel, this going-through-the-motions-of-life way I feel isn't because of something done or undone. It is a rock to carry, your rock to carry, and possibly to carry on and on, stumbling til you lay it all down in the end. The hills ain't going away, and the rock gets so, so heavy. Other people have other rocks, and this one is yours. That must be said with acceptance and not with despair, and that's a fine, fine line.

And I will say also, that YEARS of careful self-acceptance can be undone by a single breathtakingly insensitive comment like, "Well, maybe if you could just pray a little more?"

Or, "I'm sure if you just get moving then it isn't so bad? More exercise? Vitamins? Positive thinking?"

And this: "Maybe you're getting TOO MUCH sleep and that's what's wrong?" 

No. That isn't what's wrong. 

That isn't what's wrong. What's wrong is that I need real help and I'm reaching out because I'm hurt, and I'm being insulted in return.

Nothing but the fact that you have depression is ever what is wrong. Put away the lie that you have mental or moral weakness, or that you simply don't have enough willpower or that you were born to be a terrible housekeeper. What's wrong is this outsider perspective that sees depression as something that can be "powered through." That can and should simply be sucked up with gritted teeth. Like walking on a sprained ankle, maybe. Maybe you put a brace on it, walk it off, it'll be fine. 

Major depression is really like diabetes. Your body doesn't make enough of something it needs, or isn't using what it has in a way that works enough. There's no permanent fix. You get really, really sick if you don't treat it, and so you must spend a lifetime handling with great care and constant vigilance. Management, not cure. Support and not scorn.

And I cried for Mr. Robin Williams yesterday because his decision to end his own precious life full of humor and influence highlights a terrible misunderstanding in our society: That untreated or poorly treated depression cannot be as lethal as untreated diabetes. Do not ever doubt that we're talking about something as serious on either hand. No one in their right mind would tell a diabetic to suck it up or power on through, and chronic depression is no different

So if you are privileged to be one of the Trusted Ones that your person reaches out to, (depression is still a pretty embarrassing thing to admit to out loud, and it takes an immense amount of courage for a grown-ass, independent woman to admit to needing help), please, for the sweet love. Put away the thoughts of the ankle brace and focus instead on just listening. And do not walk away until you're sure your person is safe back to the shore.

So Much More than Melancholy

I've been sad a bunch in my life. We all have. Shocked or grieving or hopeless or blindsided or betrayed or wandering through a desert of doubt. Everyone wades through dark water, everyone. And it's the worstFather Lehi says in the Book of Mormon, that our trials on earth teach us the difference between joy and sorrow - that there actually isn't any song of joy to sing at all without its accompanying bag of rocks to carry. That's the way the world and mortal education just works. And we come back out of the deep water and find our way to some joy again, so grateful that we know the difference.

And then there is chronic depression. Major depression. Bipolarity. The long-term stuff that sends your psyche into a tailspin a thousand times worse than any other doubt or dark water, because it seems endless, the rock infinitely heavy.

What It's Like: My Journal

In my personal reflections I like to hand-write a journal, that I don't share with anyone, and wouldn't normally share here. But it seems important to tell what really is in my mind during one of the dark times. Don't ever let anyone tell you that psychic pain is any less exquisitely painful than broken bones or a severed artery. Or that it isn't real because it can't be seen.

This is from October 29 of 2013. It's also very, very tear-stained.

The rock is heavy tonight. It is both infinitely weighted and invisible, so when I look inside all I can see is just flatness. No desire. No love. No hope that doing anything will make it better or make any difference. 
Tears - hot shameful tears of self-pity and self-loathing and hopelessness, and - I think - grief - for lost years and all my stuck-ness and suffering and battle against something massive, invisible, impossible to describe. It is formless and so only feels like emptiness. Only feels like failure, and such deep, deep mourning. 
So here I am at the bottom - nearly as far down as I ever get, only hearing echoes in my head and not comfort, or answers, or peace. Only more tears. 
Eventually the tears will go quiet and I will go quiet, and stop writhing in invisible pain, and just sleep. It's the only answer I've found to get on by and back up the hill a bit. Back up to a place where I can at least believe in the sun even if I can't see it - too far down and all hope if light gets swallowed up in the unending, unfathomable, suffocating dark.
Drink the bitter cup and be strong. There is a Savior who went before me, who bore this grief and carried this nameless abyss of sorry, and who even if He will not or cannot take it from me, will at least tread down the long dark road with me, until the higher ground comes and there's a hope of sun on the horizon. 
I know at some level it's the devil's lie to think they're better off without me, that ending my own suffering would end theirs, too. A convenient and easy-to-belive lie that always surfaces during the worst of the psychic vulnerability when the idea of disappearance sounds so, so appealing. Rest. Anything to stop the present pain, bleeding like an amputated limb, collapsing like a deflated hot air balloon. And in the ashes around me, ashes of dreams and hopes and curiosity and desire, now all seemingly, everlastingly burned away - just giving up, turning off the cold dark path and lying down forever right over here.
Perhaps my people up on the ridge won't notice and come looking to shake me out of my stupor of living death, for what is life without hope?
 Perhaps they will move off into the distance, my bright little caravan, capturing the joys of their life together and no longer weighed down with watchfulness hoping that this time I can stay out of the dark valley. Disappointed, maybe, that I return here again and again needing rescue. 
I'll be rescued, if I wait it out. Time and sleep and some chocolate and maybe a bath will ease me back to life, back up the ridge to carry on. But my footing's unsure, and my rock's a tricky and unbalanced weight. So the real rescue - a permanent place among the caravan on the ridge is a hopeless dream. 
That's ok. The times on the ridge - out in the sun with a little warmth and perspective help me leave the valley to itself for a time. But tonight, among the ashes on this dark and familiar and neverendlingly infinitely dark road I want to lay down and disappear among the ashes. To not need the immense amount of effort of simply trying anymore. But I will and I always will, sometimes more and sometimes less. More's the pity. So I'll sleep while it's dark and hope for a bright morning.

Depression Is Like Walking on Shifting Sand

One of the things you might have noticed there is that I've known about this and been in treatment for this for two decades. Intensive treatment with therapy and meds for more than 7 years, and yet that journal entry from the abyss of darkness, that frightened me even as I copied it down, is from less than a year ago. That's because depression is a shifty bastard. No other way to put it.

See, the truly sucky part (there is no word to describe the level of suck, actually) about depression is that it requires not only vigilance (taking its daily toll as though collecting the cover charge at the door of every morning), but it requires that you be rescued - not just once, but over and over again. As if asking for help once weren't excruciating enough.

And despite all your care and vigilance it'll just happen and you won't be able to control when or for how long, or how bad it will be this time, no matter what you do. That's what that journal entry means. Seven years in, twenty years in, good meds and therapy, and still it happens. It is what it is. But what I do know, is that the chances of feeling better in the long term increase with meds and therapy in combination. It's uncertain and slow, kind of like going to the eye doctor for new glasses, but it takes a year to get anywhere close to a prescription that works. "Do you see better with A or B? Come back in a month and we'll check on it." Depression is all the more painful because treatment is so difficult. And what worked a year ago, might not be entirely working now. 

If you're like me, it'll never truly pass, and that shadow will live there all your life, sometimes growing and sometimes receding. Meds and therapy. Sunshine. Prayer. A text to a friend. Getting out of your damn bed even though you need a running start. 

Don't disappear. Please. 

I'm not gonna lie, 2013 was a beast. It was a near-daily struggle with physical and mental illness, imbalance, confusion. I was helped through it - rescued from that instance of it - by a very kind counselor (who at one point during last summer, made me do daily suicide watch check-ins). It isn't my fault. Meds and therapy. And it will get better.

I know this is seriously heavy stuff. Frightening, actually. But I need for two things to happen by sharing this:

  1. If you are suffering, I'm over here, ok? I know a little of what the valley is like, and how excruciating the pain is. And how lonely that desolate place can be. When the rescue comes, recognize it for what it is, ok? Sit tight and wait for it.
  2. If you love someone who has been in the valley, or who has gone there again and again, they need your strength. They need your hand in a practical way, and it's impossible for you to be too concerned about this. Say "here, tomorrow I'll sit with you while you call a mental health center. Tonight I'll bring you the laptop so you can email your therapist that we'll be at their office first thing. I see you and your suffering, and I'm here." You'll be the rescue. 

On Rescue From the Valley

Every time I've been in the valley, I've been rescued by something, or someone, that pushes me back up toward the ridge and into the hope of sunlight again. Here are a few.

In an Emergency: Call the Hotline

This is really important, okay? If it is really bad, and you are thinking concretely about pills or ropes or your car's exhaust or whatever, stop whatever you are doing, ok? Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

Call right now 1-800-273-8255. Right now, man. I mean it. Please, do not end your infinitely precious life. 

Step 1: Call A Mental Health Clinic

Go online or to the phone book and look up a local Mental Health clinic, call them and ask to see a psychiatrist. They're MDs who can evaluate, prescribe, and recommend what additional therapy is needed. And they'll become your Someone if it ever gets really bad and you need to go somewhere to get safe. 

Make the phone call right now. Not tomorrow, or after your other to-dos are done, okay? You know you've already put this off too long. Your life will change forever when you do this step, I pinkie-swear.

Reach Out

And while you're waiting for your appointment, which honestly should be less than a week away or you need to call someone else, text a friend just to say hi. I've been rescued by Heidi, Kristen, Tori, Tristina, Erin, Sherrie, Heather, my dad, another Heather, Greg, Carol, and a lot of others. And of course, my soulmate Jared. Rescuers all, and they probably don't even know it. They represent contact with the world, a tie and a touchstone that says yep. If I reach, only reach.

Sit Still

Sometimes, some of us are only rescued from desperate acts by putting ourselves in a place where we can't act - we can just ride it out. Lock up the pills. Get in bed. Get in the (empty) tub. Lay in your closet. Squeeze those eyes shut and sleep or ask for a milkshake or for someone to hold on to you til the pain gets easier.

Also, if you get to this place, you should have calls or emails in to your professionals.

A Beautiful Sermon: Hope is Never Lost

I was rescued by a just-in-time sermon by Jeffrey R. Holland from the LDS Conference in October, which I'm embedding here because maybe it will rescue you, too:

Put Pen to Paper

Write. Write write write. Get a pen. Sob it out. It sucks, it hurts, oh sweet baby Moses in a basket it hurts. But if your pen is on the page and your thoughts are here, they aren't over there where the water is a little too temptingly deep. And when you get back to the lighter place, maybe a few weeks or months from now when the meds and therapy are making it easier, you can read that thing and know, if you go to the valley again, you'll come back out. Your little bright caravan on the ridge will not leave without you. If they didn't back then, they won't the next time. Proof.

Find Hope in Music

Get a song or two that really speaks to you. I have been rescued by the great Pioneer anthem Come, Come Ye Saints more times than I can count. I can picture those stalwarts there on the plains, walking and freezing and dying for their cause, and echo, 

Why should we mourn, or think our lot is hard?
Why should we think to earn a great reward, if we now shun the fight,
Gird up your loins, fresh courage take!  Our God will never us forsake!
And soon we'll have this tale to tell,
All is well! All is well!

Incidentally, here is that very hymn as sung by the magnificent Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Take a minute to watch it, ok?

So. We are called, sometimes, to go through the deep waters. To tread down into a valley that seems only full of desolation, and the most exquisite pain imaginable. And we may go there over and over again before the journey's through. 

If you're there in the valley or you find yourself nodding to the journal entry above and you haven't gotten help, get help. I hope that I can be proof that hope and help are there. And I want you to know that I know what real courage is: taking the step. You don't have to go through the motions anymore. There can be a day when you don't need a running start to get out of bed. And when the light comes again, it will be breathtaking.

If you are a Trusted One, fight the urge to lecture or suggest, or judge or become impatient. This particular rock is excruciatingly heavy at times, and although it's probably completely baffling from the outside, all you need to get right now is that your person is hurting. Call in the troops. Get those wagons of mental health professionals circled up around them. Your bright and beautiful person will come back up the ridge, and you can carry on into the dawn together.

With so much love,

-JS