“Hiding in my room, safe within my womb, I touch no one and no one touches me. I am a rock, I am an island. And a rock feels no pain; And an island never cries.” Paul Simon
“I hear voices. Ridiculous voices”. U2
I read two stories the other day via Twitter that stopped me in my tracks. Both were retweets by Roger Ebert. The first was about a former ABC anchorman, Kevin Roy, who lost his job in 2010 due to his inability to turn up for work and other issues. He’s battling mental illness. He says he’s “97% there” but you can tell that the last 3% is going to be tough. He’s had trouble with alcoholism in the past and you can see from the article that he’s still suffering from paranoia and delusions. The line that struck me most was that he said his mother committed suicide at age 51 sixteen years ago and that he believes his Mom would be alive today if there wasn’t such a stigma against mental illness in our society. The second retweet simply said :
Something told me I’m supposed to be writing about suicide and Depression this week. I’ve got a lot to say on this topic, and I probably won’t fit it all into a single blog post. I’ll probably post this and then think, “Damn, I shouldn’t have said that.” Or “Shoot, I should have said this” but let’s give it a go, shall we?
Here we go.
I could relate to the news anchor’s story because I too lost a parent to suicide. My Dad died 21 years ago at age 50. At the time, he was being hospitalized for Depression but was out on a day pass because his doctor thought he was “doing better”. We now know that sometimes depressed people will start to show signs of recovery when they’ve actually made a decision to end their life, and I really believe this is what happened with my Dad. It feels a little weird to admit that my Dad killed himself, because it was never really officially ruled a suicide and I don’t think my Mom and brother have ever really come to terms with the truth. It falls into that “not talked about” territory that every family has. I’m not going to go into the details of the morning he died, except to say that you could make a case for “accidental death” and still live with yourself. In fact, I lived with “accidental death” for a couple of years as a coping mechanism, but it took me getting diagnosed with Depression myself two years after my Dad died to realize the truth. I was hospitalized at age 19 from December 1993 to March 1994. I was on a psych ward: sometimes in lock-down, other times given more freedom, sometimes confined to bed, other times up and interacting, but always wearing a hospital bracelet and under the watch of some pretty amazingly dedicated and caring people. I truly saw the best and worst of humanity during those four months and maybe one day I’ll talk a little more about my time there. They tried a number of different medications and treatments to make me better, and when nothing worked, the doctors decided to try ECT treatments and by the grace of God I got better. I’ve been off and on a number of antidepressants, and I was lucky enough to find one, Zoloft, that worked and works for me. I remember being visited on an almost daily basis by four people: my Mom, my Uncle Barry, my best friend Ed, and my minister, Allan. I remember years later that Allan told me he was suffering from a crisis of faith at that time and he prayed that if I got better, his faith would be renewed. I’m kinda glad I didn’t know that then. That would have freaked me out a little bit.
The late summer and early summer when I was getting sick, I was listening to a lot of Zooropa, U2’s newest album at the time. It was the follow-up to their best record ever, Achtung Baby, and I just couldn’t muster the same enthusiasm for Zooropa as I did two years earlier for Achtung Baby. To this day, I don’t know if getting sick was why I hated that CD so much, or whether it really wasn’t all that great. I’ll never know, because I can’t go back (thankfully) and recreate that time. All I know is that hearing a full live version of Zooropa played last May in Winnipeg, standing 15 feet from the stage, confirmed the nightmarish power that song still holds over me. It sure didn’t help that I actually was hearing ridiculous voices when I first heard Bono sing those lyrics 19 years ago.
It’s been close to 20 years since I was in the hospital for Depression. It’s been about 5 years since I’ve been on medication for it, although I still check in with my psychiatrist once a year. I’d be lying if I said there haven’t been times when I’ve felt ill since then. There have been times when I’ve had to “up” my medication, but so far I’ve avoided a full-on hospital stay. I still dread the autumn. If I’m not going to feel well, chances are it will happen then. Maybe “dread” is too strong a word. “Respect” autumn may be closer to it. “Being aware” of how I’m feeling in the fall, maybe. My doctor thinks the change of season can be hard on some of us who are susceptible to Depression. For my Dad, his Depression was always worst in the Spring.
I like to use the analogy of someone who’s had a heart attack. The first time you have a heart attack, you have no idea what’s happening and it’s really scary, but if you’re lucky enough to survive the heart attack and recover, you’re in a much better position to survive subsequent ones. You know the early warning signs, you can make lifestyle adjustments, and you know there’s a team of medical professionals there to help you if and when you need them. You could say I am in remission.
Having been through it myself, I had a much better idea of what my Dad experienced. His last hospitalization was his second time in for Depression. He had been ill and hospitalized 5 years before for a few months and made a pretty good recovery in the interim. In those five years, from age 12 to 17, I had an amazing fun-loving father who just happened to suffer periodically from a terrible disease. When he got sick the second time, I thought “no big deal”, as I truly thought we’d just have to wait this out like last time and we’d get my dear old Dad back again sooner or later. Life turns on a dime and that sadly didn’t happen.
For me, it was different. I had the same nurses and doctors that he had, I had the very same illness, and I too, many times, stood at the abyss and contemplated suicide. Not just contemplated, but truly wished I was dead. I hold no animosity towards my Dad. It’s not that he was weak and I was somehow strong. It was just the opportunity presented itself and he took it. I often think of this analogy: Imagine you’re in a really hot, stuffy room. Maybe you’re at a party with a bunch of people you know and love, maybe not. The room is really closing in on you, and the damn radiator must be broken because you can hardly breathe in that room. All you can think about is leaving that room somehow. It’s become unbearable and you just need to leave and get to the coolness outside, you’re not thinking about the people you’re going to leave behind at the party, you just need to get out. Is that being selfish? I don’t know. I think it’s called doing what you think you have to do to make things better. To me, that was how it felt to contemplate suicide, and although I’ll never know what was going through my Dad’s head those last few days, but I think I understand and I certainly forgive him. He just had to get out of that unbearably stuffy room and get some fresh air. The consequences never even went through his mind, I’m sure.
ECT undoubtably saved my life. For those suffering from Depression, it can LITERALLY be a game changer. This may sound cheesy, but I was born in 1974 but I genuinely feel like I was reborn in 1994. That means I’m actually just turning 18 this year. Just a few more weeks til I’m legal, girls! The only side effect for me from the ECT treatments was a little short-term memory loss, and as one of the nurses said to me, “It’s probably not a bad thing that you don’t remember all of your hospital stay here anyway”. A few months after I got out of the hospital, my girlfriend at the time and I went to a midnight revival of “Jurassic Park” at a local theatre that would often show reruns. One of the trailers was for Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia”. It actually was the music video for “Streets of Philadelphia” by Bruce Springsteen with a “Coming Soon” card at the very end. I turned to my girlfriend and said “That looks amazing, I can’t wait to see it”. She said, “You did see it, last year. And you hated it.”
After I got better, I tried to learn as much as I could about Depression. I’m not going to lay a bunch of stats about the percentage of the population that suffers from it. Those numbers can change and you can look them up if you’re interested. The best book I ever read on the topic was William Styron’s “Darkness Visible: A memoir of madness”, in which he chronicles his own bout with Depression. It most closely resembles my own experience with the disease and I always direct people who ask me “What was it like?” to it. He’s way more eloquent than I could ever been on the subject.Rob Delaney is this funny dude I follow on Twitter, and he posted something on his Tumblr account a couple of years ago that I think took a lot of courage and also jibes with how I feel about this terrible, potentially deadly disease. You can read it here. People like Rob Delaney and me are among the lucky ones. We got sick, but we also found treatment and medication that worked for us and we got better. How many more people “out there” are suffering quietly without seeking medical help, or who are being treated but just haven’t hit upon that magic formula of medication and treatment that works for them? The bottom line is that Depression can kill, but it is also treatable.
Do I worry that I’ll get sick again? Of course, although I try not to let the disease define who I am or cloud what can often be a wonderful life. Will I need to go on medication or even be hospitalized in the future? Only time will tell. No one has a crystal ball, and I have a brilliant psychiatrist who has put up with me for almost twenty years. I’ve also got a great family and super awesome friends. I’d say I have a fighting chance.
“And if, and if the night runs over. And if the day won’t last. And if your way should falter, along this stoney pass. It’s just a moment. This too shall pass.” U2