Kate H. wrote about the tragedy avoidance conversation she had with her mother, in the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide this past weekend. She would unplug from her current tragic state completely, buying a one-way ticket out of the country to live simply, alone. I thought about what I would do, having not felt suicidal since adolescence, and reaching to remember depression so all-encompassing. I posed the question to my husband, who suffers from Biopolar II (a form of bipolar disorder with less severe, “hypomanic” states). He’s experienced deep, black depressions often since I’ve known him, and has considered suicide. I wanted to respond to Kate H.’s post, with some sort of outline of my own, not foolish enough to believe I will never reach that hopeless, miserable state again.
I’ve experienced depressive episodes periodically since I was thirteen years old. I have a family history of depression, and my moods are strongly affected by weather (see: why I left Seattle). Even so, it’s been close to twenty years since I’ve felt intensely without hope, bleak blankless covering each day. I wrote a note when I was fourteen, my mind made up that I was going to use pills and alcohol to end my life. Suicide seemed like a relief, and I remember my mood cheering up considerably when I made the decision. Side note: pay attention when a friend whose dark mood suddenly lifts with no external factors contributing–it’s a warning sign. I didn’t do it. I went out to a party that night and felt so high from the night with friends I held on, sensing something better might come. I learned that night that I need people around me to help me away from the ledge. Of course, I wasn’t able to use that strategy until the end of my twenties, because pride, fear of being vulnerable, fear of rejection and lack of trust kept me from reaching out. I managed many of my life’s most painful episodes alone–my mom’s mental illness crash, crushing loneliness, my boyfriend’s descent into Bipolar II, etc. When the alcoholic meltdown came at 28, I dug myself into a pit of isolation which I came to understand would be a permanent state unless I reached out. To avoid tragedy, I picked up the phone and began to tell people I needed help.
The calls worked. People came. They took me out, and made recurring plans with me, and talked about their experiences, and encouraged me. They stood by me, sometimes saying little. They accepted me as I was and challenged me to become someone better. My community could see more clearly than I, and told me I was worth more than what I was giving myself. I stayed on the wagon, and their support stabilized me to the point where I felt safe sifting through the wreckage, searching for the new way. Friends’ perspectives outside my own warped, dysfunctional views were critical to my recovery. Had I kept drinking, I believe my life would have continued its rapid downward spiral, and I’m afraid I would not have lived. For me, using alcohol is quasi-suicidal behavior. An important part of my tragedy avoidance plan is not drinking. The other major component is surrounding myself with my community, and allowing them to care for me in my broken state.
My husband has a different view. He has been severely depressed and suicidal often enough that he feels his tragedy avoidance plan is embedded in his life already. He’s worked it over and over again. From the outside the plan appears to involve taking medication (which works, yay!), using substances moderately, eating healthy, exercising, and reaching out to friends. I think there’s also an internal process that I’m not privy to that has brought him out of crisis many times. He joked that his tragedy avoidance plan is called Wednesday, because he uses it so frequently. He explained that coming up with a plan is not a mental or academic exercise, or even a practicality for him. It’s essential, frequently in use and evolves over time. He’s been down in ways I’m unable to truly comprehend, and stays alive. While he he didn’t articulate a plan the way Kate H. and I have, for the reasons previously discussed, we did agree that we would tell each other if we felt we were staring despair in the face.
I think it’s important that we sketch a plan for ourselves, even during the crisis. Do you know what yours might be? Or do you have a well-worn plan in use today?