By Steve Cichon
Most of us hear about the lurid details of a suicide and can’t even fathom hanging ourselves by a belt from a door knob like Robin Williams did. Seems impossible that he would, either. He was always the life of the party, always smiling and trying making people laugh.
Most of us can’t rectify being so despondent that, like Kate Spade, you can coherently write a note to your 13 year old daughter and explain why you’re about to end your own life. Beyond that, it seems incongruous with the bright, sunny fashionable mark she made in the world.
And now Anthony Bourdain has taken his own life in a hotel room in arguably the most beautiful city in the world. This was a man who could seemingly find common ground and connect with anyone, in any place, and be comfortable any place in the world.
We talk about and make social media posts about the tragedy and the incongruity of it all, with the lamentation, “had they only gotten help.”
Not me. I painfully understand the struggle to overcome depression and anxiety.
It’s not easy to publicly say, “I’m crazy,” but it’s true, and I might as well put it that way right here– because that’s what society will say once this is published. And that’s a big part of the problem.
Actually, for me right now, it’s a wonderful point to come to– being able to share all this regret-free and without reservation. It’s been a very long time coming. Though I didn’t always know what it was, I have been suffering from depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember.
We don’t talk about mental health, because despite what anyone says, the stigma is still too great. You will read this and never think of me the same way again.
The massive outpouring of people trying to understand their feelings about the usually tragic newsworthy manifestations of mental illness means the willingness is there, but there doesn’t seem to be much movement beyond the mental health version of “thoughts and prayers,” which is asking our universe generically to “get help” if they need it.
Just like offering “thoughts and prayers,” a general “get help” plea is well-intentioned and from the heart, but it can’t be the final word if this is going to get any better.
I’m sharing my story so you might have some insight into how my brain works, but also how you might be able to help.
Please know it’s very difficult for me to talk about any of these things without humor to deaden the reality, because the last thing I want you to do is feel like I do. But you need to know.
I didn’t know what that hell was wrong with me, as far back as middle school.
Even though people close to me were (now) clearly suffering the same way I was, I didn’t know because no one ever talked about it.
As far as I knew, mental illness was like Daffy Duck, bouncing on his head, yanking on his tongue, screaming, “HOO- HOO, HOO-HOO, HOO-HOO.”
I couldn’t have known that I was suffering from something routine and curable. More than Daffy Duck head bouncing, I felt a great weight on me, both metaphorically and physically sometimes. My arms and legs and chest feel heavy.
Sometimes it felt like going through life was like trying to walk through deep mud.
Sometimes it felt like my body was being weighed down by a soaking wet, heavy woolen blanket, sometimes with bricks on top of those blankets.
Depression and sadness, I thought, were kind of the same thing, right?
I’m a happy guy, not sad. What I felt was more like the heart and soul of any given moment in life could be ripped out– still bleeding– and leaving me with a heavy, aching pain and an inward sucking emptiness vacuum which swallows up everything in sight that isn’t tied down. I could fight through that devastation and have some part of me still feel happy. Sadness wasn’t a part of it.
I thought anxiousness is just what makes you sweat before a test.
I don’t need a test or any other reason. Without warning or provocation, my heart races and energy shoots through my arms and legs, which at the same time are rendered tingly and unstable while also in need of fidgety motion, trying to nervously vibrate the physical feeling away, as my mind feels like it is physically unraveling. This is a run on sentence, but it’s a run on sensation.
All of these things have been a part of who I am, in varying degrees, literally as long as I can remember.
But that didn’t mean I knew what I was dealing with. At one point, I didn’t know I needed help because I didn’t know what was wrong.
It was a lonely shameful feeling that I was some how damaged in a way that no one could possibly understand.
I’d heard about and even written papers about mental illness and dealt with family members with mental illness, and none of it sounded even vaguely familiar.
There wasn’t a single person who ever spoke personally about their struggle in a way that could help me understand my own. All I knew was there was help for bat shit crazy people who were ready to kill themselves (and those people should get help.)
I saw those people portrayed on episodes of Matlock. I wasn’t wearing a black t-shirt while listening to Nirvana, so I was OK. Crazy? Suicidal? That wasn’t me.
Even after a student in my high school hanged herself, I didn’t know that it’s very likely she was going through the same sorts of things I was– but there was never a discussion other than “get help.”
I had no idea that I was one of those people that should be getting help.
I can remember with sparkling clarity the moment that all the sudden I had a diagnosis for what was going on inside of me.
At a particularly low point, I was sitting alone in the ICU waiting room at the VA hospital, with my ol’man’s life hanging by a thread just inside the double swinging doors to my right.
In that moment, from the pages of a crumpled, coffee-stained magazine I’d been mindlessly flipping through, I unexpectedly received all my answers in three or four quick pages.
An article about Mike Wallace and his mental health battles moved from quickly scanning it to suddenly hanging on every word.
This was me.
All at once, everything that I’d been feeling made sense, and things fit together and lined up now. It was (finally) a personal story where he spelled out what he was getting help for– and it was as if he was telling my story.
It was a tremendous relief, but it was also in that same moment I was instantly awash in the fear and stigma of what this was.
I was no longer alone, but now even lonelier. My suffering was nothing special– but I didn’t know where to turn.
Alone, without seeking any help, I spent the next 10 or 15 years trying to handle it on my own. Handle this depression, which was becoming more entrenched and sedentary, and handle this anxiety, which was becoming more volatile and unwieldy.
Opposing urges making for deeper anguish.
–Editor’s note–Please don’t do this.
Despite the barrage of constantly generic pleas from media for people like me to get help, I now realized those calls were for me– I just didn’t have a road map to make it happen.
There’s a suicide hotline, but couldn’t find a “I’m getting worse and just need some guidance and explain how to get started in the process of getting better” hotline.
I was fearful that I was going to be locked up. I was fearful that I was going to be pumped with medication that would change the good parts as well as the parts that needed changing.
I was fearful of being judged by people who despite saying all the right words, didn’t really seem to get it.
I knew I needed to do something, but didn’t have the energy to start from scratch to figure out what the hell to do.
I lied in every mental health screen I’d ever been given. Maybe I wouldn’t have, if it didn’t feel like the people offering the exam didn’t seem to be going through a wrote exercise every time. I guess I don’t present as “in need or psychiatric services,” but I’m here to say there is no typical presentation. Maybe if there was some feeling that the questioner really cared or somehow wanted to help, or even actually could really help, not just flip to the next page in the manual and urge me to “get help.”
Keep in mind, until this point, this is all inside of me. Never told a soul. How do you tell someone you love that you’re legitimately losing your shit, without having them lose their shit? I wasn’t about to find out, especially having still never met anyone ready or able to talk about the things that were going on with me.
I’d also spent a lifetime conditioning myself to “act normal,” no matter what was going on inside.
But just as I’d read with ol’Mike Wallace, things gradually got worse. Keeping the facade became more difficult.
I was trying to figure out how to “get help.” I knew I needed it, but my head wasn’t in a noose at this moment, so what do I do?
The commercials used to say something like, if you feel like your life is in jeopardy, if you are in crisis, call us before you do anything else.
I didn’t want to wait for that point, but there didn’t seem to be anything aimed at people not in the midst of imminent crisis.
Even web resources offered little other than “hey, call a suicide hotline.”
It’s difficult for me to imagine every cancer resource aimed at people with Stage 5 cancer, and telling everyone else, “wait around… you’ll get there eventually!”
That’s what it felt like.
Probably in the wake of Robin Williams or some similar jarring public awareness of mental illness, public conversations I was having on Facebook became private conversations which became my coming out party.
It was two separate on-going conversations with two people I’d have called “fond acquaintances” more than “friends,” at least until that moment. These were two people who were suffering in the same way I was, but were further along on the path to help. And my struggle became their struggle. It was a great rest and a break from decades of growing weariness.
Being able to talk about what had been inside of me for three decades was amazing, and really among the greatest gift anyone has ever given me.
Around that time, I also began making jokes and comments to my wife about some of these things going on in my head, using clinical names and getting her used to the idea that I would need to get to work on some of these things, and that it would make our life together better for both of us.
I didn’t have it in me to just spill it all out in one swoop. I knew I was playing with fire– not finding legitimate, professional help NOW– but I still felt a need to do this at my own pace.
–Editor’s note again–Please don’t do this.
It was still another three years of calling insurance companies, trying to find a doctor, all kinds of nonsense and excuses until when, earlier this year, I finally sat on a couch with someone across the room who had the training and skills to help me.
I wish I had found the proper help I needed sooner. I wish there was a better framework for people who are struggling with mental illness and the societal and social stigmas attached to have non-judgmental interactions with someone who can just be a friend to help guide through the process.
I wish I could have asked people conversationally about how their mental illness feels, where they go for help, but that just doesn’t happen.
I wish that my life wasn’t going to completely change when I hit send on this… but it will. And I’m ok with that, because carrying it around with me is just too much.
That’s what I feel, by the way, when I see the news of a suicide.
I feel the weight that they must have been carrying.
I take measure of my own weight, and hope and pray that the scale never tips and it’s too much.
“Get help,” sure, but you’ve no doubt seen the sky go from sunny and delightful to dark and stormy– seemingly in an instant. It’s unnerving to live in that kind of weather pattern every moment of every day, but it’s all you can do.
So,yes, please get help. But “get help” is a tiny seven letter phrase which can’t even begin to describe the totality of trying to untangle the frozen knots of all-consuming wretched darkness and hopelessness inside some of us.
None of us should think of it as just “get help.”
Again, it’s like telling someone who has cancer, “get help.”
Sometimes medicine and vigilance makes everything better for cancer and mental illness. Sometimes all kinds of medicines and procedures and fighting like hell still won’t do the trick.
The big difference is, of course, every suicide death is 100% preventable.
Sure, there’s a number to call, and I’ll paste it in here in just a moment… but more than anything else, the one thing we can all do— each one of us– to make suicide less likely in our individual corners of the universe, is to more regularly and more thoroughly practice human decency, compassion, and love.
Especially when it’s not easy. Especially when the person standing in front of you is an asshole.
The only way to stop the anger and sadness in the world is to be less angry and sad yourself.
No one knows that more than a depressed person.
Some part of me knows that’s why Robin Williams worked so hard to make people laugh, why Kate Spade worked to bring vibrant color to the world, why Anthony Bourdain worked to bring people together through food.
I am not a depressed person. I’m a happy, loving, compassionate, optimistic person who deals with depression and anxiety. I’m also working very hard to make sure that I’m remembered for the first half of that sentence and not the second.
It’s been my experience that people who suffer from depression and anxiety feel mostly the same things that everyone else feels, I think it’s just we’ve lost the throttle control on those feelings. Every feeling is just so rich and vibrant. It’s like the instagram filter that makes the colors pop out vividly. There’s no little bit of feeling. It’s full blast and it’s truly wonderful– but it’s also exhausting.
It’s surely great to see your all-time favorite rock band live in concert, feeling the pulse of the music in your chest with smoke and lasers all around. Sometimes, though, you’d just like to listen to that song on your iPod quietly while you’re sitting on a plane, trying to take a nap.
Tapping play on my emotional iPod brings the smoke and lasers every time. It’s all the feels all the time. Sometimes it’s exhilarating, sometimes it’s defeating, it’s always draining. It makes me a more compassionate and loving person– and I don’t think I’d want to change it–but a lot of times, it’s just too much.
So, I’m writing this because it exhausts me to pretend like it’s not there.
I’m writing this because you need to know that there are so many people suffering– but at the same time putting every ounce of their humanity into not suffering and trying to reduce the suffering of others.
I’m writing this because the weight of all these things hasn’t become too much for me, but it’s really impossible to know when that last straw might come.
I’m writing this because someone has to speak from the perspective of those who say there but for the grace of God go I.
Social media and dinner conversations are filled with people who don’t understand, because we who do understand don’t always have have the emotional strength or bandwidth to put the dark and ugly on public display.
I’m writing this so you might understand a little bit, and that understanding might make you want to be part of the answer.
The only answer I see is that all of us use up every bit of capacity for love and compassion that we have. We leave nothing in the tank. With family. With friends. With strangers. With that asshole in the grocery store.
It’s not a cure, but it’s what we can each do.