*Author’s note: The following discusses depression and suicidal ideation.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. But for me, I am aware every day.
Every. Single. Day.
I am no different than all of you, maneuvering through life, which can be exceptionally beautiful and, at times, incredibly challenging. I was always the strong one, loud and confident. And the one different members of my family could count on if they needed help in a crisis.
I knew about mental health challenges, or should I say I thought I did, since anxiety, depression, and alcoholism run in my family. But I would come full-force into the impact of that when my greatest friend, my younger brother Brett, took his own life in March 2012 when he was only 39.
What I never expected was that on Saturday, June 3rd, 2017, I would have a nervous breakdown. I was 48.
It happened so quickly but it was a night I will never forget. I was at a party with my husband, son, and daughter-in-law. One minute I was sitting taking a bite of my roast beef sandwich and the next minute I was detached from my body, seeing the room through someone else’s eyes. I know now this is called disassociation.
Disassociation occurs when trauma or stress causes a breakdown in your mental health, and to protect yourself you leave your body. It scared me when I returned, and I needed some air. I was calm and collected as I sat under a tree breathing the warm summer air. My husband found a nurse that happened to be there who said I was having a panic attack. But I knew it wasn’t a panic attack as I had witnessed them many times with my brother.
My immediate instinct wasn’t for myself, but rather I didn’t want to worry my family, make a scene, or ruin our best friend’s 65th birthday party so I excused myself to go lie down in our truck in the parking lot. About 20 minutes later it happened again, the feeling that I had detached from my own body—only this time it was much more serious.
The best explanation I have, even all these years later, is that it felt like an explosion went off in my head. I was positive I was going to die. A brain aneurism? I wasn’t sure.
I called out for my husband and off to the hospital we went. We checked into the emergency room and were told to wait our turn, me holding my head in pain. I would spend the next hour switching between dry heaving in the toilet due to feeling nauseous and lying helplessly on the filthy hospital bathroom floor. The cold, dirty tile on my cheek giving me slight reprieve as it felt like my body was on fire. I was begging loudly for help as my husband frantically implored for someone to see me.
I appreciate all the medical attention and care I was provided. Temperature. Reflexes. Blood test. Blood Pressure. ECG (electrocardiogram), the small probes checking my heart to make sure I wasn’t having a heart attack. But what I noticed, even then, was all the attention was placed on my physical symptoms—no health care professional ever considered my mental ones.
I know their job is to be thorough to eliminate all causes, but I knew at the time it wasn’t my heart…it was always in my head. After a few hours, I received a shot of valium to calm me down and my symptoms subsided. I was discharged with advice to see my family doctor the next day.
I didn’t understand what was happening, all I knew was that on Saturday I was me and on Sunday when I woke up, I wasn’t.
I would spend the next 12 months in a desperate fight for my life with completely out of character behavior and feelings, such as anxiety, panic attacks, depression, confusion, memory loss, dizziness, ringing in my ears, and crying spells that I couldn’t control. Every waking moment I felt a deep sense that I wasn’t sure if I was dead or alive. My daily life felt like I was floating on clouds, in someone else’s mind and body, like a dream.
I couldn’t be indoors, not even in my own house. I was scared to be alone. I couldn’t eat and lost 10 pounds from my already thin frame. Over and above all of that, and what terrified me the most, was the constant urge to take my life.
We hear and read so many stories of what suicidal thoughts are: demons, self-hatred, shame, depression, and the same word again and again—pain. That those who take their own life just want the pain to stop. But I wasn’t in pain. I wasn’t unhappy. I wasn’t lonely. Not on the days or weeks prior to that Saturday night. Not during those months either.
I didn’t feel worthless or unloved. I didn’t want to end my life. Not ever.
And yet, I felt like I had gone completely crazy as there was a “magnetic force” pulling my thoughts into a direction of leaving this world. Everything I looked at could accomplish that. My dog’s morning heart medication. A knife in the cutlery drawer or butcher’s block. My son’s exercise band that he innocently packed in his luggage when we went on a work trip. And I was silently screaming inside as it scared me to death. I used every ounce of energy and conscious thought to not to listen to what my head was telling me to do.
My husband rallied around me as he knew I was struggling. What I failed to mention was the suicidal thoughts. I didn’t want to worry him. I didn’t want to worry my adult son, my daughter-in-law, my friends, or anyone else either.
I know now that was a mistake.
After my breakdown, I did everything to feel better. I read books and articles trying to understand what happened and why I was feeling this way. (Ultimately, my breakdown was stress-induced, but that’s a story for another time.) I gave up coffee—no caffeine whatsoever. I changed my diet. I slept more. I went for walks. I went for a massage once a week to relax my body and calm my mind.
I am not sure why I thought of it, but I also began swimming every day. We live by a lake and since childhood, being near the water has always been where I feel happy and safe. For the 30 minutes of laps I did in the pool daily, my head became clear, absent of bouncing thoughts, debilitating fear, and paralyzing anxiety. I was at peace.
And I went to therapy—lots of therapy—as well as being prescribed anti-depressant medication.
I think it was a good month or two before I finally told my husband about my suicidal thoughts, and a few months later my son. My husband said he knew. And what pains me the most looking back isn’t that I needed help from my loved ones, but that I didn’t say anything. I have read so many stories from others who have lost someone they love to suicide that gave no warning signs. They are left with questions of why and enormous guilt that they shouldn’t carry but a natural response of, “How did I miss the signs?”
If I had taken my life, my family would have felt those very same emotions and it breaks my heart that I was so close. I was so fragile at the time, teetering on the edge. And the people I love most in this world would have thought I wanted to leave them, but I didn’t.
I remember swimming one day; my son and I were at the gym, and I was having one of my bad days where I was confused and thoughts were jumbled. As I did my sidestroke, I could see him lifting weights through the large window. When we made eye contact he bent over a little and gave me a thumbs up. Something so simple, his way of saying, “You alright mom? I am here.”
I don’t think I ever told him, but tears started streaming down my face that day in the pool. I knew then I should have never taken such a chance with my own life after my breakdown. I should have told the one’s closest to me, or a doctor, or anyone how I was feeling.
I am still just like all of you, trying to get through life’s experiences as best I can. It remains my hope that maybe my journey will resonate with someone else.
Sometimes we do think we are strong enough to carry our challenges and everyone else’s until it becomes too much, and we realize we aren’t. That does not make us weak. And that goes not only for women, but men too.
This is what I hope for anyone who needs to hear this today:
I know how frightening it is to lose control of your own thoughts and not recognize who you see in the mirror. But what I promise is that there is help, there is hope. Please reach out to someone to share how you are feeling.
You are not alone. I have been there.
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