A Case for Suicide

Again a piece of news makes us stop and consider mental health.  It resurfaces briefly but regularly, when the unafflicted become the damaged collateral because someone they know or admire has actively chosen to stop enduring the pain of existence.

Suicide happens indiscriminately.  Kurt Cobain, Ernest Hemingway, my fifth-grade teacher, Meriwether Lewis, Dr. Seuss’ first wife…  There is a long list of notable suicides on Wikipedia and I am intrigued by the diversity of suicide victims I found there, not just the artists, poets, musicians, and authors we expect to find when suffering and creativity are so intertwined.  Some deaths are rather ironic: the cardiac surgeon who created the technique for bypass surgery shot himself in the heart; fashion designer Alexander McQueen hanged himself in his wardrobe.  I am surprised to see athletes: Olympic gymnast, race car driver, professional rugby, hockey, soccer, and football players.  And in the last ten years a new category of otherwise non-notables have become famous for their suicides:  bullied teens.

I’m going to insert a caveat here.  This is an opinion piece, but it is based on not just my 40 years of experience accepting then battling depression, but also my observations as part of multiple depression and dysthymia support groups online and my filter of cognitive empathy while listening to friends who suffer from mental illness.

As I see it, avoidance of suffering is the reason why most people end their own lives.  That actual or anticipated suffering may be the result of terminal disease, shattered pride (/shame), an impulsive reaction to change, or the invisible illness known as depression.  Because the avoidance of suffering seems like a cowardly choice to some, suicide is viewed by a minority as “selfish,” especially when mourners are left behind to be sad.  I very intentionally relegate the response to just “be sad” and not “suffer,” because the loss of a loved one causes pain that is eventually incorporated into the survivors’ otherwise functional lives, except maybe in the case of a parent losing a child, which can cripple that parent forever.  But suffering is a different state of mind than pain.  Suffering covers past, present and future in a kind of cloak that absorbs light, multiplies gravity, and constructs a preternatural friction.

Clinical depression is a diagnosis defined by persistent and prolonged low mood accompanied by loss of interest or pleasure.  It is not a) being bummed out because you lost the state championship; b) being sad for a while because your dog died; c) being cynical, jaded or plain pissy because you are living with your parents again at 40. Depression exists independent of, and sometimes in spite of, external situations in one’s life.  I will agree that attitude contributes to depression, but at its base, there is a neuro-chemical fail that I like to compare to diabetes.  This is not to say that biology is the only factor.  I believe, and science has recently begun to prove, that environment and our own cognitive habits can alter our brain biology.  Still, to say “you’re as happy as you want to be!” is banal and mostly incorrect for people with depression (and makes me want to punch you in the throat).

If you’ve never experienced depression, dysthymia, chronic fatigue syndrome, or the aftermath of Vulcan death grip, I want to help you understand how it feels by tapping into experiences you probably have chronicled in your memory and can pull up for this exercise.

That not-quite-ache in your gut when you learn your dog has cancer.  Or your husband is cheating on you.  Or there was a school shooting and your daughter isn’t answering her phone. Or you learn that fat lady actually heard you whispering about her.  That is the heavy wad near your solar plexus most of the time that you are awake.  And some of the time in your dreams.

That ache is always there.  And what’s worse, it’s there when you should be happy and carefree because you’ve got everything going for you: love, money, career, health, talent…

Now imagine 2 hours of lifting heavy boxes and furniture in July to help your friend move to that third floor apartment.  You are worn out, but there is an 80-pound box that needs to go up the stairs and you are the only one left to carry it.  The dread and exhaustion of approaching and lifting that last box is what you feel some days just to accomplish the following simple task: identify the tag in a t-shirt before you put it on, so you know back from front.

In the not-too-distant past, I considered suicide.  I knew I wouldn’t be doing it immediately because I didn’t want to cause trauma to my mom and leave my dog an orphan.  But I decided a very feasible way I could pull it off in the future when my obligations to those two who depended on me were no longer an issue.  I had been in therapy, both cognitive and pharmaceutical, for 20 years.  I had turned my attitude around and was an optimistic, high-functioning, professionally successful person.  I owned a home and had a good man in love with me.  I was physically healthy and even completely quit alcohol for the prior 6 months.  Friends and family loved me.  I was confident that several people even considered me among their top 5 favorite humans.  But I was weary of the daily battle against depression.  It wore me down in a way I can’t describe in physical terms.  It’s like a psyche depletion.  I would make some progress every time I made a big change in my life such as a new city, new job, new man… but it would always come back.

Currently I’m on the best peak of recovery I’ve ever known since I left everyone in my orbit behind and moved to a new town on the sunny side of the state.  My job changed a little and for the better.  I am dating and volunteering and making friends.  But I can’t expect this time to be so different from all the other times I’ve achieved a stretch of normalcy after a big change.  I may fall again. Even now, as I’m not feeling down and mentally exhausted, I still deal with dysthymia: I fight myself to get out of bed and take uppers to stay awake all day.  I would still rather sleep than anything else.  But much of the time, I have the discipline to not let myself do that, and so I push myself to participate in life while I’m feeling relatively good.  Mostly because I want to be a contributing member of society and not waste all the resources that have been poured into me.

Finally, my point:  The case for suicide.  I would argue that no young person should consider suicide because I don’t believe they have exhausted their options for finding a cure for their depression, angst, or attitude.  But what about those of us who have tried all the medications, who have passed the cognitive education and implementation at a PhD level, who have suffered for decades and only still exist because of our obligation to sacrifice for others?  Would you sentence us to another 10 to 40 years of suffering so you don’t have to be sad?  Many people condone or support assisted suicide for the terminally ill, not because the victim is going to die, but because the victim is going to suffer before he dies.  So put long-term treatment-resistant depression in that category.  It can be a mercy to rest in peace.

The most common reaction I see to suicide is the encouragement to unidentified masses (potentially suicidal people) to reach out, to get help, to know they are loved.  To those who have not exhausted their resources already, that is a good message.  For those of us have already done all of that, please consider that sometimes suicide IS an option.  Bemoaning the senselessness or selfishness of the act doesn’t help anyone.

I do encourage support for research to cure mental illness, I urge education on depression as a legitimate disease, and I hope we can de-stigmatize the issue so that those who still have hope for a cure may access help without barriers.
The Outsider

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Invisible disabilities

Aside

pole

This is a utility pole in a nondescript alley a mile from downtown Walla Walla.  Overkill… the classification, cataloguing and labeling involved for such a common object with a common purpose.  Modern society likes to cleanly categorize and label things.  Unfortunately, this carries over to tagging humans with labels as well.

I have both liberal and conservative friends, including extremists on both sides.  I cringe when I hear someone in my orbit label a person a “taker” or “lazy” or “welfare loser” or the broad “people who refuse to work,” based on that person’s dependence on the collective public coffers to pay for their basic needs.  Some spin it as an unfair toll on their financial freedoms to tax the earners in order to subsidize the takers.  Some are simply suspicious that a civic or moral injustice is occurring, that the disheveled man with a sign at the off-ramp might earn $100 a day and not pay taxes on it.  And many insist that drug testing be mandatory before a welfare check is issued.

I am not going to try and convince you that outright fraud does not occur.  But I want you to consider that there are a hundred situations you have never experienced or even imagined that can result in a person that doesn’t function well enough in society to sustain employment.  A little more compassion and a lot less judgment are in order; I promise you will feel the reward if you move away from cynicism and embrace sympathy.

In 2012 I missed over a month of work because I couldn’t get out of bed.  I got up to eat and use the bathroom and let the dog outside, but otherwise my body wouldn’t respond to the orders my head was giving.  To a degree, this is an issue every winter.  I use up all my sick leave and vacation leave for “depression leave” each year.  I qualified for FMLA for that longer absence and relied on savings while I took leave without pay.  Shared leave was an option, but I felt undeserving. Simple reluctance to clock-in wasn’t the problem; I am satisfied with my job.  I just couldn’t find the will to exist beyond the most primitive functions.

In 1990 I was diagnosed with chronic low-grade depression, also known as dysthymia. By the time I hit bottom in 2012, I had over 20 years of talk therapy and medication trials under my belt.  I had turned my attitude around between age 25 and 40 with a lot of cognitive exercises, often forcing myself outside my comfort zone and applying a lot of “fake it ‘til you make it” tactics. But I was far from cured, despite my tenacity. My low mood is not situational or reactionary. Since my late thirties, I think my life is nearly perfect in every aspect—except for my mental health— but I still have periods of near paralysis when I cannot function because nothing interests me, nothing gives me pleasure, no opportunity excites me, and only the most critical obligations can get me out of bed and into the shower.  Sometimes despite having the resources and personal freedom to do almost anything, there is nothing I can think of that I’d rather do than escape to slumber.  It is a neurochemical defect, no less real than diabetes. I can no more cure it with a positive attitude than a diabetic can regulate their insulin by thinking hard about healthy pancreas.  Medical science has come a long way from lobotomies, but many people still suffer from treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, and other moderate to severe psychiatric disorders.

Anyone who knows me recognizes that I am highly functioning, successful, creative, confident and well liked.  I have a good career in public service and a master’s degree.  But I owe my current stability to my parents’ financial support.  If I had not received a college education at no cost out of my pocket and a subsidy from my parents through my 20s so I could plan my career rather than choose jobs based only on salary, I could very well be someone on public assistance today.  My medical benefits and leave package is vital to my continued employment.  A job without benefits would never last because I would have too many days that I call in sick due to my mental health condition.  Likewise, if I had had a complicating situation such as a physical impairment or a dysfunctional upbringing, I don’t think I would have come this far, with or without the education and career opportunities.  For long stretches of time, battling dysthymia takes every bit of mental energy I could muster to achieve a “normal” baseline.

I realize that understanding depression is a legitimate challenge for anyone who has never experienced it, just as it is hard for me to successfully imagine the chronic pain of a burn victim.  I hope you’ll watch Andrew Solomon’s moving TED lecture to learn more about what it feels like.

I have made an incredible transformation over the past year and am rather happy now, but I don’t want to go off tangent here with exposition about my recovery.

My hope, in writing this, is that anyone who knows me will reserve their judgment of people who seem to be perfectly capable of working, yet receive public assistance instead.  In my opinion, there are three components to a person’s character: biology, environment, and spirit.  These shape each person’s capacity for perseverance, independence, work ethic, empathy, ambition, and introspection, among other character traits.  Unless a person has the gift of introspection, he or she will never stop to wonder if a personal transformation is warranted.  Adult children of parents who were always on welfare may have lived such a sheltered existence that they honestly think that’s how the world works and it is fair.  Others have a sense of obligation built into their spirit and will work 20 years without ever taking a sick day.

What about the addicts who choose to destroy their lives with substance abuse; why should hard workers who have made good choices support those who have made bad choices?  Because addiction is not a choice.  When I was concerned about my own drinking (a common escape for people with depression), I immersed myself in learning the science of addiction.  My dad had been a highly functioning alcoholic all my life and I always resented him for this damaging “choice” that he made.  I was 41 before I was finally convinced—by a video called Pleasure Unwoven(some of it is available on YouTube)—that addiction is a disease of the brain and not a choice.  I still don’t understand the difference between cigarette or gambling addiction, which many people have kicked without a special support group, and heroin or alcohol addiction, but I do know that an addict’s brain adds the substance or activity to the short list of lizard-brain “must haves” for survival:  food, shelter/safety, and reproduction/mothering.  It’s all subconscious, just as your body tells you to rehydrate even while you may not have the symptoms of dry throat or dehydration headache.  Just as a woman feels the strong urge to have a baby even as she tells herself it is a terrible time to get pregnant.

Many addictions started as substance abuse in the teen or early adult years before a person’s logic and reasoning centers have fully developed in the brain.  By the time an adult can identify what is a good idea and a bad idea, the addiction has already taken hold.  Addicts should be pitied and supported, not judged and punished.

Finally, I want to speak to the people who complain about their diminished net income due to the taxes potentially used to mitigate suffering, both domestic and abroad.  I wish you would just be grateful you were born in the U.S.A.  Think about what we consider poor here: a family of four renting a leaky singlewide trailer, one 20-year-old Mazda among them, no bottled water or meals at Applebee’s or organic produce, these folks drink water out of the tap and eat ramen and beans and McDonalds. They probably ride the bus and buy clothes at Kmart and get Medicaid.   I’ve also just described a relatively well-off person in a developing (“third-world”) country. Their poor  endure without indoor plumbing or close access to clean water, they go hungry and homeless, and are lucky if public transit is available to take them to stand in line at a clinic.  It’s not because the average person in Haiti or Uganda is less intelligent or hard-working than Americans.  In fact I would guess they work harder than us.  It’s simply the misfortune of the situation they were born into, and they are unable to escape.  Some Americans fight vehemently to prevent them from coming to America to enjoy our opportunities if that even were an option.

If paying taxes to support others in need doesn’t allow you to get into that house with the three-car garage instead of the two-car garage, or prevents you from sending your kid to the university after high school (and you must start him in community college instead), or limits the number of lattes you can buy per week… adjust your standard of living. You can live comfortably on considerably less income if you just re-evaluate your definition of comfort.  “Live simply so others may simply live” – attributed to both Mother Teresa and Gandhi.  If you still want to complain about taxes, the national defense budget is twice the welfare budget and seven times the education budget.

Use the energy you expend fuming and complaining about the deadbeats to inspire policy change about healthcare, including addiction services.  Volunteer to engage with the populations unable to sustain meaningful employment; you may be able to increase their capacities.  Expose yourself to different cultures in order to expand your ability to understand, empathize and help. Put things in perspective.  I’m not asking you to empty your bank account for the homeless or even give a dollar to the guy at the off-ramp.  I’m very simply asking you to get out of the habit of feeling indignant because you perceive some injustice is occurring when tax dollars support non-working men, women and children. 

As we, as a society, increase the tendency to group people into labeled boxes—not much different than grading lumber or tagging utility poles—and judge which boxes deserve our love and which are left to our loathing, we become less humane.  Please think before you judge, think before you are outraged.

The Season of Giving is over; the season of giving begins.

To kids, the first week of January signals an end worthy of mourning.  It is the end of holiday break from school; the end of a five-week stretch of special foods like turkey with cranberry sauce, eggnog, gingerbread cookies, candy canes and fudge; but most of all, it is the end of the gifts. The year will be punctuated at some point with birthday gifts, but really it is a year until the next bonanza of toys, iPod credits, and cash.

As an adult my emphasis has shifted from receiving to giving. Yet I do not participate in December gift exchanges, even with loved ones. I have grown to resent the forced giving sans inspiration represented by Christmas. I see so much stress involved in the last-minute brainstorm to identify and purchase a personalized gift. For parents who can enumerate, but not afford, a dozen things their child would love, the stress is in the budgeting. For people who feel obligated to give to the person who has it all, the stress is in the creativity.

I have nothing against providing gifts; I do it all the time. I wish I had an unlimited budget just for giving.  But I only give when I am inspired. I don’t give presents at Christmas and I urge those in my orbit to refrain from giving to me. I give throughout the year. I have a knack for remembering details, and this helps me make connections when I see something months after a friend has told me she is now interested in such a thing. I keep notes about my friends. With a notepad on my smartphone, it’s effortless. I buy little things when the mood hits me, but despite multiple gifts to multiple people, I don’t exceed what would have been my Christmas budget, because I give meaningful but inexpensive or free gifts. $3.99 here, $11.25 there. A friend has announced her 2014 resolution to floss every day. At some point I will send her some bubblegum-flavored kids floss to motivate her. Later in the year I may come across a humorous reminder of her resolution and I will buy it.  Not necessarily a trendy gift, but considerate; It shows that I listened to her. I once left an anonymous jar of borscht on a co-worker’s desk to restore his pluck in a mid-year lull. Not that he’s Ukrainian or terribly fond of beets, but just to inspire one of those WTF moments that gives us a pause from the troubles at hand. Sometimes my gift is just sharing a resource, such as web page that inspires (Brain Pickings, elephant journal, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, GPS for the Soul, Dogster).

Making Christmas the de facto Season of Giving is like saying “I love you” only on your anniversary. Listen to your loved ones. Know what delights them, and you will recognize the perfect gift when you least expect it. If you have the fortitude to hide that gift until December 25 (I do not), you will have achieved both the spirit of thoughtful gift-giving and the letter of Christmas law. I prefer to give year-round. The unanticipated nature of a spontaneous gift makes an even bigger impression than giving as part of the annual ritual. It fills my heart to provide these gifts and it’s my hope that the recipients feel the love without distraction from the stress and shallow nature of forced holiday giving. Christmas can carry itself on fellowship alone and my holidays have not been diminished by shunning the gifting process. I encourage others to start a new tradition in 2014.  It may be impossible for parents and grandparents to stop giving at Christmas, but acknowledging the value of giving based on inspiration rather than a date on the calendar is meaningful for all ages.

November fog

I moved here for the weather.  I love the dry, sunny climate of SE Washington and loathe the soggy-sock, moldy window-sill climate of Puget Sound.  So in my first month as new kid in town, when I made small talk with folks in Walla Walla , I always mentioned my appreciation for the local weather.  More than half of them would warn me of the dense, suffocating fog that comes in November.  I wasn’t concerned.

November 1 provided my first opportunity for friend-making at a fundraiser event–a wine auction at the Marcus Whitman.  I moved here knowing only one person well, and having very few acquaintances. I paid more than I could afford for a ticket to this posh affair, going solo and defending my splurge with the potential for networking and meeting women who shared my interests.  I am an introvert who is pretty good at faking social skills when I have a purpose, such as in a professional setting.  But my desire to make new friends wasn’t enough to empower me that night.  Unfortunately all the women were already in cliques or just with their significant other, and even the folks assigned to my table wouldn’t respond to my attempts at conversation.  I left with no new acquaintances and decided that the Walla Walla fog I’d been warned of was akin to the “Seattle Freeze” and not the meteorological condition.  The social strata are cleanly defined in Walla Walla.  I was among the powerful majority in Olympia: a middle-class state worker.  Here I find that those people in the service industry are the friendliest on the planet, but the more affluent folks are on a different plane.

I spent a few weeks wondering whether this move would really improve my winter depression.  On one hand, I was supercharged by the sunshine.  On the other hand, I had no friends.  Although my boyfriend is all the best rolled into one, I still miss the female camaraderie I had back in Olympia.

I traveled back for a week at Thanksgiving and enjoyed my old girlfriends one by one.  I realized that I am well-loved by a variety of strong, smart, quirky women, many of whom didn’t know me 10 years ago, and some of whom have known me since elementary school.  Their admiration, interest, affection, and warmth made me feel like a cherished prize.

I can do this again.  I am inspired by my history of successful friend-making and motivated to forge a new pack in Walla Walla.  I just have to be patient.  And leave my living room once in awhile.

Caramel-corn hamlet

After three weeks in my new home, I am still in the honeymoon phase of my relocation.  I almost expect unicorns to bring manna to my door in the evenings.  When I drove to Lewiston last week, the smell of caramel corn from Bright’s Candies followed me through three counties.  Most mornings my neighborhood hints of bacon on the skillet.  My new pharmacist looks like a young, polished Ray Romano.  Everyone I pass while walking my dog is so friendly, offering a greeting or at least a smile.  Once a lady saw me carrying what was obviously a baggie full of dog poop and she asked if I would like to deposit it in her garbage can.  I’m telling you:  Shangri-La.

My neighbor to the west is Whitman College and they seem to be good kids and passionate educators of the caliber I appreciated during my years working at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.  I sometimes pass through campus instead of driving around.  One night Greek row identified itself by a couch in the middle of the road.  That seems to be the extent of shenanigans here, a nice contrast to the news of keg-stands, balcony-dives and twerking I hear from local state universities.  Yes, I did keg-stands and worse in my time, both at WSU and in east Lewis County.   But now I’m middle-aged and go to bed by 9, even on the weekends.  Bless the academic over-achievers at Whitman who don’t make much noise.

campus horse

There was a little rain the first week I was here, but it has been sunny and beautiful most of the time.  I need to get over the west-side attitude that any hour the sun is out must be fully appreciated (since it may be the last sun for 9 months) or I am not going to get any work done.  I go out of my house wearing shorts and tank tops while the natives are bundled up for “autumn.”  Feels like June in Olympia to me.  Many of the houses here, including mine, don’t even have gutters!  It’s a new world.  A caramel-bacon-scented, unicorns-bearing-gifts, sunshiney, welcoming world.

My First Week in Walla Walla

Last weekend I moved from my house, friends and family in Olympia, to Walla Walla.  It was a huge endeavor to move somewhere that I know almost no one, but luckily my job moved with me.  Life had become stale in Olympia and the 9-month rainy seasons of Western Washington took a greater toll on my mental and physical health each winter. I relocated as both an expression of my freedom from spouse and kids, and an attempt to treat seasonal affective disorder naturally.

The rural community of Walla Walla-College Place is about 40,000 people and established in the late 19th century.  For the Westsiders, that is  bit smaller than Longview-Kelso but a little bit bigger than Bremerton. Costco is an hour away in the Tri-Cities.  For my Arizona friend, it’s about the size of Prescott, but full of college students, oenophiles and wheat farmers.photo (1)

I haven’t had to learn a new community from scratch since I moved to a Portland suburb after graduating from college in 1993.  (That only lasted 4 months before moving to the more-familiar King County).  Back then, the unwieldy paper map was my constant companion.  This week I leaned on my phone GPS very heavily.  After 4 days of commuting, I could get between work and home without assistance. Just 2.5 miles, but it takes 6 turns because Walla Walla streets don’t adhere to the simple grid system beyond downtown.  I can also find downtown based on just my sense of direction, but it is just on the other side of my neighbor, Whitman College.

It’s been interesting to observe my mind apply its navigation skills.  I was disappointed at its failure to get me around Monday based on sense of direction alone after my two weekend trips to this town in the last three months (granted, one of which found me chauffeured about by my boyfriend-to-be).  I find street names to be about 40% of my clues, while landmarks are the greater portion.  Turning at that beautiful colonial house with a three-port carriage house or the extra-large, hilly park become my milestones rather than searching street signs.

I have already experienced a chic (or maybe just cheeky) haircut at Misbehaven Salon, decent poutine at Marcy’s, heavenly breakfast feta pita wrap at Olive, addictive “hot shrimp” at Red Monkey and I write this entry from the Mill Creek Pub, which has great music (AC/DC and Tom Petty to Bobby Darin and Nat Cole) and free peanuts and popcorn.  There are no “box stores” in Walla Walla, but just over the city limits in College Place are Home Depot and Walmart. The local Ace Hardware is part hardware, part bargain basement.  The Goodwill looks like a chichi San Francisco warehouse-turned-retail space.  Downtown is full of walkers, joggers, bicyclists, and dogs on leash.  I jaywalk readily because of the lack of automobile traffic, just don’t tell my friends at Lacey P.D.

I simply don’t comprehend why everyone does not try to move to Walla Walla.  Maybe I will change my tune at the peak of winter (or summer), but right now I could not be more satisfied with a community.