What I Would Have Missed
I was surprised when I logged onto Facebook and saw the post anniversary notification. Two years ago, already? I scanned the pictures and videos of my niece and me at the park. I had just seen her last weekend, and I couldn't believe how much she had grown. I replayed some of the videos I had taken, listening to her passionately explain some point to me in baby babble. I remember being so frightened that my little brother was having a baby, contrasting his enthusiasm. How silly of me, I thought. What a blessing this child has been in our lives—I would have never guessed. And then it dawned on me; I would have missed all of this.
I've struggled with depression and anxiety for a long time. As a child, I was teased for the same dark skin my mother told me was beautiful. I could never shake the feeling something was wrong with me. I often felt out of place, like a burden, and struggled to keep a positive image of myself.
I spoke with Pathlight's Thomas Joiner, Ph.D., and had him weigh in on questions around suicide and depression for Suicide Awareness Month.
Can you briefly explain the interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior?
Dr. Joiner: Death by suicide results from the confluence of factors like fearlessness of death, an intractable sense of burdening others, and a state of bereft hopelessness.
I slowly started to recognize my patterned feelings of shame and sadness. One particular day as a sixth grader, I recall kids getting pulled out of class. It wasn't until a friend was pulled and returned that I was able to ask what was happening. He shared that a shooting had taken place at Columbine High School. I remember a wave of sadness washing across the news and the grave event having ripple effects, causing students in the community to die by suicide. Shortly after, new students transferred into my classes who had found their siblings' suicides. I remember newscasters sharing individual stories and students' suicide letters, and, somehow, I felt understood in those letters. The event's gravity wouldn't dawn on me until years later when I could identify my feelings of depression.
I asked Dr. Joiner about the most common misconceptions about the causes and reasons for suicide.
Dr. Joiner: That it's weak, selfish, impulsive, and usually involves intoxication at the time of death. All false.
Looking back, I recall feeling sullen and often thought about not being good enough, even romanticizing "not being around" in high school. What had all my childhood struggles been for? My family constantly moved due to work or poverty. We had also been homeless at one point, bouncing around my mother's colleagues' homes or spending the night in a U-Haul storage, neighborhood kids taunting my brother and me for living "in a maid's basement." I was young and exposed to hardship and misfortune.
Graduating high school and going to college came with its own struggles. I was familiar with unrequited love, but I had not faced the death of a classmate or peer until that summer. I wondered why such a good person could die, and I, who felt like a miserable person, was still living. Through my self-reflection during this time, I uncovered traumatic memories of being molested as a child by someone no longer in my life. I hadn't told any of my family members. My mother, father, brother, and close friends had no idea, and somehow after I told them, I felt even more guilty. Why was everyone responding with such kindness when I felt so shameful? I hadn't addressed this suppressed memory in therapy and felt disgusting and irreversibly damaged. That day, I closed my eyes and walked into oncoming traffic.
I was curious if Dr. Joiner had any tips on supporting someone who has lost a loved one to suicide?
Dr. Joiner: It's a death after all; act like you would if the cause were a car accident or a cardiac event.
I opened my eyes on the other side of the five-lane road, unscathed. I immediately called my mother for support and divulged everything I had been feeling and experiencing. It wasn't the end of my depression, but it was the beginning of addressing it. I began therapy but continued suffering from my depression. Living in a dorm apartment in Atlanta, Georgia, I'd often peer off my 16th story balcony and feel the urge to jump. I struggled with the burden of living with what I felt were sins. I'd gripped the railing and weigh the "pros and cons"—who would or wouldn't be able to move on from my death? Ultimately, I could never resolve how my mother might deal with my suicide.
My mother struggled all her life to put food on our table and give us anything we wanted. She walked in the snow, miles down the road, on Christmas eve so that we would have toys on Christmas day. I loosened my grip from the balcony railing, and from that day on, I dedicated myself to healing from my depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideations.
Some days are still challenging. Some days I still struggle to get out of bed—other days, therapy, medication, community, and coping skills I've picked up fuel my joy.
When someone is in recovery, they often feel like they are a burden to their family members supporting them. I asked Dr. Joiner how someone can combat these feelings of being burdensome?
Dr. Joiner: Commitment to treatment, determination to achieve small goals, tiny if necessary, and forgiveness and acceptance of setbacks.
I began to count my blessings. I watched my mother buy her first home after decades of struggling as a single parent. I now own two dogs. I was able to see my brother become a father! I celebrated the 5th anniversary of my father being told he had one year to live after being diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer. I watched my friends have families and go on to live their dreams. And I can write about my story, giving back to the community and mental health profession that helped me through a dark season of life. I implore you: don't miss out on the life you can build if you don't give up. We are all in this together. It might not get better all at once, and you might have setbacks, but I can assure you it can't get better if you're not here for it. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal ideations: there's help.