When You Don’t Know What to Say

Lessons From My Mother
May 13, 2018
An Open Letter to Mental Health Services in My Community
June 24, 2018

When You Don’t Know What to Say

Image result for quote about judging someone's pain The past few days have been a struggle . . . first Kate Spade and now Anthony Bourdain . They both fell into despair so deep they saw no way out . . . and they completed suicide. The struggle for me is such a deeply personal one and their actions bring back my past actions and what could have been. Both of these very accomplished individuals had family and friends who loved them deeply and they each had a pre-teen daughter that now has to live without one of their parents.

I have been struggling because I feel like I should be able to raise awareness as I always try to do but here is the thing – I don’t know what to say. I don’t have any answers. Both these people reportedly dealt with depression and other mental health conditions for quite some time but people close to them are saying that there was nothing directly leading up to their deaths that would have warned them of what was to come. We will likely never know why they didn’t reach out for help at the last moment. But I can tell you I know what the feelings are leading right up to the edge of actually taking my life. I have downed pills (multiple times), drove my car off the road, tried to make a noose and actually started to strangle myself one time. I have contemplated jumping in the river and went so far as to drive down there and leave a note in the car. I felt so completely lost. For me that was well beyond feeling sad and depressed. I felt this huge gaping hole right in the center of me and it felt like it would always be there. I couldn’t manage the feelings of emptiness and complete loss.

Did I think about my family? Of course I did, particularly at the start and middle points of my depression. As an adult I worried about leaving my husband to care for our two spirited boys. In those moments I understood (not agree with, just understood) the parents that would try to take one or more of their children with them. It was a scary time. In the critical stage of my depression I was beyond even thinking about anyone else. You have to understand that I felt less than worthless. It’s one of the many lies that depression tells you. So if I was worthless I didn’t deserve to even be here. Beyond that was the fact that I didn’t want to be here. I wanted the pain to stop. I was doing therapy, I was taking medication and yet I could still feel so lost and empty. That just pushed me further into despair, what else could I possibly do?

I wanted to talk to my husband and to friends but there were several reasons I didn’t. First, if I actually talked about, spoke the words out loud I was afraid it would make me feel worse. Second, I didn’t want to see that look of pity and concern on other people’s faces – that’s hard to handle. Third, if trained professionals couldn’t make me feel better then what could friends and family do? Fourth, what if I shared my darkest feelings and I was put back in the hospital?

So maybe the hope in all of this is why I didn’t actually complete suicide? I don’t know. Maybe some small piece of hope deep inside of me? Truth is that two times I downed a bunch of pills I subsequently went to sleep fully expecting not to wake up. But I did. I’m glad I did but at the age of 17 that could have been the end. None of the life I have built since then would even exist. That is hard to face. As an adult I think there was a bigger piece of me that recognized I was a danger to myself so I reached out for help, however clumsily. The difficulty was getting the overextended mental health system to keep me safe until I could keep myself safe. Walk into an emergency room and calmly tell them you are going to kill yourself and chances are they will send you home. I am serious.  If the system had the resources it should – they would admit you and keep you safe. But the way that it is they will likely send you home. But that doesn’t mean you don’t go. Now that I wrote that paragraph I find myself worrying – what if someone reads it and then doesn’t get the help they need? So this is where friends and family come in – you keep taking the person back in and you keep calling all the resources in town. You take shifts staying with the person until someone listens and starts to help. You don’t believe the person if they say they have suddenly changed their mind and urge you to go home.  You stay. You stay and you make noise and refuse to back down until a trained mental health professional does an adequate assessment for risk of self harm. I had to do that for a close family member – he spent days in the Emergency Room waiting to be seen but we refused to leave until they took us seriously.

I believe we are making headway in the campaign to bring Mental Health awareness to the forefront of society. More and more people are speaking up and sharing their stories. There is no one straight forward answer to how do we stop so many suicides. I say it’s not straight forward but they are pretty simple:

  1. Make speaking about mental illness and even just basic emotions so routine that there is no shame in sharing your story. I hesitate at times about what is safe to share because what if people judge me. Luckily for me I actually don’t give a shit (the pre-medicated me would be very anxious about it all) and I believe my calling is to share, share, share in the hopes of helping even one person.
  2. Start raising our children to be aware of their emotions and self-regulation and self-care so by the time they are adults they are used to answering “How are you?” with a truthful answer to their close family and friends
  3. Provide mental health services to children, teens and their families as they need them without long wait lists
  4. Train more Psychiatrists – I have a family member that has waited 3 years or more to try to get into a Psychiatrist. When I asked my Psychiatrist to take on my son he told me his wait list is at least 1.5 years
  5. Provincial Health Plans should cover the cost of a mental health professional (Social Worker or Psychologist)
  6. Expand mobile mental health units – fund them to be community focused and able to go to wherever the person in need needs them to be
  7. Improve mental health wards in hospitals – make them feel more comfortable, give everyone their own room (believe me, if your roommate is a paranoid schizophrenic it does not bode well for your recovery). Have programming to keep people busy and to give them a purpose. Sitting around half comatose from new medication while watching the 1500th episode of Dog the Bounty Hunter is not recuperating. Let people’s support systems visit them during the day whenever they want – it’s not jail. Improve the food – imagine other people telling you what you can eat and when you can eat all the time (ask me one day about my big plate of broccoli)
  8. Make medication more affordable for people that do not have health benefits but make too much to qualify for assistance. These are the people that are getting much needed prescriptions and then having to choose between rent or food for their family or filling that script.
  9. When a friend or family member starts distancing themselves from everyone and everything – don’t let them. Keep calling, visiting or texting (say things like “you seemed down, wanted you to know I’m thinking of you. No pressure to text back”). The last thing a person who is seriously depressed wants to feel is guilty because they are not living up to their end of the friendship. Assure them you are there for them and there is not pressure to perform. Just don’t let them retreat into an abyss.
  10. Building on the no pressure – one of the main reasons I didn’t talk to people was that my experience was people would try to dismiss or minimize my feelings – out of love and an attempt to help for sure. But it just made me feel inferior. Like I should be able to “just think of my family” or “don’t let things get you down”. What would have helped? I’m not sure – I am going for ASSIST training this coming week so I will come back and give ideas of what people can say instead.

It’s by no means a comprehensive list but it’s a start. I feel better knowing that I have put into words some of these emotions brought up by the past few days. I get why they did it. But I so badly wish it hadn’t come to that.

Tina Szymczak
Tina Szymczak
Tina Szymczak is a 40-something mom and wife with two spirited boys. She has worked in early intervention and as an advocate resource for families with a loved one with a disability. Now she also writes a blog about raising children with complex needs, trying not to lose your sense of self as you parent, and her struggles with mental health.

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