Thursday, September 2, 2010

“Failing.” Thursday, Sept. 2, 1010.

“Suicide is man’s way of telling God, ‘You can’t fire me – I quit.’” – Bill Maher

Some statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health: There are 10.9 suicide deaths in the U.S. each year per 100,000 people. An estimated 12 to 25 attempted suicides occur for every suicide death. There are an estimated 5 million Americans living today who have attempted suicide.

That means that there are up to 25 “failed” attempts for every “successful” suicide, and 5 million people living in the U.S. who have been “unsuccessful” at ending their lives.

Isn’t it strange, what language we use? Can you think of another human endeavor in which the result of being “successful” is death?

When I was in high school, a girlfriend of mine made a “minor” suicide attempt by swallowing a handful of aspirin. She wasn’t trying to die; she was hoping a boy she liked would take notice. She threw up, went to bed and came to school the next day to tell everyone what she’d done. The response from another boy who was in our church youth group? “Kimmy, you’re suck a fuck-up you can’t even kill yourself right.”

I don’t remember whether the object of Kimmy’s desire was influenced by her actions. I think he became even more determined to stay away from her. But that response stuck with me. It was a cruel thing to say, but now, as an attempt survivor, I admit to having similar thoughts about myself.

Recently an SAS member started a wonderful website,, for we attempt survivors. (Note that the phrase “suicide survivors” is usually reserved for friends and family left behind. There really is no universal term for those of us who have attempted.) At first, the language on the index page referred to “successful” and “failed” attempts. I pointed out how hurtful this language can be, and the creator of the site graciously changed the language.

A large percentage of people who have “failed” at a suicide attempt do attempt again. Some get it “right” on the second or third try; some attempt again and again and again and keep “failing.” Websites and magazine articles about suicide refer to the acts in just this way. The more I see those terms, the more offended I get.

I propose we make a concerted effort to stop referring to suicide attempts as “failed” or “successful.” Someone who survives an attempt is dealing with enough pain and stigma – there is no need to feel like a “failure” on top of it all. Even the term “complete” and “incomplete” suggest the individual has done something “wrong” by not taking enough pills or not cutting their wrists in the “right” direction.

No, we are not “failures.” We are SURVIVORS. And to survive takes strength. It’s my hope that all of us who have SURVIVED will be willing to continue that uphill battle of healing so that we never threaten our own lives again.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The lottery. Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010.

“When she was good, she was very, very good…” – Children’s nursery rhyme

Damn it all. Why did I have to win the lottery?

The National Institute of Mental Health says 4.4 people have “some form” of bipolar disorder. That’s actually a pretty high estimate; other researchers put the percentage at between 1 and 2.

So along with blonde hair and gray eyes, I managed to win a set of genes for an illness that less than five people out of 100 will get.

But that’s not all. It appears that my bipolar does not fit neatly into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Oh, the DSM describes my depression pretty well, but they get the mania part wrong. Inflated self-esteem and grandiosity? Nope. Decreased “need” for sleep? Well, I had god-awful insomnia for months, surviving on a few hours of sleep a night, but it wasn’t by choice.

“Excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences (e.g., engaging in unrestrained buying sprees, sexual indiscretions, or foolish business investments)?” That’s the one that really gets me. That’s the one that makes so many bipolars go off their medication. They actually miss the highs, they say. They feel “creative.” They do their best work on their high. Mood stabilizers make them feel normal – and, therefore, boring. Life is just so much more colorful on a manic high, I’ve heard.

Well, I’m here to tell you that apparently, I’m missing out. Because I’ve never experienced the “fun” part of a manic high. For me, “manic” was “panic.” It was extreme anxiety that lasted three months, during which my doctor was not available and I did not have access to the proper meds. It was constant terror and confusion. It was inability to eat, sleep, or even keep up my physical appearance.

Colors were too bright, sounds too loud, the steps involved in taking a shower too overwhelming. Dialing a phone was difficult. Doing my job took Herculean effort. Driving a car was downright dangerous; I couldn’t judge distances or stay in my lane. Sleep was only possible in a completely silent, dark room; the slightest noise from another part of the house sent me through the roof like the boom of a nuclear bomb.

It was complete hell, and I don’t want to go there ever again. Not for a single day. Not for an hour.

What percentage of people with bipolar have “manias” like mine? I don’t know, but I haven’t found any examples online, which leads me to believe I’m in the minority yet again. Why can’t I have this kind of luck with the LOTTO?

Monday, August 30, 2010

"A friend is one who walks in when others walk out." -Walter Winchell

I can count the number of non-Internet friends and relatives who know about my suicide attempt on one hand.

I’ve always been fairly upfront that I struggle with clinical depression and that I take medication for it. In fact, sometimes I wore it as a sort of badge of honor – look, I have depression and take meds, but I have a successful career and I support my family. I don’t look or act weird, and I don’t bring everyone down by being a sourpuss. I’m a success story, just like all those other writers and journalists who also struggle with “The Beast.”

But everything changed with my suicide attempt. I had lost control. I had lost my mind. I had sunk to a low that I would have never fathomed six months before.

This was not something I could wear as a badge. It was something that terrified, angered and hurt my immediate family. And I was afraid it would alienate my friends. So I had to choose who I’d tell very, very carefully.

I must have chosen well, because the few friends I told have reacted with nothing but love and support. None of them have told me I was a selfish loser to do such a thing. None of them are avoiding me, and none of them, that I know of, have broken my confidence. But I think I’ve told who I’m going to tell. I’m operating on a “need-to-know” basis.

The good news is that my support group on Facebook has brought me many new cyber-friends who know the whole truth, and the fact that I communicate with them solely online does not make them any less important to me. Several of them have become dear friends, and their friendship – as well as their knowledge about my situation – makes me feel a bit less isolated.

Thank you to all of those people, both online and “IRL,” who have been loving, kind, and non-judgmental. There is nothing better than a true friend.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The elusive emotion. Sunday, August 29, 2010.

Joy. noun \ˈjȯi\ 1a: the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires: delight. – Webster’s Dictionary

Have you ever watched a toddler play with bubbles? Then you have seen pure joy.

A child watches as you dip the wand into the soapy fluid. Then you blow, and the bubbles, each with its own rainbow, float into the air. Her eyes grow wide with amazement, and she reaches out to touch one. Pop! She giggles and chases another. As you blow again, the bubbles surround her, and she appears to be overwhelmed by happiness.

When you attempted suicide, you almost certainly thought that you would never feel joy again. Whether your problem was situational, biochemical or both, joy was elusive. It was for other people, not you. Never you. Your future would be devoid of joy, and so it followed there was nothing to look forward to.

Scientists disagree about the capacity of animals to feel emotions. Recent studies suggest that they do. If you’ve rubbed a dog’s belly or held a purring cat on your lap, you probably believe that they experience happiness. But so far as we know, we are the only animals that can appreciate humor, anticipate enjoyable things in the future or even have an orgasm.

The road back from a suicide attempt has plenty of peaks and valleys. The situation you were in may or may not change for the better. Medications might or might not help. But the thing you covet the most – the thing that will tell you you’re “cured” – is joy. When will it come? How long do you have to wait for that glorious day when the sun rises, the birds sing, and you feel pure, unbridled joy?

Perhaps our problem is in the definition. I wonder if those of us who struggle with depression place the bar too high. Because if we’re waiting for that day when we have not a care in the world, when everything is perfect and we feel elated, we might be in waiting mode permanently. Life is complex. Challenges are always around the corner. There will always be something to worry about.

But imagine that toddler again. She’s not concerned about where her next meal is coming from. She’s not worrying that she’ll have a nightmare that night. Her attention is only on the bubbles – the beautiful, translucent little miracles floating out of the magic wand. And they are bringing her joy.

Maybe we need to focus on those small, simple moments, like when we notice a pretty flower or chuckle at a clever commercial. Maybe joy isn’t so elusive. Maybe it’s right there waiting for us, and we haven’t noticed.