Understanding the Darkness in Those You Care About
In my early twenties, I was diagnosed with Manic Depression, now commonly known as Bipolar Disorder. I had suicidal thoughts every day for nearly a decade, starting from my late teens. I wanted to die. Every night I would fall asleep to a tear-soaked pillow, begging a cruel, invisible God to have the mercy to let the bed swallow me up so I could disappear, and every morning I would wake up with strands of clumped tear-dried hair, furious that I was still alive.
On multiple occasions, I’ve held a knife to my wrist and neck, and a gun to my mouth and temple. And on every occasion, I was too scared to follow through.
Weak. Loser. Can’t even kill yourself. Can’t go on living and can’t go on dying. You’re pitiful. Useless. One quick little push through the flesh, one tiny little squeeze of the trigger, that’s all it takes. And yet, you can’t even get that right. The world would be a better place without you in it, taking up so much worthless space. You’re a disgrace.
These are the thoughts that went through my head every day. Pretty crazy, huh? And yet, that was my reality. I was living in a black hole, its powerful gravity sucking me in, pulling me down. I desperately tried to claw my way out of it but it was a constant struggle to hold on, to stay alive just one more day. And the worst part?
No one understood. In a world of 6 billion people, I was alone.
Everyone else seemed happy and unaffected, light and carefree. I was the opposite, I felt everything, especially the darker, heavier emotions. Little things made me so sad and I cried all the time. Somehow I missed the memo on how to be happy. Or maybe I just wasn’t good enough to deserve what everyone else seemed to have.
The ones who were close to me tried to help, but it always made me feel worse. I remember the utterly helpless look in my mom’s eyes one day when I was visiting her in St. Louis. We were in her kitchen, she was cooking bacon over the stove, flipping each wavy piece with a fork as they sizzled in the oil. She stopped between pieces, turned and asked me, for the hundredth time, why I was so sad. I was sitting at the table alone and looked up at her, wanting desperately to have an answer for her. But I didn’t. There was no one reason. I couldn’t point my finger to anything and say, “This is it. This is the reason I’m depressed.” It was a general all around feeling of hopelessness and unworthiness, of not belonging here. And ‘sad’ was such an insulting understatement to how I really felt. When I tried to explain all that to her, her eyes died and I saw the dark clouds that surrounded me starting to envelop her. I felt her helplessness, in addition to mine.
It’s one thing to be depressed myself. It’s another to see my suffering spread to someone I love dearly. That was when I learned to put on a fake smile, to pretend that things were OK, when deep down I wanted nothing more than to die. I never wanted to see that look in my mom’s eyes again.
And I never did. But years later, I discovered that she had learned how to put on a fake smile too. When I pretended that everything was OK, she pretended to believe me.
Because she didn’t know what else to do.
And the worse thing for a parent is to see their child in pain and not be able to help them.
So I wrote this letter to my mom, and all the moms and dads and loved ones who know someone battling depression. If you really want to help them, study this letter closely. Take it into your heart, commit yourself to the steps involved. It may not seem like much, and it may even be impossible at times, but let me take your hand and guide you into the mind of your daughter, your son, your husband, wife, friend, sister. Allow me to show you how you can help them through their darkness so they can emerge on the other side, lighter, happier, free from the despair that keeps them shackled and living the joyous life they truly want and are fully capable of having.
I live on that other side now.
The dark days of the heavy clouds no longer control, overwhelm, trap and suck me into their pits of despair. Now, it’s not about how I can die, it’s about how I can live, how I can experience even more joy. I wake up every morning with a playful, lighthearted enthusiasm bursting out of me, I can’t wait to face the day. When I go to sleep at night, I want to hurry and fall asleep so I can wake up and do it all over again.
I roll over and see my boyfriend sleeping and I feel an overwhelming sensation of belonging and appreciation. We have tickle fights, him, me and his 12-year-old daughter, and we all collide, bodies and limbs crashing together on the carpet laughing until our bellies hurt and our jaws ache, our two dogs licking and pawing, jumping all over us, wanting to be part of the fun.
I have more than enough energy to go rock climbing, skydiving and hiking all in one day. I don’t snap at people, I’m not annoyed easily and I have mental clarity, awareness and presence to spend quality time with my family and loved ones. I’m not an outsider anymore and I’m no longer living in my head or inside my dark tunnel of self-pity. In fact, I look in the mirror and absolutely adore the woman staring back at me.
My mom and I have what we call laugh attacks, where we laugh so hard we cry and we don’t even know why. One of us might have said something mildly funny and that’s enough to set us off into crazy contagious laughter that spreads to my sisters, and anyone within earshot.
I feel bold and courageous and I welcome challenges, knowing if I can get through an entire decade of wanting to kill myself (that’s 3,650 days!), I can get through anything. What doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger. And damn, am I strong. If you look up ‘strong’ in Wikipedia, you’ll see my picture. And I’ll have a real, genuine smile, not a fake upside down frown.
If you want to help your loved one get to this other side, this letter’s for you.
A Letter to the Suffering
I know that everyone’s different, and depression is not the same for every person, and what works for one may not work for another. But hopefully this can serve as a general guide to help you into the mind of your loved one. I went back in time and wrote it, from the point of view of where I was in my darkest days. I wish my mom had this letter back then, if not for me then at least for her own sanity. And I wish I had this letter too, so I could soothe myself when I was unsoothable.
If you are depressed, maybe this letter can soothe you too, to soften even 1% of your pain, because sometimes that’s all it takes to get through to the next moment.
I hate seeing that look in your eyes. The one that tells me your heart is broken. And worse, that I’ve broken it. It churns my stomach and, frankly, disgusts me to know I am the reason you feel so helpless. I know you feel like a failure, like a bad mother. Please let me assure you that’s the furthest thing from the truth.
I know you want to help me. And believe me, there’s nothing more I want than to be helped (except the times I’d rather just die), to feel good again. Or maybe even for the first time. I don’t even remember what good feels like. Did I ever feel good?
All I know now is darkness, heaviness and suffocation. I can’t breathe, mom. It’s like there’s not enough air, like someone turned down the oxygen level on Earth, except everyone else seems to be breathing just fine. I’m gasping for air but there’s not enough to take in. I’m dying. Slowly. Painfully. Withering away.
I want to get it over with and die already. I’m tired of suffering, of feeling so bad all the time, and I’m tired of watching everyone around me try to make things better, only to make things worse. And then I feel even more at fault for making everyone feel so bad, and that makes me feel like an even bigger piece of shit than I already am. It’s just a never ending cycle of shitdom.
Remember when dad used to rip off my bandaids? I wanted him to go slow because I was scared and it hurt. But he yanked them off in one quick pull. I never liked it, it always hurt, but it was over in 2 seconds. That’s why I want to die. It will hurt but at least it will be over quickly. At least then it will be done. End of story. No more pain. I’m already hurting anyway, let’s just get it over with.
But you know what, mom? Despite how incredibly freeing that sounds, there’s a small–but loud–part of me that inherently knows it really won’t be over. Maybe for me, who knows. But certainly not for you, dad or my sisters. You will all have to live with my choice for the rest of your lives. And I think that’s what keeps me going. I cause enough pain in life, I don’t want to cause any more in death. Then I’d really be a piece of shit, wouldn’t I?
You see, mom, you don’t realize how much you are helping me, simply by being alive. Your life is the reason I am not dead. So how could that possibly make you a failure? In my book, that makes you a Savior. When I hold the sharp steel blade to my wrist, summoning up the courage to slice through the skin, you’re in the background of my mind. Knowing how devastated you would be if I took my own pitiful life makes me put away the knife and pretend, just for one more day, to be happy.
You try all these things, you tell me to look on the bright side, smile more, fake it til I make it, do this and do that, and while none of it helps, I know your intentions are pure. You really are trying to help. But it’s not working. And I see sometimes when you get frustrated and angry, you’re not so much angry at me, you’re angry at your own inability to help, your own helplessness. But you lash out at me because I’m the one standing there reflecting your own helplessness back at you. I’m the one in front of you still in my suffering as proof of how helpless you truly are, how futile your attempts, despite everything you’ve tried. And I know, you have tried and tried. And tried. It must be tiring for you, mom. You must be exhausted.
So let me tell you what would help. And I’m sorry if this hurts you to hear, but I have to be blunt and honest or else you won’t hear it. And I won’t be saved.
1) Enough with the fake it til you make it crap
I don’t want to turn my frown upside down. Do you honestly think a simple direction change of the curvature of my lips will solve this deep, critical problem? If I had a knife stuck in my chest and a gaping 6 inch hole pouring out blood a gallon a minute, would you suggest putting one of those tiny round bandaids on it to make everything all better? That’s exactly how it feels to be told to look on the bright side and think positive thoughts. I have a knife in my chest, I’m bleeding to death, there is no bright side and no amount of positive thinking will close the wound.
2) Sad is different than depressed
Sad is when we lost Aunt Margie to cancer. Depressed is when I’ve lost myself. Sad is wishing she was still alive. Depressed is wishing I was dead like her too. I feel dead inside. There’s no one home. Only, someone must be home because that someone is exhausted, numb and aching all at the same time.
3) Being depressed is like having a constant dense fog follow you around 24/7
Only it’s not just surrounding you, it’s inside you. In your brain. I can’t think clearly, it’s foggy in here. I feel like I’m stuck in someone else’s eternal nightmare. And it’s not just a mental thing, I feel it in my bones, and if I had a soul, I’d say it’s permeated my soul too. But somewhere underneath, over, around, in or through the fog, there’s something else in me, mom, I don’t know who or what it is, but this something, this someone, screams at the top of her lungs, begging, shouting to be heard, to be free. She wants out of the fog but it’s too thick, I can’t see her. I only have a sense she’s there but sometimes I don’t hear her at all and I think she’s died or moved on or decided I’m just not worth fighting for. But she’s in there, always fighting and kicking and yelling. Sometimes I hate her. I wish she would shut up. I think she’s the one keeping me from pulling the trigger. Because if I go, she goes. And she doesn’t want to die. Her will to live is tenacious. And annoying.
4) Stop trying to fix me
I am what I am. I might be broken and shattered in a million different pieces on the cold, hard floor but don’t try to sweep me up and glue me back together. Just let me be broken and messy right now. Your full acceptance of my brokenness, of my pain, may be the difference between a healthy wrist and one that’s been plunged into with a knife. Just let me be. I feel everything deeply. I’m too sensitive. I don’t know that I will ever come out of this. From where I sit, the world looks bleak and the future more dim. But you know otherwise. You have hope. You feel joy. You see light. You actually laugh. A real, deep, from-your-belly kind of laugh. I cannot convince you to come to my side to know what I know, just as you can’t convince me to come to your side and know what you know. So if you can hold onto what you know, and let me hold onto what I know, eventually your knowing might permeate mine. Eventually, your light will seep into the cracks of my knowing and one day, it might eradicate all the darkness and fog. But not now. I’m not ready. If I was, that one day would be today and I wouldn’t be writing this letter.
So instead of trying to fix me or force a change, trust in the power of acceptance. Accepting me as I am, especially at a time when I don’t accept myself, is the most powerful gift you can give me. Just think about it. All day, every day I tell myself what a failure I am, how wrong and weak and stupid I am. I feel broken, defective, left behind. I feel unworthy, inadequate and a burden. It doesn’t help me to have you validate those feelings in me by trying to change and fix them. You’re basically saying, “You’re right. You are defective, you are a burden.” If I wasn’t, you wouldn’t try so hard to fix me and I wouldn’t see that helplessness in your eyes.
I know it’s really hard for you to watch your little girl in so much pain, and your motherly instincts are going haywire trying to make it all better, but I am telling you now, if you could resist your temptation to ‘make it better,’ put aside your urgency to fix things, and just be here with me, in my presence, in full acceptance of where I am right now, I will get better faster than any other tools, tactics and tricks you use to try to fix me.
I know your mind is freaking out right now. That can’t be enough, you’re thinking. There must be something more you can do. Just sit back and accept that your baby’s on the verge of suicide every day? Hell no!
I get it, mom. And you’re right. There is more you can do. If you don’t heed any of the above and just do this one thing I’m about to show you, you will still help me tremendously, and I guarantee you, if you do this consistently, exactly the way I show you, in time, I will rise out of this depression. In time, I will get better. In time, your baby will rediscover her worth, learn new ways to think and behave, and she will be happy again. It is possible. And here’s how.
5) Two words: listen, repeat
That’s it. If I say to you, “Mom, nothing’s going right in my life. My boyfriend dumped me, I don’t have any money for rent, and I feel like a failure.” I want you to say back to me, “You’re saying nothing’s going right in your life. Your boyfriend dumped you, you don’t have any money for rent, and you feel like a failure. Am I hearing you right?”
Or you can paraphrase it by saying, “You feel like a failure because everything’s going wrong, you don’t have rent money and your boyfriend left, right?”
I want you to keep doing this until I stop talking. Keep listening to what I say and keep repeating it back to me. Eventually I will run out of things to say. It might take 5 minutes, 15 or 30. But I will stop and I will feel exponentially better.
How does this work?
This kind of active or reflective listening was developed by a brilliant psychologist and founder of the ‘humanistic approach’ to psychology, Carl Rogers. The idea is that everyone longs to be listened to, acknowledged and understood. We all want to be heard and validated. Even if what we have to say isn’t true, our need to be understood is more important than what we say. Depressed people need understanding the most because no one wants to listen to them or talk about it, and eventually people fall away or distance themselves.
Understandably so. If I tell you I’m a useless failure and you spend the next 20 minutes trying to convince me otherwise while my eyes gloss over, both of us will end up frustrated and banging our heads against the wall. It will not be as effective as if you spent 5 seconds repeating my feelings back to me. In doing this, you validated that my feelings are important, and showed me that you care enough to listen and truly hear me–even if you vehemently disagree.
People always make sense in their view of the world. Instead of dismissing what they think as crazy or untrue, try to understand their view. Even if it’s ridiculous.
When you start listening and repeating what I say, I feel as though you aren’t dismissing me and that you’re actually trying to understand me.
Sometimes just being acknowledged and understood is enough to catapult me into a softer feeling place so I can think more clearly and cope better.
This seems too simple to work and you’re surely having doubts, but all I can say is–try it. My world is very dark, mom. I’m here all alone and no one wants any part of it. The only ones I can talk to who understand are other depressed people. And we both know you can’t lift someone out of quicksand if you’re stuck in it yourself. Will you please be the hand I reach for to help me keep my head above the surface? I have no one else. Not even myself.
Thank you, mom, for everything you do. And I’m sorry I’m such a lousy killjoy of a daughter. One day I will make it up to you. One day, with your help, maybe we can go for ice cream on the beach, lay down a blanket in the sand and watch the sun set into the ocean together. And maybe I’ll turn to you, happy tears in my eyes, and thank you for not just giving me life, but for saving it. I love you forever.
Your depressed daughter.