Before you jump in, this post will make a lot more sense if you've already read the one before it.
If you haven't, here you go: "I am NOT my mental illness."
Also, note that this post was originally published on September 28, 2013.
What I want to do now is continue my “telling the truth” experiment.
It’s going really well so far.
But I can’t tell the whole truth without divulging a really crucial part of the story. And that’s the part where things got so dark at (more than) one point that I struggled with suicidal ideation.
I was afraid to talk about this. I am, right now, afraid. It’s risky. It’s painful. But that’s because it’s important. And because nobody talks about this. And it’s time, I’ve decided, to talk about it.
Please know that in no way am I trying to suggest that this is what having suicidal thoughts is like for everyone. This is what it was like for me and I have no doubt in my mind that this isn’t anywhere close to the most severe case of SI. This is not done in a spirit of complaining or boasting; it has been crafted out of a place of prayer and empathy. I had to wait to do this until I wasn’t going to have the secret motive of “somebody fix me.” I’m telling this story in hopes that some light can be shed on this subject, this painful place that I have been delivered from, but that so many people are in. I’m in a safe enough place now where I can do it, so here it is. This is where I used to be.
“I struggled with suicidal ideation.”
Ick. That statement alone feels too casual and too clinical to do justice to those periods of time. Not enough to express what that actually felt like. Too much like something out of a textbook. I don’t think I have words to define it objectively. Thinking about it subjectively makes me shudder and want to vomit a little. I’m a word person, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write anything that fully encapsulates the agony that all this embodied for me.
Please, Lord, never again. Never. Again.
Suicide is one of the most lethal things facing our society.
And it is also one of the least discussed.
That doesn't make one ounce of sense to me, and therefore, I have decided to change the game.
Rewind to my sophomore year of college. I was formally diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder in November of 2009, and that’s usually all I’ll say before I cut the story off. Or I’ll say that it was hard, that depression was hard, that being a Bio major was hard and I switched. But if you were close to me that year, you know that “hard” was barely the tip of the iceberg. To use my own terminology, it was a living hell. Right before the school year started, I found out that a friend from my church back home had been murdered. My therapist calls that my “episodic activating incident.” We can see now that it, for whatever reason, opened the floodgates for depression to fully charge into my life. It affected me in a really peculiar way, which I thought was just a manifestation of grief, but we now know that it was a manifestation of mania. I memorized every single detail of every single news and police report. I became obsessed with the idea that I would be able to read between the lines somewhere and figure out what happened. (Note: the case is still unsolved.) I stayed up nights and watched funeral services over and over. I started having panic attacks, was afraid to go out in public by myself, and eventually developed a fear of driving, that I’d cause an accident and be the reason someone lost their life. If this doesn’t sound that bad, it’s because can’t fully remember what it felt like, and this description is scratching the surface, and it was like holding my breath and being paralyzed by fear and whatever else you want to throw in there. Feeling like you’re drowning doesn’t have anything to do with water.
This, over time, turned into a cruel twist on survivor’s guilt.
I can’t stress enough how much my inner monologue shifted during this period of time. In the counseling world, we call that cognitive maladaptive thinking.
I like to call it “every evil force in the world took up residence in my mind and it was like Satan himself was speaking to me.”
Because survivor’s guilt turned into “That should have been you. It would have made more sense for it to be you.” And I became convinced of that and believed it as truth.
The most beautiful gift from God in my life is that I literally cannot remember any more exact thoughts from that season.
And long story short, everything just stopped. I just…stopped. Stopped doing homework, which was the first sign that I was starting to tank. That’s not a good practice when you’re taking things like Psychology and Genetics and Gen Chem with professors who more or less makes you teach yourself. I stopped going to class, I stopped talking to people, I stopped leaving my dorm room. The only thing I actually wanted to do was stuff with my Young Life girls. That was the only thing I can remember caring about. I’m not going into depth about the agony because that’s what a lot of narrative accounts of mental illness already do, and while I think that’s important, it’s not what I want to do here. I don’t want to glamorize the agony. I want to talk about how I got out of it. And that process started with hitting rock bottom.
I knew I was in trouble the day I was sitting at an intersection on the west side of Spartanburg, with a traffic light’s red glow staring me down, eye to eye, taunting me, knowing that I could drive into oncoming traffic and my agony would be gone.
Hear me say this. When somebody comes up with an idea like driving into oncoming traffic, or whatever it is, it’s only because their life before that moment has been that excruciating.
Hear me also say this. Two things kept me from doing it. Quite frankly, the first thing was the fear that I would just be horribly mangled – that I’d survive the attempt – and everything would get a whole lot worse. That there really wasn’t an escape from the agony. That I was powerless. I know that’s morbid. Trust me. Wanting an escape wasn’t about wanting to die. For me, those were two separate things. Same outcome, different motive. It was never, ever, ever that I wanted to die. It was that I didn’t want to feel how I was feeling anymore. And driving into oncoming traffic seemed to be the fastest ticket out of that agony, but I was willing to consider alternatives
Somebody told me once that “that doesn’t count as suicidal.”
My, my, my.
I usually don't want to hit people, and I usually don't speak in generalizations, but don't ever tell someone that their suicidality "doesn't count" because they didn't need to be hospitalized or didn't involve weapons in their plan.
Luckily, by the grace of God, I had a second thing. The second thing was that I had people who believed in me. Out loud. People that relentlessly stuck close to me despite all my efforts to kick them out of my life. The conversation I remember most vividly from that semester is one that I had sitting on my bed in my dorm room with one of my dearest friends to this day.
I said, “Do you ever just wake up and know that it’s Monday, but you can’t feel anything, and so you just do the things you have to do to get to Tuesday just in case you’ll be able to feel something then?”
And she looked scared.
And she told me, “No,” in a voice that was scared.
Poised and strong, because of who she was sitting with, but scared nonetheless.
Ten minutes later I found out that a friend of mine had committed suicide that morning. And I walked my end-of-my-rope self over to the health services building and in the next 24 hours, which contain some details that were never revealed to me, I had my room all packed up in my maroon Scion and was headed back to Virginia on a medical leave of absence that would last a couple of months.
I’m 100% sure that nobody around me knew the full extent of what was going on in my head during all this. My biggest proof of that is that my parents didn’t know that anything was even wrong until I called them to tell them that I was on the way home.
When I got home, I was essentially tranquilized on antidepressants. My doctor called that “needing to put out fires.” She called me Eeyore once. She was not my doctor for long. I slept 20 out of the 24 hours of the day, so I obviously don’t remember a ton from this period. That was on purpose. I’ve asked for stories and I’ve stopped doing that. I wasn’t allowed to drive for a while, but I remember the first time I did. I went to Target and didn’t even make it inside, and pulled back into my driveway right as my mother was coming home from work.
I got out of my car and collapsed into her arms, sobbing, overwhelmed, needing relief. Something. Anything.
I said “Is this going to be forever?”
And she said, “No, baby, it’s not. I promise.”
And I used her promise as my life raft, because I was very angry with God and veryunwilling to communicate with Him in any manner. We were on a break. I was angry. He is incredibly patient.
A quick story about my mama. She won’t mind me telling this because she has the biggest heart I’ve ever seen. I was born seven weeks early and had to live in one of those little incubators for the first little bit of my life. I wasn’t supposed to make it. She had six miscarriages before she had me.
I was, I am, a miracle baby.
She asked me the other day to ask my doctor if a medication she had to take when she went into labor could have caused my mental illness.
And I didn’t tell her this part, but I already erased the name of that medication from my mind, because if I ever want to know if that was a connection, I’ll go dig up a clinical trial or tell somebody else to. Because it doesn’t matter whether that caused it or not. I never want to know. I don’t want to carry that around, and I don’t want her to, either.
It just…doesn’t matter.
(Because look what I’m getting to do now, y’all.)
Now, back to the story.
I never went to therapy that explicitly dealt with the suicidal thoughts. I didn’t talk to my parents about it. I didn’t talk to anyone. I just slept. For about 3 months. The suicidal thoughts went away, but so did all my other thoughts. I was allowed to go back to school at the beginning of second semester, and it was about 10 minutes into my first Cell Biology lab that I waved a white flag and realized that did not have the emotional fortitude to be a Biology major anymore. Other than that, I became very good at “fake it til you make it.” That didn’t work well. At all.
The rest of college was tumultuous, to say the least. A merry-go-round of doctors. 8 different medications, none of which ever really took care of the unrelenting depression. They each brought with them a new set of side effects, sometimes making things a lot worse. When antidepressant warning labels say that they may cause suicidal thoughts, THEY MEAN IT. If something took away the deep sadness, it was because it totally took away my ability to feel anything at all. If something returned that ability, it was like sadness and only sadness all the time – maximized. In 3-D. Surround sound. Nightmares. I gained something like 50 pounds. I cut off relationships because I was convinced that people who knew me before the medical leave thought I was crazy. Oh, I can’t even tell you how much I wish I could sit down with each and every one of those people and tell them how sorry I am for that. (I’m getting to, sort of, thanks to the last blog.) By the time I got to grad school, I was on such high doses of everything that I didn’t know which way was up, much less what day it was or that feelings were even a thing. When I told my doctor that I was sick of that, and we tried to put me on lower dosages, I plummeted back into all sad, all the time. And I masked that with anger. But underneath it all was a problem that I never really dealt with that was just waiting to rear its ugly head. I just didn’t have all the puzzle pieces that I needed yet.
Things got a lot worse before they got better. Now knowing that this is the nature of my unmedicated condition, January to March of 2013 was a season of painfully out-of-character behavior. And it didn’t make me uncomfortable. And that made me uncomfortable I took a class on the DSM this past spring, and of course we started discussing the differences between Bipolar Disorder Type I and Type II, and this new thing called hypomania, which literally means “lesser mania.” Roommate and I looked up a checklist of hypomanic behavior and could put a check beside every little thing. And then came our section on what suicidal ideation looks like in a client. It only took a couple of therapy demonstration videos and a presentation about why Sylvia Plath stuck her head in an oven before I got freaked out enough to get my little self back to my doctor’s office with that checklist in my hand.
And then a miracle happened. After five years of, “WHERE ARE THE MIRACLES?”
It only took one medication – an antipsychotic – and about two weeks before I felt relief and freedom and release from the darkness that had swallowed up my soul and life, had suffocated me, had all but seized my will to live. It was like coming up for air after I’d been below the surface of the water just long enough for me to feel that moment of panic in which you’d do just about anything to get to where the oxygen is.
And here I am.
There is nothing but oxygen for miles.
Learning how to live above the surface is sort of weird, but I’ve learned more about myself in the past six months than I have in the whole rest of my life combined.
During our last dinner party, roommate and I were going back through my old journals from this past winter. Nobody else’s eyes ever get to see those pages, we have decided. She only got to because she lived them with me. If I didn’t have dates on them, I’d have thought they were from 2009, from the very beginning of all this, from the first days of the darkness. But they weren’t.
Suicidal thoughts weren’t a one-time thing for me.
They were more or less underneath the surface the whole time.
It was more like a sickening muscle memory that I felt like I wasn’t allowed to talk about.
But you know what? I am allowed to talk about it.
I am nowhere near ashamed of this.
No shame for any ounce of this story.
For a very long time, I was told – explicitly, by other human beings – that I shouldn’t talk about this, that I should be ashamed of it, that I wasn’t a good enough Christian and wasn’t praying hard enough and didn’t have enough faith, as if my secret-keeping could earn me some extra credit holy points.
Don’t get me started. Do. Not. Get me started.
Let me just acknowledge out loud that the “ending” to my story is a very happy one. I had support coming from every direction – from my family, my professors, from Wofford, from friends, from doctors. I had the financial and emotional support to get the help I needed. That’s not the situation for a lot of people. And this is, I think, a lot easier if you believe in a higher power. It was for me, at least. At times, it made it harder. To pray for relief, for this to be taken from me, and to hear crickets chirping in response. That was hard. Feeling abandoned by God was hard. I absolutely (despite my periods of snarky unbelief and bitterness and whatever else I’ve thrown at God over the years) DO accredit my resilience to my faith in God and I make no apologizes for how much this permeates this entire story. It’s the most important part of me, my faith. I got out of my dark place, and I will fight tooth and nail, with every bone in my body and with all the essence of my being to keep from returning to it. Lord-willing. But that’s not the end of the story for me, because now that I’m where I’m standing – in the light – I’m looking around me and I’m listening to the news and I’m seeing that a lot of people are still in their darkness. Still paralyzed, still holding their breath.
I know a lot of people who are still sitting at their intersections, having a staring contest with a red light. I’ve heard a lot of stories like that over the past week. A lot of the past week has left me sobbing tears of joy – but there are stories that make my heart break, too. People who are still in their dark places have reached out to me to tell me that, to tell me that I’ve given them the hope they needed to get to the next day. People who don’t have the resources or support that I did and do. And I don’t really know what to do with that, so I have to go on my porch and sit with my own helplessness, my inability to fix this for them. And I have to say to God, “Don’t You see this?” – because it feels like it’s everywhere.
And it feels like there’s nothing I can do about it.
But that’s a lie.
There’s something I can do.
And I did it last week, and I’m doing it right now.
A thought crossed my mind today, before I sat down to write this:
“A lot of people are really rallying behind you right now.
But what if you write about suicide stuff and they stop?”
Again, to bring in my own terminology,
“Oh hellllll no.”
We (me included, you and I) need to realize that more people die every year from suicide than from homicide. About twice as many.
Twice. As. Many.
And we’re too afraid to talk about it?
I am done with that, y’all.
I am done not talking about.
I am for sure gonna talk about it.
I was suicidal, I was there, I was at the intersection and I’m not anymore.
It’s time to start talking about it.
This is not a blame game. In fact, forgive ME for keeping my mouth shut for SO LONG. I don’t like promoting shame or blame.
I like promoting “WE CAN DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS.”
If we’re gonna change the stigma around mental health, we’ve got to make this, suicide, an okay thing to talk about, to admit, to struggle OUT LOUD with, to go get help with.
Here. I’ll go first.
My name is Amanda Phillips. And I am stealing my life back from my darkness. I have bipolar disorder, and I used to be suicidal, and I am so sorry if that makes you uncomfortable, but I am one of the people that made it into a life boat from something that is very much a sinking ship for a lot of others. And I think the people on the ship need to hear that this is overcome-able. I was there, and I'm not anymore, and thankful doesn't feel like a good enough word to describe how I feel about it.
I don’t really know where to go from there. Beginning baby steps are sort of my forte right now. I mean, I’ll be a school counselor in not-too-long-from-now, and while my vocational direction beyond that is a little murky simply because I am open to doing whatever I need to do for my story to be put to best use, I ABSOLUTELY know what kind of woman and advocate and wife and mother and person I want to be. That’s enough for now.
I’m getting a lot of “go to law school” and “go to med school” and “you need credibility or this isn’t gonna go anywhere.”
And to that, I say,
And as always, I will bring my “A” game.
I don’t even have a “B” game.
A lot of you want to know more about the intricacies of my therapy and counseling and life coaching and doctors appointments and fourteen million different medications. And I am super happy to answer those questions – feel free to send me a message or email. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
But please oh please take into consideration that I have zero clinical or medical authority on this stuff. And that since I’m going to be up for counseling licensure soon, I have to be very careful about how I dish out advice in this arena and would love nothing more than to help you find someone in your area to talk to. I’m not qualified to make or guess at diagnoses. But I absolutely can tell you every detail of my personal experience, and that’s what I’ll gladly do if that’s what you need. It’s also pretty dry, and doesn’t make for the best blog story. My wit can only do so much.
If you need to talk to someone right now about feeling suicidal, call this hotline.
Don't be afraid. They're nice people. I've called them before. They didn't send me to an institution.
You're going to be okay. You can make it out of here.