Have you ever felt like a Magic 8-Ball has a better idea about what is going on than you do? Generally, my answer to that would be "Never!" However, when it comes to suicide, self-harm, depression, and anxiety I must admit that a Magic 8-Ball truly has more answers than I do. I have spent the past 32 years bouncing through life by the seat of my pants and loving every minute of it. I've always been able to maintain an attitude, or belief, that everything would be all right. When I find myself in a tough spot, I buckle down and work hard to get out of it. When something doesn't go my way, I shrug it off and move on to what is next. It isn't always easy to do, but I've always been able to do it. If I was forced to describe what makes me this way in a single word, I would use the word hope.
So what right do I have to write about suicide, depression, and anxiety?
I recently have come to the conclusion that most people are not like me. I am somewhat of an anomaly. This post is mostly my attempt at understanding something that is completely foreign to me.
My wife, Megan, has been an anxious person as long as I have known her. I classify her as the "What if..." type of anxiety. The type of anxiety that presents itself in questions such as, "What if _______ happens?" When we were first dating I didn't notice it much, but as our relationship got more serious there would be small issues here and there. I didn't recognize it for what it was, mostly because I caused the anxiety in her by the stupid things I would do. You know. Back-flips into a 4-foot pool. Setting off firecrackers while I was still holding onto them. Doing donuts in the snow until my truck was stuck in a drift. All of the stupid things boys do to feel the thrill of danger. Now that we have known each other for over thirteen years, and have been married for ten of them, I am finally able to identify her anxiety for what it is. It is the crack in the foundation that lets the rainwater seep in and begin destroying what the builder has built. The most difficult points in our marriage have been during periods when Megan's anxiety is out of control. It is no coincidence that those periods have also coincided with the times when I am struggling, due to my own selfishness, to be a leader for our family and a servant to my wife. I see my part in causing the anxiety and the problems, but that doesn't mean that I have any understanding of what is going on.
My father is a strong man. A hard, and hard-working, man. I don't know that I have known anyone that works harder than he does. He was a stable and unshakable rock for our family when I was growing up. He has also always been strangely open and honest with me and my sisters about anything we would ask him about: alcohol, sex, drugs, religion, politics, Santa Clause, and anything else kids might think to ask their parents about. The things I never thought to ask him about was anxiety, depression, and suicide. Why would I ask him about things that I didn't even know existed in any real way? Why would he know anything about any of those things? My father worked very hard to provide the stable home for me that he never had. In spite of his best efforts, in the last few years my family has experienced some very real instability. In response to the instability, my father, the strong and stable rock, was suddenly having panic attacks. He was angry and bitter. He wasn't the father that I knew. He even started running. I'm not sure why exactly he started running, but it seemed to be slowly helping with his anxiety and taking the edge off of his anger. As he got more and more into running he invited me to start running with him. Some of our best talks have happened while we are running. This might have something to do with the difficulty of talking while running, and the necessity of being concise. I've been given a glimpse of the darkness that my father struggles against. The doubts that creep in and point out every failure and every reason why he is worthless. I've glimpsed the darkness, or at least the evidence of its existence. I don't understand it any more than I understand what a thought really is. Seriously, have you ever wondered what a thought actually is? So many answers from Bio-chemistry, Philosophy, and Religion and none are satisfying. But, I digress.
My kids are little mirrors. Displaying the best parts of me and their mother, but also born with the same struggles. My kids received more than their ice blue eyes and milky skin from their mother. They also received, in varying degrees, their mother's anxiety. They got my goofiness, my intolerance for silence, and my ability to use 2500 words to tell a story that can be told in 250. Seeing ourselves in our daughters has motivated my wife and I to be intentional at addressing what we wish we could change in ourselves. Just as our parents attempted to do for us.
My neighbors (family members, colleagues, friends, and students) have their lives all figured out and their ducks in a row. Most of them, at least. They remain there, on the pedestal where I placed them, until one day they feel comfortable enough to open up about their struggles. That is the day that I realize I didn't really know them the way that I thought I did. That is the day that I realize I probably know more people who are anxious, depressed, and/or suicidal, than I do people who aren't. This was the momentI realized my experiences can't help me understand the world around me as well as I thought they could.
My Shifting Paradigm
Realizing that I am probably the exception rather than the rule when it comes to anxiousness, depression, and suicidal ideation, has forced me to contemplate what is foreign to me. It wasn't fair for me to just write my thoughts and opinions here for you to read without attempting to gain some semblance of understanding first. I read blogs of people who were brave enough to share their struggles. My friend Kerri's blog about her own struggles was an excellent window into her unique quirky humor, as well as her experiences with anxiety and depression. You can read it here . I also created an online survey with questions that I thought would help me begin to understand. After two weeks on Facebook, twenty-nine people had taken the survey I posted. I put thirty-six questions out there, and I cannot describe how incredibly insightful the answers were.
- 83% of respondents identify as anxious
- 93% have experienced an anxiety (or panic) attack
- Anxiety was described as "significant"
- General fear, failure, and the possibility of harm were main themes of anxiety
- People (social situations), changes, and stress were common triggers of attacks
- 80% sought help from a medical health professional (Doctor, Psychologist, Psychiatrist)
- 50% sought help from a holistic health professional (Chiropractor, Massage Therapist, Acupuncturist)
- 70% have used prescription drugs for treatment of anxiety
- 76% have used natural remedies for treatment of anxiety (diet, supplements, etc.)
- 90% of respondents had been depressed at least once
- 65% struggled with regular periods of depression (63% said an episode lasted 1-7 days)
- 61% sought help from a medical health professional (Doctor, Psychologist, Psychiatrist)
- 26% sought help from a holistic health professional (Chiropractor, Massage Therapist, Acupuncturist)
- 52% have used prescription drugs for treatment of anxiety
- 75% have used natural remedies for treatment of anxiety (diet, supplements, etc.)
Self-harm and Suicide
- 60% of respondents struggled with thoughts about self-harm (cutting, burning, hair-pulling, etc.)
- 37% had intentionally harmed themselves (cutting, burning, hair-pulling, etc.)
- 56% had experienced thoughts of suicide
- 11% had made plans to attempt suicide (gathering materials, choosing a method, planning a day, etc.)
- 0% had actually attempted to commit suicide
The data is interesting to me. It seems that people are much more willing to seek help for anxiety from a health professional, medical and/or holistic, but not for depression. There was roughly a 20% drop in the percentage of people who sought help for anxiety to those who sought help for depression! I am still unsure what the discrepancy really means. However, I would be surprised if it doesn't have something to do with how society treats those with anxiety issues and how it treats those with depression.
Awesome Statistics, But What Does It Feel Like?
Nine months ago my wife found out that she was pregnant with our fourth child. Nine months ago began a difficult time in our marriage, at least in my opinion. My wife, Megan, all of the sudden couldn't get out of bed in the mornings when I left for work. When I got home from work, I found her lying on the couch or soaking in the tub. She was trying her hardest to calm herself down and regain some control over her own body. I didn't understand what was going on with my wife. She confided in me that soaking in the tub was the only way for her to begin to catch her breath. She complained of aches and pains often. All of which were "probably cancer that was going to kill her or the baby." She spoke of a heavy and repressive darkness that surrounded her and kept her in a constant state of paralyzing fear. I tried so many things to help her. I told her what was probably happening with her brain chemistry. I talked about statistics that showed how very unlikely it was that she would die from an ache. I really did that. I shoved statistics in her face. I basically told her to "just stop it." I guess I did this because it's what I would have wanted to be told. But I don't have these struggles. Thankfully, it wasn't the only approach that I tried. Some were actually effective for short periods of time, and helped get us through it. The real problem was that I have never felt what she felt. "What does it feel like?" I remember asking her. I asked the same question on my survey.
If you are like me and haven't the slightest idea what any of this feels like, then here are some of the common responses for what an anxiety attack feels like, compiled in narrative form:
- It starts with a thought. The thought is the snowball that begins the avalanche. I'm stuck in an unending mental dialogue with my biggest doubts and fears. Fear. Panic. Sadness. It doesn't matter what the emotion is, it's stronger than anyone should ever have to experience it. I can't think rationally. My mind is working in slow-motion as I get mental tunnel-vision. I am laser-focused on my panic. It's all that exists. And it's getting worse. My chest is tightening as my heart begins to race faster and faster. What is wrong with my lungs? I can't get enough air. The air is heavier than water. Or, my lungs are full of concrete. Either way, my head is swimming. I'm out of control and I know it. Knowing it doesn't help. It's as if a bomb has gone off and I'm the only one who realizes it. Doesn't anybody see it? There is no "Fight" in me, only "Flight." How can I flee? I can't move. I can't even breathe. Doesn't anybody see?
...I didn't truly know what she was going through. I still don't. However, now I am not ignorant about it.
As I write this, I'm ashamed at how I treated my wife as she lay there paralyzed. She might not think I treated her any way other than with love and patience. I put on a good show. I was so frustrated with the situation. I was so tired from my own stress at work. I didn't want to deal with something that was, in my opinion, "all in her head." I wanted to be intimate with my wife, and not have to dispel every wild "what if..." scenario that she could think up. I wanted my wife and helpmate back. I'm ashamed of my selfishness. I realize now that "...in sickness and in health" probably isn't relative to my opinion of what qualifies as sickness. My only excuse is that I didn't truly know what she was going through. I still don't. However, now I am not ignorant about it.
How ironic then, that common survey responses said that the hardest things about struggling with anxiety issues were:
- Lack of understanding from others
- Taking care of others
- Trusting people
- Hiding struggles with anxiety
The descriptions of depression were even more...well, depressing. As I compiled the responses and read through them, I was reminded of the time I decided to read The Road by Cormac McCarthy in the dead of Winter. It is an excellent novel, but I do not recommend reading it in the darkest part of the year. The responses to my survey described depression as:
- Isolation, even in large crowds.
- Exhaustion: The smallest tasks require enormous effort.
- I'm not normal. I don't feel normal. I feel like I'm outside my body watching someone else control it. *I get zero joy or fulfillment from my job or from any relationship.
- I live in a mental fog so thick that I feel numb
- It doesn't matter if something good happens. Everything good ends, and ends tragically, so I might as well not care.
- Everyone is against me.
- I'm a failure and have no value to anyone.
- My body aches. I can't even get out of bed. It's hopeless. I'm hopeless.
There were a few responses that I feel would be most beneficial for you to hear if you are like me, and don't understand any of this. I asked the survey takers, "What do you wish you could tell people about what you struggle with, but haven't been able to tell them yet?" The response that spoke to me was:
- "I do not want this to happen to me. It is not a ploy to gain attention. I would do anything to not feel this way. When I am experiencing an 'episode' I am not looking for someone to solve my problems, I just want support and understanding."
I also asked "what would you tell yourself if you could travel back in time to when the issues first started?
- "Keep writing and documenting all of the small, positive gains and blessings in your life. Stay around your friends and allow them to help you."
I asked what they would tell someone like me who had absolutely no clue what they were going through. The answers all seemed very defensive in nature, which made me realize just how easy it is for someone like me to dismiss how it must feel and what the struggle is really like. The answer that convicted me the most was the following:
- "Because it is mental health, there is a bias that you should be able to control your thoughts and emotions. In reality, people have very little control over emotions. Otherwise, we would always just choose to not feel negative emotions at all! The brain is an organ that can have imbalances like any other organ. You wouldn't tell a diabetic to just make more insulin!"
It's Time to Start Contemplating Suicide and Acting On It
"Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ...And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith." Galations 6:2, 9-10
Where is The Church? When was the last time you heard of Christians doing anything about suicide, depression, or anxiety? My experience is that we ignore it, or hide it. Maybe the reason that I have had 30+ years of living in ignorance of the prevalence of these issues in the Body of Christ, is that we refuse to talk about it. Is it impossible for Christians to struggle with anxiety and depression? Why is it scandalous to hear that a Brother or Sister in Christ seriously thinks about harming themselves? Are we immune from these struggles? NO! Have you not heard?
"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin." Hebrews 4:15
Think about that! Jesus was tempted as we are. The difference is sin. The conversations I have had lately regarding suicide and depression have made me realize something powerful: The thoughts that race through the mind of those affected by these struggles are just like the offers of Satan when Jesus was tempted in the desert.
The thoughts creep in, sometimes out of nowhere. The core of the thought is a lie. The Lie, in fact. The lie that tells us that we can't really trust God. The problem is that The Lie is unrecognizable to us at the time, because it is cloaked in some truth. Twisted truth. It is covered in the truth about the worthlessness and depravity that keeps us from being what we were created to be.
The whole Truth, The Gospel, is that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). That God loves us so much that He gave up His only Son to be slaughtered in order to purchase our lives (John 3:16). The Lie that creeps in and speaks to you of your failures, your worthlessness, your inadequacies, your depravity, your isolation...It is pointing you inward to the darkest place in your soul. If it doesn't point you to the Cross, and the work that Christ did there, then it isn't The Truth. It lacks Grace. It lacks Forgiveness. It lacks Freedom.
If Jesus was tempted as we are, and there are people that struggle with this, then Jesus faced it too. If Jesus faced these struggles, then they are REAL struggles. The Church can no longer afford to hide away our struggles and ignore them like they don't exist. We must begin to contemplate these issues. To speak of them candidly. To listen to each other's struggles carefully and with patience and grace.
I still don't understand the first thing about these struggles. But now I know that I don't have to understand them. Jesus Christ understands them because He experienced them, and His Spirit is in me. I just have to let His light shine in the dark places, instead of hiding it.