In December of last year, one of my best friends committed suicide. I cringe even as I type these words because I can’t believe it’s true. She used to cross my mind from time to time, and I’d always think of her, alive and well, doing her PR work and playing with her dog and husband over in Knoxville. Now, when she crosses my mind, she’s …..well…..gone. It’s a gaping hole in my life even though we weren’t always close or always connected, which is why I didn’t know she was struggling with another bout of depression last fall.
According to http://www.suicide.org/depression-and-suicide.html, untreated depression is the number one cause of suicide. Today, suicide is a more frequent killer than automobile accidents. It is at epidemic proportions. Statistics show that men are 4 times as likely to commit suicide as women. And, I’ve seen accounts that 70% of women experience depression at least once in their lifetime. I experienced chronic depression from the time I was about 16 until I was about 42. And, if you see pictures of me back then, you would not have known. I was smiling, bubbly and overflowing with laughter. That was the outside. The inside of me was detached, hopeless, afraid and dark.
You would never have known that my friend suffered from bouts of depression. When I walked up to her Memorial Service, there was a big screen TV flashing photos of her 1000 watt smile. For a moment, I expected to see her running up to me and screaming with joy as she often did and doubling over with laughter. She looked like a happy person, and at her core she was. For those of us with chronic depression, it comes and goes for no obvious reason for most if not all of our life. I took my first anti-depressant in my 30s. About 5-6 weeks after I started taking it, I was driving home from work, and I realized that a heavy weight had been lifted from my shoulders and my heart. I felt light-hearted for the first time in my adult life. It was, quite simply…… a miracle. My friend and I were good friends for a lot of reasons, but we shared quietly about our common foe, depression. It was a frequent topic of conversation. How do you deal with it? Are you ever suicidal? Would you really do it? Call me if you need to talk. We knew how serious it was.
When I had bouts of depression, and I said something to friends about it that didn’t really “get” depression, they would tell me to adjust my view. Think positive thoughts, they’d say. Snap out of it – your life is fabulous! I tried it. I tried affirmations. I tried adjusting my view. I tried laughing when I didn’t feel like it. When the demon depression set in, nothing really worked. And, even while on a regimen of antidepressants, it still ebbed and flowed, stealing my life for months and years.
I know for me, my depression was anxiety-related. I didn’t figure this out until my early 40s. Anxiety was why I self-medicated with alcohol, sugar and coffee – things that actually increased anxiety. I thought they relieved my depressive symptoms. I was caught up in this vicious cycle of trying to cure a chemical imbalance in my brain with chemicals that put my brain further in tilt. I had heard of anxiety, but I didn’t think I had it. I thought anxiety was fear, and I wasn’t really all that fearful. I had done very courageous, risky things in my life. Anxiety is about perfectionism, needing to be seen in a certain way, obsessing over things I can’t control and a variety of other fairly normal behaviors in a chaotic world. I can’t remember the name of the book I read in my early 40s, but I remember when I read that chapter on anxiety, a light bulb went off. I HAVE ANXIETY. And, my anxiety sends my brain chemicals into hormonal overdrive which exhausts my system to cause my depression.
That’s a simplistic description for sure, but it’s how I think of my anxiety-related depression. I can tell you that when I eliminate coffee, sugar, alcohol, stop obsessing over things I can’t control, quit trying to be perfect and live one day at a time, my depression goes away. I haven’t had a bad bout with that demon in 10 years, and I’m glad to see it gone. I occasionally have ups and downs emotionally, usually related to wrong foods or not taking care of myself, but nothing major. And, sometimes I’m just sad. Sadness is different from depression. That’s an emotion not an illness.
I don’t know if my friend had anxiety-related depression. We never discussed that since I moved away long before I found out the key for me. But, I know she suffered from anxiety as defined by that chapter I read. I know that at times it would get overwhelming for her. I know that she contacted me a couple of years ago to ask if I was really doing as well as it appeared on Facebook. We discussed some of the successful things I was doing to deal with my depression and the fact that it had abated. If I had told you that she suffered from depression, you would not have believed it. She was full of laughter, smiles and was very successful in her life on all fronts. She was beautiful and had a sense of style that exuded confidence and class. She was a successful and well-known public relations person that dealt with the media all the time. Even our other close friends had no idea she suffered with depression. Those of us who suffer with it hide it well.
The reason I wanted to write about my friend today and that hidden killer depression is that I know that one of the women in your circle of friends is probably suffering from it right now. She’s probably smiling and laughing along with the rest of you but when she drives away, she sighs in relief because putting on that show was really difficult. She may have said she’s down, and you’ve thought that it was just a bad day or a bad case of PMS. And, she may feel alone even if she’s surrounded by people who love her. My friend was surrounded by a loving family and friends, but the weight of her illness got to be too much, and she checked out. I have to respect that her decision was the right one for her, but … oh … it was not the right one for me. I am angry about her choice, but I also perfectly understand. Because depression’s filters are isolating, burdensome and hopeless. Tomorrow can just seem to be too much to bear.
Jennifer, a mutual friend of my girlfriend, is struggling to come to terms with the choice our friend made. She posted an article today on Facebook which gives some of the recent statistics on suicide. It is one of the best articles I’ve read on the phenomena of suicide in our country today, and it is worth reading. Click here to access it. Suicide is an epidemic in this country, and our beliefs about who is likely to become a victim of suicide are probably old and outdated. The information contained in this article is relevant and sobering. White educated single women of my age group have a very high risk of completing suicide. My friend was married, but she fit the rest of those characteristics. I called her a few weeks before her fiftieth birthday, just a year before she committed suicide. I told her that I wanted to visit her for her birthday weekend because fifty was a big one. “Oh no,” she told me. “I just want it to go by and not do anything.” I insisted we go out, and we did. We had a blast. We went out to dinner, went shopping and toured our old haunts in Knoxville. We bought hats at a clothing store and came home and had her husband take pictures of us. We laughed literally until we cried. We hugged goodbye and made plans to meet up in Nashville sometime and not let so much time pass between visits. I had no idea that the next time I would see her would be in a picture at her Memorial Service. I have my favorite picture from that night on my desk at work. We are smiling. We are close together like we always were, affectionate and at ease with each other. We had on those hats that we bought, and we were playing like little girls. It’s the way I want to remember her. I just wish I’d known when I walked away that I would not see her again. I would have run back to take one more look at that beautiful smile.