Not waving but drowning

I’ve been getting mild flak from friends (unintentional alliteration!) about the fact that I haven’t been regularly updating my blog. I have wanted to write for a while now; I’ve known what I want to write about but I haven’t been able to figure out how.

One month ago today, on December 29th, a very good friend of mine committed suicide. It’s an extremely personal event and although I’ve felt compelled to write about it, about him, I’ve questioned how to make it universal and not self-indulgent.

I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, or counsellor, so I can’t write about suicide and depression from a clinical perspective. Here’s what I can say. About John personally: he was a great person and a great friend. He was loving; he always demonstrated and spoke his love freely. He was loyal and giving. He was intellectually curious like no one I’ve ever met. He was humble and not afraid to ask questions. He loved music. He was smart, hard-working, and driven. He was loved, and I believe he knew it and felt it. And he suffered from bipolar (or manic-depressive) disorder.

From the National Institute of Mental Health:

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. Symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe. They are different from the normal ups and downs that everyone goes through from time to time. Bipolar disorder symptoms can result in damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide. But bipolar disorder can be treated, and people with this illness can lead full and productive lives.

John developed this disorder when he was a teenager and was medicated throughout his life. There were times when he experimented with going off his meds and I don’t know if he was off his meds when he took his own life.

But I don’t want to talk about brain disorders just now. I want to talk about suicide and what it does to the people left behind.

John didn’t leave a letter, an e-mail, or even a note scribbled on a scrap of paper. We who loved him will never know why he made this final choice. And we will never escape the questions or the guilt.

I know about John’s disorder and I basically understand it—and depression in general—but I still question daily what I could have done to have prevented this outcome. I had dinner with John less than a week before he killed himself (he insisted on paying). We talked for hours, as we often did. He talked somewhat hopefully about fences being mended with family members and somewhat excitedly about going to a cabin with friends for New Year’s. We made plans for the summer. And a week later he was dead by his own hands.

What did I not see during that dinner and in the months prior? What did I not hear? How did I not reach out and take his hand when he was clearly not waving, but drowning?

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him
his heart gave way,
They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Stevie Smith

I understand the feeling of going under, the feeling that you’re alone and no one cares. In those times we can feel resentful that people don’t reach in. They expect us to reach out if we need help, but how are we to reach out when we’re drowning?

(Warning: Two geeky yet completely apt paraphrases from Buffy and Firefly ahead. I apologize in advance. I wish I could use the excuse that John was a huge Joss Whedon fan, but he was more into Family Guy.)

The truth is that there’s culpability on both sides. As the person who is feeling the blackness encroaching, you have to reach out. When you can’t walk, you crawl; when you can’t crawl, you find someone to carry you. Pride may prevent this, but we all need some carrying from time to time—that’s what friends and family are for. Don’t feel resentful about having to reach out. You may think that people should be able to see your pain, but often others don’t see your pain because they’re too busy with their own.

As someone on the outside, you have to monitor your loved ones. You have to reach in and make sure everything is okay. Sometimes you have to prod. If you don’t, and if the worst happens, then you will never forgive yourself for selfishly ignoring the pain of others. Even if you are busy with your own pain, share your pain. Share theirs. Help each other.

Suicide is the worst thing you can do to the people you leave behind. I love John, but I’m angry with him for doing this to himself and to us. I’m angry at myself for not having seen it coming. I’m sad for everyone who cared about John who now has a gap in their life that will never be filled. I’m devastated that John felt he had no alternative. He had to know we loved him, didn’t he? Some have speculated that the reason he didn’t leave a note is because if he did, he would have had to face the fact that people loved him and would miss him, and maybe he would have changed his mind.

Still, although I believe John knew that we loved him, the lyrics from Lucinda Williams’s “Sweet Old World” have been rolling around my head for a month now:

See what you lost when you left this world,
this sweet old world
The breath from your own lips
The touch of fingertips
A sweet and tender kiss
The sound of a midnight train
Wearing someone’s ring
Someone calling your name
Somebody so warm, cradled in your arm
Didn’t you think you were worth anything?
See what you lost when you left this world,
this sweet old world
Millions of us in love
Promises made good
Your own flesh and blood
Looking for some truth
Dancing with no shoes
The beat, the rhythm, the blues
The pounding of your heart’s drum, together with another one
Didn’t you think anyone loved you?
See what you lost when you left this world,
this sweet old world….

Depression

Today is my mom’s birthday. I needed to order a copy of her death certificate a little while ago, and it was in my mail box when I got home from work. Is that irony?

In the past two-and-a-half years, my mom died, my gramma died, and the person I loved with my entire heart and soul got amnesia and forgot me and our entire relationship.

So I know a little something about sadness, grief, and depression.

When my mom died, I fell apart and mostly just cried and slept for days. I had a “day job” at which I worked 20 hours a week; after taking a few days off I had to go back to work, and I managed to slog through. But my booking and publicity company, which I ran from my home, suffered a serious blow and never fully recovered. I couldn’t work for weeks.

Eventually one morning I woke up and decided this would be the day—I’d indulged my grief long enough and today I must get back to work. I showered, had breakfast, went to my computer, checked my e-mail, hit the “reply” button…and I couldn’t type anything. I literally felt physically incapable of working. It was like my brain was refusing to participate.

And so I went to the couch and spent yet another day watching crap and eating crap.

I did very little for a couple of months. I watched more movies and TV shows on DVD than I care to admit, went on very long walks in the cold, and ate a lot of not-good-for-you food. I didn’t go to the gym. I couldn’t read; I would find myself stumbling over the same line over and over again before finally giving up. Eventually I did get back to the work of my business—there were tours that needed to be booked and I couldn’t let my clients down—but it was half-hearted at best.

In time I got over it. Which is to say, I got over this depressive period (you never really get over death).

Then I met the aforementioned love of my life. I fell in love, and I got happy again. And then she was diagnosed with a brain tumour, had brain surgery, got amnesia, and forgot me completely.

The depression this time lasted…wait, what month is it? (Joke.) Luckily I had taken a leave of absence from work, so I didn’t have to work at all for the first couple of weeks. (My business, along with my girlfriend, our relationship, and my heart was another victim of the brain tumour; it didn’t recover from this knockout punch). Again I did a lot of sitting around watching crap and eating crap. I didn’t take walks this time. I still couldn’t read or concentrate on much. I slept a lot.

But eventually I healed enough to get back to a normal life.

When my gramma died I didn’t leave my apartment for three days. It happened about three months ago and I still think about her every day. Sometimes I cry.

I consider all of these experiences small-d depression. My mood, work, sleeping and eating habits, energy level, ability to concentrate, etc. were certainly effected, but it was never debilitating. I still got out of bed, I showered every day, I ate and spoke to people, I worked when I had to. I never entertained thoughts of suicide or felt like I didn’t want to live.

Often depression can manifest itself as a cycle of guilt, anger, and self-blame. I went through a period of guilt when my mom died and I spend a few weeks doing nothing. I was angry with myself for not being able to get back to work, for not being able to just get over it already! That was until I spoke to a friend of mine whose brother had died at around the same time as my mom. She too was incapable of reading or concentrating on work and experienced many of the other symptoms I had. Our conversation was beyond helpful. Suddenly I felt validated. I didn’t feel like such a worthless failure. It wasn’t just me—it was grief, and I had to let it run its course.

When we are physically sick, say with the flu or a cold, we don’t feel guilty or worthless or angry with ourselves for being sick. Generally we allow our bodies to heal. We continue to feed them and give them plenty of rest and liquids, and eventually we get better. Our bodies tell us what they need—they’re very smart that way. When we’re tired, it means we need sleep. When we experience pain, it’s because our bodies are trying to alert us to something that needs our attention.

Depression can be considered a mental illness (I don’t mean that in the psychiatric way, I just mean as opposed to a physical illness). When we suffer mental pain, our minds need a chance to heal just as our bodies need to heal from the flu. Depression is our mind’s way of telling us that something is wrong and that it needs some time to make itself better. Inevitably small-d depression ends, just like a cold. I think of this kind of depression as a cure for mental pain; it’s the time my brain needs to heal itself.

Big-d Depression—clinical depression—can be debilitating; it can negatively impact one’s life in very serious ways and can effect one’s overall mental and physical health.

While some of the symptoms I experienced coincide with the symptoms of clinical depression (these include an inability to enjoy previously enjoyable activities, poor concentration and/or memory, anti-social behaviour, fatigue or lethargy, insomnia or oversleeping, changes in appetite, etc.), I never entered the realm of clinical depression for which I felt the need to see a doctor.

Big-d Depression may also include feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, self-hatred, and wanting to die. Very serious cases may also involve psychotic episodes, delusions, and hallucinations. For cases like these, medical attention is most certainly required. While I don’t advocate frivolous or ill-considered medicating, often medication can be very effective in treating clinical depression. The process of getting better in such cases can involve trying out a few different psychiatrists/psychologists/counsellors and/or a few different medications until you find the one that works for you.

In any case, we must pay attention to what our bodies and our minds tell us. If ever you feel like your depression is something serious, if it lasts for a long period of time, if your friends and/or family express concern, if important things in your life are suffering, if you don’t want to live, then seek medical attention.

There will always be hard days. The anniversary of the day my mom died, Mothers’ Day, Valentine’s Day, etc.—these all make me sad and conjure up painful feelings, as I’m sure my gramma’s birthday and the anniversary of her death will in the future.

Today is my  mom’s birthday, or it was (it’s after midnight now). I knew it would be a hard day, so I planned for it. I kept myself busy with work and the gym, and I made plans with some dear friends for tonight. I hardly spent any time alone all day.

But now I am alone. I should be sleeping, but I don’t feel tired. Instead I’m writing this. I’ve been staring at this death certificate thinking about my mom’s life and about how, in the end, your entire life can come down to the answers someone writes in a series of boxes on a form. It’s depressing. I’m sad. I’m crying.

But that’s just tonight, and tomorrow is another day.

NOTE: I am not a medical doctor or mental health professional and the content of this post should not be taken as a prescription for dealing with depression. Make sure you consult your doctor in the case of depression if it worries you—or someone who cares about you—in any way.