Update 3/21/2017: As I reread this post I am struck by the difference a year has made. I still get suicide thoughts when I have a depression episode, but gratefully, thankfully, that isn’t happening very frequently – maybe a week out of 2-3 months, which means months of mood stability. It’s an amazing relief to be able to write these words. I also think I failed to fully express the gift these thoughts have given me, so I’ve rewritten the last paragraph. Enjoy!
I wrote the original post on February 11, 2016
For a year and half, I’ve had suicide thoughts. They descended upon me like a terrible flu, causing me to fear for my life (which I suppose is appropriate since they’re suicide thoughts! ) I have had depression my whole life, been hospitalized twice. Throughout years of therapy and medication, I never felt I wanted to die. Sleep for long periods of time yes, but not death. In fact, I was absolutely terrified of death.
As a young person, I was only a little afraid of death. I did worry my priest Father Larkin might be wrong about God and the afterlife, so that was a concern. But I was young. Old age and death seemed a long way away. I had plenty of time before I had to worry about such things. Then bam! I turned 40.
I know 40 might seem early to have an existential crisis about old age. It might have been more appropriate at 50, but for me it was 40. See, my mother had me when she was 39 years old. This meant I had an elderly parent a lot sooner than people like my husband who was born to a 20 year old. Within two years, my mother would leave this world after breaking her hip. Also, my father had died at age 54 when I was 19. So turning 40 started to seem too close to 54, and my mother becoming elderly and then dying completely freaked me out.
I began obsessing about old age. In my distorted worldview, I didn’t see old people as having much to live for. I focused on the bad. People lose their good looks and become unrecognizable, their bodies atrophy, and they lose ability to be active. On top of that, families stick them in nursing homes and society ignores them. I would obsess on the idea of growing old and not come up with any decent way to do it. With my mom’s passing, I also began to obsess about what the last minutes before you die must be like. Was she terrified? Did she have pain? Where is she now? Is this life really all there is? On and on and on, I’d obsess. It became incredibly unhealthy. I was living in terror of old age and death.
For the next four years I obsessed about this. It wasn’t daily, thank goodness. But I did think about old age and death several times a week, which is still too much. It seems odd to me now that I started having suicide thoughts when I was so terrified of death. But then again, suicide would prevent me from becoming an old person. So perhaps my mind found itself between the proverbial rock and a hard place and chose death over old age. I don’t know. The mind is a very strange thing, and I’ve learned there’s no point in trying to understand my whacked out thoughts.
What I do understand is that suicide thoughts are sheer torture. When I was hospitalized, I asked one of the psychiatrists if it’s possible to get past them. He told me “Yes, but you have to fight. It will be the hardest thing you have ever done.” I think of him whenever I find myself in a relapse and dealing with suicide thoughts.
I also try to focus on the gift that suicide thoughts have given me. Suicide thoughts bring the concept of dying right in my face, and I’ve faced it over and over again. Where before I was terrified of death, I’ve been forced to deal with it, to stare it in the eye. I’ve become much less afraid of old age and death, as the concept of my own death is now much more familiar to me. I don’t obsess about these thoughts anymore. When I have the suicide thoughts, I greet them and put them aside. If they get insistent, I talk to my buddy Zinger, the coping tool I wrote about previously to set myself apart from my thoughts. This gives me some distance so I can view the thoughts as if I’m not really part of them. I also deploy mindfulness techniques to drop into my body and not focus on my mind. This getting out of my head has freed me to spend more of my time in the present moment, where life is actually happening.