Last week, Dr. Sophia Yin committed suicide. Her death rocked me a bit more than Robin Williams’ in August (don’t get me wrong, that was a rough one too). I wrote this piece back when Mr. Williams died, but didn’t get around to posting quickly and started to doubt the idea of posting something so heavy as my third post. Dr. Yin was (is) a celebrity in my field of work, and her fate is considerably more common among animal welfare professionals than other industries. I actually assisted her for a few days when she visited my work to teach low stress handling techniques on animals. She was all business, good at what she did, and seemed to have a dedicated support staff in tow. A woman who had it all together, changing the world of animal handling/training one book at a time. And just like that she’s gone.
I didn’t write this looking for sympathy. I wrote this because mental health is not a topic people talk openly about in this country, and it costs amazing people their lives. Sharing our truths out loud can tear down the stigma. So my hope is that my story, it helps one person think differently about a loved one or themselves. And they decide to try for at least one more day. Because sometimes that’s all it takes to get help in the form of a true diagnosis, a supportive hand or a different direction.
The first time I recall contemplating suicide as an option was in junior high. My uncle had committed suicide in fantastic fashion while I was in elementary school – he jumped in front of a train. I don’t believe that my uncle’s fate influenced my desire for it, but looking back now it seems obvious that mental health issues were/are very prevelant on my father’s side of the family. What I also know is that puberty colliding with new friends and the new environment of junior high awakened my own tendency toward depression.
My parents, while flawed humans in their own right, were actively trying to give me everything I needed to be successful. My dad worked hard to put food on the table, my mother ran a business from home to be there for me whenever I needed. My father taught me skills to be self-sufficient, my mother always had time to listen to my struggles. Yet even in a relatively stable environment, I was engulfed by self-loathing and hopelessness.
Going through puberty and finding depression at the same time was absolutely overwhelming. This was not something I could talk to my parents about (at least, I didn’t think that I could). I couldn’t confide in guidance counselors who would quickly intervene because I feared I’d be labelled and the whole school would start calling me “that crazy girl.” I wasn’t cool enough to be depressed. I didn’t wear black, or like horror movies, and I wasn’t all that into Nirvana. I was just a girl who wore thrift store clothes, listened to country music, and liked soap operas (it’s funny how much we are mini-versions of our parents until puberty hits and we want to be anything but).
I did however find someone to talk to about it, and I know it saved my life. It wasn’t the best context – two of my close guy friends and I were all struggling and we made a suicide pact. It prevented any of us from going rogue and doing it solo, and it made it okay to talk to each other about how we were actually feeling. I know any child/mental health professional would probably cringe at that thought, but it was partly responsible for me living to adulthood so I will be forever grateful to those two boys.
The other thing that kept me alive was my parents high expectations for me coupled with their generosity of love. They wanted me to have everything they didn’t, and every time I thought about suicide, I thought about what kind of mess it would leave my parents. I struggled to find a way that would be easy on them. My misery was so heavy that some days, this didn’t really matter. But the struggle of trying to find a way that was less harmful to them made me wait a day. Wait a week. Wait until I had come up with a decent plan. And that waiting to figure out the right way to do it kept me alive long enough to actually get help.
I wasn’t actually diagnosed and medicated for depression until I was 24. For over ten years, through a lot of big life decisions, I struggled to get out of bed in the morning. I struggled with waking up itself. Sleep was a refuge from all of the harmful thoughts swimming around in my brain. Sleep was the only safe place. I was just waiting to die. Depression is an ugly beast that swallows every feeling, color, sound, breath into a black hole leaving you empty and alone (see this awesome artist for an incredibly accurate depiction of what it’s like to live with depression).
I look at who I am now, seven years out from my diagnosis and I am glad I had the patience to wait. I am no longer on medication, and I use therapy when I need to. I still have very rough days, and my life is by no means perfect, but every day gives me something that is mine alone. And I am grateful for that. I have a lot of tools at my disposal – affirmations, quality relationships, a support system, and the knowledge that the bad days don’t last. None of this came quickly or easily, and it’s hard work to maintain. But the alternative? I don’t even want to give it a chance.
I’ve found these links helpful, so I’m sharing them.