One Hour in Hell: My Brush with Suicide


[Trigger warning: suicide, suicidal thoughts]

I was suicidal once. For about an hour.

Let me back up (pun intended).

I've had a bad back since my early twenties. People ask me, "How did you hurt your back?", expecting, perhaps, a tale of me lifting a car off of a litter of puppies, or BASE jumping off a skyscraper in order to tackle some jewel thieves. In reality, it was caused by ignoring my doctor's advice (because hey, I was going to be young forever), and a career as a software engineer in which I sit all day. The last straw was a picnic bench.

I was at a birthday party, and sat down on a picnic bench, as I had done hundreds of time before. As I sat down,  I felt my back go out. Oh well, looks like I'll be spending a couple of days on the couch again I thought.

I got home, lay down on the couch and screamed.

I had to lay flat on my back on the floor to alleviate the pain. My wife and I realized something was seriously wrong when I couldn't stand up. It was the weekend, so we contacted an on call nurse, who told me to call an ambulance.

"An ambulance?" I said, thinking Thirty one year olds simply do not call ambulances, my good woman.

"Well, we can't leave you on the floor, honey." she replied. Hmm, a sound argument.

I had back surgery to remove half of my L5-S1 disc, and had to take lots of Percoset. I was staying within the prescribed dose, but I wanted to get off of it as quickly as possible.

I went from ten pills a day to two. I was already in a funk because of the surgery. It was my first, and I was thinking about my mortality and how I was getting old, that kind of thing. Within forty eight hours of dropping the dose, I went from funk to full blown depression.

Not the depression I'm used to. The kind that's maybe not even depression at all, just a terrible, awful mood. This was evil. It's the only word for it. I didn't even notice it coming on. It was just there. The word depression doesn’t do it justice. A pothole is a depression. This was a bottomless pit.

I don't know how to describe it any better than that, because the feelings were so alien. Actually, that's a good word. If you've ever watched or read any story where someone gets possessed by aliens or demons or whatever, when they're rescued they usually say some variation of the same thing:

"It was like I was a prisoner in my own mind, and all I could do was watch what was happening and scream."

Except I couldn't even scream. It was more like a whisper. It was something like this:

Depression: LIFE IS POINTLESS.
Me: Umm, that seems harsh...
Depression: JUST KILL YOURSELF. YOU'RE USELESS.
Me: But I have a family.
Depression: THEY'RE BETTER OFF WITHOUT YOU.

These things didn't sound like something I'd say, but who was I to argue with myself? Except it wasn't me. Except it had to be me, because who else would it be?

Cue ominous music.

Luckily, I was raised to believe that married couples make decisions together. Maybe I'd mosey on down to the kitchen and bounce this plan off my better half.

Depression: SHE'LL LAUGH AT YOU, SHE DOESN'T REALLY LOVE YOU ANYWAY.
Me: Wait, if you're me, why are you calling me, 'you'?
Depression: UMM...crap

Ok, the last two lines didn't happen, but I have to lighten the mood a bit.

I briefed my wife. I don't remember if I used the word suicidal or not. She looked up from the stove where she was cooking and said that I should probably take a Percocet and see if I felt better.  

I wasn't sure. I hemmed and hawed. I mean, gosh, what if something bad happened? She repeated herself, with an implied "before I slap you with the business end of this spatula, you silly son of a bitch".

I took the pill, and sat down at the kitchen table. Within fifteen minutes, I was fine. Not "top of the world" fine but "hey maybe I'll give this living thing another whirl, it seems pretty cool" fine. Whatever force that had invaded my brain was gone, leaving no trace.

At one point during this ordeal, I wondered if I would feel the same way tomorrow. I knew without a doubt there was no way I could handle that. What I was experiencing was Hell, in the Evangelical sense of the word. It was conscious torment. It wasn't eternal, but it felt that way, and perception, in this case, was reality.

If you struggle with suicidal thoughts, I won’t insult you by saying that I now understand your struggle. I only got the briefest glimpse of what it's like. That would be like saying you understand the plot of The Godfather after watching the first five minutes dubbed into Esperanto.

I did learn this: suicide isn’t the act of a coward. Anyone who deals on a regular basis with anything like what I was feeling is brave. Even if they choose to end their life.

But what about the people that a suicide victim leaves behind? Isn’t it cowardly and selfish for them to end their own pain, leaving loved ones to pick up the pieces?

Again, I can only speak based on my limited experience, but I would say it’s not. For that brief time, I truly believed that I would be doing my wife and three young daughters a favor by choosing to end my life. My view of reality had become so twisted that ending my life seemed like a noble sacrifice, no different than throwing myself in front of a bullet.

I don’t know what it's like to deal with thoughts like this on a regular basis, but I experienced enough that I will never pass judgement on someone who does. Like lung cancer, it’s a medical condition. You wouldn't say that someone who died of lung cancer "decided to stop breathing". That would be absurd - they died because they were robbed of the ability to breathe. Depression robs you of your ability to view reality correctly, and your ability to make decisions - including the decision to seek help. It was a tremendous effort for me just to walk downstairs and talk to my wife.

Some people think depression is a character flaw or a spiritual issue. It shames me to admit that I once believed this too.

If my wife had believed that, I might not be alive today.

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