Sunday, May 07, 2017

If they died from suicide

I've suffered from depression for most of my life and have had a couple of major episodes. There have been times when I decided dying would be better than living and while I'm not proud of that, I'm also not ashamed of it. My illness has caused lots of irrational thinking, but so far, I'm still here.

Chronic depression is a mental illness - emphasis on the word illness. You can't snap out of it or overcome it with activity, will power or positive thinking. Depression is an emotional disorder caused by the brain's inability to maintain the chemical balance required for normal functioning. It's a physical disease just as much as hypertension and diabetes are physical diseases. And that's why, when someone dies from suicide, no one should beat themselves up for failing to stop it. Suicidal depression can be extremely hard to identify and, like high blood pressure and diabetes, when it ends in death, no one is to blame.

When they hear that someone took their life, people who don't understand suicidal depression invariably react with things like,
How could she do that?
Why did he do that when he had everything to live for?
She took the coward's way out.
How selfish of him.

They act as if suicide was a lucid action taken by someone who clearly looked at all the options, added up the numbers and made a reasoned decision. Bizarrely, people who react that way are often the first to judge someone's actions with she must be crazy. For some reason, when someone really does act out of insanity, these judgmental people switch to seeing the person as selfish or cowardly instead of ill. 

What was really going on was that someone whose suicidal depression reached the point of death was in a state of serious illness. When someone reaches that point, there's nothing that can help them except for professional help such as hospitalization, medication and therapy. 

But sometimes even the best professional treatment isn't enough and that's why people who find out that someone they know killed herself/himself should not feel responsible. I say this to anyone suffering the emotional aftermath of a suicide. Because suicidal depression is an illness, it's not influenced by things that would cheer someone up if they were just going through "the blues." When someone's having a bad day, you might be able to pull them out of it through conversation, humor or activity. But suicidal depression is not an emotion. It's a set of symptoms caused by a malfunctioning brain. It's a physical disease with behavioral symptoms. Your actions and words will rarely have any effect at all on a disease like this when it's at its worst.

Because people misunderstand suicidal depression as being in a bad mood, they think their actions could have made a difference, but they couldn't have. If, instead of suicide, the person had passed away after years of managing high blood pressure or Alzheimer's or a lower respiratory disease, would you believe they would have lived if only you had done more? Would you be plagued by the guilt of "If only I'd made more time for her, she'd still be here today?" No, you wouldn't. If someone died from Alzheimer's or a lower respiratory disease or a heart attack, you might feel guilty for not having given her more attention while she was alive, but you wouldn't feel responsible for her death. Likewise, with someone who has killed herself, more visits, texts or I-love-you's would not have made the difference. Once someone begins planning her death, her brain has tipped so far out of chemical balance that it's producing little else but irrational thinking. She needs professional help.

Maybe you think that because it's the person's own hand that caused his death, there must have been a way to stop it. Well, I suppose if you lock up such a person on suicide watch permanently you might physically keep him alive, but you can only do that once you've realized how dangerous he is to himself. Unfortunately, suicidal depression is often too tricky for even family members to identify. People in the worst of a major depression might give hints about wanting to kill themselves, but those who are most determined to do it usually give the fewest clues. This makes sense to me. If someone is absolutely convinced that ending his life will be best for all concerned, why would he give anyone a chance to stop him? He won't. He'll just do it. Because suicidal depression can be that hidden and wily, no one should feel bad that they didn't see it.

People who kill themselves sometimes leave notes apologizing for the pain their death will cause (many kill themselves in the symptomatic delusion that no one will care, so they don't leave notes). As someone who's been on the inside of suicidal depression, I know that remorse is real: they know there will be pain, but they've weighed the pain of their death against the pain of their life and have decided that dying is the better option. But as much as their disease has twisted their thinking, the lucid part of them makes this final attempt to connect. With such a note, the person about to take her life tries to relieve her family and friends of feelings of responsibility and guilt, as someone dying of cancer would try to alleviate her family's pain.

Both the person who dies of suicide and the one who dies of cancer knows there's no one to blame and no one who could have done anything more for them. Please take that to heart. While you grieve your loss, feel your sadness and wonder why this happened to your family member or friend, please don't add to your pain by thinking there was anything you could have done to change this outcome. There really wasn't.