I'm depressed vs. I experience depression
I'm anxious vs. I struggle with anxiety
I'm an addict vs. I know what it's like to deal with addiction
Around the time I was nine, I started experiencing these periods of deep sadness. I couldn't put my finger on it. Some of it was related to moving away from my grandma. Some pertained to the internal conflict between my sexuality and my faith. Some came from feeling out of place around my peers, being picked on and ostracized for what others experienced as my soft, sensitive, or effeminate side. Some of it didn't have an identifiable reason or cause. But it was there, heavy and burdensome. I've never heard any other nine-year-old who has articulated feeling that sad — sad enough to question their worth, their sense of belonging, or their belovedness. Honestly, I hope I never come across one. But I'm sure they exist.
As early as ten or eleven, I experienced my first suicidal ideations, thoughts of self-harm, and a deep experience of hopelessness. I felt broken beyond repair - at eleven. Twenty years have passed and I can still remember the onset of the symptoms, the vividness of the ideas, of what my imagination cooked up, of feeling tightness in my chest and later itching in my wrists. Still, I didn't see a clinical psychologist until seven years later. Those first years of therapy I don't really count, mostly because of how ineffective those therapists were at doing what I think a good therapist should do: help a patient find new perspectives and recognize their own power and resilience. It would be my three recent therapists — Blake, Ashley, and Stacy — who would help me do this work.
One person's craziness is another person's reality. ― Tim Burton
During my residency, one of the staff chaplains, Ikwo, shared something with our department. In many indigenous African cultures, a person does not say, "I am sick." Instead, they say, "Sickness has come to me." At first, this seemed reminiscent of the tendency in the ex-gay world to use language of "same-sex attraction" instead of identifying as gay or lesbian. I quickly shut down that reaction and was able to understand what Ikwo was really saying: we might experience illness and the symptoms that come with it, but we are not our illnesses. We are not depression, anxiety, cancer, tumors, amputated limbs, developmental delays, or any other clinical diagnosis. Yet for many who cope with the reality of illness, mental illness in particular (I'm biased here and I will fully own that), the line between diagnosis and identity is blurred verging on nonexistent. I think there's something wrong with that picture.
For what you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are. ― C.S. Lewis, The Magician's Nephew
In chaplaincy, well, in mental and behavioral health in general, there's this tool called reframing. "Reframing is a way of viewing and experiencing events, ideas, concepts and emotions to find more positive alternatives" (Thanks, Wikipedia.) When working with people experiencing spiritual or emotional distress, it can be helpful to alter the perspective, to change how we view something. Reframing seeks to take a negative spin on a symptom, event, or thought and revamp it into a positive, helpful spin. Sometimes, we're able to reframe something quickly and easily. Other times, most of the time, finding the right reframe and getting it to stick takes a while. Humans are stubborn creatures, and I'm speaking from experience here. Hell, I'm still working on some of my own reframes, and they aren't easy.
Tonight, I came across a video that helped me immensely, and I think others need to see it.
Looking back at those early years of my depressive symptoms after watching this, I realized that being suicidal and having specific suicidal ideations are two different experiences. Maybe someone else will watch this and think it's rubbish. Personally, it helped me recognize that I can be someone who's aware of my own resilience, my reasons for wanting to live, my support systems, my sense of call to ministry, my struggles with addiction, who can have moments of immense joy and excitement and still experience the sense of feeling suicidal. I can feel broken in the midst of also feeling whole. Paradoxes are a real thing, and it's pieces like the one above that help us realize just how much gray space exists when it comes to our minds, our hearts, and our spirits.
And in case you're wondering, I'm okay. This isn't some vague cry for help. These days, I'm thankful I can reach out when I know I need to, and for being self-aware enough to know when I'm simply having a moment.
I don't know what your struggles are, what demons or beasts seem to have their claws dug deep into your skin, what voices resound in your mind. Maybe all this talk of sadness and suicide is completely foreign to you, and if it is, I'm thankful for that. But if any of this clicks, makes sense to you, resonates deeply, at the very least I hope this serves as a reminder: you are not a diagnosis — you are a person, strong, worthy, and loved.
photo credit: Qalinx (via Flickr)