Content note: This blog post addresses thoughts of suicide, and how Louise overcame them.
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche 1888
In my thirty years as someone with bipolar disorder, I’ve been under the care of many psychiatrists. The remarkable ones can change a life in an instant.
A good rapport is essential between patient and psychiatrist if information is to be shared effortlessly back and forth; a beautiful chemistry between teacher and pupil, if you will. This is a story about one of those first-rate psychiatrists and educators.
These events happened many years ago, when I was living in England, and my children were still very young, when my bipolar disorder was still in its infancy and not yet well controlled. I was in a dark-hearted place, having had too many coffee klatches with Oizys, the Greek goddess of depression.
I’m eternally grateful to my then husband who noticed a big change in me over the course of a couple of days and told me I had to call my psychiatrist—and I had to call him that instant. I had slowly and almost irretrievably retreated from life, having interest only for my dangerous preoccupations with death and dying. I’d spent months sitting at the edge of the precipice, oddly finding immense comfort there, but in recent days had graduated to devising an intricate plan.
“His next statement changed my life in an instant.”
I was immediately hospitalized. I’d been living in a world I found harsh. Too harsh to face.
During my stay my psychiatrist told me, “The depressions are much more dangerous than the highs.” I didn’t think to ask him what he meant by that statement, but I assumed he was referring to suicide. I now think, after twenty-five more years living with bipolar disorder, that the highs can be equally dangerous because I have inadvertently courted disaster when manic.
His next statement changed my life in an instant. “It would devastate your children if you were to commit suicide.” After that insight, from that moment onwards, ending my life was no longer a possibility, and most likely never would be.
His seemingly inconsequential comment changed the lives of several people that day.
His remark stunned me. How could I have contemplated suicide? I’d been wild with terror like a horse trapped in a burning barn with seemingly no way out. That’s how.
And my depression had finally crushed me.
I don’t think I’ll ever suffer from those unspeakable depressions again, now that I’ve been living well with bipolar disorder for many years. But if I’m wrong, and get brutally depressed, I’ll do anything before I condemn my children to a world of anger and lifelong therapy.
Depression is an illness of isolating desperation and self-loathing. I’d been held captive in the melancholy world my depressed mind had created and had seen suicide as my only salvation. I hadn’t had the capacity to think of anyone else; suicidal ideation has never been a considerate state.
I sat on my bed in my hospital room that day and asked myself, “how could I devastate my children?” How could I make them feel I didn’t love them enough to hang around, for the duration of my life, to share important events in their fresh young lives, like going to their future high school graduations? They were still so young; their lives were as unblemished as brand-new school notebooks with pristine pages. How could I be the first one to blacken them so recklessly, and with such an intensity and ferocity of pain and guilt, the scars would last a lifetime?
I could not protect them from all the hurts they’d experience through their travels because that is just life. But I knew I could protect them from the destruction I’d inflict upon them if I were to commit suicide.
“My psychiatrist’s comment gave me courage to fight the depression that ultimately affected not only me, but also threatened the security and happiness of my family.”
I’ve thought of the observation that psychiatrist made, all those years ago, many a time during subsequent but much less severe depressions. And each time, I returned to the same conclusion: suicide wasn’t an option for me, no matter how cornered I felt. I loved those children who grew in my womb for nine months each.
I’ve since learned that motherhood appears to protect against suicide according to the Canadian Medical Association Journal. I couldn’t speak for other mothers, but it certainly was a protective factor for me. My children had literally saved my life.
I was fully aware that my psychiatrist’s comment wasn’t immensely profound. But it resonated and was significant to me. It gave me courage to fight the depression that ultimately affected not only me, but also threatened the security and happiness of my family.
I have always felt cocooned as an inpatient, and relieved—like finding an outstretched hand in the pitch dark—especially if I’ve been foundering on my own for ages like I had been then. It was a much-welcomed place where I have gone to get well, where we can all embark on our individual paths to good mental health.
Initially, during that long hospital stay, I was bone-tired and felt overwhelmingly sedated. If the truth be known, I just wanted to sleep forever. But it soon became apparent that, if I didn’t want to damage my children, I would have to get well. And despite the mental fog induced by the medication and depression, I was able to grasp the amount of work it would require to jumpstart my life. I just didn’t know if I was up to the task. I was that shattered.
My psychiatrist’s statement was not a solution to my complex problems, by any means, but only a catalyst for change. One remark from my psychiatrist, however astute, was not enough to reverse my powerful depression: a multifaceted medical condition that demanded a multilayered approach. There was no quick fix.
“I found solace in the quote by Leonard Cohen: ‘There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’ ”
I’d been flirting with death far too long. I had to delve deep within my psyche to propel myself out of that black hole, only to discover I didn’t have enough reserves; all my energies having been depleted to feed the insatiable beast of depression over the past several months.
So, for a very long time it seemed impossible to find a foothold in the shifting sands, and oftentimes there was the feeling of out-and-out terror that I’d never be whole again. Even though I had a determination to get well, I was surprisingly full of self-doubt. The deep depression had stolen not only my present life but had also robbed me of my self-confidence. In my weaker moments I wondered if the psychic scars would last a lifetime. I felt like damaged goods.
I found solace in the quote by Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
I hoped this was true.
The day-to-day task of healing required many sessions with my compassionate and intelligent psychiatrist. I was fortunate to have found an excellent one who supplemented his formal education with his own observations about what constituted a good life and my place in it—even when shouldering severe mental illness like I had been then. His dedication, and faith in me that I would one day be well, was always focused and unwavering. He was also dependable in his support and tireless in his ability to listen to my woes. He was an exceptional psychiatrist with great talent, who could turn a few simple beans into a towering beanstalk.
I slowly allowed myself to dream and have faith that one day I would be healthy and living a rewarding and productive life.
I did my part by participating in groups covering a wide range of topics: depression, mindfulness, anxiety, anger management and self-care. I have always availed myself of educational groups, while in hospital, as they complement the work of psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. For this reason, I continued to attend a variety of meetings, months after my release, until I felt completely well. Looking ahead to a life without depression motivated me. Each small change I chose to implement would push me towards more changes and eventually stability.
How I longed to be well.
“I slowly allowed myself to dream and have faith that one day I would be healthy and living a rewarding and productive life.”
I planned to avoid alcohol in the future. This was a huge but necessary endeavour that I would have to tackle upon my release. It was my experience that alcohol wreaked havoc on my moods making my depressive symptoms worse. More dangerously, it lowered my inhibitions unleashing violent behaviour—that most people would find incomprehensible—causing such fury in me when I was enraged that it felt as though every atom in my body was exploding and my skull was not big enough for my brain.
In addition, I vowed to take better care of myself after my discharge. I planned to adhere to the quartet of good mental health practices, crucial for mental well-being, which I hadn’t been following prior to my hospitalization. Ensuring a decent night’s sleep by practicing good sleep hygiene—like the importance of waking up at the same time each morning seven days a week—eating healthily, exercising, and keeping all psychiatric appointments are behaviours essential for mental wellness, and I believed it would be very difficult to achieve recovery without practising them.
When I arrived at the hospital, I was at the end of hope and flattened like a flowerbed after a hailstorm, and so agitated my psychiatrist ordered me to go outside and do nothing but lie in the grass under the warmth of the hot summer sun. I did as he instructed and, once there, found myself in the “here and now.” This enabled me to appreciate the beauty of feathery cirrus clouds dancing across the sky, like I had in my childhood.
It was in that bed of security that I found freedom to ponder depression for the very first time; pausing and focusing inward. And after many hours of reflection, and one nasty sunburn later, I was able to recognize there’s always a moment before we are forced to react in any given situation. A space, if you will, where there’s time to think and decide what to do next.
Afterwards, in discussions with my psychiatrist, I was able to see it’s in that space that we can examine and reframe our perceptions, attitudes and negative thought patterns, and hence change our behaviours, resulting in new and better outcomes which previously had been difficult to obtain. I knew I could implement change in that space by re-evaluating life’s tougher obstacles and by challenging my negative viewpoints.
Many years later, I came across a quote by the renowned psychiatrist and author, Viktor E. Frankl, who described “the space” much more eloquently than I ever could, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
I believed I had to pay attention to this space because that was where I’d find healing. Where I could strive to achieve my full potential. And where I could reunite my recovering brain with the person I had always been.
So, that is where I headed.
Toward the space. Toward the foothold. Toward the light.
More Blog Posts by Louise
Louise’s first blog post is an authentic, heartfelt reflection on what it means to learn to live well with bipolar disorder.
Louise’s next post is a story of reunification with her kids after challenges from bipolar disorder.
Recalling a Christmas from the past, Louise describes finding hope in the last place she would have expected.