There’s a saying I’ve seen (attributed to anonymous) that goes, “You never know how strong you are, until being strong is the only choice you have.” I’ve always known that being strong was my only choice, but I mistakenly thought that strong meant keeping everyone out, and pretending that everyone was ok. I’m slowly starting to realize that letting people in actually makes you stronger, and that trusting those around you can actually keep you standing, even when everything else falls apart.
When I was younger, I didn’t trust anyone.
A lethal combination of religion, shyness, isolation, and family issues gave me a screwed up interior, and a perfect exterior. I was always quiet, polite, Bible study finished and English paper finished. I could converse with adults, said “Yes ma’am” and “No sir,” and sat quietly in church and during adult meetings. I knew how to do things right, and I knew what was expected. What I didn’t know, was how to get help when I needed it.
When I was 15 years old, I got my driving permit. I did everything I was supposed to: took a lesson with a far too chatty professional, did my parentally supervised hours, and took a note with me when driving my sisters to swim practice. I drove myself to morning practices, and to school on the days I had classes.
And when I turned 16, I didn’t get my license. In fact, I stopped driving everyone except myself, and I tried hard not to do that. Because every time I got in a car, a very calm and quiet corner of my brain wondered what it would be like to floor the gas pedal, and run the car into the nearest immovable object.
I know now, that my experience is what’s known as suicidal ideation. That it’s common. That it’s a symptom of depression.
Then, all I knew was that something was terribly wrong. Although I had done a lot of reading, I assumed that “wanting to commit suicide” was accompanied by actions straight out of a movie. Purchasing a gun, obtaining alcohol and pills, climbing to the top of a tall building and bidding the world below goodbye – these were things that signaled to me “suicide” and “depression.” I tried to tell myself this calm internal voice couldn’t be anything so dire. It must just be an overactive imagination, or something else as yet unexplainable.
But somehow, I knew. I refused to drive my sisters anywhere, knowing that I absolutely couldn’t live with myself if something happened to them. I still drove myself places, pretending that I was ok, arriving at my destinations with clenched shoulder muscles and cramping hands, with the volume on the stereo turned up as high as it would go, in the hopes of drowning out my own mind. And I tried to ignore every adult who told me I was lazy, and making my parents’ lives harder by refusing to drive my sisters around.
I’ve struggled with depression since I was 13. I didn’t realize that until I was 20. I didn’t realize that I had thought about committing suicide for most of my life until I was 23. And I didn’t start to unpick all the reasons behind it until I was 25. I went through 4 rounds of therapy with different doctors, always answering the suicide question wrong, because I had never held a gun to my head or a knife to my wrists, so obviously I didn’t think I was in a place that deserved help. Their questions brought forth more perfect answers, and I would leave after my allotted number of sessions still feeling like I was trapped screaming inside an airless glass room.
I made progress towards more stable mental footing without knowing that it was what I was searching for. I started eating better. I bounced ideas off my then boyfriend, now husband, who always encouraged me to keep thinking about the ways I was feeling, and who has been an invaluable pillar of support. I started running, an activity which I think has done more to center my thoughts and encourage self-care than any other physical challenge I’ve taken on. I had a real conversation with a therapist, without trying to sound like a perfect human being who had everything together.
But most importantly, and most recently, I’ve started trusting myself. And because of that, I’ve started trusting others, and I’ve started being vulnerable with the people who I know will respond well. I told a good friend recently that when I meet someone, I know whether they’re someone I can truly trust relatively quickly. It’s an instinct, grown out of necessity, but one that I’d never taken advantage of. Until one night, after a small group diversity session which is meant to break down barriers and bring up emotions, I turned to a colleague, a friend, and said “I’m not ok.” And he sat down and spent the next hour of his night listening to me, talking through emotions and questions, and although it provided no answers (and I’m starting to think there really aren’t any), it provided clarity. And a measure of peace that never came when I tried to tackle the problems inside my own head.
Another person, an incredible runner who figured out I was having a rough time, took the time to reach out over Facebook and to offer words of comfort and a shoulder for support when I admitted that I was feeling overwhelmed.
I started thinking about all of this over the past few weeks, because I just ran the Leona Divide 50k. Well, I DNF’d (Did Not Finish) the Leona Divide 50k when I stopped at mile 24. I’ve heard varying estimates of the temperature that day, but most of them fall within 95-104 degrees. The course is almost entirely exposed, with very little shade. I was well trained for the distance, but not for the heat. I started to feel it at mile 16, and everything came crashing down around mile 17, as I climbed a 4 mile hill just as the heat started to peak. I got overheated. I stopped eating, since my stomach was upset. My bloodsugar crashed as my temperature rose, and by the time I death marched into the mile 20 aid station, I was a mess. I sat down on a cooler, put a cold rag on the back of my neck, and started to cry. I was terrified of having to get up and head back down the hill (which was necessary for dropping out of the race). And I realized, as I sat there, that this was how I used to feel all the time. Terrified. Alone. Like my emotions were dropping into a black hole somewhere inside me.
The aid station volunteers (almost all of them trail runners themselves) fed me, cooled me down, and talked me through my tears (and fears). When I finally got up the nerve to leave, they cheered for me like I was about to take first place, instead of having spent 45 minutes sitting in a camping chair.
I realized, after I had dropped out of the race and was waiting at the finish line, that I had come so far. That the feeling I’d artificially induced during the race, through heat and sugar crash and fear, was so close to the feeling that I’d spent 13 years of my life living with. That now, I could recognize it, name it, and reach out for help. That I didn’t have to spend my life holding on with my fingertips anymore. I hope that the next time it’s bad (because I have no illusions about being “cured” or “better,” and because I still struggle with the effects, even though right now they are at a more manageable level) I can realize it before it becomes my entire world. It’s terrifying to admit that I wanted to kill myself. It’s terrifying to admit that I became a shell of myself, and that I spent so many years so frightened and alone. But it feels so much better to say it out loud than to try and keep going by myself, and I’m incredibly lucky that when I did say it I had my husband and my friends there to listen.
I questioned for awhile why I wanted to put this on the internet. I wrote it out fully, knowing that I could just save it in some folder on my desktop, never for any eyes besides my own. But I read posts like THIS (http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2013/05/depression-part-two.html) from Allie, and THIS (http://dooce.com/2013/05/06/if-this-isnt-for-you-its-for-someone-you-know/) from Heather, and THIS (http://inspiredrunning.blogspot.com/2012/03/running-through- darkness-runnings.html) from Jimmy, and THIS (http://persephonemagazine.com/2012/02/15/weathering-the-storm/) from Susan, and I see myself in them. And I see the comments, where other people who have felt the same things know that they are not alone. And I realize that when we talk about removing the stigma from mental illness, we’re not only talking about those who are not mentally ill coming to understand.
We’re also talking about removing the stigma from ourselves, and allowing those who are walking through hell to name their pain and reach out for help. I know that I needed more stories of honesty and vulnerability when I was there, more people who didn’t want to offer fake solutions and instead wanted to just listen. Maybe this can serve as a lifeline, or even just the beginning of understanding for someone else.