Over the last couple of days, several Facebook friends posted links to a story about a young woman from our church community who had gone missing. Her friends and family were deeply worried. The police were involved, and the media. It was clear from the outpouring of support and concern that many people loved her, many people wanted to support her.
I read the news story about the search for her with a hard, cold clenched fist in my stomach, looking for the words I was afraid would be there. I found them. She "suffered from depression." I took some deep breaths, and went for a walk.
The worst fears of her parents, her friends, her community were bound up in those three words and what they implied. Those worst fears were realized, tragically, when police found her. She had taken her own life. She was 22. The story describing her mentioned that she had John 3:16 tattooed on her back: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." It's a verse full of indescribable hope.
Suicide cuts a wide gulf across our society. It's a gulf between people who cannot conceive of why a bright, pretty young woman surrounded by supportive family and friends could kill herself, and those who can. The people who don't understand try, but fail, to think of circumstances so terrible that they'd kill themselves rather than face them. They don't grasp the way depression kills you — not by heaping burdens upon you, but by making you incapable of thinking rationally about the ones you already have, by making you certain you can never survive them and don't deserve to. People who don't understand often regard suicide as a hateful, selfish, unfeeling act. Perhaps it would be if they did it, because they are capable of believing that the world is better with them in it. They're able to believe that the people who love them will be better off if they stick around.
David Foster Wallace — a moody, wordy man — understood it, though not enough to save himself. In Infinite Jest he described it. It's not clear how many people knew then that he was talking about something he had felt:
The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.
An acquaintance commented on this passage to explain why the love and support of friends and family isn't always enough to save someone. Friends and family, she said, are on the other side of the flames. They may shout encouragement and promise rescue and yell at you to hang on. But the flames keep you apart. And the flames keep coming, higher and closer. And so you jump anyway.
When I wrote about severe depression earlier this year, I mentioned the mindset that saved me. It wasn't a belief that I could get better. I didn't believe, and couldn't hope. I couldn't think straight. The only thing that worked was surrendering and putting myself in the hands of others. I didn't believe in myself, but I knew that the people who cared would take care of me. And so they did, until I could hope and believe again.
I think people don't get help in crisis because they can't believe, can't hope. Going to a parent or a friend, calling a hotline, making an appointment with a doctor can feel futile if you can't believe that it will make things any better, if you can't see how things could possibly improve. But that's not what you have to believe. You only have to believe that there are people who care for you, whether they are loved ones or strangers dedicated to helping people like you. Depression lies. The leap of faith required is that the people who care about you know the truth. The leap of faith is that if you lay down your burden they will pick it up. They will.
If you're ever in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Just say "I need help." And say it to a loved one. You may not be able to imagine it now, but they will lead you out.
Edited to add: I'm doing well right now. Thanks for asking.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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