Last week in the wake of the suspected suicide of a very senior naval officer I once again found myself sitting in on a command sponsored Suicide Awareness brief. Although the presenter was actually one of the more engaging ones I've seen for this topic (and I've seen at least forty), the impact was predictably the same. Those in some level of distress probably left the briefing feeling more frightened and stressed, while those like the gentleman sitting next to me, left unmoved and untouched.
Not even five seconds after I sat down, the man next to me (a friend) said: "This is a waste of my time. I'd never consider suicide." As much as I'd like to say I'm happy that he has the type of life where he cannot envision a scenario in which he'd consider suicide, or that his level of self-awareness and self-confidence in his mental strength is so far beyond mine that he'd never succumb to suicidal thoughts, life has taught me to know better.
I certainly can't speak from a position of psychological study on what makes people think, or from personal experience struggling with chronic clinical depression, however what I can speak to is my experience on my intense mental foray into the psychological duress that makes people consider or even commit suicide. And while some things can be taught by people who have never actually performed the task being taught, suicide awareness, to be truly meaningful has to be given by someone who knows not only where the road to suicide can begin, but more importantly knows how to recognize that road and how to then navigate their way off it, even from the most remote corner of their mental map.
Like every other brief on suicide awareness that I have attended last week's brief included a slide listing the statistical reasons for suicide. And at the very top of that list was depression and anxiety. But those words are routinely given no air time. And they are given no air time because the briefer typically has no idea what true depression or anxiety feels like. If they did, they'd spend nearly every second of their brief talking about it.
After the Suicide Awareness brief I asked roughly ten people at work to just humor me and answer my question to them about what depression and anxiety feel like. To a person they used the word sad to describe depression, and nervousness to describe anxiety. I will tell you, if that's what you believe, you are woefully ill prepared to handle the worst life can throw at you.
Like my friend who sat next to me at the brief last week, until nine years ago I could have never envisioned a scenario where I'd consider suicide. By my fifties I thought my self-awareness was pretty darn high. Little did I know then just how supremely over-confident I was in my self-awareness, and how severely I had over-estimated not only the depth of my life's challenges to that point, but my strength in getting past them.
I now have to groan when I hear an athlete talking about his team over-coming adversity, especially when in most cases the adversity is an injury or perhaps a starter being dismissed for academic or personal conduct issues. Heck, I bet as soon as their sound-bite is over, they're thinking about the next party when they'll hoist a beer to the poor bastard no longer with the team. The adversity completely forgotten and without impact. But, that adversity isn't going to prepare anyone for life's true hard times. Life's adversity will hit you in ways even the Sci-Fi channel can't conjure up, and it'll knock you to your knees without breaking a sweat. That's when you'll start to understand true depression and anxiety. That's when you'll cry uncontrollably, as much out of fear of the unfamiliar emotion that has gripped you, than out of sadness in your loss or situation.
So here's my heartfelt advice for those of you who have never felt true anxiety. In its most sinister form it's almost completely debilitating. And because there's no cognate for it, you won't recognize it, making it virtually impossible to understand, let alone, fight. I think that's the aspect that gave me the most trouble. Just like treating an illness or injury, you have to know what the malady is before you can find the remedy. But anxiety and depression are completely foreign to those who have never felt them, they certainly were to me. And it's then, when you don't recognize the person in the mirror that you start getting scared because you have absolutely no idea where to start looking for the person you once were. It's truly you're very own mental corn maze.
Anxiety's unpredictable persistence wears you down. Each time surfacing with little or no warning to attack a bit more of your self-confidence and self-awareness until you have completely forgotten every single coping mechanism that worked for you in the past. The person you thought you were will become unrecognizable; so foreign and remote you'll doubt you ever were that person. Having lived through my battle with anxiety, trust me when I tell you, if anxiety ever comes your way, you have to fight to see deep into the person in the mirror in order to find any resemblance of your former self. But you have to believe that person is inside you still, and fight relentlessly to find him/her. It'll be hard, but take every step, or even one second on your feet as a victory against anxiety. Measure your healing in the smallest of ways, and trust that as long as you don't give up you can find your way past it.
Just as people prepare in advance for their death by having a Last Will and Testament, prepare yourself now with a mental survival kit for that time when the universe is going to get a vote and comes calling with something beyond your belief. Maybe you'll be one of the lucky souls who'll never have to break the glass to that survival guide, but if you aren't so lucky find that trick play now that's going to see you through. If it's a friend, it should be one who'll know from their own struggle what you're going through. Heck, maybe it's just the belief you can get through it that will keep you above water. But know now, it's not going to be easy.
I owe my survival to two things: first, my Mom (and Dad's memory), for forcing me to believe in the man I was before anxiety found me, and secondly, for never allowing myself to forget what surrendering to anxiety would do to my children.
Perhaps I'm back to being more naive than ever about anxiety, but getting through it makes me feel like I'm now forever immune to any future assault. I feel as if my struggle has built up my body's defenses, and because I believe the most menacing component of anxiety's strategy is its surprise, my survival has forever taken away that element of anxiety's arsenal. If ever the adage "what doesn't kill us makes us stronger" was true, it was in my struggle with anxiety.
I'm not sure this is going to help, but if you ever need a recce guide send me a note and I'll help you through it. (firstname.lastname@example.org)