When the economy crashed in 2008 I started to get letters from people who were going through very hard economic times. As time has passed I continue to get letters that have a tone of depression and hopelessness. In my website and this blog I consider offering people help and hope in these terrible times one of my primary goals.
Sometimes the depression and hopelessness can seem overwhelming. I recently went through some of that myself and so in today’s post I’m writing about something that is not normal for blog posts, I’m going to write about depression and death. Quite a downer, huh? But what can I say, it’s on my mind right now and a big part of my life. Last year in May 2011 a very close member of my family took his own life, and as you would expect, it was devastating to me. It was much more difficult because of the suddenness of it. There was no warning or preparation, one morning I got a call telling me he was gone by his own hand. To say it came as a shock would be a total understatement.
I guess we should have known this was coming; my family member had started to display mental illness when he went away to college. It became increasingly difficult to hold a conversation with him because his thoughts didn’t seem to work like everyone else’s. At first we would notice him mumbling under his breath to himself, but it steadily got worse until he eventually would go outside for a smoke or go into the bathroom and we would hear him arguing and even screaming at someone, but he was all alone.
He had more-and-more problem working until he simply wouldn’t work anymore. We thought tough love was the solution so we told him he couldn’t live with any of us until he got a job, and he still never got a job. His rent was just about up at the hostel he was staying in, and we had no idea what he was going to do then. We found out the hard way that the mental illness was much worse than we had ever suspected and that he was so hopeless and full of despair that he had decided to end his life rather than face the problem.
The problem with mental illness is that the disease convinces the victim that he is okay, it is all the people around him who are messed up. Family members tried repeatedly to get him to a mental health professional and he refused to even consider it. One time my ex-wife tried to trick him into going to a VA clinic but he was a very intelligent young man and saw right through it. It was all very confusing, here was this very intelligent, wonderful person slipping away from us.
One morning it was all too much for him, he took his gun and went to a place near where he had grown up and took his life. I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to put myself in his shoes and get in touch with the pain and hopelessness he must have been feeling on the bus ride over. It’s unbearable.
It’s easier for me to get in touch with his pain than you might think. I have never been a happy person; in fact, for the most part I have been unhappy most of my life, bordering on depressed. During a mid-life crisis in my 40s I got some help and my life started to turn around. Then I discovered vandwelling and it got even better. Before my relatives suicide, my life had gotten really good. I’m still not a truly happy person, but I wasn’t at all unhappy. On a fairly regular basis I felt actual joy from my life in nature.
However, the last year has been very hard for me, I was bordering on suicidal myself. I was lucky because when I found out I was on my way to work as a campground host in the Sierra National Forest. That kept me busy and I was spending time with old friends and people I really cared about so in my typical way, I tried to avoid feeling all the pain I was going through by stuffing it down. Then on August 4th I severely broke my right elbow and wrist in a motorcycle accident. I spent August and September flat on my back elevating my arm and having absolutely nothing to do. My pain and depression started to deepen. In October I started physical therapy which brought me some relief, but I still cried a lot. In November I found out for the first time that my arm wasn’t going to fully recover, that I would have some permanent disability.
That was too much! Up until then every day had been a struggle to keep going, but at least I thought I would recover if I worked really hard. At the time my fingers hadn’t loosened up and I couldn’t touch my thumb to any of my other fingers, I couldn’t write or type with my right hand. I couldn’t tie my shoes, wipe my butt, feed myself, drive with my right arm or lift anything over 1 pound (today, after a lot of hard work, I can do all those things). Things were very dark. I gave up, that was too much; I wasn’t going to keep fighting the pain (of either my broken heart or from my arm) any more. I told God (as I understand God) that I was through, if I was going to live, it was up to him to make it happen.
That week my friend Steve showed up in camp. He had spent a week camping with me in the Sierras before he had gone back to Washington to take care of some business. He was the answer to my prayer. He became one of my best friends. Just having him around to visit with every day made all the difference. Later Blars joined us and that made it even better. Then in January I went to the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Quartzsite and that was a turning point. Seeing so many wonderful people and knowing I was making a difference in their lives was extremely helpful. I have been depressed since then, but I don’t think I have been truly suicidal.
I had a specific reason for going to Alaska last week; September 19 was my relative’s birthday and we followed his wishes and scattered his ashes over the Talketna River, 100 miles north of Anchorage. Being home where my relative grew up and seeing my family and ex-wife again was incredibly healing for me. My ex is very open about what happened and talks about it openly and freely. I am just the opposite, I don’t talk about it and I have told very few people about it (I told Steve about it yesterday). Her example and encouragement have greatly helped me. I think I am ready to talk about it now, and so I am writing this post.
To give his death some meaning, I want to encourage you to not take mental illness lightly. If someone in your family or one of your friends is giving signs of mental illness, don’t ignore it or just hope for the best. Do anything you possibly can to get them to help. If they simply refuse and end up taking their life, get help for yourself. Depression, sorrow and guilt are inevitable and sometimes overwhelming. Don’t let them stand in the way of finding someone to talk to. There are survivors of suicide groups that can be wonderfully beneficial.
If you suffer from suicidal feelings, please, get help. There is no shame in saying “I need help.” Had I not done that in my 40s, I’m certain I would be dead today. By failing to say it last year, I came far too close to being dead anyway.
One of the things I did in my 40s was made a decision that for the rest of my life I would live it as much as I possibly could in a way that would make other people’s lives better. I had already filled my allowed quota of hurting people; from then on I could only help them. That’s where the websites, RTR, forum, book and this blog come from. By working to make other people’s lives better, mine was the one that benefited the most.
You are important! Your life can make a difference. Many, many people will be hurt by your loss. If you don’t think that’s true, dedicate yourself today to making it true. Find a way to make other people’s lives better. In my every interaction with other people I try to look them in the eye, smile, and say thank you. Whenever someone comes into my life I look for a way to make their life better. I take that interaction as the Universes way of making me responsible for them.
If you think a friend or someone in your family may be suffering from mental illness, the worst thing you can do is nothing. The best thing you can do is reach out for help and support. I strongly encourage you to go to these websites and search for local help:
If you need someone to talk to, feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I have no training or qualifications to help you, but I can listen and empathize, sometimes that helps. Bob