Tag Archives: suicide

the gift of life

Today is my birthday.  I am 50 years old.  Some people lie about their age – not me.  I am proud of every candle on the cake.   I feel like shouting from my rootop, “It’s my birthday!  I’m 50!  I am AWESOME!”  That may sound conceited, but I don’t mean it to be.  I mean it as a sign of true hard work, of fierce determination, of deep thankfulness.

I live with depression.  Now is a good time, but there have been many years that have been quite dark.  I have spent a fortune I’m sure on therapy, hospital bills and medication.  My depression has been serious and deep and dark and lonely and fearful and agonizing.  There have been moments where I was sure I would never make it to 50, let alone 40 or even 30.  I tried to die and was hospitalized TWICE before I was 25.  And for each time I tried to kill myself there were countless other times I just didn’t have the energy or the opportunity.  There were times I couldn’t get out of bed or take a shower, or make it to class and/or work.  I cut and/or burned myself to try to get the pain out of me.

My last depressive episode was just a few years ago – not reaching the point of suicidal ideation but serious enough to get me back into therapy and on medication.  I cried over getting out of bed, over getting my kids up for school, over doing the dishes, the laundry, over cooking dinner, over helping my kids with their homework.  With this depression I wasn’t sleeping all the time – I was suffering from insomnia, so there was no blessed escape in sleep.

Like I said above, I’m sure I have spent a fortune on therapy, hospitalizations and medication.  Some therapists were better than others, one hospital was certainly better than the other, and medication – well, you have to do some experimentation to find which one works best for each situation.  I’ve never done well on just one medication; each episode has been helped by a different anti-depressants and/or anti-anxiety medications.  I have worked HARD in therapy – confronting demons both real and imagined.  I scraped and clawed my way out of the black hole that is depression and I’m in a good place now.

I’m in a good place now thank God (and my therapist and my medication and my family and my friends and you all…).

And because I’m in a good place, I can truly appreciate the hard work I have done to get to this milestone in my life.  I can truly appreciate the hard work and worry of my therapists (I’ve had quite a few).  I can truly appreciate the worry and care of my friends and family.  I can truly appreciate the gift of these years and the gift of life.

I am happy to be 50 because I KNOW the alternative almost happened.  I am happy to be 50 because I could be dead and buried, never having had a career, a spouse or children.  I am happy to be 50 because I’m getting to see my kids (who at one point I thought I would never have) grow up.  I am happy to be 50 because there were times in my life I thought I’d never be here.

So I am thankful.  I think 50 is awesome.  I think 50 is amazing.  I am in awe.

Is it perfect?  There is no such thing.  I would be lying if I told you I wake up every day with a smile on my face and a song on my lips.  There is NO such pill that can make us be happy all the time.  The first time I went on medication the doctor explained it to me like this:  “Medication won’t make you giddy and smile all the time.  That’s not how it works.  What it WILL do is give you a higher threshold for tolerating pain, so you can deal with it more appropriately and heal.m  It raises your threshold for coping.”  That sums it up pretty well.  There is no such thing as a happy pill.  Life is hard and sometimes life just plain sucks.  But I’ve got it, and as long as I’ve got it I have a chance to work and make things better.

So I am wearing my age like a badge of honor – honor that comes through battles hard fought and victories hard won.  I never lie about my age, because I’m so darn thankful and proud to have made it this far.

I am 50, and it’s wonderful.

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Suicide: Sin and the problem of Enough

Ok, so everyone and their brother seems to have written a post about the suicide of Robin Williams. Many of them are eloquent and raw, and beautiful – and I am grateful and richer for reading them.

1)  Some, however, have been written that Williams was a selfish coward, and his act a sin.

2)  There are also those who firmly believe that if a Christian prays hard enough, or believes strongly enough in the power of Jesus, that their depression can be healed.  These statements and beliefs need to be addressed, because the ramifications of such statements/beliefs can be dangerous to those who are suffering, as well as their families and friends.

PART ONE –

In and of itself, suicide CAN be viewed as sin, in that it is the taking of a life – in the same way that murder is sin.  But the catch is that we CANNOT look at suicide in and of itself.  Except in the cases of those who plan to lose their lives in the process of murdering others (ex. suicide bombers), suicide is the end result of serious and dangerous diseases – depression, bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia to name a few.  I won’t go through the many diagnoses that can lead to the black hole of suicidal ideation and action, but suicide does NOT happen all by itself.

Because I’m Lutheran I look to my tradition first.  The Lutheran Confessions and catechisms say nothing of suicide.  In the treatment of the commandment “thou shall not kill” they say A LOT about how we are to treat our neighbors, but make no mention of self-harm.  Some writers who have condemned Williams have mentioned the Roman Catholic Church’s view.  But even that is NOT so simple.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church DOES say, “We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us.  It is not ours to dispose of.” (paragraph 2280)  HOWEVER there is more:  “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.  We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives.  By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance.  The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.” (paragraph 2282-2283)

Nowhere have I been able to find a decent definition of “salutary repentance” but from the context I understand that the Roman Church recognizes that while suicide IS the taking of a life, psychiatric diseases sufficiently impact responsibility so that a) we shouldn’t despair over the victim’s salvation, and b) God can do whatever God wants, and if God wants that person in heaven, then that’s where they’ll be.  I’m glad for these clarifications, and I wish those claiming to share Catholic dogma would check their facts.

One who has never been sucked into the dark isolating black hole of suicidal ideation may view it as selfish and cowardly – but the one who has been fighting against the vacuum that is sucking them in, against the thoughts in their brain that tell them their family would be better off, that they’re worthless nothings, may see the act as brave and sacrificial.  That’s the twisted thinking that diminishes responsibility.  I have also known people in such tremendous psychological PAIN – REAL pain, pain that can manifest itself physically all over the body – that suicide “seems” to be the only way to find relief from constant suffering.  I put “seems” in quotations because again, when we’re thinking in a healthy rational manner, we might find there are other ways to cope or wait out our period of desperation if we receive treatment.  Again, this is the disease of mental illness creating “diminished responsibility.”

Is it a sin?  Some say “yes,” many others say no.  But even if it is a sin, it is sin that is covered by God’s GRACE and MERCY and the power of Holy Baptism.  I have never doubted for a moment the salvation of a person who has died from suicide, just as I have never doubted the salvation of a person who has died from cancer or any other illness.

PART TWO –

As for those who think if a person only prays enough or believes strongly enough mental illness will go away I can only ask that they get over it in the same way they expect those with mental illness to get over it.  The last time I checked, the only group that doesn’t believe in medical treatment for illnesses were Christian Scientists.  Of course it’s perfectly fine to pray for someone with mental illness.  It’s perfectly fine for someone with mental illness to pray.  But to suggest that prayer not be accompanied by medical treatment (therapy and/or medication) is the same as suggesting that someone with cancer should just “pray it away” without seeing a doctor.  It’s the same as telling someone with high blood pressure not to take their medication because Jesus will cure them.  It’s the same as telling someone who is blind that if they just believe hard enough they’ll be able to see.  And this is all ridiculous (to put it nicely).

GOD WORKS THROUGH MEDICAL SCIENCE AND MEDICATION.  God has given us the curiosity and wisdom to learn many things about how our bodies work.  As a result we know much about diseases that attack us and the ways we can fight back and find healing through that God-given learning.  Talk therapy is a real treatment for many types of mental illness.  Medication is a real treatment for many types of mental illness.  Talk therapy and medication together are a real treatment for many types of mental illness.  God works through them, because God is the source of ALL healing and life.

The idea of believing enough is damaging because it puts blame on the victim if a miraculous healing doesn’t occur.  So your spinal chord was severed.  Pray hard enough and you’ll walk.  Believe enough and you’ll dance.  What?  You’re still in the wheelchair?  Too bad for you.  This belief in enough is hurtful and downright unbiblical.  Sure, Jesus healed folks and said things like “great is your faith” but Jesus never taught that life would be easy or without suffering.  Even Lazarus who he raised from the dead eventually died.

This unbiblical belief in enough can also be dangerous because a person suffering from mental illness may be praying their hearts out, but if they’re still despondent they can feel GUILT on top of it all because obviously their faith ISN’T enough, or they’d feel better.  So now in addition to mental illness they feel guilt and perhaps even that God doesn’t LOVE them or they’d be healed.  THAT my friends, is a recipe for real disaster for the mentally ill, and for their families, because that leads to HOPELESSNESS.  If I felt God didn’t love me, it would rob me of my hope in a second.  And if I believe God doesn’t love me, then what does my suicide matter in the heavenly scheme of things if I’m unloved anyway…  you see how this thinking can create a dangerous slippery slope?

***Plus, our salvation isn’t about US having enough anyway, it’s about GOD HAVING ENOUGH – because in the end we never have enough (indeed, we have NOTHING), that’s why we need Jesus!***

I am grieved whenever I hear of someone taking their own life.  But my grief isn’t over their salvation, or any unforgiven sin.  My grief is sadness over the pain that must have driven them to such a desperate act.  My grief is over them not getting the treatment they needed (whether it was a total lack of treatment, or not finding the right kind of treatment in time).  My grief is for their families who I know from experience will deal with obvious deep sorrow, but also anger at their loved one (that’s ok) and guilt over what they feel the “could’ve” done to save them.

Nowhere, I repeat nowhere, does judgment enter into the picture.  Amen.

 

***addendum:  I also posted this on my “little” pastor blog and heard back from my BISHOP (fear and trembling!).  She reminded me that the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) DID put out a statement on suicide back in 1999, but that my words were “enough” (I’m not sure if she intended the play on that word!).  I was relieved.  But for those interested, here is my denomination’s statement on suicide prevention (16 pages worth).

stigma fighters post

*This is a post I originally wrote in May 2014 for Stigma Fighters, whose site you can find here.   If you are currently in crisis PLEASE reach out – even though you may not feel it you ARE worth it.  The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline link is here, in the United States you can call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.

Now, here’s my story…

I’ve been living with depression on and off since I was 13 years old.  It’s a black hole that I haven’t been able to climb out of on my own when it reaches the clinical level.  Everyone gets depressed sometimes, and a lot of people can get through it to the other side on their own with the help of family and friends and time.  But when a person experiences CLINICAL depression that’s a different animal altogether.  That’s what I think is hard for some people to understand.  There is NO “snapping out of” clinical depression.  That’s when talk therapy and medication may be needed – and ARE needed for me.

When I’m clinically depressed nothing gives me joy.  I cry A LOT.  It’s hard to do normal everyday things like the dishes, or laundry, or even read to my kids.  My pattern of depression before children was a tiredness so profound it was hard to get out of bed.  Since I had kids my depression manifests itself in the opposite way – insomnia.  I’m trying SO hard to keep going to take care of my family that my body can’t relax.  I experience anxiety so bad, afraid that I’ll collapse under the weight of my depression, that I physically shake.  So with this current bout of depression I’m also being treated with added anti-anxiety medication as needed.

I’ve been hospitalized twice – once for a serious attempt on my own life when I was in my early 20’s.  It’s truly a tragedy when you think the world would be better off without you, or when you’re convinced that you will NEVER be able to function in the world and NEVER be able to get rid of the pain you feel.  Emotional pain becomes physical pain – only no one can “see” your wounds, and that makes it even harder.  That’s why I even went through a period of cutting, and burning myself – so I could have a physical manifestation of my emotional pain.  It’s really hard to reach out when you’re in the black hole of depression because gravity sucks you farther and farther into yourself.  You think you don’t deserve help, you’re convinced no one will understand, and you believe you’re some kind of freak of nature that the world needs to be freed from.

There have been times in my life when I’ve been therapy and medication free.  Before this current bout I hadn’t been in therapy or on medication for almost FOURTEEN years.  But after marrying my husband,  having 3 kids (one with a severe allergy and asthma, one with autism and one a surprise), and the death of three of four of our parents, depression came crashing down again.  I tried my best to fight it off, but in the end, both my husband and I knew it was time for me to get back to therapy and medication.  Financially it’s been a HUGE burden, and one that I feel some guilt over once in a while.  Even though we have insurance, mental health coverage just sucks all the way around.  But I tell myself the financial sacrifice is worth it, because I absolutely HAVE to be around physically AND emotionally for my children.

In my professional life I’m also a Christian pastor.  There is a lot of stigma in some church circles around mental illness, especially depression.  But contrary to the mindset of some folks, it is entirely and completely possible to be a faithful believer (in whatever faith you practice) AND struggle with mental illness.  I don’t share my particular issues with my congregation, because it’s my job to take care of THEM, not the other way around, but I’m always careful to preach what I believe – that faith doesn’t protect us from life’s pain, faith helps us as we confront life’s pain.

I have a good life now.  I see my therapist regularly.  I take my medication.  I smile and laugh and enjoy my family and friends.  I look at my kids and I’m glad I’m here for them.  I enjoy a healthy emotional and physical relationship with my husband instead of making excuses because I just don’t have it in me.  I work and help others.

If I hadn’t just shared all this with you and we met you would never know – because those with mental illness are all around us, living their lives, being productive members of society just like everybody else.  We are no different than someone who is being treated for diabetes or high cholesterol.

Depression is an enemy that would love to suck the life out of us.  Fighting back against it is a struggle.  It’s hard to reach out and get help when we feel like we don’t deserve it and when we’re afraid of what others may think of us.  But reach out anyway, because getting help is not a weakness, it is an awesome strength.  And it’s worth it.

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Bio:  Lisa is a late 40-something pastor, mom, wife and new blogger.  She blogs about parenthood, autism, faith, depression,  and anything else that inspires her at lisaleben.wordpress.com

Grace in Friendship

My kids are on vacation this week.  On Sunday we drove to visit some friends of ours that have a cottage in the mountains.  Their cottage is part of a mountain village community.  We had been there in the summer, but never in the winter.  And as much as we would’ve liked a complete change of scenery (that is, someplace WARM), we just don’t have the money.  So we went for a quick overnight with our friends.

Our friends are wonderful people – of course they are, they ARE our friends after all!  They have a teenage daughter only one year older than our teen, and thankfully the girls get along GREAT.

They had a son who died three years ago, at the age of 15, a victim of depression that led to suicide.  They manage to get through each day, smile, and even laugh – they have to, they still have a daughter to love and raise.  But they clearly are not the same, and never will be, how could they be?

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the sun shining through the trees on our walk

Visiting with them is grace.  There is grace we hopefully extend to them – that it’s ok to be “however” they are feeling.  They don’t have to pretend with us.  They don’t have to put on a happy face, but we also don’t trap them in sadness either.  They laugh with us, they love our children, they get on the floor and play with them.  And I hope that brings them joy.  But they also gift US with grace.  The grace of an invitation to spend time with them.  The grace to accept our children with all their quirks.  The grace of allowing us to be “however” WE are feeling too.

the waterfall

the waterfall

    During our all too quick visit, we enjoyed wonderful homemade soup and pizza, and a movie night complete with popcorn (NO cable or internet in the mountains!).  Our kids helped them make a yummy breakfast, we played games that everyone could play – and a trip to the mountains in the winter wouldn’t be complete without a wonderful walk in the snow.

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the lake, frozen over and snowed upon

Within their community there is hardly any traffic, and certainly no sidewalks, so we could walk in the one lane roads the plow makes to get to the cottages.  There is a beautiful stream and small waterfall on the community property, as well as a lake where there is swimming in the summer.  It’s breathtaking during the summer, and we discovered equally so in the winter.  We visited all the sights and marveled at the beauty of God’s creation.

an angel in the snow AND in person

an angel in the snow AND in person

Because even though I am beyond disgusted at the amount of the snow we’ve had this year, and even though I KNOW that snow is the same everywhere, somehow the snow seemed more beautiful there then at home.

Depression is no joke

In the newspaper this morning was an article/obituary for a local young woman, 19, who died on Friday evening.  She was beautiful. She was a decorated athlete in track and soccer at the local and state levels.  She was in her freshman year at a prestigious university, her whole life ahead of her.  Friday night she jumped off a parking garage, committing suicide.  Her family requested memorial donations be designated to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Depression is a big ugly monster – a black hole of despair and self-hatred.  A chemical imbalance so twisted that when you look in a mirror, instead of seeing the beautiful person God created, you see a worthless, hopeless nothing.  It creates mental anguish so deep that it becomes painful to live with – painful for the soul and even painful for the body.  I hate it.  It’s my enemy.  It’s taken too many people I know, and it almost took me.

I’m almost 50 years old.  I have lived with the companion of depression on and off since I was a teenager.   I survived two suicide attempts, cut myself, have been inpatient twice, and been on more kinds of medication than I can remember.  What led me to my initial descent into depression is probably a combination of nature (family history) AND nurture (not going into details, but I know what they are…).

My worst years were my teens through early 20’s.  My best years were after I got married and my kids were born (to this day I’m amazed I didn’t suffer post-partum depression).  In fact, I was doing SO well, I thought depression was a thing of my past.  But I was wrong.

I’ve said before that I’m pretty reserved when it comes to my thoughts and feelings.  One friend calls me stoic, my current psychiatrist says I’m closed up tighter than a drum.  Well, I can see now the build-up of all the things I was “staying strong” through and could’ve seen it coming if I was paying attention.

1. My oldest child was diagnosed with asthma and a nut allergy when she was young, which required super hyper-vigilance about anything that came near her mouth or that she breathed in.  (we’re talking epi-pen allergic here, as in “anaphylactic shock,” like, DEATH – and asthma that required daily meds, an inhaler, and emergency room nebulizer treatments)

2. My second child has severe developmental delays which at one point we thought might involve muscular dystrophy and epilepsy.  Her eventual diagnosis was autism, which while not life-threatening is certainly life-altering and means LONG TERM major STRESS.

3. I had an unplanned pregnancy, (my son, who I love dearly, but still, at the time…)

4 & 5.  Both of my in-laws who I loved deeply died within four years of each other:  my father-in-law’s death coming unexpectedly while my mother-in-law’s took four brutal months of my husband traveling 2 1/2hrs each way to be with her through chemo while I stayed home alone with the kids because obviously we couldn’t subject her to our kids running around her house while she was so sick.

6. After my mother-in-law died my husband’s constant overnight trips back and forth to where she lived to deal with her estate, the lawyers, cleaning out and selling her house etc…

7. Trying to stay strong and be supportive for my husband, who was deeply in grief while trying to cope with all the legal stuff.

A year after my mother-in-law died (which was two years ago) I CRASHED.  Hit the wall.  I didn’t want to die this time – I think I have my kids to thank for that.  I mean, I thought I was a horrible mother, but I never thought they’d be better off without me.  They needed me, even if I was a mess.  And a mess I was.

I cried all day.  I cried over getting them up for school.  Cried making their lunch.  Cried looking at the dishes in the sink.  Cried looking at the ever growing pile of laundry.  Cried picking them up from school.  Cried at the thought of making dinner.  Cried at the thought of homework time.  Cried facing the bedtime rituals.  Cried myself to sleep.

I was functioning, getting through the day because my kids NEEDED me, but I was in a kind of hell.  Then I stopped sleeping, and that was probably what brought everything to a grinding halt.  In the past when I was depressed I would be lethargic, sleepy.  In this depression I was trying SO hard to function for my kids that I got “over-wound.”  Plus the only time I felt any peace was when I was alone, in the quiet of the night, when no one required anything of me.  I didn’t want to let that go, so my body kept me from sleeping.

Finally my husband said, “It’s time.”  I felt like a failure.  I thought I was done with therapy, with medication.  Yet I knew I didn’t just need a therapist, I needed a psychiatrist.  I needed medication.  The stress and grief had taken such a toll on my body chemistry that I was drowning and would need medical help to set it right.

It took some time.  Anti-depressants are not happy pills.  Even the optimal dose will not save you from tears or sadness.  I describe it like this:  the medication raises your threshold for “dealing.”  You are still confronting your issues, but no longer feel like you’re sinking in a black hole.  You have more mental strength to cope.  I also needed anti-anxiety medication because I desperately needed to sleep and was physically shaking with anxiety about getting through the day.

I was lucky to find a good doctor who did more than “just listen.”  I needed someone to be “in my face.”  To tell me point blank when I was full of shit.  I’d been with “listening” therapists before, who wouldn’t offer much input, and that has its place, but this time I needed someone more interactive, someone to push me to recognize my own grief, my own stress, my own needs, which I’m so good at burying.  I’m still with her, still on medication (although my anti-anxiety meds are “as needed” now and I haven’t taken one in months – but I still have them around just in case…), and I’m in no hurry to stop.  The combination of talk and medication is working well, so why mess with a good thing.

Stigma still exists around mental illness.  I haven’t talked about my depression with many people outside my immediate social circle (one of the many reasons I don’t use my last name here).  Many religious people think they can pray it away.  People still think depression is as easy to “get over” as a bad day, and nothing could be further from the truth.  Clinical depression (more than just a bad day) is REAL, and DANGEROUS.  Just ask the family of the young woman who died Friday night.  Ask my friends whose son overdosed on his psych meds at the age of 15 just when things were starting to look better.  Or me, about my uncle who shot himself, or me about myself (who thank goodness is still here to share…).

I share my story because when I write other posts about suffering I’ve been through, and good coming out of it, I’m not talking platitudes.  My struggle with depression and my close calls with death are VERY real.  Yet I choose to USE those experiences to make me  compassionate,  patient, grateful for the life I have now.  I am also sharing because the story of the young woman who jumped off the parking garage is yet another wake-up call that we should all be vigilant in looking out for signs in others, but in also taking care of ourselves.

If you’re struggling, PLEASE get help BEFORE it becomes a crisis.  You may feel like a failure, but in fact you are a super hero – STRONG and BRAVE because you are taking control of your life back, and refusing to let mental illness define you and win.  No matter what anyone else may tell you, no matter what you may be telling yourself, YOU DESERVE IT.  And if you’re receiving treatment, but it’s just not working, speak up.  Tell your therapist you need to try a different “style,” tell your doctor you need to adjust your medication.  PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE do not give up.