Two years ago, I freed myself from what had long felt like a shameful secret: I wrote about my experience suffering from depression. Publicly sharing details about my nearly lifelong malady proved to be a turning point in how I felt about myself. It started with less shame and stigma and soon resulted in greater authenticity and connection in my relationships, especially among friends and colleagues with depression and other mental health conditions.
I felt I didn’t have to lie anymore.
However, I kept one last secret to myself. The news of recent weeks has compelled me to confront that final demon.
As a writer, I had hoped my earlier disclosure would prompt others to be more open, and it did. After publication of my depression essay, scores of readers emailed and posted, many of them grateful that I had written about something many of them also felt. “It’s so good to hear from fellow travelers whose life journey has taken them down this road,” one wrote.
My essay had been prompted by a friend’s unknown (to me and many others) depression and his eventual suicide. I wrote, “Even with 20/20 hindsight I never would have guessed [Erik] was at risk for serious depression, let alone suicide.” He and I had been on a shared path. After his death, a mutual friend told me, “You never know where depression lives.”
We never know where suicide lives, either. Erik is one of three friends of mine who have killed themselves, and I’d had no clue any of them might have the capacity to take their own life. But then, they didn’t know it about me, either.
Twice in my life, I’ve been caught in a perfect storm — a mash-up of medication mishap, too much alcohol and an emotional crisis — and found myself on that precipice. Fortunately, neither time was I on an actual precipice or in possession of a gun or other means to carry out the act.
The first time was 1996, when I sustained a concussion in a car wreck. To ease the resulting headaches, my doctor prescribed a beta blocker, whose typical side effects include lightheadedness, dizziness and low blood pressure. Soon after starting the prescription — at an art reception, wine glass in hand — I experienced a sense of spiraling free fall. It was as if I was in the opening sequence of “Mad Men,” where the unmoored and seemingly doomed Don Draper avatar falls to his death. Even now, I find it too frightening to look back at those feelings.
It was so sudden, so overwhelming, that I could barely hold myself up. I felt the call of the unknown and the beyond. In that moment, if the means had been at hand, I believe I could have taken the terrible plunge. Instead, a friend took me home after I said I wasn’t feeling right and put me to bed, where I fell safely asleep.
When I told my doctor about those scary, dark feelings the next day, she instantly took me off the medication, explaining that suicidal thoughts were a rare side effect. Within days, I found my equilibrium, but I was shocked at how easily the combination of my emotional state (I was moderately depressed at the time), the wine and especially the medication could have nearly shown me to the door.
The second time, four years ago, was both better and worse. Under the supervision of my primary-care doctor, I had begun tapering off Lexapro, a common antidepressant, because after 12 years I wanted to see if I could function without it. Midway through the four-month weaning process I again went into free fall. I could not find my emotional — or physical — balance. I was emotionally flat with no affect. I had unexplained crying jags. For about a month, I found myself treading water in a vast sea of hopelessness.
I was not Steven.
My doctor referred me to a psychopharmacologist, who told me to go back to my original dose of Lexapro and to put a halt to my drinking. Saved. A week later I started to feel like my usual self. Still, I had been frightened, once again, at how I might have become a statistic. I’m sure I had not seemed suicidal to any of my friends, and they were right — I wasn’t. Until suddenly I was.
None of my three friends who took their lives had appeared suicidal. If they had, I’ve always hoped, maybe someone could have prevented the overdose, the hanging, the self-inflicted gunshot. Funny thing, but despite my ongoing depression, I’m an optimist.
Alas, there is no scarlet S, no reliable warning for loved ones. I am more open about my depression now, but I think my friends and family would be shocked if I killed myself or even that I felt it beckon to me twice. I can hear them: “I don’t understand — he had it all. Smart, funny, successful, so close with his family.” I know those attributes might reasonably be applied to me, yet when I found myself on the precipice, I could not recognize myself in any of those optimistic words. To be on the brink of suicide is to be in a completely dark, otherworldly haze, a state of despair so profound that it subsumes all reason, all reality. And the fog can envelop you before you’re aware it’s happening.
That’s part of what makes it hard to prevent, says Richard A. Friedman, director of the psychopharmacology clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. As he wrote in an email to me: “The typical risk factors for suicide (having depression, older age, alcohol abuse, etc.) are not very helpful at all in predicting suicide because most people with these risk factors will never be suicidal or commit suicide.”
In a recent op-ed, Friedman noted, “Suicide is wrongly seen as a character or moral flaw — or even a sinful act. It is viewed as something shameful that must be hidden.” That’s one of the real tragedies — that the stigma attached to the acknowledgment of suicidal thoughts could prevent someone from raising a hand and getting help, fast.
By being open about my depression, I believe I’ve secured new lifelines to existing friends and made new ones, especially among those who walk that same path. My friend Ken Jones, 2,500 miles away, recently texted me: “How are you doing? Really?” Others pay attention to my Facebook posts, messaging me if they sense trouble. In turn, I reciprocate. Not that long ago, I became worried about a friend who had shared her mental-health diagnosis with me. On Facebook I checked in with her and she wrote back:
“I’m not ok. I’m not ok at all. . . . [But] I’m not about to kill myself. I have no plans.” Then, she added: “Just typing this has helped. Thank you, sweet Steven. I appreciate you reaching out.”
Writing this essay, however, has not been easy. As much as I know Friedman is right that we shouldn’t see suicide as a “character or moral flaw,” this public acknowledgment of suicidal thoughts has deeply unsettled me. When I asked that friend who I had worried about, Burgetta Eplin Wheeler, for permission to use her name, I also told her I was wavering on whether to see this published. Gently she encouraged me, reminding me this is how to end the stigma.
My depression is now mild, and I do not feel at risk of suicide. But I know those feelings lie dormant within me, and I fear the possibility of another perfect storm. That’s why I’m raising my hand, here and now, hoping that another voice will end the stigma that holds many people back from getting help.
The stigma of mental illness is under attack by sufferers, who are coming out publicly and defiantly.