December 18, 2010
It's Not Always a Wonderful Life--and Maybe That's OK
More than a month ago, I had to convince my husband that I was not a danger to myself or anyone else.
That Sunday morning, I had been telling him that I felt like I was at the end of my rope, had hit the wall, was feeling overwhelmed by work, family, financial issues. I joked that I needed to pull a celebrity-style move and check myself ineo some quasi-hospital setting for "exhaustian."
I also admitted that I was weighed down by all those feelings the National Institute of Mental Health and other experts say signify depression and possibly a dangerous, downward spiral: Hoplessness, guilt, worthlessness, loss of interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyed. Experts say to always pay special attention to these warning signs in yourself and others-- especially as the holidays approach.
My husband was paying special attention. Finally, I admitted that, yes, I had fleeting thoughts of suicide. As in a second or two mental blip, which was followed by some utopian vision of relief. But, I assured him that all these thoughts were—well—thoughts. I had no plan in place. No weapons at hand. Those self-destructive thoughts were quickly replaced by others: the face of my son, my husband, the rest of my family, and the things I really do still enjoy in life.
I have hesitated to write this piece or to use the "s" word—suicide--in context with myself, because it's embarrassing. It's shameful.
Some readers probably find it morbid, especially around this time of the year when we're all supposed to be full of good cheer
It also might make some people worry and others to jump to certain conclusions about my mental stability. Of course, when I started my Walnut Creek-based blog about life in the suburbs, I didn't call it Sane in Suburbia.
I'm feeling better now, for reasons I'll mention below. I was going through a difficult period in my life when several events and realities were converging at once. All the above-described feelings were hitting me in a seemingly unrelenting way.
The reason I bring this up now is that I fairly certain I'm not alone in feeling these things. In fact, both my therapist and Judi Hampshire, director of the Contra Costa Crisis Center crisis line, say they talk to plenty of people who suffer bouts of depression, anxiety, and questions about whether this thing we're doing—life—is worth it.
Call it an existential crisis. Call it this holiday blues.
Oh wait! This time of year, we're supposed to brim with joy about baking cookies, wrapping presents, getting together with family. "We're inundated with all the cheerful music and bright-colored lights," Hampshire said. If you're not experiencing the cheer, you can wind up feeling more isolated, she added.
It can also be isolating to feel out of synch with the qualities of achievement, prosperity, family stability and positive thinking that help define the ideal of the good suburban life, Hampshire explained.
But how many of us can live up to that ideal? We're two years into a recession--that we're told isn't a recession anymore. Since the economy tanked, we all know someone who has been laid off. They include neighbors who are living in homes they may not be able to afford.
The holidays can add to the stress, with the expectation that we spend, spend, spend on gifts and that we spend time with family. Some people don't have warm and fuzzy feelings about their families—and for good reason. Hampshire adds that the holidays remind people of loved ones who have died. Rather than wanting to celebrate, some people still need to mourn.
Maybe those of us feeling gloomy need to sit down and watch the 1946 holiday film classic It's a Wonderful Life for the 30th time. People seem to focus on its uplifting ending but before that ending you watch an often dark movie about an ordinary guy driven to the brink of suicide because several dark and scary realities hit him at once.
It probably wouldn't hurt for me to remind myself of the lessons that James Stewarts' George Bailey learns after jumping from a bridge on Christmas Eve.
Yes, we are dealing with a Hollywood ending, but certain aspects ring true. George Bailey must come to accept his life for what it is--instead of grieving for what might have been. Sure, he's living in a crappy house in a small town and has too many kids. He's struggling to make ends meet as the owner of the town building and loan. He'll never be rich, leave Bedford Falls or see Paris. Those dreams will come true for other people in George's life—not for George himself. As Elizabeth Kubler Ross would say about the stages of grief, George--with help from Clarence, the angel in training--moves out of denial, anger, bargaining and depression and into acceptance.
To some extent, that's what I did: moved towards acceptance.
I concluded: Yes, I'm broken. There are things about me and my life that I just can't fix. Things didn't turn out the way I hoped. It also helped --more than I can say--to stop trying to believe in self-help-style resolutions: "I have issues I'm working on," "I have challenges I'm determined to overcome."
Nope, I decided: I surrender. To the facts and consequences of being broken. I'm learning to accept that I have what my therapist calls "irreconcilable conflicts" within myself. I also accept that life is a much harder than I ever expected.
Trying to keep it real, as some character in a 1970s TV show would say.
Keeping it real: Hampshire gave me an added level of appreciation for not using soft, euphemistic words and phrases to hide from hard truths as she described how crisis counselors bring people back from the brink of suicide. The counselors have to keep it real when talking to people who call on the hotline. They use the "s" word and ask "Are you thinking of killing yourself?" They don't resort to gentle-listening, imprecise phrases like "are you thinking of hurting yourself?" With people in crisis, Hampshire said, you need to be honest and direct in your language and approach. If you pretty words up, it tells the person you're uneasy about the topic. "Being real" can make people feel more comfortable about sharing thoughts that are dark, complicated and frightening.
I may live in a suburb that is shiny and happy on the surface, and maybe I should feel that way but I often don't. Oh well. I can live with this reality better if I give up on the shoulds of how my life should be or how I should feel.
I'm getting by. And by accepting the things I cannot change—to borrow some of that 12-step language—I'm having fewer of those dread-filled Sunday mornings of the soul. I haven't thought about checking myself into a hospital for "exhaustion" in weeks.
Maybe it's not a wonderful life, but life has its wonderful moments. Believe it or not, I'm looking forward to enjoying the next week leading up to Christmas. This is a holiday I actually like, with all the lights and music. I'll be taking vacation time. There's a gingerbread house I hope to decorate with my son, books to read, movies to see. Time with him, my husband, other family members. Yes, life has its wonderful moments.
The Contra Costa Crisis center operates Contra Costa County's suicide prevention hotline, which you can reach at 800-273-TALK and 800-SUICIDE. It is staffed by highly trained volunteers who provide counseling, support, and resource information to people experiencing personal crises as well as those contemplating suicide. The center also operates a 24-hour line that provides grief counseling at 800-837-1818.