What a title. I had a couple others planned out but as I typed each one it began to sound like one of those horrible “OMG, I did it and now so can you!” self help books you see at Barnes and Noble. I decided to keep it simple. So there you have it. Suicide and self-harm. They’re hard topics to talk and hear about and are something that aren’t often discussed until it’s too late. Remember the Penn U cross-country runner? The man who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived? Those people could be someone around you.
A whopping 26.2% of Americans 18 and older suffer from mental health disorders. As a percent, this may seem small, but this roughly translates to 57.7 MILLION Americans- and each of those people mean something dearly to an entire network of people. Pretty soon you begin to realize that mental health affects a hell of a lot of people, whether you are the one with the disorder or the one who knows someone with the disorder.
With the large amount of people affected, I find it of utmost importance to keep the dialogue about mental health open- because most of the discussion seems to happen when it’s too late. Normally I’m a “seat of the pants” writer, but I took a lot of time putting this post together. There are so many stigmas about mental health and things I want everyone to know to help anyone affected. I know that every case is different, but at the heart of each person’s problems there tend to be similarities.
Before I begin, I have to make what I think is an EXTREMELY important point. If you are close to someone who is struggling, keep in mind that you are their FRIEND or FAMILY not their therapist. Listen to them, of course, but keep in mind that you should not feel completely weighed down by being the only one they talk to. I’ll give my sister, Alli, a quick call or send a quick text if I’m about to have a panic attack that I have some random disease I saw on WebMD, but would never weigh her down with suicidal thoughts. Those I save for the professional- and I would personally advise everyone else to do the same. Friends and family are great support teams, but are not health professionals with extensive knowledge of mental health. Unless of course they are.
My friend Alexa said this herself in a detailed email to me, “you are not this person’s therapist and you are not going to be the person who ‘saves’ them”. She went on to say that yes, let them vent to you, listen to them when they come to you or need to bounce ideas off you. Sometimes the person just wants someone to listen (which I can vouch for, personally) and sometimes they just want to be left alone. Don’t pry or prod but just be there whenever you can.
Tackling the Issue: Three Points of View
In addition to my first hand experience, I’ve asked my sister and a close friend for their points of view. My sister was not at college with me when I began to fall off the deep end, but she witnessed the panic at home after my dad received a call from the ER at 3 in the morning when he dropped me off at school a few hours prior. Alli has been my rock ever since.
Alexa is one of five close friends that witnessed everything as it happened. She’s been there before, during, and after and has kindly offered to share her experience- honestly.
Though I can say I’ve both suffered from and had more than one loved one suffer from a disorder, I like to get as many voices as possible. I’ve tried my best to arrange this post as logically as possible- chronologically with alternative points of view scattered wherever I felt most applicable. I’ve then addressed some misconceptions about mental health disorders including my experience as well as Alexa and Alli’s on medication and disorders as an excuse. This is a longer post, so I’ve taken the liberty of sectioning off parts here and there. There is some overlap from a couple previous posts but I try to keep this at a minimum. My goal in writing this is not to recall painful memories just for memories’ sake- if this helps anyone out there than I will have considered myself successful.
Self-Harm: Escalation into Suicide
My own experience with self-harm began in high school and should have been a huge red flag for myself to get some help. I began by scratching my wrists, and when that became a little more obvious than I would’ve liked, I began cutting and scraping my stomach with a scissors- from my rib cage down to pelvis. Though these cuts were not deep, they were hard to hide in the summer. When asked about the angry red marks, I would lie and say it was from tubing and everyone seemed to believe me, except for my ex. She noticed and got upset and talked to me many times about getting help but I never did.
At the time, cutting served as a way of feeling something. It physically hurt me to feel the anguish of knowing my ex was growing distant when I wasn’t completely numb. To make matters worse, I didn’t feel like I could go to anyone for help because I was paranoid I’d be labeled as a lesbian when I wasn’t even sure if that was true or not. Gender didn’t (and still doesn’t) factor into who I like, but I was under the impression at the time that if I was with a girl, it was completely disgusting and unnatural. Being able to see the inner pain I felt physically manifested on my body helped me bottle up my feelings and move on.
The cutting stopped when I went to college freshman year and I had no visible scars. I didn’t begin self harming again until my sophomore year. The shallow marks no longer did justice to me; I was a failure even more than I was already. I hated myself for not being able to actually hurt myself. Instead of cutting to “feel pain” like I used to, I cut because I hated myself and everything I had become. I cut because I didn’t have perfect stats at volleyball practice, I cut because I thought my friends hated me, I cut because I just didn’t seem to hit it off with several of the boys I tried talking to at school, I cut because it made part of me happy to destroy me. Furthermore, I started burning my wrists with a lighter. This was hard to hide with volleyball season so I would try and get to the training room earlier than all my teammates in an attempt to privately wrap my own wrists. I thought I fooled them into thinking I just liked to tape my own arms for passing (they didn’t believe me).
Several of my friends took note and began to get worried. Alexa said every time she’d see a new cut her stomach would drop. It was a lot to take in at only nineteen years old. Shouldn’t we only have to be worrying about homework and tests?
Amidst my anguish, I’d displace my anger and sadness on my friends. Often times I’d realize this and try to distance myself from them. They continued to try and show how much they cared about me but I constantly shoved them away. They never knew which Kristin they’d get each day, and quite frankly, neither did I.
Though I’ve already described in a previous post the night where I was going to commit suicide, I’ve never really gone back and asked my friends what was going through their heads at the time.
Alexa and my other friends who knew I was struggling were living in constant fear of my safety. Who knew if they’d check on me in the morning and find I wasn’t there? This escalated the night in November when my friends made one of the harder decisions they’d had to make in life to that point, whether to call the cops on me. I remember begging them not to while trying to hide the blood covering my sheets, but they did, and I can’t thank them enough. They saved my life that night.
When I was at the hospital going through testing, my friends were back at the dorms cleaning up my mess. They called my family members to let them know what happened, took away any scissors, tweezers, anything sharp from me, and washed my bloodstained bed sheets. That’s when Alexa said she realized the full extent of what was going on- and that this was going to be a long uncertain road ahead of all of us.
Though I wish I could say this was the last time I ever self harmed again, I can’t. The road to recovery isn’t a short, easy one. Having a mental illness is something you have all your life. You can’t get rid of it- there are just ways to revamp the way you think. I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll always have these thoughts- I’ll just work to have them floating around in my brain a lot less.
Self harm, like suicide, a permanent solution to a fixable problem. I’m still enduring the aftermath of the cuts that I have. I’ve had everyone from unbeknownst family members at Christmas, children at the camp I worked at this summer, and completely random people ask, “oh my gosh, what happened to your wrists?” for which I have no immediate answer. It’s scary for others to see the marks once they realize they were self-inflicted. That’s understandable. I hate knowing the scars remind my family and friends of the pain they’ve gone through. For me, I like to think of them as a reminder of how far I’ve come. Though I will lie to people who ask and tell them with a laugh, “aw, it’s from this accident with a rake” or something, I won’t hide anything from someone who asks me at a non-awkward time. It’s extremely hard to admit to having a problem, but it’s also just as hard to find the courage to ask someone if they’re okay and need help. The more we keep an open dialogue, the better we can all help one another understand each other. The only reason I am here today is because I had friends who did one of the hardest things one can do- reach out and get me help even though I begged them not to.
Now, to those who contemplate suicide…
As someone who continues to struggle with this, all I can say is that every time these thoughts creep into my mind, I remind myself that my thoughts ultimately have no merit. Thoughts are just thoughts. It took me awhile to take the leap of faith and begin to believe others that I was not a complete piece of shit, but once I did, I became a lot happier- not quite happy, but happier- and that’s HUGE. It’s not a switch you can just turn on, it’s something you have to push up your sleeves and get dirty with. It’s going to be hard, YES, but life has a lot of potential to being a great place if you let it be. So let me be your personal cheerleader- I went through this shit and it got me to where I am today. Going through what I have allows me to be more patient and understanding of others, and my friends say that going through this has allowed them the same experience. Even though your or your friend’s mental illness may feel like a burden, remember this: there is so much to be learned, and that makes every single struggle worth it in the end.
“‘Make your mess your message’ -Robin Roberts” -Alexa Zbytniewski***
***(If you’ve ever watched The Office, you’ll understand my use of quotation)
Recovery: A Process, Not a Destination or Whatever It Is They Say
The next few months after the hospital visit were pretty hard, to say the least. I had a month and a half until the end of the semester and a few days before I could be home again for Thanksgiving Break but still had yet to face the consequences of my breakdown.
If my friends were scared before my mental breakdown, they now had even more reason to be worried now. As I mentioned before, they took away all of my sharp objects so I now needed to go and ask to borrow my possessions back for menial tasks like cutting paper and plucking my eyebrows. Alexa even noted she still has some of my clippers and razors to this day.
Back at home, 1,300 miles away, my parents and siblings continued to worry as well. Over the two years that I had been away at school, I had probably called home three times- twice to ask for more money. My family found it shocking and was completely surprised at what had happened. Alli knew things had been a little rough for me for a while but not because we were braiding one another’s hair and talking about it. We had been sitting in the Neenah Wal-Mart parking lot earlier that summer waiting for my parents to come back with groceries when we got into a shouting match about the marks on my wrists. I don’t remember too much from the situation, but Alli remembers me yelling at her, “you don’t know anything about my life!”
While my family and friends continued to worry for my safety, I knew it was long overdue to get myself some help- but I didn’t know how or where to start other than my University’s athletic department. My coaches already knew what had happened because my friends had called them the night I went into the ER, but I needed to go in to have my mental health assessed before I could continue practicing volleyball (we played Penn State in the NCAA tournament that week).
I had absolutely no idea what a “mental health assessment” would be like, but I knew the only way I could possibly describe the way I was feeling at the time was to show them the suicide note I had started writing a month ago. After reading it aloud to my head coach, assistant coach, and academic advisor, they immediately referred me to the University Counseling Center. I bounced around and talked to several different psychologists in the area but began feeling more and more dismayed at everyone I saw. One psychologist diagnosed me with Borderline Personality Disorder and the next another told me I should buy his book and visit his wife’s gay bar downtown. It took me months to find a great psychiatrist, but the wait was well worth it.
Looking back on everything now, I’m shocked I made it. I had (and still do have) the best support system I could’ve ever asked for but sometimes that’s not enough. It takes a lot of trust in a great psychiatrist or psychologist, hope, and most importantly the will to get better. Fighting negative thoughts that you’ve learned to accept as normal in your head is a 24/7 job and it’s exhausting. I can only imagine how hard it was for my family and friends to be there for me. The only thing harder than going through a mental health disorder is watching a loved one go through it not knowing what they’re thinking or how to help.
A Common Misconception/Perception of Suicide
One question or affirmation I find to be quite popular in conversation about suicide is, “how could they kill themselves? It’s so selfish”. Why would anyone want to take their own life away while others fight so hard for theirs? At first, I found this question to be highly frustrating. I didn’t understand how to even begin.
First off, a person contemplating suicide is not in the right state of mind. Suicide is not a normal feeling to have- the person thinking this is not operating like the average human being. When I get suicidal, my thoughts tend to be more along the lines of, “my family, friends, and the entire world is better off without me. I’m a piece of shit, I am doing nothing positive for anyone, and my death may be hard for a little while, but they’ll realize how much happier they are when I’m gone”. Other times, a person’s anguish blinds any rational thought and they succumb to a split second decision that has permanent effects. I’m sure there are a thousand other “justifications” in a depressed individual, but I would be willing to argue that 99.9% of the time the person has no intentions of purposely hurting their family or friends. If anything, they are trying to help but because the way they deal with information in their head, their thinking is maladaptive. Killing oneself is not a logical way to deal with issues- a lot of people know this already- but this is not the case with many struggling with mental health disorders.
Alexa and Alli also brought up a great point worth mentioning – both said that if you’ve never gone through having a mental illness, you will begin to realize that you will never understand. Alexa continued to say, “I’m no expert, but there’s usually one thing in common with people who deal with these issues; all of their thoughts and actions are irrational, which is exactly why it makes absolutely no sense to you”. Keep this in mind in life. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve personally thought this even while dealing with people at work. But couldn’t have said it better, myself, Alli and Alexa.
Medication: An Aid, Not a Quick Fix Solution
Though there are tons of different types of treatments for anything from Bipolar Disorder to Anorexia (think psychotherapy, ECT, etc.), sometimes these are not enough alone.
Meds have never been something to me that are a “quick fix”. I began seeing several different therapists until I found one that worked out for me- always using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (essentially retraining your brain, look it up, it’s pretty cool stuff). Learning how to retrain your brain takes a lot of those “leaps of faith” I was mentioning before and progress is sometimes hampered by severe bouts of depression or mania for me. When these become too much and I feel like I’m losing my mind and can’t even focus on retraining my thinking, meds come in handy. They are like tools to help with therapy. Simply taking medication does not magically make you better- the processes that go on in your brain are much more complicated than that.
There are, however, several drawbacks in taking meds. Some people’s bodies react differently to different medications. What may work great for me may actually do more harm than good for someone else- and that’s not to mention figuring out the proper dose and how much increasing or decreasing doses will impact your mood.
My sophomore year, I began taking a mood stabilizer to help me “level out” a little to aid in the CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). Meds typically take a month to actually kick in, and once they do, they have to be monitored closely. As my psychiatrist and I were trying to find the right amount for me to take, we increased my dose by a half a pill (the pills were extremely tiny) and a week later I was almost a completely different person.
After weight lifting one morning during spring season, I was walking down the hall following the rest of my team. I asked a question and no one must’ve heard me because no one answered. I asked again and still received no answer. I suddenly felt this herculean surge of rage and screamed, “WHERE IS BRYAN?” and threw my water bottle I had been holding, completely ruining the lid. I remember some of my teammates turning around, shocked.
After that outburst, I immediately went down a dosage. A pill as large as an earring stud can make that much of a difference.
Some meds I tried out completely leveled me off and made me into a shell of my former self, others made me extremely tired, some even more depressed, and even more anxious and manic. Interactions with others were hard when I felt empty inside, panic attacks sometimes increased with some pills and I’d skip class for fear of dying, and I spent a lot of time confusing the hell out of my friends. It wasn’t until about two months ago that I have something that finally works.
Meds are something I avoid using unless I absolutely have to they but can come in handy if one is able to find the right match, and I’m proud to say I’v been med free for quite some time now.
Both Alexa and Alli have had to deal with my varying moods with meds and without. Alexa said it was beneficial to ask anything she could on my disorders and also noted how important it was that she realized “her role” in my life. She became (in her words) the neutralizer. She’d ask me if things were okay if she noticed I was having a bad day she would go about the rest of the day as normally as possible- not hovering over me. She understood this was the best way to help me and it worked out best for us. Eventually, once I began to open up more about how I was feeling, it helped our relationship a lot. Once we were able to talk to each other, Alexa understood where I was coming from instead of shutting me out or vice versa. I always forgot that although I knew clearly in my head how I was feeling and what my intentions were, my friends and family had to play the guessing game constantly- which was highly stressful for them to do.
Disorders: An Excuse or Not?
As a former collegiate athlete, I grew up my entire life feeling like there was no such thing as an excuse. This is great motivational inspiration for a poster hanging in a weight room, yes, but I find that when it comes to mental health disorders there is a little leeway for excuses. It almost pains me to type that, but at the end of the day, people with disorders are fighting an entirely different battle in between their ears in addition to everything that goes on in their everyday life.
If you are suffering from a disorder, it can at times be incredibly hard to be a fully functioning member of society. Those with anorexia might feel light headed and weak all day as they worry about burning off the few calories they consumed earlier. This is in addition to working a forty hour work week or studying for tests and writing essays for school. A person suffering from depression may barely be able to get out of bed for eight hours a day let alone two to practice and fight to keep their starting position on a team they aren’t even sure if they want to be a part of anymore. Anyone with bipolar disorder knows if a manic episode overcomes them they risk blowing through all of their savings unless they can manage talk themselves out of it- if they even are able to recognize their manic phases from actual happiness. Like I said before, these people are all around you. The only difference between them and a completely “normal” person is a small chemical imbalance in their brain.
When I was diagnosed (to those who haven’t read my previous post, OCD, Bipolar II, Depression, Generalized Anxiety) I didn’t freak out and deny it. To me, being able to look back at the ways I had mishandled life and knowing I had a sort of “excuse” was a huge relief to me. I had spent my life thinking I was a completely shitty person, but I now knew that I had messed up chemicals in my brain and maladaptive coping methods. This of course does not account for 100% of my personality but it does explain some of my crazier behaviors.
Even though having a mental health disorder can be an “excuse” to an extent, I like to use this to fuel my fire. I refuse to let this get in the way of my life as much as I can, but realize that I have a little leeway when things get rough. It’s only an excuse to me if you know in your heart you could not have possibly pushed yourself any harder or further. To think you can live your life with no excuse is a valiant thing to think, but truth is, not everyone has the mental capacity to do this all the time.
If you’ve made it this far, I genuinely hope this has helped you understand yourself or a loved one better. When I discussed writing this post with Alli and Alexa a week ago, one of the more important lessons we took away from everything that happened was that we ALL became better people from it.
We can all say that going through what we did has made us all more empathetic people- and I’d never consider that a bad thing.
So if you’re the sufferer, let me be 100% honest with you…
It will be hard. You’ll feel lost, you’ll feel uncomfortable, people might look at you a little differently, but the more I’ve opened up, the more I’ve grown to like myself. Turns out, the more I like myself, the more other people seem to like me too.
The fight will never completely end, but I can say that going through the crap I have has made me a better person than if I hadn’t. Use your disorder as a way to connect with others, to empathize with others, and to live life unapologetically- because the world becomes a brighter, better place when you do so.