Encroaching Darkness: a Perspective on Suicide and Depression

“The mind can descend far lower than the body, for in it there are bottomless pits. The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways and die over and over again each hour.”- Charles Spurgeon, “Honey in the Mouth,” MTP, Vol. 37, p. 485

In the wake of the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, people have, quite naturally, begun to think about suicide and ask difficult questions around it. Why would these two people do such a thing? Both were reasonably successful and wealthy, and thus, people may understandably think, had no reason to do such a thing. Yet, therein lies the issue: crushing sorrow and the taking of one’s life are rarely, if ever, rational issues. I’ve never encountered the person, by research or personal encounter, who arrived at attempting suicide by rationality and I strongly suspect I never will. That is why, despite the fact that there are many things I would rather write about, I wanted to take a moment and write on my own experience with suicide and depression.

As a preface, please understand: my “expert” knowledge of these subjects is limited, as I only minored in psychology in undergrad and have been briefly trained in suicide prevention by the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network. I write this piece not as an expert sharply honed in the classroom or as a seasoned therapist, but as one who has walked through two distinct seasons of life with an overwhelming darkness hanging over him. There is a lot I could go into detail about, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll only focus on two major aspects of my own struggles.

My Story

As a young teenager, I struggled with a consistent and draining melancholy. I was bullied at school and found no relief at home. Teachers would watch me be bullied, be it physically or verbally, and do nothing. Worse still, when I objected to such treatment, I was scolded and in some instances, disciplined, for disrupting class. In fact, on one occasion, a teacher told me that if I weren’t so weird, then bullies would leave me alone. At home, I was scolded for not standing up for myself, yet, I would also be scolded when teachers would inevitably mark my calling on them to stop bullies or my own feeble attempts at stopping the bullies myself as an infraction of the rules. The situation felt like a game that everyone knew was rigged against me that I was required to play anyway.

Now, as a reasonably well adjusted adult, this sort of thing would barely be an issue: if I don’t like a situation I’m in, I can, with relative ease, just leave and I can usually effectively assert myself. That said, as a teenager, such a situation was shattering. By itself, bullying isn’t/wasn’t so bad; many people are bullied or picked on and handle it fairly well. The difficulty comes in the fact that the people that could do something about it didn’t and were more than happy to tell me that they wouldn’t. The message I took away from the situation at the time was crystal clear, as I saw it: “You aren’t worth defending. You deserve to be treated poorly and you’ll be punished if you try to escape.” Now, combine that with everything else that comes from being an awkward and overall unappealing teenage boy and you’ve got a very potent sadness cocktail for a teenager to have to drink.

Much of my teenage years are at this point a blur that I struggle to remember. I do, however, remember that until I was about 14 years old, I frequently had suicidal ideations. Life was, as I saw it, painful, not only because of everything mentioned already, but because of other factors that I don’t want to mention here. I went about my days feeling like I was in a thick fog, desperately wanting the fog to lift, but seeing no tangible point at which it would. Thankfully, and obviously, that is not where things ended. Transitioning from middle school to high school alleviated most of the issues at hand, thanks largely in part to new teachers and rarely encountering the bullies from middle school again.

Things gradually improved and by the end of high school, I was a reasonably happy young man, barring the normative struggles that high school brings. Starting college was an even greater breath of air. My professors were wonderful people who treated me with genuine kindness and respect and I found good friends quickly. All signs were pointing to good things ahead. However, not everything was going to go so swimmingly. On May 20, 2012, I was driving home from preaching. I was exhausted by staying up multiple nights in a row to study for finals, especially my Greek final. As a result, I fell asleep at the wheel and flipped my Jeep. When I came to, I screamed for help and was answered by an emergency worker shouting, “He’s alive!” Indeed I was, and I was only mildly injured at that, having some cuts and bruises, as well as a crushed knuckle. All things considered, it looked like I got out of the situation about as well as one could.

Months later, I started my sophomore year of college, and I was looking forward to what was next. As things got underway, however, I struggled greatly. My memory was substantially worse than it had ever been, I made frequent errors in casual speech and I struggled with insomnia. When I did manage to sleep, I would have nightmares of being hit by a car and would rarely feel rested. When I was awake, I felt like I was in an all too familiar fog, unable to think clearly or interact meaningfully. On top of all that, all the pain I’d experienced as a teenager was forced back to the forefront of my consciousness and consumed most of my waking thoughts. My grades suffered and I could feel myself breaking. This culminated in sitting in sitting in a professor’s officer, crying and explaining that I didn’t know what to do. This professor hugged my neck and urged me to go to the university’s counseling center, which I did. There, I went to weekly appointments wherein I rehearsed and unlearned the pain that I had experienced, and came out a more whole person.

I’ve come out of these experiences a better and more complete person, but there is still a struggle. To this day, I still suffer from bouts of extreme lethargy and sadness, sometimes lasting for days on end. I still remember the pain and the desire to die, and in my worst moments, I still faintly feel the “call of the void,” though now, I also quickly and decisively reject that call. Despite all of that, I am better and see the beauty in life, even if that is sometimes expressed through aggressively morbid humor.

My Recommendation

By this point, dear reader, you know more about me than you likely ever wanted to know and you may understandably wonder, “What is the point of telling me this?” Well, there are two points. First, to the one struggling, a few key affirmations and encouragements. Life does get better, though it rarely improves quickly or easily. It may take years of struggling, but things will improve. You are not alone: your pain is uniquely yours, but you are not without others who have felt a similar pain and and who are willing to walk with you in it. You may feel that you have no one in this world who deeply cares for you and loves you, and in the worst cases you may be right, but you still have people who are on your side. Few, if any, people respond to a person coming to them for help in such a dire time indifferently, even if they are otherwise lukewarm. As such, if you can bear it at all, avail yourself of the resources around you. Counseling is tremendously helpful, particularly if your issue is a cognitive/behavioral one, and there are options available if your issue is a chemical one. There are veritable legions of people who have dedicated their lives to fighting alongside people like you, and they will do all they can to help you. If you find yourself struggling today, I beg you, don’t give in. Life is beautiful, despite the pain, and the fight is worth it. With that said, bear in mind that you may never find full freedom this side of life. Spurgeon, who I quoted earlier, was no stranger to mental illness and disorder and he also knew for some, it is an inborn thing: “Some are touched with melancholy from their birth,” as he said. You may find that you have to fight for the rest of your life, but I would encourage you in saying that there are many who will be ready to fight alongside you.

To those who are not struggling, take note as well, because it is exceedingly likely that you know someone who is. Keep an eye on your friends and family, and take notice when things don’t seem right. Be bold and gentle, willing to ask seemingly simple questions and if you’re like me, put aside southern hospitality when you do. Don’t take “I’m fine” as an answer when they are clearly not fine. Be a consistent source of love and affirmation to the people you know and mean it when you say, “I’m here for you.” Bear in mind, however, that you’re fighting an uphill battle. You are not fighting a fair fight or even a sensible one when you choose to step into the ring with mental illness of any kind and severity. Still, your willingness to stay in the fight, even in some small way, is valuable. A kind word or gesture, though itself a small thing, can be like a cup of water in the desert to a person suffering. You cannot do everything, but what you do can shine through a terrible darkness. Above all, however, recognize where your ability to help ends and where to go when you reach your limit. Learn about the mental health resources in your area and take a bit of time to learn about what to look out for. Being able to to say, “I can’t help you, but I know where you can get help,” will be infinitely more helpful than you realize.

Finally, to those who have walked with me through my own darkness, thank you. Whether you realize it or not, your love and kindness has been an invaluable aid to me and has pulled me through the darkest nights I have ever seen. Some of you may never know just how much you have done for me even by the simple act of being my friend. Your words of encouragement, humor, and even time spent together, has been a treasure trove of tremendous value. You have challenged me to reject the lies I would tell myself, sometimes directly, and you have done a greater kindness to me than I can ever repay.

More importantly, I must also point to my greatest ally in my struggle with this and every other darkness. Triune God, infinite and resplendent, you above all are to thank for where I am today. Since eternity past, you have known me and loved me, and I have benefitted from this love even in my worst days. Father, you loved me and chose me in your Son, Jesus, ordaining that his death would be a sufficient sacrifice for my sin and the sin of the world. Jesus, you took on mortal flesh and knew pain and sorrow. Living a perfect life, you did what I nor my first father could, and died in our place, offering up your righteousness for my rags. Spirit, you have sealed me for the day of redemption, a solemn sign of the efficacy of the work of Jesus. You breathe new life into me, and you groan alongside me, speaking on my behalf in ways that I never could. I have found in you, God of my salvation, one who is sufficient in all my struggles, who cares for me and has done for me far greater things than I can imagine. Others have been a great aid to me, but you alone are my sun and shield, in whom my soul trusts.

Soli Deo Gloria