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Saying Good-bye

Rumor says he walked down Charlotte Beach pier and never returned.

Today, I visited my previous place of employment where employees held a plaque memorial for a good friend and co-worker named John. It's almost like a story in a novel, the way everything happened. John, depressed for years, had needed help. And many people did what they could for him, undoubtedly keeping him going for a long time. But then at some point, an issue cropped up that he couldn't handle. Possibly something to do with his family issues. Maybe the stress of everyday life. Perhaps both. At any rate, he made a decision. A decision of finality. I'm sure in his mind it wasn't so much a decision as a necessity. But necessary or not, he chose to end his life. So one unseasonably cold winter night, he walked down a long pier to step off into an icy abyss. They found his car the next morning, left in the beach parking lot, where he probably sat for a long time, going through everything in his head. Maybe crying. Maybe drinking. Maybe wondering where his life had made a wrong turn.

In a twist of irony, I'd discussed my novel Seven Little Secrets with him months before, and he'd wanted to read it. I was going to let him borrow a copy after another friend finished reading it. But that never happened. I doubt it would've changed the course of events. But I can't help wondering if perhaps he'd been interested in my story of a teen girl's suicide because in the back of his mind, he knew the struggle of living with emotional pain versus ending it.

Depression isn't about "feeling sad"

I suffer from depression. I rarely admit it because, like most people with depression, I'm ashamed of it. Deep down, I know there's no shame in this disorder. I didn't bring it on myself. I'm not "addicted to the drama" it causes. And I do my best to keep it from swinging out of control. But people who have never had true, clinical depression cannot possibly understand its depth. I was in my mid-forties when I finally admitted my disorder to my mother. She said, "Well, everyone gets sad sometimes." But it's not about feeling sad. I think that's what's so hard for people to fathom.

Before I continue, one caveat. Not everyone who suffers from depression wants to commit suicide. And not everyone who wants to end their life has depression. It's a complicated cocktail of emotion, hormones, brain chemistry, and circumstance.

For those of us who have suicidal thoughts, however, it's anguishing. Humans are born with a strong ego. It's this ego that keeps us from allowing ourselves to be eaten by hungry mammals or allowing our species to die out by refusing to procreate. Every cell in our body fights to live. Yet, some of us have this horrible aching, this insatiable need for unconditional love we can't seem to find in ourselves, this heart-wrenching pain that leaves us curled up in a ball on the bed with no motivation to do anything. Not even cry.

It's not about "feeling sad." Sometimes life is going along well. Job is great. Family is wonderful. Life is full and vibrant. And then there's a quick click somewhere in the head, like a light being turned off. Or maybe a bulb that's burned out. It can happen in a matter of minutes or to take days to fully develop. It can be sparked by someone reprimanding us for something inconsequential. Or by a loved one who forgot to tell us goodnight. It can happen after a break-up. Or after receiving a bad grade on a term paper. It might be precipitated by the death of a parent. Or, oddly, there could be nothing that sets it off at all. We could wake up to the emotion. Or have premenstrual syndrome symptoms. The point is, the feeling is impossible to track. And it's not just an overwhelming sadness. It's an emptiness. A feeling of hopelessness. Of being stuck in a long, dark, empty well with no way to escape. It's worse than feeling sad. It's the feeling of being worthless and the realization that there's no point to life.

Understanding the pain

It's difficult to understand what's going on inside a depressed person's head, since emotion has no steadfast rules. How does one know if the person feels low enough to end it all? Truth is, we can't. When someone is suicidal and vocal about it, he or she is reaching out, and they know there's a chance someone is going to hear them and attempt to prevent them from completing the task. A person who tells someone they're going to commit suicide either 1) wants to live or 2) wants that person to know ahead of time either to create guilt, or to ease guilt. Either way, it's possible the suicidal person wants a chance to change his or her mind.

It's when the depressed person is alone, either in a secluded room in a house, or in a place they're about to say a final good-bye to the world, that's most dangerous. If they're alone and silently suffering, they have a better chance of succeeding in ending it. Because they have told nobody. They do not want to be saved. And once they start the process, it will be hard, if not impossible, to turn back.

Whether they're hoping to be saved or hoping to complete the task, a depressed person can't live with this numbing, dead-hearted emotion. To a depressed person, tomorrow will be the same. And the next day. And the next. Although they rationalize this feeling will end on its own some time, right now if feels as if nothing will ever get better. Once they're gone, the people they love will stop thinking about them, stop missing them, and they'll move on to bigger and better things. The loved one's suffering will be short-lived. A depressed person's pain feels like forever. By taking their own life, they won't have to feel life pinch them, pull them downward, chokehold them to the floor. Knowing that the pain will be gone makes death feel worthwhile. This is depression. And it's horrible.

How to help

The phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is: 1-800-273-8255. If he or she isn't willing to make the call, do it for them. Obviously, dial 911 if the person has already made the attempt. But if you know this person needs help before the attempt has been made, call that number. When I was suicidal, newly married, in my kitchen, I was at an extremely low point in my life. I'd taken antidepressant drugs that happened to make my depression worse. I picked up the phone and made that call. I didn't know what else to do. I had no friends or family to turn to because, again, I was so ashamed. Admitting I was depressed and wanting to end it all would be harder than actually killing myself. I had no tangible reason to want to kill myself. Who would take me seriously? But...maybe a trained stranger would. Someone who knew you couldn't just suck down a hot fudge sundae and cry into a pillow to make it all better. Someone who wouldn't say, "Just get it together, already. What have you got to be upset about?" Someone who wasn't going to take it personally and give me a guilt trip. Because even loving, well-meaning people say the wrong things at the wrong time.

I'm not sure what my friend John was thinking as he made his way down the pier in the frigid cold. Was he determined to take his life the second he came to the edge of the pier? Or did he stand there, wind whipping his jeans, his jacket, the back of his head, wondering if turning back was an option? Did he have a fleeting moment of fear before he jumped, or was he so resolute in his decision he wasn't the least bit frightened? I guess we'll never know. But what I do know is that today at his plaque memorial, his friends were there to grieve for the loss of a kind, honest soul. People told many happy stories about him. Described many fond memories. And shared many sad tears.

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