Going Under the Ice

“Do you want to be here?”

“Here, the hospital, or here, Planet Earth?”
“Here, the hospital.”
“No, but I don’t think I’m in any condition to drive home right now.”

That’s an exchange I had recently with an Emergency Room physician. I don’t remember the conversation because I was pretty much unconscious when it occurred and I only heard about it later.

I was unconscious because I had swallowed 50 Ambien tablets and 10 Vicodin, all washed down with a bottle of very good 2004 Meursault.

There’s a lot about that evening I don’t remember but I do remember being glad when I finally woke up the next morning. Some people might not have been so glad.

Since I was about 18 I’ve had thoughts of suicide. It’s been my reflex response to stress. It doesn’t make sense but mental illness doesn’t always make sense.

The condition scares me to talk about –- even after all this time living with it –- and it might scare you, too. I think it’s normal to be scared of monsters we can’t see.

On any night of the week you wouldn’t have to channel-surf for very long to find an autopsy to watch or an open-heart surgery or a grizzly crime scene, all up-close and in vivid color.

People seem to be fascinated looking at the inside of the human body, and options have expanded a lot since the days of “I Am Joe’s Gall Bladder” in Reader’s Digest.

But try dropping “clinical depression” into dinner-party conversation and there’s a good chance you’ll soon be looking at an empty chair or the back of a head.

And the S-word? That’s a really good way to clear a room. Suicide is unnerving and many people don’t want to hear about it.

*****

I tried to kill myself because…

Completing that sentence could very well be a lifelong effort for me. I do understand, though, that I’m wired differently than most people.

Suicide presents itself to me as an automatic reaction to stress. Some people might turn to drugs or alcohol to escape their pain; others might unleash on the people close to them.

My natural approach isn’t by any means normal or productive but it’s part of who I am. Maybe medicine will help me get better. I know that therapy will. There’s a lot to learn.

After a day in the E.R. I was sent to a psychiatric hospital. It’s pretty much a legal certainty when you’ve made an attempt on your life that you’re held for several days while doctors make sure you’re not at imminent risk of harm.

In the hospital I attended a lot of group sessions and to my surprise they were all useful. Hearing from other people about their experiences –- both good and bad -– armed me with a lot of valuable information to use in my own recovery.

One man, describing his lifelong struggle with depression, referred to his dark episodes as “going under the ice,” and I knew right away that I’d found a precise, strangely beautiful way to describe what I was going through.

From countless movie images in my memory I could imagine a bright, pretty place from which I was separated by a rigid, gauzy layer of ice.

There are ships that can pound their way through ice on the surface and submarines can sometimes shove up from below, but thick ice is a force to be reckoned with.

The metaphor makes it easier to tell people about the hopelessness that comes with depression; those of us under the ice know we’d like to see daylight but can’t manage to get there.

*****

Given my desperate actions on Friday, October 26, I’m hardly in a position to tell anybody what to do with their lives except for one mitigating factor: I’m still here.

I‘m still here because I failed at perhaps the only life-and-death task I ever attempted.

And even as someone who is generally very, very hard on himself, I’m giving myself a break this time.

  • I knew before that bleak October day that people care about me.
  • I knew before I wrote my good-bye notes that my family and friends would miss me.
  • I knew before I took all those pills that my actions would result in unimaginable pain, grief, guilt, anger, and yes, even paperwork for the man I’ve loved for almost 20 years.
  • I knew before I became a statistic -– someone in the United States attempts suicide every thirty seconds -– that what I was doing would not make me feel better. After all, there would be no more “me” to feel anything.

Yet in depression, what we know doesn’t always win out. As much as we might think logically, what we feel is often a far more powerful force, and I’m here to tell you –- I’m literally here to tell you -– that it’s a good idea to plan ahead for the moments, the days, the episodes when the clouds of gloom blow in.

First, it has helped me to understand that I’m not alone. In the U.S., approximately 10% of adults are affected by some form of depression.

About 15% will suffer from clinical depression during their lifetime. Tens of millions of people experience something beyond what we know as “the blues.”

I’ve been at just about every spot on the scale, from thinking, “Hmmm, maybe suicide’s an option,” to writing in notes, “I love you, good-bye and I’m sorry.”

To give myself a little credit, I managed for over thirty years to find ways past the gloom, and though I’m busy, busy, busy right now learning new coping tools and polishing old ones, it’s essential for me to remind myself over and over that I am able to endure, to persevere, to work on getting better, to prevail over my condition.

Whatever you want to call the process, the point is that if we have thoughts of suicide even once and don’t go through with it, then that means we’re capable of not going through with it.

A big part of my coping in the future will be to remind myself that I’ve coped before.

I’m learning that it’s OK to tell the people who care about me, “I’m feeling down.” If sadness doesn’t go away or it turns into hopelessness, it’s OK to ask for help.

I’ve learned about something called a “Safety Plan” — a written list of instructions that I prepare for myself, based on my own triggers and my customary responses to those triggers, a safety plan can be a powerful tool for staying safe.

It’s a collection, all in one place, of alternative behaviors and the names and numbers of people I can call when I need to.

Maybe you don’t have any of the history or behaviors that put you at high risk for suicide. That’s encouraging. But templates for Safety Plans are easy to find and they’re worth a look.

The way I see it, if pilots use written pre-flight checklists, what’s wrong with doing the same thing for myself if things get rough?

I’ve learned about the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-TALK (8255) – where the people who answer the phone just want to help folks get past moments of hopelessness. I called them today and had a chat. They’re a great resource. They save lives.

I don’t have all the answers but I have begun to learn about myself and frame my problem. It’s a start.

About the Author

author image

Clay Russell is a writer, raconteur, news junkie, world traveler and husband. He prides himself on his non-linear life path. He has been a professional chef, shoe salesman and private investigator, and he spent seven years deep in California state government. Clay lives with his husband and two cats in rural Mississippi, where he gardens and swats mosquitoes.

Read more from Clay Russell

Sign Up for MariaShriver.com's Weekly Must-Read

More Posts from Architects of Change