I’ve Been Thinking … I Was Once Suicidal. Now I Live in Bliss. Here’s What Helped Me.
Last week, the suicides of celebrities Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain shocked the world. Many people wondered publicly, how could people with unimaginable success, good looks, admiration, and incredible wealth feel unhappy enough to end their lives. But silently, a lot of us already understood, because we’ve experienced the darkness too.
No one is immune to despair, and millions of people in the world are currently experiencing severe anxiety and depression, too often with thoughts that the world would be better off without them. Unfortunately, due to the stigma surrounding mental illness, a lot of them hide their pain and feel ashamed. After all, it’s acceptable to speak of a cancer diagnosis or treatment, but it remains taboo to discuss someone’s psychological well-being, therapy, or meds publicly. Because of this, it’s important to remember that there is no shame in mental illness. The only shame is that we can’t be more open, honest, and compassionate about it.
The shame of suffering from anxiety and depression is only one of the numerous, complex factors that contribute to the epidemic of suicide in our society today. And make no mistake, it is an epidemic and suicide in the U.S. is a public health crisis. A recent New York Times article highlights some disturbing statistics. In 2016, around 45,000 people in America took their lives. More followed in 2017, and the numbers this year are predicted to rise. Since 1999, United States suicide rates have climbed more than 25 percent.
If these numbers are alarming, they should be. But if there is any bright side to this, it is that if you are suffering from anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide, you are not alone. Lots of people are going through the same thing More important, there is so much hope. The despair you’re experiencing can be overcome. It doesn’t have to last forever, define who you are, or end in tragedy. Like me, you too can create a happy ending and lead a fulfilling life if you are one of the millions of people with mental illness.
As someone who was once suicidal, unable to move from her bed, or to care for her child, and as someone who had to be hospitalized for depression, I know firsthand how paralyzing and all-consuming it can be, but I am here to tell you that this will pass. You can get better. Since I know how hard and painful this is, I made it my life’s mission to share what helped me on my journey to healing.
A very wise person once told me that while your wound is not your fault, that healing it is still your responsibility.
No one is to blame for their mental illness. If we could flip a switch and just “be happy” or “calm down” obviously everyone would, but it’s not that easy. Still, we cannot write ourselves off as hopeless, and we can’t expect others to do all the work of helping us. Ultimately, we can only help ourselves. Yet when we’re feeling completely depleted and destroyed from anxiety and depression, how do we free ourselves from the cycle of shame, inertia, and pain that keeps us trapped and unable to change?
Start small. Really, really small. Decide to get better and identify your reason why. Find your inspiration. For me, my daughter was my biggest motivation. I wanted to get better so that I could be the healthy, happy mother that she deserved. For a friend of mine, her reason was as simple as that she didn’t want to live like this anymore. It wasn’t fun, and she wanted to see what it was like to actually enjoy her life.
When you are severely depressed or possibly suicidal, it feels like being stuck at the bottom of a pitch black well. You find your way out by searching for tiny glimpses of light in the darkness. Follow that light until it gradually glows brighter and longer, and use that light as a guide to climb your way out of the well and back into life again.
What this means is that you look for teeny rays of hope. Find any speck of positivity you can and grab onto it for dear life. Keep looking for that light a little bit more every day. It can be anything — your pet, something funny on TV, a text from a friend, an alpaca video on the Internet, a bird outside your bedroom window. Nothing is too small. These little things will keep you going, and slowly, surely you’ll begin retraining your brain to see and identify joy again. The first day you may only find a couple seconds of hope. The next day it might be a minute. Eventually, it will be longer and longer. Have patience and trust the process.
Expect your journey to be slow at times. Again, those baby steps are the most important. You must try to do as many small things as you can to increase the happy hormones in your brain. We all know that nature and exercise are essential to our well-being, but when you’re on the brink, it might not be possible to take a hike or go to a yoga class just yet. I was once so ill that I couldn’t go outside to walk the dogs without a Xanax.
If you can’t muster enough energy to go outside right now, then go to your front door, open it and look out. Maybe the next day sit on your front step and listen to the birds. The next week, walk to the end of the driveway. You get the idea. Each day build on the previous day’s progress a bit more. Healing is never sudden and dramatic. It takes time, and there is never one cure. What makes us well are small actions that add up over time, with consistency.
Journaling always helps to get me through dark times. Scribble down your thoughts and feelings, make lists, let it be messy. No one has to see it. Pour out your heart and soul without judgment. When you’re ready, make a gratitude list. Think hard, and find every single thing in your life that you can be grateful for and include it. Start with the fact that you are alive. I know that when you’re overwrought with sorrow and fear that it can seem nearly impossible to come up with something to be grateful for, but it’s possible. Once again, think small.
I once read a study that said that people are at their happiest when they’re planning something. This is because they are creating something to look forward to. In your journal, make a big long list of what you want. Describe and imagine the life you want in detail and enjoy creating that future for yourself.
Do little things for yourself each day. Listen to guided meditations on your phone. You can do this any time of day — when you wake up, before bed, or any time you can take a couple of minutes to give yourself a time-out from your thoughts and emotions, and reset. There are many guided meditations available for free online that can be magically transforming. Lots of people enjoy the meditations on the Headspace and Insight Timer apps, and it’s fun to explore the different styles and teachers.
Music has always been very healing for me. Listening to your favorite music and singing along to it actually releases endorphins, or feel-good hormones, in your body. An article in TIME explains that scientists found that “singing is like an infusion of the perfect tranquilizer, the kind that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirits.” They discovered that music and singing has the same effects on your body as meditation! When I was severely depressed I used to blast Bruce Springsteen in the car, and I felt that was better than the actual therapy session sometimes. Sing your heart out and reserve all judgment. You’re by yourself singing for pleasure, not auditioning for The Voice.
One of the things that surprisingly helped me the most was committing to random acts of kindness. This may sound impossible. You might argue “how can I help someone else if I can’t help myself?” But remember, there is no act of kindness that is too small.
You may not have the energy to run out and serve at a soup kitchen, and that’s fine, but you could choose a day and give everyone you encounter, even if it’s online or by phone, a compliment. Compliments are free and effortless and they bring so much joy to the world. Tell people what you love and admire about them. Let them know you care about them. Remark about how good they look, or let them know their shirt is a nice color. It doesn’t take much to brighten someone else’s day, and in turn, you will brighten your own. As you feel more and more like yourself, you can gradually work up to other good deeds.
Many years ago I learned a wonderful technique from Deepak Chopra who writes that he gives everyone he meets a small gift. This isn’t necessarily a material gift. That wouldn’t be practical. Instead, he gives them “a compliment, a flower, or a prayer.” You can even offer everyone you come across a silent prayer of well-being as a gift. This small act of mindfulness and spreading joy can create a dramatic energy shift within your life.
When I was at my lowest, I tried a lot of things to get better, and there was no one miracle cure. Instead, it was an accumulation of tiny acts that would have seemed almost insignificant on their own, that helped me follow the light out of the well. Cling to hope, know that you matter and that the world needs you, and remember that a healthy, happy, fulfilled life is possible for everyone.
Pam Butler is the author of Return to Life, a certified Chopra Primordial Sound Meditation instructor, a certified Hot Fusion™ Flow yoga teacher, a Creative Insight Journey transformational coach, and a bliss coach who provides workshops, classes, and one-on-one instruction to individuals, groups, and businesses throughout the South Florida community. Pam’s unique combination of body movement and mind practices come from a place of deep experience. Grounded in mindfulness, her students safely explore ways to examine their individual responses to stress and learn specific techniques to shift into a state of balance and well-being. Visit: www.returntolife.com for more information.