Trigger Warning: Strong emotional content and suicide method referenced. If you are in crisis, text “help” to 741-741 or call 988
by Dave Snell
About five years ago I read a speech Wil Wheaton gave concerning his dealings with Chronic Depression and Generalized Anxiety. More importantly, it was about how he is not ashamed of admitting that he lives with those diagnoses. What troubled me though was he only focused on a couple of particular types of mental illness. Like cancer, there are many types of mental illness, but we seem to focus on a few of them. I have had a number of experiences with depression and anxiety and have thankfully been able to pull through, with some costs associated. While shame associated with mental illness is thankfully on the downslide, it still pervades across all levels of society.
I will begin as Wil Wheaton did – I am not a professional…
I am only explaining my experiences and perspectives with respect to mental illness. If there’s a reason for you or a friend/family member to worry they may be living with mental illness, please seek professional help. There are no easy answers to mental illness, suicidal thoughts, suicide aftermaths, etc. But, there are professionals who are able to help us walk through them and come out stronger on the other side of the problems.
I have lived with mental illness now really for the last 5 years; I existed for 30-plus years before that. Wil does point out the difference and it is a very important one. Existing with mental illness is to live without accepting or admitting the fact that our lives have been taken over by the very illness and feel able to open up about their problem(s). Living with mental illness allows the person who has it to identify those situations where the illness is attempting to take control, pushing it back, and choosing to live life as best you can – not letting the fear overtake the enjoyment of opportunities, or even knowing when it is time to reach out for help (personal or professional). It also means accepting a treatment plan to minimize the effects of the mental illness on one’s life, what to do with those times the treatment plan couldn’t foresee, and getting to a professional for help soonest. Not all treatment plans are going to include medications, but there are a host of other actions one can take to help control the negative effects of mental illness on themselves and their loved ones.
I recognized my issues with mental illness very early, but I chose to ignore them
Because of a family history, I was ashamed. It has cost me many an opportunity and many a friend because I could not draw a line and say – “I need to address the problem at hand.” At least I couldn’t do it completely.
You see I acknowledged I had an issue with depression after being in the Navy for about 7 years. We had just pulled into Pusan, Korea after what was a tough underway for me. I happened to have duty upon arrival and was required to carry a 9mm pistol. After sitting in my stateroom staring at the walls, shaking, wringing my hands, and holding my face in my hands sobbing, I found myself holding my sidearm in hand, ready to pull the trigger. I have mixed memories of where the gun was at the time I stopped myself – in my lap, to my head, cocked, or safety off. The point is, I was at a point where ending my life was the only way I saw of recovering from the situation.
I slowly put the gun back in its holster and called the chief corpsman asking him to meet me on the ship’s quarterdeck. It was there I very distinctly recall leaning against the railing as he walked up, standing as tall as my defeated self could, taking off the belt and saying “I can’t do it anymore; I almost shot myself just now”, or something to that effect. The tears were flowing hard and I really couldn’t see the look on his face, but he had known I was low so I think he may have seen it coming. The Chief got me medical evacuation orders back to Yokosuka, Japan, and back to my wife and on the road to some level of recovery.
I had taken some measure of effort toward recognizing my illness. But, the shame didn’t go away. I went into outpatient therapy and a shore-duty command to recover. I still had issues and I was not forthcoming with the facts of what led to my leaving the ship with my wife or my therapist. Long story short, I did find myself several months later again at a precipice of “What do I do?” and ultimately, I did make an attempt to end my life – though they called it a ‘gesture’ at the time. Now I was a ‘two-time’ loser in my mind and it was very, very hard to face some of my close shipmates and friends.
I was able to put the depression and suicide attempts behind me (to an extent) and ultimately deploy to Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines, and again to Afghanistan – mostly with our top-tier special operations forces. I was able to thrive in high-pressure, high-operations tempo environments with little or no issues. I still had some negative events, but I recognized them and withdrew myself from the “triggers”. I am not going to say I was ‘perfect’, but I was able to keep myself from allowing depression to overtake the successes I was having in such an environment.
I am here writing this as someone who has gone through two more depressive episodes just in the first four years since I retired from the Navy, now coming up on eight years since retirement. The last four years have been different because I have made the needed changes in my life to move on to living with depression and anxiety instead of existing.
In my first four years of retirement, I dealt with suicidal thoughts or ideations (with no real intent) and a general desire to do NOTHING beyond routine.
I had no drive, I was not working regularly, and I did not want to engage with my family. I began to feel worthless, hopeless, and not a good provider for my family. By all measures I had been a successful naval officer; I was a husband and a father (to a wife and children who had to deal with my unexplained seclusions, moodiness, and outbursts many times); and I was a recognized ‘expert’ in my field. I felt NOTHING but shame and failure regardless. I felt I had hurt my relationships to the point of no return. But, ultimately, through appropriate treatment, and yes medicines, I have been able to accept the facts as they are – I live with mental illness.
Over the years I have lost some shipmates and friends to suicide. I have talked a few ‘off the ledge’ (so to speak), a few who were closer to death than I ever was. I have watched friends, shipmates, and families say “I wish they would have reached out to me”, “They knew I was always available”, or “I didn’t see any indication that anything like this was going to happen”. These are all very well-meaning words, but they miss the point of what it is to live with mental illness. When you have a mental illness that includes deep depressive moods, the last thing you want to do is reach out to someone and say “I have a problem”. I don’t fault them for saying what they did. Society doesn’t really want us to talk about mental illness; and therefore, we naturally forget it could be a reason someone has withdrawn from social engagements or their work has begun to suffer.
There have been many events in my life I have missed out on because I wanted to hide away instead of facing the problem in front of me. I have missed friends’ weddings because I didn’t want to explain why my career took a detour for so long or put on a ‘brave’ face because they wanted me there. I have missed parties, trips, and other events because I just wanted to be alone. A person with depression in particular will seek out isolation over gatherings to not be a burden or bring someone else down from their exciting adventures.
“Through appropriate treatment, and yes medicines, I have been able to accept the facts as they are – I live with mental illness.” – David Snell
Mental illness, and really mental health as a whole, comes in many different colors and many of them are mixed
I don’t like to start separating out bipolar, depression, or anxiety diagnoses because these are ever-changing and are a bit arbitrary in one’s definition of what each of those are. One doctor may say I am bipolar, but another may say no, I am depressive while dealing with post-traumatic stress. It’s the ambiguity in the definitions that makes diagnosis so difficult. To me, it is much like cancer. I am in NO way trying to say cancer and mental illness are similar diseases. But cancer comes in many forms, so does mental illness.
There are many approaches to eliminating cancer in a patient; similarly, there is no one means of assessing and controlling a person’s mental illness. We do not look at cancer patients and say they are weak or broken because of the disease. So why do we do so with mental illness? In both it may be difficult to talk about, seeing a person wearing a bandana to cover baldness or to understand what it must have been like to want to kill yourself. But, it needs to be spoken about.
The real solution to the problem is to make it easier for people to open up about these problems without retribution at work, hiring processes, or generally getting on with their lives. The sooner a person is able to accept they are living with a mental illness, the sooner they will be able to address the problem at its root and live very functional, happy, and successful lives.
In my case, again, I have lost some friends because I couldn’t deal with my mental illness and it was too much for some – either I said rude things unconsciously/defensively, I withdrew and they thought I wasn’t interested anymore, or they just decided to go a different path from the one I had chosen. I have also had some very great friendships. I may not see them or chat with them often, but they are family to me and I can open up to them about things. And I know I can reach out to them if I am ever again in dire straits and need someone to just listen to the problem.
I am not going to use this opportunity to push a political agenda
Yes, the government can do more to fund mental health programs. Yes, the government can provide opportunities and laws that protect folks who live with mental health issues. But, ultimately, we will not be able to truly get to the root of the problem without people being comfortable talking about what is happening to them. An environment where mental illness is not seen as ‘taboo’ or ‘a sign of weakness’ will help people currently existing, to move on to living with the illness. Yes, more mental health facilities will be important, but not until that taboo has been lessened allowing mental health patients to come forth and accept the problem needs treatment.
To those existing with mental illness of any kind, I say wear your scars with pride, don’t be afraid to seek out help, or even just take a deep breath while closing your eyes and removing yourself from whatever environment it is that has brought you to the point of despair. I have learned that diet & regular exercise, regular therapy sessions when needed, and meditation when they are not, aligned with a solid, focused meaning are the greatest breakers of the cycle of depression. Through regular running/gym sessions, a lengthy time with a therapist, meditation for those times when I am not seeing a therapist, and knowing why I am doing it all, I’ve been able to move on from my diagnosis and limit the impact of triggers on my day-to-day life.
Like Wil Wheaton, I spent 30-some years of my life trapped – sometimes not knowing how to bring myself out of a deep crevice of sorrow, pain, or despair (real or self-imposed); and sometimes not even knowing it was why I acted as I did. Like Wil Wheaton, if I see someone reaching out for help, in any medium, I will be the first to lend a hand. You will find me reposting memes on Facebook to get people to reach out. You will find me championing for people to get the appropriate help they need – not a jaded diagnosis from someone who just doesn’t understand what’s happening with a person.
Thankfully today there are more and more opportunities for those just existing to express themselves and successfully recover. Mental illness is not going to be solved. It will always exist. However, the way we approach the disease and its effects on our lives can be changed to allow more people to get the help they may desperately need. It starts with a person being able to say, ‘I am NOT Mental Illness Ashamed. I will NOT be MIA.’