Mental Health? More Like Mental Hell

Mental Health? More Like Mental Hell

I sit here and stare at the screen, convinced I don’t have the right words to describe my mom. Amazing? No, too generic… Supportive doesn’t quite give her justice… my mom has always been my best friend; she’s the type of person you can go to with anything – just to bullshit, to talk about your feelings, to tell her about the really great buy you got at Target, or just to lay your head on her lap while she brushes your hair (or maybe the last one is reserved for family only… give it a try).

You know when you’re growing up and your parents would say something in front of your friends to make you cringe or make your cheeks flush red with embarrassment?

“Honey, don’t forget, I put a stick of deodorant in your bag in case you start sweating too much like you have been!”

Well, that was never the case for me – my mom has always been the cool mom… and not cool like Amy Poehler’s character filming Jingle Bell Rock… actually cool. I never felt nervous about bringing my friends over because I knew my mom would be able to carry out a conversation without being too overbearing. She always made us kids feel special on our birthdays, putting up streamers, balloons, banners, ready with a card, a cake, presents, and love. While she doesn’t drive down to my house and put up streamers for me now, she’s still the most thoughtful – remembering everything you say you like or something you might need… I remember last Thanksgiving, I didn’t have a pie cutter – she made sure I had one within days.

I don’t want to make this out to say thoughtful = buying things, but to display her desire to make us all happy, in any way she can, whether that be through phone calls, grabbing lunch, watching a football game, or getting a pie cutter. Honestly, growing up, if I was interviewed by a social worker and they asked me what her worst quality was, I’d have to say ‘she supports me too much.’ I could’ve been performing sub-par moves at a grimy strip club and she would’ve been there cheering me on, “you’re doing great, sweetie; don’t forget to point your toes!” Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with stripping if that’s what someone’s called to do (shout out Cardi B), but you get the idea.

This is all to say, my mother hid her depression very well; while I knew when things weren’t on steady terrain, she still put our needs first, second, third, and fourth. So, please, give her your attention now, because this is not an easy story to share with the world. I love you past the moon and stars, mom, even when the skies are pink.

I am writing about my journey now, for the first time, as I’ve been inspired by my daughter and her friends that have been brave enough to share their stories.  

One of my therapists once asked me, “when was the last time you felt joy?”  I was truly perplexed by this question and remember asking what he meant; I was about 40 years old… yes, 40 years old.  Joy is described in the dictionary as ‘the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune, or by the prospect of possessing what one desires: delight.’

My first suicide attempt was around age 10; I don’t remember the ‘why’ behind it, but I do remember the overwhelming feeling that I didn’t want to keep trying so hard to be like everyone else.  I remember the flood of failure I felt wash over me as I released my grasp from the pillow’s edges; yes, I had attempted to end everything by suffocating myself with a pillow. I grew up with an alcoholic father who was quick to anger and never hesitated to pull out his belt; he left us the same year I first tried to take my life. I would later learn my father also suffered from depression and had several suicide attempts himself. I don’t know if his leaving contributed to how my brain was wired for mental illness, but I can say it certainly did not help.

I recall another one of my psychiatrists asking how often I thought about suicide and answering “every day;” when he told me that wasn’t normal – that people didn’t have regular thoughts of suicide, I truly believed he was lying or that his information was flawed.  These thoughts were with me all the time and I had actually come to think of them with some comfort, as it was like always sitting next to an emergency exit.  

I had friends that would listen and family that would be by my side if I asked, but again, people that don’t have the same affliction just aren’t equipped to understand; empathy truly can only stretch so far. 

I search for the right words to truly describe the pain, not only for myself but for everyone, because people naturally think suicide is a selfish act.  If someone was buried alive with thick roots coiling around their fragile limbs as the darkness took over, would the answer be ‘hang in there – it’s not as bad as you think’?  No, because you’d be able to see how bad it was. That’s why it’s so easy, as a collective, to empathize with someone that broke a leg; your eyeballs witness the damage. I would sometimes wish I had cancer so people could see and stop saying things like ‘snap out of it’ or ‘what do you have to be depressed about?’  That’s not how mental health works – it doesn’t just overtake those that have a reason to be depressed.   

I am forever grateful for my husband stepping in, for not allowing me to give up. One might think it’s a husband’s job to be there for his wife – that’s the saying, right?  In sickness and in health. But this sickness is not something anyone is equipped to handle; it was an all consuming black hole of hopelessness.  I cannot imagine the pain he felt, finding his wife locked in a hotel room overdosed, unconscious, not being able to wake her.

The shame that weighed on me for causing so much pain to my loved ones pushed me to consume every self help book I could find, and while they didn’t fix me, I did come across one that started to make sense; it’s called How I Stayed Alive When My Brain Was Trying To Kill Me: One Person’s Guide to Suicide Prevention, by Susan Rose Blauner.  In addition to the conventional self help reading material, I spent a significant amount of time in therapy, making my way through medication after medication, which often only made things worse. Every day got harder and I knew my depression was continuing to break my family.

My doctor finally suggested something called ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) which has had a bad rap since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  One might be terrified by the idea of having electrodes strapped to their head, essentially electrocuting their brain, but the success rate was (and remains) between 75%-83%; I was also in the depths of despair, so I truly had nothing to lose by trying just one more thing.  To my shock (literally), I started to appreciate waking up in the morning, with the ability, no, the pleasure of participating in everyday activities. I was laughing again; I wasn’t just getting through the day, I was enjoying my time around people, strengthening both my professional and personal relationships.  Each day got better, until one day, probably about a year later, I realized those crippling thoughts were almost non-existent.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to say, since that fateful day in therapy, I have felt pure joy, just by feeling the sun on my skin, the wind in my hair, and becoming a grandma. 

I am now 54 years old; my last suicide attempt was roughly seven years ago, and while I don’t sit in constant worry about those paralyzing thoughts, I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a layer of fear sitting inside me, reminding me of the potential to re-emerge. I think these are similar to a cancer survivor in remission, fearing that the cancer will return.

I am sad to say though, I’ve passed down depression to my son.  The guilt I feel as I have watched him suffer is infinitely worse than going through it myself, but that’s his story to share.

I will close with an understanding that overused statements of support don’t help, however, my greatest hope in sharing would be for others not to feel so alone, in whatever they’re battling.  And, to help lift the stigma from mental health, because some days are better than others, and some people are better at hiding it, so be understanding, be supportive, be open, and be loving.  

Thank you for sharing, my beautifully, courageous mom. We’re all hanging balloons and streamers for you now.

Devon Herrera

Committed To Curiosity

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