Suicide… It’s Not About Dying !

Tonight we learned  that Robin Williams is dead, and the consistent information is that he took his own life.  Social media being what it is, there are many comments.  Most are of shock and acknowledging the incredible talent and genius of a brilliant actor and comedian; another  who is gone too soon.  There are some  comments that are just rude and clueless.  But there are also those who just don’t understand how someone could get to the point of feeling that it was just time to give up on life, that it was too painful.  That there is no hope in sight, and that the people closest to him/her would be better if he/she was just gone… Thank God most people don’t understand what it’s like to be so far down in a pit of ‘no hope’ that suicide makes sense.

Suicide isn’t as much about dying as it is about wanting the pain to stop.  The cause of the pain isn’t really that important, though addiction is often a component.  Alcohol, drugs, eating disorders, gambling, etc. are ALL ways to numb some sort of emotional pain.  I worked as an RN in drug/alcohol rehab and adolescent psych for years, and nobody ever listed death as the main reason they considered suicide.   I had a good friend (also a co-worker) who was so solid in his sobriety and recovery  when I knew him.  He became a well-known therapist in the city where we worked.  Recently, I found out that he killed himself a few years back , while  I  was searching for him online, hoping to reconnect.  He had great local resources about where to get help (including where he could get away from town for treatment).  He knew the warnings… and yet, he relapsed into drugs, and overdosed in an amount that was said to be inconsistent with an accident.   I was able to find a close friend of his who could help me fill in the blanks, enough to know that something happened to take him into that dark hole of depression and relapse. Those are never good together.

With Robin Williams, he had resources and had recently gone back to treatment for a ‘tune up’ of sorts, knowing that he was feeling a need to protect his sobriety, not that he’d relapsed  (common knowledge).  He was getting help.  None of us know what his pain was from.  We look at the professional aspect of the man and can’t make sense of what could have been so bad in his life that he decided to give up.  But even if we knew the ‘reasons’, for most, the decision to end one’s own life will never make sense.

In 1982, I was battling an eating disorder, and got to the point of feeling very overwhelmed and unable to see that things were going to get better.  I don’t remember wanting to die.  I overdosed and was in a coma for 3 days.   I was lucky to have survived, and was able to get past those feelings of just wanting to go to sleep so I didn’t hurt (in my situation, nutritional ‘rehab’ was a huge part of clearing up my thinking).  I remember taking the sleeping pills, but don’t remember ‘death’ being my goal.  I don’t remember taking the 50 antidepressants.  I don’t remember the ambulance trip, or anything else until  I woke up in ICU three days later.  At other times, always when dealing with eating disorders, I would find myself in a mindset that didn’t see an end to the overwhelming hopelessness I felt.  I would feel myself on the edge, and yet I didn’t ever want to die.  I just didn’t want to feel so much pain.  It’s an incredibly dark place to be… and there’s a feeling of loneliness that has no words to adequately describe it.  Even with people in my life, they didn’t understand what was going on in my head, and the surrounding circumstances made things more isolating.

For those that don’t understand, please be thankful that you have no frame of reference for that kind of despair.  Please look around and see if there is someone who might need a quick phone call or note to say that they matter, and to just check in to see if they’re OK.  If someone you know has changed and either seems really down, OR suddenly ‘up’ after a period of severe depression, see if they’re really OK.  When someone makes the decision to give up, sometimes they are so relieved at making the decision, that their mood improves.  That type of ‘improved’ mood (sudden) is an alarming sign.  Gradual improvement is more likely due to good treatment ( medication for the biochemical issues, and/or psychotherapy to resolve emotional pain).  Don’t be afraid to ask direct questions.   When someone approaches from concern, it’s unlikely that it will make a situation worse.

Clinical depression isn’t sadness.  It’s not about ‘reactive’ grief that many people will feel during their life when they lose a friend or family member to death, or the loss of a job, pet, or if someone moves away who had been a part of daily life.  Clinical depression is often a biochemical disruption to normal thinking and feelings.  Hopelessness and helplessness become so pervasive that the ‘normal’ way of seeing solutions to problems just doesn’t work.  While suicide is a permanent solution to temporary despair, it doesn’t feel that way to someone who finds it  worth considering.  It doesn’t feel temporary.  It’s kind of like being too far underwater after falling off of a boat, and wondering if getting to the surface is ever going to happen… like there’s no air left in life, and no ability to feel that the surface could be reached with just a couple of kicks to reach the air that restores hope. Even if getting back on the boat is a ways off, at least there would be air.  It’s like treading water UNDER water, and never getting closer to the surface.  It’s hard to withstand that type of hopelessness and helplessness for a long time, and each person has their own threshold for how long they can hold on.

People can’t snap out of it.  They can’t just go pop in a funny movie and everything is OK.  It’s a disease, that needs treatment, and  support of friends and family that understand that the person is doing the best that they can.  And when the ones who are depressed are finding themselves going further from their normal way of looking at life, they need someone who can help them hang on…

But sometimes, it just isn’t enough.   And those left to make sense of the loss  will never have a good reason to satisfy the ‘why’ questions that inevitably come up.  It definitely isn’t fair to those left behind.  And while it’s something they have to live with for the rest of their lives, it really wasn’t about them.  Sometimes, there is nothing that will redirect a tragedy.  But nothing can take away the good memories the person leaves behind… always remember the good.

Intervention and Treatment Memories

I gained a lot of weight during the time I was on chemo for leukemia.  It’s been very hard to get rid of it, as I’m also perimenopausal, and limited physically as far as what activity I can safely do.  Add a history of eating disorders, and the idea of losing weight is actually rather frightening at times.  I guess in some ways that’s good, since I don’t take for granted how bad things got the last time I relapsed in 1995-1996.  It took years to put my life back together so I could eat normally, and longer than that before I could accept my body without being disgusted by it.  My oncologist told me just to be thankful I’m alive (which I am), and don’t focus so much on the weight.   Easier said than done.

The last time I started to relapse coincided with being diagnosed as diabetic, and suddenly having to account for everything that passed by my lips. I lost about 50 pounds over several months prior to, and after being diagnosed (not noticeably abnormal ), and was holding my own without any eating disorder behaviors (purging- laxatives were my vice, restricting, excessive exercise, etc).  I ended up with pneumonia later that year (November 1995), and lost quite a bit of weight in a few days, and the sensation of being ’empty’ and seeing the scale numbers drop was enough to trigger the old eating disorder stuff that started when I was in my late teens and twenties (early 80s).  I’d been free of the anorexic end of things for many, many years.  It didn’t take long for being around food to cause anxiety, and for numbers on the scale, calorie books, and blood sugar meters to drive my entire life.  I lost another 50 pounds in about three months.  Other people noticed.

I worked at a drug and alcohol treatment center as a detox RN (and weekend charge nurse of sorts- if anything was wacky on campus, I had the last word if it was OK or not, though with serious stuff, I had plenty of folks to call for feedback and input) , so my coworkers were very aware of what addictive behavior looked like.  And denial.  And refusal to listen to rational feedback.  I coasted for a bit, but by the time a formal intervention was done, I was in bad shape.  Eating anything was excruciating.  Every night, I was asking God to just let me wake up in the morning.  And I literally crawled up the stairs to and inside my apartment.  Chunks of skin fell off of my heels.  Things weren’t good.

The day of the intervention was on the day after having worked a double shift.  I got off at 7 a.m. and went to rest for a while in one of the cabins my coworker had (she lived a few counties away and stayed on campus when she worked- we worked weekends and Mondays) while she went to do some discharge summaries, which I planned to do as well once I got some rest.  She came and got me at around noon, and asked me to come with her to get something to drink, and also drop off something in the Operations Director’s office.

I never saw it coming.  Inside the Operations Director’s office were my boss, her husband (who also worked there with the clinical staff), the medical director, day charge nurse, and several other people, including clinical staff who I worked with as well. There were 8-10 people there.  When I saw them all in the office, I knew what was going on.  I was terrified, but also wanted to stop fighting the wars in my head over something as ‘stupid’ as food.  It’s never about food, but that was what was going on mentally.  I was told of the plan to take me directly to my apartment to pack (supervised), then driven to the San Antonio International Airport to be put on a plane.  Someone would take care of my dog (that’s a whole different story), and my car could stay on campus where it could be monitored.  I’d fly to Houston, where an outreach employee would meet me, and be sure I got on the flight to Los Angeles.  That was the only way I’d be allowed to come back to work. What I hadn’t told them was that my primary doc had told me that I probably wouldn’t last a month, tops, if I continued as I was.  Their timing was perfect.  I wouldn’t have been ready before then.

So, off to Los Angeles I went.  Scared to death… I knew they made people EAT in eating disorder treatment.   But, I figured the sooner I got with the program, the sooner I’d get out of there.  So, in a feeble way, I’d begun to surrender on the plane.  By the time I got there, I was so exhausted from the double shift, then the intervention, traveling, etc, that the guy who picked me up thought I’d OD’d on something that made me semi-coherent.   I was just flat-out tired, and told him I was there for not eating (I never looked like I was starving as much as I was- curds of cottage cheese were something I worried about).  I was also exhausted from the battle fatigue from what had been going on in my head for months.  I’d been ‘confronted’ a couple of weeks earlier by a former coworker from another place I worked, about my weight (she was dropping off her child for treatment), and she asked if there was anything wrong with me.  I didn’t know how to answer.  It didn’t register that losing fifty pounds would be visible to anyone.  Seriously.  That jarred me a bit, but the intervention had the biggest impact.

I went to the treatment center in California (they no longer ‘do’  eating disorder treatment, thank God), and it was horrible.  The facilities were pleasant, and the food was really good (which amazed me, since I didn’t like much of anything, but all of the fresh produce ALL THE TIME was great) !  A few of the staff were decent, but eating disorder treatment it was not.  And the primary ‘assigned’ therapist I had was bad news… I was not allowed to speak about some things that seemed therapy-worthy to me. The ED patients had a table segregated from other patients in the dining room (and we were often like an exhibit in a zoo for the other patients who wanted to see if we ate), and one OA meeting a week (otherwise we went to AA).  That was the ED program. They may have been great for chemical dependency and/or dual diagnosis, but I was a generic eating disorder NOS (not otherwise specified) patient.  They didn’t get that right either.

When I first got there, I was so weak that when I went on the ‘beach walk’, I could barely make it.  Walking in the sand was exhausting, and I was having a lot of trouble even keeping a visual on the rest of the bunch who opted to do that activity.  My jeans were falling off, so they gave me a trash bag to tie two belt loops together, then trimmed the excess so it didn’t violate the safety rules about plastic bags.

The day before I was sent there, I’d packed up a detox patient to go there for more dual diagnosis issues than we generally dealt with at our facility, and then I showed up as a patient. Surprised her !   We sort of stuck like glue together, trying to make sense of the place.  Then another patient, AND person who worked where I worked showed up… They were both dumbfounded about the detox and treatment  process (so had a lot of questions), but come to find out one hadn’t told them all of the things she’d been taking. I told her she needed to fess up for her own safety.  They’d come to me (their former nurse) before talking to the staff there.  I wasn’t licensed in CA, and I was off the clock out there- but I was glad to be of some support.  We all needed each other out there.

There were a few of us ED patients, and we stuck together between groups, wondering where the ED services in the brochure were.  But, I managed to survive 36 days out there. The last 10 days, I had a virus of some sort, and wasn’t allowed to participate in any groups or meetings (but wasn’t sent home). They’d taken me to an ER, where they had me pee in a cup, and then decided I had a BLOOD virus- from a pee test…  The group would literally come to my room at the end of the session to say hello.  I could go outside and sit in the sun (or smoke), but no activities anyone else was doing. I could go to the dining room with everyone else, so it wasn’t like they were worried about me giving bugs to someone… but whatever.   I had a few roommates, some ED and one alcoholic,  (at different times) who were nice enough.  But I left there feeling totally unprepared for going home and making it OK.  I had no aftercare.  I was more scared leaving than when I got there.  But it was a great motivator to not want to ever end up in another situation like that was.

One really funny thing happened one evening, during my ‘banishment’ from groups, when I was outside  smoking.   One of the techs (fondly called the ‘clipboard jockeys’) came running around the corner asking if I’d seen the REST OF THE PATIENTS.  All of them !  😮  I told him no, and he was sure I must know something, even though I wasn’t allowed in groups. I really didn’t know. Come to find out that the rest of the patients were doing the evening community group, and after the tech checked everybody off of his clipboard, they went to another room to mess with him, and hide.  Eventually, all showed up, and the tech laughed, but I can imagine the thoughts going through his head about how he’d lost the entire lot of patients, except the puny one not allowed to go to groups.   That would have been a serious pile of incident reports and phone calls.

In the meantime I’d been told that I would NOT be allowed back to work where I’d been working at the time of the intervention until the director of nurses OK’d it (she had some serious boundary issues, and was also a neighbor of mine who had been in contact with my therapist in the treatment center- acting like some sort of information verifier.  The treatment center wouldn’t let me talk about being raped until my boss had reported to them that it had actually happened when she found the info and news clippings in my apartment when I was gone). Anyway,   I really liked that job, so that was a huge loss until I showed I was doing well enough to come back.   Eventually, I did get to go back, and stayed another couple of years until things started feeling unsafe with a huge increase in census, and no changes in detox/nursing staffing for several months.    But I’ll always be incredibly thankful that I got to work in that facility.  I learned a lot, and am a better nurse for my experiences there.  I still am in contact with several people I worked with there.

The intervention likely saved my butt, even though I had a lot of work to do ON MY OWN when I got back.  I got every professional book on EDs I could find, and did an ‘as if’ thing.   I looked at what I needed to do ‘as if’ I were carrying out orders for one of my patients.  I had to detach for a while.  Eventually, I was able to make it about me, and feel like I was doing OK. (The one OA meeting/group in town was ‘lead’ by someone who brought specific diets to show to the group- nothing 12-step about it, so I passed).  Whenever I see the show ‘Intervention’ or someone getting nailed on Dr. Phil, it brings back a lot.  Interventions are terrifying, but there was also a huge sense of relief at not having to go it alone any longer.

For those who think it might happen to them, just go with it.  Let everybody talk, and then be thankful that you don’t have to get well by yourself, and it doesn’t have to be perfect.  One step at a time, even if they’re baby steps.  A slip doesn’t have to become a relapse.  It beats being tied to an addiction that wants to kill you !  Things can get better, IF you are willing to let someone nudge you on your way (feels like an emotional sledge hammer, but in retrospect, it’s more of a send-off to the rest of your life 🙂 ).