I was walking through downtown Seattle yesterday when I got a text alert saying Robin Williams had died, and authorities suspected suicide. I remember the day I attempted suicide like it was yesterday. It was actually Election Day 2000 (there are a lot of really dark jokes I could make about the date I chose, but I will refrain). My day at school was like any other -- but there was a layer of fog around me that I just couldn't quite shake. My mom and I had just moved back to Washington state from Texas, and despite the fact that she made every effort to get me back into the same friend group I'd had when we lived here previously, I missed my Texas friends desperately, and everything about my current life seemed wrong.
I went into the living room, turned on the news to watch the early returns, and then made myself a bag of microwaveable popcorn. I sat eating it, feeling totally and completely overwhelmed by life. People who don't quite understand depression will describe it as being "really sad," but beyond sadness, there's the feeling of a total absence of hope, of complete despair. I felt like I was slowly being suffocated from the inside, like all the light around me had been gradually snuffed out until I was left entirely alone. The depression was so deep and all-consuming that I was ashamed -- how could I feel this way and how could I expect someone to help me? And why would anyone want to?
I cried for a while, and then, when there were no tears left to cry, I took a half a bottle of Tylenol PM and lay down in my bed. People will often say that those who commit suicide are selfish -- that they do something that will hurt the people around them who love them in unbelievable ways. And I understand that, truly I do. But as someone who has survived major depression, I can tell you that I felt like I was helping my family and friends by removing myself from their lists of things to worry about. The logic you apply to your day-to-day life simply doesn't match up with someone who is clinically depressed or suffering from major depression.
Half a bottle of Tylenol PM is far from a lethal dose, something I overheard later that night as I lay strapped to a gurney in a hospital room that was as close to a jail cell as I hope to ever get, the taste of charcoal lingering in my mouth -- used to treat patients for poison consumption -- and was a cry for help. I was diagnosed with clinical depression, and started outpatient therapy and medication and began the long road toward recovery.
According to a 2012 study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health, "an estimated 16 million adults aged 18 or older in the U.S. had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. This represented 6.9 percent of all U.S. adults." Millions of Americans suffer from major depression, and still, our culture places a huge stigma on mental health issues. But the more we deny that these issues are very real, the harder it is for people you know and love to come to you and ask for help when they need it most.
I won't pretend that my road to semi-functioning, 30-year-old adult was easy. My default setting when confronted with a stressful situation is to go on radio silence to everyone around me until I feel like I've got a good grasp of the situation at hand. What I've learned is that sometimes, actually, frequently, it's okay to ask for help. Life is long and can be almost unbearably tough at points, and it would be a terrifying journey to make alone. So I've learned to ask for help when I need it, to pick up on the triggers that can send me down a dark path, and I've learned to make a plan that involves staying healthy.
And if you're reading this and battling your own demons, please know that whether you're a Hollywood legend or a high school junior, there's help for you. With the care and support of a mental health care professional, and in some cases, prescription medication, you can learn to cope deal with and even flourish in the face of major depression. It can seem hopeless and pointless to continue on with life, but it never is. No matter how dark and hopeless the world around you might seem, there are people who care about and love you, and want nothing more than to help you find your own light. If you don't feel comfortable reaching out to family or friends, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.