I don’t remember the first time I wanted to die.
Probably because the idea crept up on me, gradually, over the course of a few weeks. Probably because it was the final result of convincing myself that I didn’t have the brains, the guts, or the brawn to hold a real job outside of academia. Probably because I considered death to be an exit from all the shivering nights and the paranoid, nauseous days. Probably because I didn’t want to live a half-life, and yet I felt that a half-life was all the fog-blanket of anxiety would allow.
Suddenly I wanted to die; suddenly it made so much sense.
The first time I had an anxious-depressive episode I was ten. I’d recently changed schools, I hated the new setting, and so, abruptly, I couldn’t sleep. Or at least I was so scared I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep that the fear kept me awake. I prayed, I cried, my father took me on long walks so I’d be tired. Eventually summer came and the anxiety receded.
In high school I avoided things that made me nervous. I hated shop class, avoided driving as long as possible, mostly ignored the girls who expressed interest. For a while I worried incessantly about my hair, then that my feet stank and everybody but me could smell them. On my first mission trip to Argentina I had a panic attack that I misclassified as spiritual warfare. On the basketball court, I could psyche myself into missing foul shots, layups, anything. My life was warped, just below the surface, by a buzzing, irritating fear. I mostly hid it, but only at significant cost.
Once the rigid structure of high school was removed, my failures became more obvious. In my second year of university I was sidelined, almost paralyzed by the obsessive fear that my stomach would gurgle in class, or church, or another quiet place. I’d recently developed IBS, and my academic career was almost ended by my compulsion to hide it. My whole day, my whole diet, would revolve around my class schedule, and the fear was exhausting. I procrastinated, missed readings, handicapped my production, because I couldn’t handle the possibility that my stomach would embarrass me in a quiet classroom. It consumed me, an infatuation that slowly cramped my life into a constricting shell of itself.
I almost dropped out of university, almost gave in to the undercurrent of fear that provided the background buzz to my entire life. I had no plans, no ambition, just the deep and enduring need to flee the lacerating claws of anxiety. By the summer of my second year of university my emotional spectrum had narrowed so that fear and frustration were my baselines. The rare moments when I could appreciate the peace of a summer morning or the joy of a family gathering caused me to burst into tears. I knew that I could count the number of those moments per month on one hand. Everything else was situated in the buzz of my anxious brain.
Other people began to graduate, get jobs, get married. I couldn’t even imagine working 9-to-5 for longer than a few months at a time, let alone being in a serious romantic relationship. People that knew me were taken aback by my rashness, my motor mouth, my antics. People that knew me well began to recognize the underlying fears which dictated my actions and my life choices. Some I channeled into nervous energy, some prevented me from making long-term decisions or pursuing dreams. Everything, from driving, to admitting mistakes, to being in groups of people, held the underlying promise of fear.
At 21, I finally admitted I had a problem that might require medical help. I’d never felt so weak, so embarrassed, as when I told my family doctor that I thought I was depressed. He gave me a couple of tests to fill out, and I aced them, racking up so many points I could almost hear the increasing percentiles. I didn’t want to be in his office, yet I didn’t want to be at home or at school or anywhere. My universe had become an infinite number of terrifying experiences I needed to avoid on a daily basis, each one a threat to the fragile equilibrium I worked so hard to maintain.
That isn’t to say I was suicidal. When I managed to hit the right notes, to walk the correct line, I could experience normality. I passed classes, ran a campus newspaper, even maintained friendships. Yet it wasn’t until my doctor prescribed some little white pills, my daily dose of escitalopram, that felt like I could breathe again. My counselor (yes I’d finally swallowed my pride enough to get counselling) told me I needed to surrender my perfectionism, to be confident in my own identity without constant accomplishment. Because of my little white pills, I could almost do it.
For five years, those little pills were a bulwark between me and the monster. I survived and even thrived at times as I learned how to exist in a life with no background buzz. I became more efficient since I no longer wasted hours trying to numb out my jangling sense of inevitable doom. I graduated, got a job and quit it, moved out, dated again. I felt joy at levels I had previously not believed possible, and overcame setbacks that would have crushed my younger self. I lived.
Yet the trademarks of my underlying anxiety were continuous. I still had trouble imagining myself in a long-term job, or trying new things that might lead to me being embarrassed. I still spent less time working than I should have, and more time maintaining an active, varied lifestyle to keep calm. I had a couple of minor relapses, yet overcame them without long-term incident.
Until 2017, when I began a doctoral program, and the world really, truly, fell apart.
I’m not sure, exactly, what lit the fuse. I moved to a new city in another province. I left behind my community, and hadn’t quite yet formed a new one. I began a new academic program in which I very clearly was no longer one of the best students. I began a new relationship, which I deeply wanted to succeed.
I didn’t recognize the warning signs before the explosion. I remember walking into the office kitchen after a long day of reading, and thinking to myself ‘I want to drop out.’ That thought shocked me; I didn’t know what had sparked it. I remember trying to write a book review for a class, and making mistakes I didn’t understand, that no one with my journalist background should have made. For the first time I understood what it was like to feel grindingly, wearyingly stupid, as if conversations were being played in fast-forward, and I could barely separate the words.
And I began to forget everything, everything. Names. Classes. Conversations. Memories. It was only once I began the terrifying internet searches that I discovered that short-term memory loss is a classic symptom of an anxious-depressive episode. Also, some of the pills cause it, because there were, of course, new pills. All white. All similar shapes. All supposed to promote or suppress the absorption of dopamine or serotonin or epinephrine in my misfiring brain.
I’m not sure what to say about this period. On the worst day, one beautiful Saturday in October, I hired an Uber to take me to the hospital. The driver assumed I was visiting someone there, and I was happy to let him believe that. I told the intake nurse I was suicidal, and she wrote a couple notes down on a yellow sketchpad while a young woman behind me screamed and cursed the officers that restrained her. The nurse told me I couldn’t leave, that I was a danger to myself, that a psychologist would come evaluate me.
Unless you’re bleeding out, most of what you do in the ER is wait. So I waited. I couldn’t get cell phone reception, and the only book I’d brought was a collection of essays by Hunter S. Thompson, which, coupled with the drug-addled screams of other patients, left me feeling even more panicked. Occasionally a text from my mother would slip through the hospital’s signal-blocking brick exterior. Are you okay? Where are you? What did the doctor say?
I’m used to feeling alone, but never as alone as I felt that Saturday morning. I’d considered packing an overnight bag before the Uber had arrived although I ultimately wasn’t able to muster the energy. What I’d realized was that there was no one in the city that I trusted enough to ask them to bring me clothes if I ended up being admitted. I had no local family, my friends were all from my program, I’d known my girlfriend less than a month.
Of course, stuck between the horror of my spiralling anxieties and the embarrassment of being vulnerable with strangers, I chose the latter. By two PM, when the psychiatrist finally saw me, I had prayed over a scared father whose son was going through what I was going through, only worse. Before I left the hospital I prayed over another patient who was bipolar, and who was being held in the ER against his will and without any access to a phone. Perhaps I needed them more than they needed me. Perhaps my prayers can be attributed to a desperate reversion to the security of my religious upbringing. Yet there is a reason that God is often found in the midnight of the soul.
My mom dropped everything and flew out to visit me that night. She held my hand as I cried, and encouraged me day after day after day as I slowly found reasons to keep fighting.
I have an amazing family, and wonderful, loyal friends. They are the reason I survive the truly bad times. They are the ones who came to visit, who called me night after night, who helped me recover.
I don’t tell you this because I need you to know, or for some kind of sensational catharsis. I tried to hide my brokenness for years, and eventually failed utterly. I also am not telling this story in order to obligate you to tell your own, whether you have your own tragedies or not.
I am telling you this because I believe that God desires us to live in authenticity. Not right away, not all the time, but as much as possible. I have spent my life trying to construct a success story in which I play a starring role, and last fall (again) that story crumbled between my fingers. Instead I have had to value the people around me, and listen to them, with a new intentionality. All of them have been gracious beyond what I deserve, and many are wise beyond their years.
I used to think that my experience with anxiety-depression was special, even took pride in how it made me unique. I don’t anymore. I live a wonderful life in which I am mostly shielded from the everyday realities of most of the world’s population, a life with uncommonly supportive family and siblings. I am blessed, and my suffering is shared by a large minority of young adults, most who cannot call upon the resources that I can muster.
Now I try to use my own struggles to practice humility, and to remind me to be gracious to those who are struggling around me. My own vulnerability is a powerful incentive for empathy and service.
I’ve been accused of arrogance a lot in my life, and not always without merit. One of my goals, one of the resolutions I made during the days when I wanted out so badly that death seemed the better option, was to never again need to be the smartest, the most successful, the best in the room.
That path just about killed me. I am desperate to try something new.