Welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining me. I’m your host, Christopher Gajewski.
Let’s get naked about mental health! –I told you I’d make it to the Robin Williams “Good Morning Vietnam” point sometime. Did it work? Too much? Not there yet?
In this episode, I’ll be continuing with the “Suicide Prevention Month” theme. I’ve gone to the extreme where I almost committed suicide, took everybody to the other side of suicide, those left behind, and now I want to discuss the gentler side of suicide. Yes, there is a gentler side. Michelangelo will also be making another cameo appearance.
Before getting into the episode: the important stuff. I just want to remind everybody that I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, or any kind of professional with an –ist at the end of their title. I am just a guy who has been there.
If you are in crisis, or know somebody who is, I implore you to reach out to a professional. There is now a national hotline you can call or text. 988.
I’ll repeat that because it bears repeating. If you or someone you know is in crisis, I implore you to reach out to a professional. Dialing or texting 988 will put you in touch with a crisis counselor instantly.
Now, let’s get into the episode.
Why is water wet? It’s a simple enough question, but can you answer it? Think about it. Where is Neil Degrassi or Bill Nye the Science Guy when you need them? It is a simple question that probably has a very complicated answer.
I have spent the better part of the last few years asking a similar question: what is normal? I know the complicated answers, and even the evasive ones.
“There is no such thing as normal. Normal is a range. It cannot be defined.”
Yes. It can.
I see it all around me. Aye, I know everybody has issues, but I also know that not everybody thinks and reacts like I do. What’s the baseline? What’s the average?
The hell if I know.
It was not until a counseling session about a decade ago that I realized that having suicidal thoughts IS NOT in the normal range.
I was in the session, discussing other things with my therapist, and it popped out that the suicidal thoughts were back. Then, I moved on with the current discussion.
“Wait, wait, wait,” he said, interrupting me. “Let’s discuss the suicidal thoughts.”
I was taken off guard. I had been on a roll with something or another, something important.
“Why,” I asked.
He looked at me questioningly, “Don’t you want to discuss the suicidal thoughts?”
“Not particularly,” I said.
I had been through the routine. “I don’t have a plan to hurt myself. I am not planning on doing it. And I definitely don’t have time to be hospitalized.”
I wanted to get back to the other important thing I was discussing. This session was costing me money. I had the money, but it was also costing me time that I didn’t have. I was a business owner with a lot to do. An hour here and the hour and half commute were 2 1/2 extra hours I would have to spend at work.
But now I could see that he didn’t understand. Him not understanding put me back on my heels. Whatever important thing I had been discussing went flittering away.
“I have suicidal thoughts,” I said. “I have for as far back as I can remember. Doesn’t everybody have them?”
“No,” he said. “They don’t.”
I guess as a trained therapist –he was a PsyD– he has been taught not to say, “This is not normal.”
So, we discussed the suicidal thoughts. The softer side of suicide.
I don’t know when they entered my life. My best guess would be high school. I think I struggled with them first, but just the thought of suicide appalled me. I had been on the other side of someone attempting it. My mind could not even wrap around the idea of putting a plan in place let alone acting on the plan. A bottle of pills, a razor, a gun, jumping. My mind had catalogued and listed all of the ways to do it and discarded them as not for me.
That did not make them go away.
They would pop into my mind from time to time. Still do. “I should kill myself.” Just a thought, an idea, a reaction. Then, it goes away. I refer to them as gnats on a summer evening. I wave them aside and get on with things.
Sometimes, the thought is just an individual one here and there. Sometimes, they come in clusters for days and weeks. They have even lasted months.
It is just something I got used to. It became part of my normal.
They actual swarmed a couple weeks ago and then again a week ago. I hit a couple rough patches. But I waved the gnats aside and got on with things.
When I wrote, or said, “The suicidal thoughts are back,” that’s what I meant. I did not have a plan in place. They really just annoy me.
Also back in high school, I injured my back. It was the summer between freshman and sophomore year. I was doing a high dive, twisted wrong, and that was the end of my football playing days.
My back has always hurt from time to time since then. I guess about 15 years ago, a new thing started. I would feel a twinge, and then I would lose all strength in my lower body. I would find myself on the floor for a few minutes. Just staring up, no pain, waiting for the strength to return. It does and then I get back up and return to whatever I was doing.
The fun times are when it happens in public, at malls or something. Everybody rushes over to me with their phones out, ready to dial 911, and I’m just like, “No problem here. Just normal. I’ll be fine in a few minutes. Thank you.”
That’s the way I think of the suicidal thoughts. I don’t talk about them. No problem here. Just normal. I’ll be fine in a few minutes. Do not call the friggin’ ambulance!
In the therapist’s office, though, I finally realized they are not normal. Still haven’t done anything about it though.
But. Why is water wet?
I did give myself a clue a long time ago. When I was in college, so 1995 or so, I wrote an article that got published. It was on dysthymia, a low-grade chronic depression. It is a mental illness that cannot even be diagnosed until you have had it for at least two years. At the time, there was debate over whether or not it was a distinct illness or just a part of Major Depressive Disorder. –I have no idea where the argument stands now.
To help people visualize it, I offered a graph. The y axis, or vertical, is a person’s mental state, from 1 to 100. The lower range is depression, and the upper range is happiness. The x axis, or horizontal, is time. Days, weeks, months, years. A person’s lifetime.
I used thoughts of my mother and her Bi-Polar Disorder, Manic Depression, for comparison with a normal range.
Yes, I did define a normal range.
A person’s normal range will be between 40 and 60. They will live within that range with few aberrations. Major life events will push them out of that range for a time, but they will return to that baseline, that average.
The death of a loved one might push a person down to 30. The birth of a child up to 75. The low or high will go on for a while but then they return to that normal range.
A depressive episode can be devastating. It will bring a person down to 10 to 20 and they will stay there for weeks–maybe months without intervention. I would guess that 10 is nonfunctioning.
A manic episode can be just as devastating. It will push a person up to the 80 to 90 range where they will stay for days and maybe weeks. I would guess that 90 is completely out of control.
I saw my mother swing through both, the spiral downward and then the climb up to, what was for her, glorious heights.
–Just an aside here as it is suicide awareness month. I read somewhere, and know from experience, that the most dangerous time for a person is not when they are in the nonfunctioning depressive state. It is when they are still in the depressed range and climbing back out. Just something to keep in mind.
But dysthymia and that normal range. The range is from 40-60. A person with dysthymia, a low-grade chronic depression, will drop down to about 35 and then stay there. Their world is dull and gray. Happiness may strike in short, brief spurts, but 35 becomes the norm.
The article was titled, “Dysthymia: The Thief of Happiness.”
Why is water wet.
I really started confusing close friends when I started talking about it with them a few years back. They didn’t understand the question. All I knew was that I was not normal, and I wanted to know what that normal range was, so I had a basis for comparison.
So, suicidal thoughts are not normal. What else was I missing?
I tried to think about things for years but gave up. I went the escapism route and it worked. I allowed my profession and family to consume me.
“Consume” is a good word because that is exactly what it did. It consumed everything that I had, everything that I was. I would have the occasional suicidal thoughts, but they were very few and far between. Who has time to be depressed when they are “on” almost 24/7?
Think of a forest fire. Once all of the forest is gone, the fire burns out and there is nothing left. Eventually, though, other things will enter and begin to grow. For me, it was the depression. It was also thoughts.
Why is water wet?
I knew I had deficiencies. I would call them broken things but since episode eight, I am trying to stay away from that idea. Still reaching for new terminology. So, let’s use deficiencies for now.
It is kind of ironic because the one friend who said I think too much made me do the most thinking.
I met Justine. She was this incredible woman, and we became friends. At that time in my life, I started to explore the relationships around me, especially the people I was closest to. I was most interested in the people who seemed to have healthy boundaries with their spouses, significant others, and the people they were closest to.
Justine was an enigma to me. She was a wild spirit, a beautiful soul, with a non-traditional outlook on life. Aye, she was a biker chick with tattoos and completely outside of my experiences. A tiny little thing, she was unabashedly honest and open. And she had boundaries.
I pissed her off. But first I freaked her out.
Forest fires and boundaries and Justine. How did I stumble into this one? But I’m going with it because it makes sense. Well, it makes sense in my mind. I hope it makes sense to you.
To fight a forest fire, they will create fire breaks. They will even create controlled fires to burn away the fuel to keep the forest fire from spreading uncontrolled. As I traveled, I saw breaks that had to have been intentional in case there was a fire.
I didn’t have any fire breaks in me, no boundaries. I had no idea that I didn’t have any boundaries. Maybe there is even something in the back of head that says boundaries are wrong, having boundaries with someone that you love is unnatural. You don’t hold anything back, pour all of yourself into everything that you do.
I loved Justine. As I mentioned, I was empty, and things were starting to grow again. I got drunk one night and I told her. I saw the look in her eyes and tried to explain it. I was too drunk, and I don’t think I did a very good job of it.
Special note. I am not a heavy drinker. Not many people have ever seen me like that. Justine was not expecting it because I only had two or three beers. I take a medication, though, where every once in a long while, that two or three beers can feel like 20. That’s what happened.
Yeah, I think I freaked her out.
But I did love her. I loved her from the second or third day I met her. I loved her spirit. It is not like I was about to propose. We were not even dating. I loved her the same way that I love special kind of people. She was special. She became a teacher and a friend, an outlet during a dark time in my life. She awoke something in me that I thought dead.
In my condition, it didn’t come out that way.
–Yes, dear one, in case you are listening, I love you.
I did manage to explain to her about the meds and she believed me. I had been with her the entire evening, arrived sober, so she knew exactly how much I had to drink.
We continued to talk–other nights–and I started to run into her boundaries. I loved her and she loved me. But she held back. That’s when I got pissed off. That’s when she got pissed off at me.
The anger at Justine didn’t make sense to me, so I thought long and hard about the person who said I thought too much. We had stopped talking and I missed her. But I was angry. So, I thought about it more.
I realized I was not angry at her boundaries; I was angry at the lack of my own. I recognized that she had healthy boundaries. It is hard looking into a mirror and seeing something disfigured looking back at you. Justine was that mirror.
At first, I had no idea what to do with this information. Then, I think I did a healthy thing. I reached out, so afraid of being rejected, and explained. We went out to dinner and had a very long conversation. We dipped and dived into deeper things but kept things light for the most part. I had my friend back and did not want to scare her away.
I’d still piss her off from time to time. I try not to anymore. She didn’t understand and I don’t blame her. I was probing her boundaries, trying to understand them. At times, I think she felt as if I was pushing at them, challenging them. And maybe I was. I was new at this.
I had no idea what the hell I was doing. Still don’t at times.
Why is water wet?
Back to episode eight. When Michelangelo was asked how he created David, he said he saw the angel within the marble and had to release it. I have a lot of chipping to do but have to do it carefully. How do you get the nose out without chopping it off?
I wonder how long Michelangelo left his tools to the side when working on something and just considered it instead? Thinking. Evaluating. I wonder if he spent entire nights without ever picking up the hammer.
I imagine this is where a therapist would come in handy.
Instead, though, I began to examine my friendships and relationships, people watching. Friend watching. Then, learning how to step more carefully through the woods and new growth.
I want to go on here. I want to talk about Sara, another wonderful woman and relationship coach who gave me the insight I needed to talk to Justine. I want to talk about Papa Bear, Mike. Jason and Crystal are tugging at me with their wonderful children.
But I think it is time to put down the hammer and chisel for the day, step back, and consider.
Or maybe step completely away, follow Justine’s advice and not think too much for a while before that nose comes off.
Perhaps the softer side of suicide is the most dangerous of places. It is filled with ambiguity and circular paths. Not dealing with it, not even knowing it was something that should be dealt with, was maybe a part of the reason that I almost did walk through that doorway.
I have some thinking to do. But not tonight.
And that’s a wrap for the episode. I’ll keep talking and hope that you will as well.