I called my insurance agent just this morning–a really lovely man with whom I’ve been working with for years. He has handled both my auto and my homeowner’s insurance, and I must say Jeff has always been kind and helpful, pointing out ways to save me money at times.
So when I called his office today and asked for Jeff, the secretary said in a rather tense voice, “Who is calling?” I told her, and she transferred me to another extension that I assumed would be Jeff’s. But, no, another agent answered and when I inquired about Jeff, he said, “I don’t know if you’ve heard that Jeff passed away.”
I was shocked, since Jeff was middle-aged and seemed to be fine. So I asked this agent–who turned out to be Jeff’s friend and office mate–what had happened to Jeff. “He had a number of health issues,” the man said. “And then he became depressed. They put him on medication, but it seemed to make him worse. So sad. It was in the papers–you may have read about it. He just disappeared last June 12, and nobody knew where he was. They didn’t find him until July 7.” I asked how Jeff killed himself, and his friend said, “They never told us.”
The ubiquitous “they”: “They” put him on medication. “They” didn’t find him . . . .” “They” never told us. Who did what? What actually happened? “They” will probably never say, and we will probably never know. It’s the way we all speak when we don’t want to assign responsibility, or get too close.
The agent that I talked with was concerned and sad that he had lost his friend and co-worker. He couldn’t understand how someone could become so despondent that he would want to kill himself. He said that life is so precious to him that he could never imagine taking his own life.
It is difficult for people who have never been clinically depressed to understand how devastating that disease can be. I’ve been there, and I know. Depression makes you feel cut off from others, as though you’re behind some kind of glass, and you can’t break through. You can’t engage others, except in a mechanical, phony way, because you feel so dead inside. You can’t feel joy in simple things, like a lovely sunset or a piece of music that ordinarily might lift your spirits.
In short, you are experiencing the singularly most painful feeling for human beings–acute emotional separation, from others, from your own emotions, from the usual pleasures and interests of this world. Sometimes there are feelings of worthlessness and guilt. And besides this, you have the sense that you will never get any better. Your pain is so great that you feel you must escape it at all costs. Even thoughts of the effect your suicide might have on family and friends may be discounted.
I have never tried to kill myself. Fortunately, medication has worked for me when I’ve been depressed, and I’ve come out of it in several weeks or so. In the great majority of cases, some medication or other will be effective. But not in absolutely every case.
I lost a friend some years ago to chronic depression–a brilliant academic, she never could break the life-long cycle of depression, and she committed suicide. When I went to my 50th high school reunion this last July, I was greeted by the hostess there in my home town of Homer, LA, who explained to me that of our class of 49, 13 were dead–two of suicide. The next person I talked with was a man in another class who told me that his brother had killed himself years ago. Welcome to the real world. Suicide happens all too often.
So I must end this writing by saying that if you know anyone who is depressed, encourage this person to get help–this is not something you can “tough out.” True depression is not the same thing as being situationally sad because something bad has happened–that kind of sadness is understandable and part of all human experience. However, for those with a chemical imbalance in their brain, sometimes difficult experiences can lead to clinical depression. If you know someone who ever speaks about wanting to end his life, take those statements seriously, in particular if they have a specific plan as to how to do it.
Depression is a disease, and it is too often a fatal one. We need to understand it as such and do all we can to help those sufferers heal.