Depression and Suicide

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.


Citizens (?) Rally for Global Warming

Houston, Texas, unremarkably enough, was the site of a citizen rally yesterday celebrating big oil and protesting Washington’s energy policies.  (NYTimes, 8/19/B1)  Hundreds of folks showed up at the lunch-time event, along with a high school band, a video of country singer Trace Adkins, and a local-celebrity rodeo announcer as MC. 

The rally was organized by a group calling themselves Energy Citizens, a group which unsurprisingly enough is underwritten by the American Petroleum Institute, the main trade group of the oil industry.  Who else, I ask you, would have provided the bounty of hot dogs, hamburgers, and yellow T-shirts saying stuff like “Create American Jobs Don’t Export Them.”  Who else would have bused Energy Citizens to the rally, from their posts at oil companies, in order to protect the environment?  (“If we all drove in cars, it wouldn’t look good,” said James Hackett, chief executive of Anadarko Petroleum, who attended the rally.)

The atmosphere was described by the Times writer as “buoyant.”  A lunchtime party provided by the boss, off-site, could certainly be buoyant.  But do these happy workers have a clue as to what is at stake?  I expect they understand that they are being manipulated by the corporations, but do they know what is at stake?  Billions for the oil companies.  And for the rest of us, the planet.

Greenhouse gas legislation barely passed the House in June, and the Senate is expected to bring out its own version in September.  But will such legislation ever pass, even though the majority of Americans understand that it is crucial to move, and now, and this issue?

Last week Greenpeace discovered an oil industry in-house memo sent out by the API to its members (including Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips), the oil industry is planning to increase pressure on Congress by sponsoring these public rallies.  “It’s a political hit campaign,” said Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace.

Apparently the oil industry folks feel that their industry has been unfairly treated–”pushed around” and “punished,” said David Leland, a map maker for NFR Energy. 

Our scientists have been telling us for over 10 years now that if we don’t make changes soon, we will soon move beyond the point where regeneration of the planet is possible.  And “soon” has recently changed by consensus to “now” by the most knowledgable scientists and climatologists in the world.

So let me just ask you oil industry folks–what is your life about, anyway?  Do you care about your children and grandchildren?  Do you care that millions might die from floods and droughts?  Do you know what kind of fire you’re playing with, for your petty schemes to make a buck?  When you come to your last moments on this earth, how do you want to be remembered–as someone who worked to block greenhouse gas legislation and trashed the earth?  Because let me just tell you something: you will be accountable to those who follow.  They will know you for how you lived, what you valued, and how you used your power in the public sphere. 

What do you want to be remembered for?  It’s a singular question that each of us needs to ask every day when we wake up–and then in so far as we are able, we need to live accordingly.


Confessions of a Hypochondriac

Here I am typing away on my keyboard, just after returning from oral surgery.  I will spare you the details, other than to say that I’m getting a tooth implant.  The dentist offered to put me out for the procedure, but I declined, just knowing that if I ever went under the anesthesia, I might never, never wake up–and I’m not ready for the long sleep as yet.  So I endured the grinding with eyes wide open, checking my blood pressure on the monitor to make sure I wasn’t flipping out.  (My blood pressure actually reads on the low side, generally, as it did again today.)  My face is numb, and I’m a little groggy from the “oral sedation.”

The first “attack” I had of hypochondria was when I was 19 and in college.  I thought I had throat cancer–or something terrible, at any rate, gnawing at my throat.  But after finding nothing, my family doctor sent me to a specialist, who examined me and said in a disgusted voice, “I find no disease here.”  He told me to forget about the throat problem and it would go away.  Which it did.

But my tendency to think that I am going to be struck dead by some horrible disease has stayed with me.  I’ve tried to make friends with my hypochondria, to kid around with it. (Joke: how do you know if your a hypochondriac?   When you think you’re dying of three different diseases in the same week,)

Of course, being a minister has contributed to my hypochondria.  Just as medical students think they have contracted every deadly disease they study, ministers see a lot of people die, too.  I recently got a call from a woman who lost her 48-year-old husband in a work-related accident.  I regularly had congregants come down with various cancers, and some didn’t survive long after diagnosis.  There are bicycle accidents that kill and maim.  There are losses on Mount Hood.  There are sudden strokes.  I know life is fragile–I’ve seen it be snatched away all too soon, all too often.

I think my hypochondria comes from early emotional trauma, for I was separated from my mother several times before I was 2, when she had mental breakdowns.  I have never learned that the world is a safe place, I’ve always feared that the worst will happen.  For example, when I cross a city street, I typically think, “I could get run over, oh so easily, and be dead.”  So I’m super-cautious.

The problem is complex and multi-faceted–first of all, there is the needless fear that hypochondriacs endure,  and then the real illnesses that are caused by rhe related stress.  And of course hypochondriacs really do fall ill, but they never know, for example, if those heart palpitations are caused by fear or a heart attack.  We don’t want to appear silly, and we don’t want to keep showing up at the doctor’s office unnecessarily.  And so we become confused about our bodies–is this or that pain “real” or is it just a psychic phenomenon?  Either way, of course, the pain is real.  It’s just that the treatment is different, according to the cause. 

Several years ago, a rather large mole appear on the calf of my leg.  My primary care physician said, “Just watch it.”  Well, you might imagine how closely I watched it!  Some months later, the mole looked as though it might be just barely creeping out of its boundaries–but was it really changing, or was I just imagining this?  I went back to my doctor, who told me he thought it was nothing, but I should probably have it checked by dermatology. 

So I called dermatology and was told they had no appts. for two months–at which time, I became very assertive–no, perhaps aggressive is a better word.  “This is a possible melanoma!” I said.  “It is not acceptable to wait–I must see a doctor right away.”  And so they gave me an appointment within a few days.  The dermatologist look one look at the mole and said, “I wish I could tell you not to worry.”  He took it off immediately, sent it to the lab, and yes, I found that I had a melanoma.  I caught it in Stage One, and so the cure rate is about 98%, so I’ll probably be fine.  Probably.  Unless I’m in the 2% (whoops, there I go again!)

My point is just that I could have easily assumed that the mole was not dangerous and chided myself for being a worry wart.  And if I had persisted in the mode for long, I could be dead.  Not imagined dead–really dead.

So I should say something helpful at this point, to those who share this malady.  Well, I recently read a book that was helpful: They Can’t Find Anything Wrong! by David D. Clarke, Sentient Publications.  Dr. Clarke gives many examples of what he calls “stress illness”–real pain and changes in body functions caused by stress and/or psychological factors.  I knew about stress illness, but I didn’t not know how widespread it is, and what really serious physical conditions can result.

And then I have found comfort in my Buddhist learning: I say to myself, “We are of the nature to become ill, we are of the nature to die.”  To accept ourselves as creatures who will and must die helps tremendously to relax into the moment and live the life we actually have.

Well, time has passed since I sat down at the keyboard, and my face is not numb anymore, and no pain, as yet.  Maybe there won’t be any.  Or maybe there will.  I’m going to be OK.




When Life Surprises You

About a year and a half ago, I was one depressed woman.  This was not a biological depression–this was a situational depression.  You see, I knew that I would soon be leaving my post as the Senior Minister of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, but I had no idea what form my relational life might take after I left the church. 

I knew that I wanted to write, and I needed to leave parish ministry in order to pursue that calling–but for 17 years my community, and most of the intimacy in my life, came from my relationship with my congregants.  I had always thought that some day I would meet a man who was right for me, and we would make a home together.  But the years went by, and although I had several promising relationships, no man turned out to be the one I could settle down with.  So I continued to give myself almost wholly to my work.  There was plenty of it, to distract me from my loneliness.

As time went on, and my retirement drew closer, I gave up the idea that I would ever be partnered.  (Hey, it hadn’t happened in 17 years, had it?)  I tried to explore options that would give me companionship.  Maybe I would live in a four-plex with writers and/or social justice activists.  Maybe I would try to live communally.  Maybe I would leave Portland altogether and go somewhere else where there was a large, thriving UU church, and try to make new friends there.  I explored these options in some depth, traveling and talking to people, looking at various living situations.

And then life tossed me a surprise–I met a most amazing man!  OK, indulge me: he’s handsome, wise, funny, affectionate, and has a deep and abiding sense of integrity.  He’s also talented and strong and gives himself gladly to make his community a better place.  Our values are precisely the same.  Ditto our aesthetic sense.  Ditto our politics, etc., etc.  I know this is getting sickeningly sweet, but believe me, dear reader, it’s all true! 

I don’t mean to say it’s all sweetness and light–misunderstandings occur, as in all relationships.  But these little instances can’t touch the core–in other words, I can’t imagine living without him, and he (miraculously) feels the same way about me.  So we’re getting married on Sept. 6.

I know better than to do that “and then they lived happily ever after” thing–because I will continue to have to work on my stuff–you know, trying to be a kinder, gentler human being.  No person can do that for another.  And yet to be loved, and to love, while dealing with the vicissitudes of life–well, that’s an amazing blessing.  A small miracle, I call it.

My fiance and I talk about loss even now, at the beginning.  Both of us are old enough to know that we won’t live forever (the way all young people think they will), and that one of us will lose the other, at some point.  We know that.  And it makes every day we are given so very precious, so very sweet.  I walk in thankfulness.

Well, dear reader, I don’t know how you are experiencing your life right now.  Maybe you’re feeling a little, or a lot, desperate.  Maybe your cheer is just a show–maybe you’re whistling in the dark, as they say.  Or maybe you’ve just fallen in love.  Or fallen ill.  Or fallen into incredibly good fortune.  Or become enlightened.  I don’t know. 

But know this: you can expect only one thing in this world–you can expect that you will be surprised by life, over and over again.  So try to stay awake during your time here, and be prepared.  For whatever.