CW: Suicide, Suicidal thoughts
“When I chose to live, there was no joy it’s just a line I crossed”
You hear a lot of stories like this that end with some kind of beautiful realization about the value of life- this is not one of those stories.
In all of my years battling depression there has always been one symptom that I was mercifully spared- suicidal thoughts. No matter how bad things got the idea of ending my life never entered my mind. I’ve always had the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel hope that one day things would get better. That hope is what I believe has kept me from ever feeling like I didn’t want to live. This past weekend, for a couple of days I lost that hope.
How did I get there?
I’ve been actively fighting depression for twelve years but the last year has seen me devote a great deal of time and energy to fighting a very specific symptom: brain fog.
Today I’m seeing my rockstar dr. Talking hormones, exhaustion, focus, and the never-ending battle of “JoEllen vs The Brain Fog”
— JoEllen Notte (@JoEllenNotte) August 28, 2015
For those who are unfamiliar brain fog is pretty much what it sounds like, the brain becomes foggy for lack of a better word. It’s difficult to think straight, to form ideas, to feel awake, to focus. For a long time, due largely to the “yep, life sucks stop complaining” mentality of the blue-collar area of New Jersey that I grew up in I thought that everyone felt that way and I was just too weak to handle it well.
Fun fact about brain fog: until this year I thought it was how everyone felt and I was just really bad at life. #WhyWeTalk
— JoEllen Notte (@JoEllenNotte) August 28, 2015
Over the last year, however, my brain fog has gotten progressively worse. At a time when I expected to be pitching stories to outlets that excite me and working diligently on my book I could barely form sentences. I have been dragging one blog post a month out of myself so as to keep my site alive. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes they are awesome but sometimes they are the best I could do at the time. I came to understand that thing they call “writer’s block” and felt my heart break when I heard my teaching partner tell our students that they didn’t think it was real and you just need to be disciplined and make yourself work. I have the ideas -and a folder full of started drafts- but I can’t get them out. It feels like being under water and instead of fish swimming by it’s my thoughts and I can’t grab them. Everything I want to say is there, I just can’t put it together and get it out. It’s gotten bad enough that I occasionally send a long distance partner messages that say things like “I can’t make words right now, but I think you’re pretty great”. If you have never experienced brain fog it can sound like it’s not a big deal but seriously, it feels like your mind is deteriorating daily. It’s frustrating and scary.
I cried a lot during that time but it wasn’t a hugely emotion-driven thing, it had logic behind it and that’s maybe the scariest part.
In the meantime we’ve been bouncing from diagnosis to diagnosis trying to figure out what is causing my depression, the brain fog, the lethargy. My rock star doctor moved away and was replaced by a well-meaning woman who really likes supplements and cleanses and asking me where exactly I feel the specific effects of each individual supplement and cleanse element. As I am, at this point, a medical and emotional dumpster fire, I can’t answer these questions and we get nowhere. We have however cut most foods out of my diet making eating an exercise in anxiety. By the time I saw her in mid-August I was pretty much a mess.
September 3rd marked the 5th anniversary of my father’s death. A pattern that it took me WAY too long to recognize has emerged: my hips and back (with its checkered history of multiple surgeries and years of just not working) have locked up and become intensely painful for the weeks around this time for at least 3 of the 5 years. I spent most of August in pain. My doctor ordered an MRI and gave me some muscle relaxants to help calm everything down.
So I, being emotionally wrecked and in physical pain, decided to go spend the weekend with my partner a couple of hours away. About halfway through the drive to his house I started thinking about some work I had just taken on for a friend – some writing work that shouldn’t be difficult for me but was causing me to stare blankly at my computer for hours on end. I started to panic thinking about all the work I haven’t been doing, all the writing I can’t get out, the book I’m not writing, the career that isn’t moving forward, the new (more expensive, because Portland got cool) apartment I’m hunting for because my current one is full of mold (which can’t be helping all of this), the brain fog that my doctor doesn’t seem super-invested in solving and the intern therapists I keep being assigned (I haven’t mentioned them yet but it’s a thing) who have me do breathing exercises that they are clearly very excited to try out on people while I don’t improve at all. I panicked about the years of my life that are going by while I lay on my couch getting nothing done. I started to think that I am failing, I am useless, that it took me years to find what I wanted to do with my life and I finally found it (and I’m damn good at it) but now my brain can’t do it and if I can’t do it anymore what’s the point… Then, like it was the most logical thing in the world, I thought “Well, maybe I’m just done”. It was like a switch had flipped and where death used to be the thing that scared me, now in its place continuing to live the way I have been indefinitely stood as the scariest option.
I always thought suicidal thoughts would be intense and dramatic, so the thing that shocked me the most was how matter of fact and practical my thoughts were. I started thinking about the nuts and bolts stuff: getting my dog to my partner, getting my research into the right hands, what to do with the massive toy collection (there was a very cool plan but sharing it feels too morbid), and I went through a way-too-long train of thought about shielding people from finding a body. I talked very openly with my partner (who, btw, was a rock star) who encouraged me to gather up my support system by reaching out to friends and other partners (which I kept refusing to do because of my whole not wanting to bother people thing) and got me on the phone with my therapist’s office who talked through the whole crisis protocol with me and got me an appointment ASAP.
The upshot is that for about three days I was actively planning to end my life. It was an urge I had never had before but one that, at the time, felt completely natural and like it made total sense. I cried a lot during that time but it wasn’t a hugely emotion-driven thing, it had logic behind it and that’s maybe the scariest part. I spent Friday and Saturday thinking about it and talking (and crying) with my partner – it was so exhausting that on Saturday we passed out at 9pm with me forgetting to take all of my meds. Sunday was a calmer, happier day but I spent it looking over my shoulder waiting for the thoughts to creep back up and gathering my courage to tell the people close to me what had been going on.
So, what changed?
Sunday night, while my partner took a bath, I thought about the muscle relaxants my doctor had given me and wondered if they could kill me. So like any modern girl, I googled it. What I found changed everything:
Cyclobenzaprine can lead to suicide in vulnerable patients
In case you aren’t in a clicking mood, it’s an article about the muscle relaxant I was taking and its believed link to suicides. Suddenly a bunch of stuff clicked into place, including why Sunday (the day after I didn’t take my meds, including said muscle relaxant) was such a calmer day. It all seemed to come back to that medication, the one I started taking the night before the thoughts started. It wasn’t that I had reached the end of my rope and was done, it was that I was having a reaction to the medication.
So, is everything better now? Oh, hell no! I’m no longer thinking of ending my life but I’m still terrified that the brain fog will keep me from ever getting you folks that book I keep talking about and, you know, end my career. I still worry that I’m not working nearly enough, that I won’t find a new apartment (or be able to afford the place I find), that mold in my old place is making me sick, that I won’t ever have adequate medical or mental health care, that so many of you face suicidal thoughts on a daily basis and access to good care is so limited and about a billion other things because even when I can’t do other stuff I can worry like a champ, but I’m sticking around to worry about that stuff and hopefully do a whole lot more.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or 1-800-273-8255