A lot of people say they’d die for their child. I’ve never heard anyone say they’ll show them what it takes to live. The truth is, when life is overwhelming, we justify all kinds of unhealthy behavior. We eat a doughnut when we’re sad. Smoke a cigarette when we’re stressed. Have a few glasses of wine after a hard day at work. Because we all get overwhelmed, we forgive ourselves and we forgive others.
Except when it comes to suicide. Especially if you’re a parent. Years ago, after a lifetime of depression, I tried to end my life. In the months and years afterward, I discovered that as a parent, when you cross the line from thinking about suicide to surviving suicide, you end up having to answer one question for the rest of your life. “You have a child. How could you have been so selfish?” Everyone seems to assume that we didn’t think of that when we made our attempt, but from my own experience, and my conversations with other survivors, I know many of us did think of that and came to the conclusion that our children were better off without us.
That’s the insidious nature of depression. When you’re deep in it, all the lies you tell yourself make perfect sense. I call it The Calculus of Despair. No rational argument or past experience can make you believe otherwise. No matter what you’ve accomplished, you still feel like a failure. You could have a hundred voice mails in your phone and still feel unwanted. You could be holding a handmade birthday card from your son and still feel like he’d be better off without you.
Depression doesn’t give you choices. It gives you ultimatums. It convinces you that nothing will ever change and the only way out of this pain is to get out of this life. If your depression leads you to end your life, it doesn’t mean you haven’t thought about the consequences. It means you put everything in your life into the spreadsheet, did the calculations, and discovered that ending your life was the best thing for everyone. You didn’t decide it, you discovered it using the upside-down mathematics of depression.
If you’re lucky, you survive. Someone stops you. You stop yourself. Maybe you just miscalculate and wake up on the floor of your bedroom in a fog, not sure if you’re if you’re angry or grateful. What happens next shapes the rest of your life. When I woke up the day after my attempt, I realized I had a choice to make. I could keep living the life that had brought me to my knees or I could do everything in my power to change how I lived. If I ended up a year later in the same place in the same state of mind, at least I would know that I went down swinging.
I decided to go down swinging.
For the next year I committed to doing everything my therapist and doctor told me to do. If they said take a pill, I took a pill. If they said eat healthy and exercise, I made a salad and went to the gym. I did everything I was supposed to do so that in the end, if nothing worked, at least I could say I did my best.
But it did work. After a while, I could see my life changing. More importantly, I could see my outlook changing. I slowly started to see where I had gone wrong in the past and how my new habits were helping me stay on course. I stopped isolating myself. I started asking for help when I felt myself slipping. I swallowed my pride and joined support groups. All of these things together helped me achieve the emotional stability I never thought was possible.
The most helpful thing of all however was my decision to reveal to others that I struggled with depression. I was tired of keeping it a secret, and the longer I held it, in the heavier it became. Shame gathers momentum in silence and I didn’t want to give those feelings a chance to grow. I figured if I told my story as a survivor rather than a victim, people would see me as strong instead of flawed, tough instead of fragile.
A year-and-a-half after my attempt, I started telling people outside my close circle of friends what I had been through and what I continue to deal with. I didn’t do it all at once and I didn’t do it online. I just slowly revealed, one-on one and in person, that I live with depression and that some of the things I do, eating healthy, not drinking, doing more walking than driving, are things that help me stay happy and centered.
But before I shared my story with too many people, I knew I needed to speak to my son. It was time to tell him that his father had crashed and risen, and that for the rest of my life I would have to rise again at the beginning of each day and do the things that keep me alive. He was 22 and not living with me when I made my attempt. It had been easy to keep my recovery a secret from him because he was off living his own life and I didn’t see him every day. But I knew that if I wanted my story to help others he needed to hear it from me first.
So I sat him down in the place where we always have the hard talks, the car. There’s something about being side by side that allows us to say things that we couldn’t if we were staring at each other. I drove all over town and the surrounding woods before I found a way to bring up the subject. To my relief, my son was grateful and supportive. He shared with me that he had his own struggle with depression and had once considered suicide. That talk turned into other talks. Those talks led him to finding a good therapist and working on making healthy changes in his own life.
It’s been three years since that talk in the car and I’ve never regretted it. My kid still sees his therapist and isn’t embarrassed about needing one. By admitting I have depression, I showed him that his dad is just as flawed as anyone else. There’s no mythical bar that my son has to live up to now. When he feels sad and lost he doesn’t have to add shame to the emotional equation. He knows his father has also felt sad and lost.
When I shared the real reason I go to the gym, get enough sleep, and spend time helping others, I wasn’t just sharing my story, I was showing him how to get through his own rough times and the ways I’ve found to get around the awful, twisted logic of mental illness. Depression tells me 1+1=0. What I tell my son is this: 1+1=whatever you believe it to be. It is the simple addition of days filled with small purposeful steps forward that we see our way through.
The greatest gift I ever gave my son was to stop pretending I had it all together. It gave me a credibility with him I never had before. When I share with him the things I do to stay alive he knows they work because I’m still here. If you want to teach your kid the mathematics of hope you have to show your work.
A storyteller and TEDx speaker coach, Paul Currington decided to start sharing his own story of his “lifelong friendship with depression” after an attempted suicide. He sought help and also began treating his depression like an addiction. Today, he says his life “has never been better.” Even though he still has an occasional bad day, he doesn’t let himself fall into a pain spiral. He says instead of wishing he was happy he now does things that make him happy.
Note: This story was originally posted on The Stability Network.
Note: Paul was also interviewed on The Depression Files podcast. Click here to listen to this very intriguing interview.