A few months ago, Therese Borchard of Beyond Blue was describing in one of her insightful videos the nature of her belief in Catholicism. She had been accused of being a “cafeteria Catholic,” picking and choosing which of the Church’s teachings she would accept. She emphasized that she read the Church Catechism as a bipolar person, and, as she was clarifying what she meant by that, started with: “Staying alive is my first priority.” That stopped me.
I’ve watched that video a couple of times since then, and, though I hear and respect her thoughtful discussion of Catholicism, that simple statement about staying alive is what cuts right through me. There is no getting away from that stark reality. The deepest depression turns on the neon light of suicide.
It doesn’t take that much to set in motion an obsession with some setback and to start hearing the poisoned thoughts: I’m no good. Why don’t I just stop, end it all – kill myself? And such thoughts become, briefly thank God, alluring, as if promising relief, a road to peacefulness. Most who think of suicide, though, do not kill themselves in a single act of desperation. As Karl Menninger pointed out 70 years ago in his classic study, Man Against Himself, a much greater number destroy themselves slowly over time with alcohol, drugs, reckless behavior. Or they choke off the fulfilling lives they might have by undermining themselves at work, breaking up loving relationships or exercising a strange genius to design failure into almost anything they do – as if to prove over and over again that they’re hopeless, worthless, don’t deserve to live. I know my mind can be twisted into fighting against the force of life itself, and setbacks drive me to extreme thinking. So I resonate with Therese’s simple truth: Staying alive is my first priority. That is the blunt, daily reality, and I live with the danger that I might lose sight of it.
This past week I had another of those setbacks at work that push me closer to the edge. The details don’t matter. My reaction is what matters, and the initial tendency is to despair, getting to the point of thinking, Maybe I should kill myself. First I’m scared, then grieved, then angry that I should let depression push me that far. And I ask instead, why do I keep getting into these no-win situations and then wonder why I run into the same sort of trouble, over and over?
There are times when a work situation is so wrong, so badly matched to the state you’re in that the best solution is to get out of it altogether. Putting blame elsewhere may seem justified in the short term, but in my case it’s clear that I bring these problems on myself. Staying in the wrong job can become completely self-destructive.
That realization leads me to speed up the transition to a different career I’ve been planning. Trying to keep on even temporarily with the intense work I’ve been doing isn’t compatible with the limitations I’ve been learning to live with. Time to listen to Julie Fast who admits she’s depressed more than she is well and can’t work a 9 – 5 job. Instead she has had to be more productive with the limited time she has. By accepting that reality she’s turned her mind around to focus on what she can do, not what she can’t.
The idea of an orderly transition to new work has looked so good on paper, so financially safe. But the reality is I’ve been using work to destroy myself, slowly. Each setback drives me to extreme and dangerous thinking and a level of despair to match. And everyone sees so plainly my bright and shining energy and optimism when I’m talking about the field I’m getting into, and the leaden, wearied, run-down descriptions of what I’m doing now. I’ve thought about this transition as a choice between playing it safe financially and bursting impulsively into a different career before everything is organized (read safe). But that way of framing it is depression talking, siren-like: Stay a little longer, you can do anything for just a little longer (I’ve almost got you).
Time to reframe, thanks to the clear-headed Therese: The choice is between a little more money and staying alive. As my favorite aunt might have said: So that’s a choice? What are you, crazy?
Well, I’m trying not be.
Image Credit: Some Rights Reserved by |spoon| at Flickr