A pediatrician discusses how childhood trauma affects adults.
I tried to kill myself when I was 7.
Being 7, my options were limited, so I went with something I’d overheard some adults discussing (related to an distant family member) and thought jumping out of a window was the best plan, since I had access to a window. My bedroom was on the second floor, with a casement window right next to the Barbie townhouse with the string-operated elevator.
Since it was the kind commonly called an awning window, with the hinge on the top edge and the crank arm at the bottom right in the middle of the window opening (which wasn’t very big to begin with), a dramatic leap wasn’t an option.
This is the kind of window I’m talking about:
I squeezed my skinny little body through the opening while holding on to the crank arm. But then instead of a fast leap to a quick and easy death as I’d imagined it, I found myself dangling from the crank arm. That was kind of scary, and I reconsidered for a minute or so. I was a champion at the arm hang back then, which came in handy in this instance, but the crank arm was digging into my hands and I eventually let go and fell to the ground.
Nothing happened. The house wasn’t all that tall, the 2nd story was really just a finished attic, and the window in question was at floor level, so the drop was probably only about 10 feet. For a moment I thought that as a consolation prize maybe I’d broken my leg or ankle and would get a cast out of it (a classmate had a cast around that time and everyone was signing it, which I thought was cool), but no. I limped — my ankle did kind of hurt from how I fell on it — over to the restaurant bar where my mother was working (we lived in the house directly behind, as she was the manager) and told her I’d fallen out the window. I was informed that if I was walking I was fine. She handed me the soda gun and said I could make a suicide (the combine-all-the-sodas drink that was in vogue with me and my brothers and friends) to make myself feel better. Ah, the unintended irony. I drank my Pepsi + 7-up + Root Beer + Orange + Dr. Pepper + Tonic and decided that maybe things weren’t so bad and I could stick it out a while longer.*
A few weeks later at my grandmother’s house I decided to try again. I went into the bathroom and read the labels on all the cleaning products in the cabinet. I chose the aerosol can of Dow Scrubbing Bubbles, aimed it at the back of my throat, and pressed the button. A tiny bit of mist came out, but the can was empty. I was aggravated for two reasons:
- Suicide denied.
- Who puts an empty container away instead of throwing it out?
After that I got a steak knife from her kitchen and went back to the bathroom and tried cutting my wrists (I watched a lot of soap operas with my grandmother, so I was sure this method would be effective). It was as I was sawing back and forth (my grandmother’s steak knives were, I now realize, exceptionally dull), having just barely broken the skin and gotten a drop or two of blood — from abrasion rather than opening an artery — that my grandmother caught me. Oh, was I in trouble.
- How did I think it would make her feel to discover my dead body? It would kill her! I don’t get to kill myself! I have to live! It’s not my right to hurt other people just because my life is hard!**
- Had I learned nothing from General Hospital? To slit your wrists you cut lengthwise on the artery, not crosswise, or it will clot up too fast for you to die from it. Come on!
This interaction is the reason that despite later occurrences of depression in my life, including several straight years recently of lying in bed thinking about how much easier it would be to be dead (thanks, depression brain!), I have never seriously considered taking that exit route despite its attractiveness (to the aforementioned depressed brain, not to my logical mind). For me, guilt is stronger than depression.
What does that have to do with my life now?
I have suffered from depression on and off for most of my adult life. For the past 10 years or so, I have suffered from severe chronic depression with anxiety. About 4 of the past five years that depression included constant suicidal ideation. The early trauma that made a 7-year-old — think about that, 7 years old — believe that life was not worth living because it all hurt too much laid groundwork in my brain that would punish me the rest of my life. Thanks, neurology!
It’s Mental Health Awareness Month, and I’m sharing my story because knowing you are not alone helps.
In my late teens and 20s, I would have a major depressive episode every couple of years, each lasting 1-3 weeks. I’d hole up and hide from the world, and re-read all my favorite books until it passed, the same escape/coping mechanism I’d used as a child. It wasn’t enjoyable, but I was under the impression that it was normal, never having known anything different, and was just sort of used to it.
In between episodes, I was relatively shy/introverted, but generally happy and cheerful. I had left my hometown and the socio-economic tier of my childhood, and I felt pretty damn lucky and fortunate. I had tons of energy. Andrea (who’s known me for more than 20 years) and I sometimes compare the me of today to the me of when we met and struggle to understand how/why the brain does what it does. Back then, if our coworkers were sitting around looking bored I would just start jumping as high as I could, until everyone was jumping and laughing and having fun. These days, I need an external reason of some importance (an event, a meeting, an obligation that requires my presence) to get me to do much other than work from my bed. It basically sucks.
So, depression. To explain what it feels like, I tend to point to other people who’ve done a good job of explaining what I have felt. Reading/seeing/hearing their accounts has helped me tremendously in my own battle.
- Hyperbole and a Half: Adventures in Depression & Hyperbole and a Half: Depression Part Two. Unbearably familiar and true, but also super funny, which helps. My fish are dead.
- Ed Finkler’s Open Sourcing Mental Illness talk had a big impact on me in terms of thinking about stigma. I heard it online from his php|tek talk, and then saw it live at Open Source Bridge 2013 (coming again this year). Videos and recordings of Ed giving this talk are available on his site.
- Paul Fenwick’s OSCON 2013 presentation, Depression: Bugs in Your Brain. “This is a disease that sucks the meaning out of life.” When he started talking about alleles, for the first time I was able to think about my depression as a physical disease, and not a psychological weakness.
- Robert Sapolsky, Depression lecture at Stanford. A scientific explanation of how it works in the brain.
I identify with most of what they are all saying.
I’m not sad. I’m not bummed out. When I was 7? I was definitely sad, and definitely bummed out. Not to mention constantly in fear and pain with what felt like zero stability. Today? I have a life that objectively speaking is really pretty great. I don’t have a lot of things that deserve worry. I am, however, chock full of depression and anxiety. Because depression is a “mental illness,” there is a huge stigma around admitting to it, especially for people who get a lot of their self-worth from being intelligent. The hazy lines between intelligence and emotions and matter-of-fact brain science make it difficult to discuss comfortably, especially once words with multiple meanings come into play. So, I’m depressed — severely, clinically, according to docs — but I’m not sad, or bummed out. My brain, in this specific way, doesn’t work the way it’s expected to work, not anymore. This post is scary to be writing and will be even scarier to publish, but being a little brave on my own behalf is probably good for me, and hopefully it might help someone else who is struggling.
What happened ten or so years ago that caused such an extended bout with depression? Who knows? There was the scooter accident that broke my face and gave me a concussion (concussion increases risk of depression). A couple of years later I moved back to the east coast, closer to my family. I went back to agency work, which required more hours and travel than my publishing job had. My metabolism changed and I started gaining weight despite going up and down the stairs to my fifth-floor walkup all the time. My stepfather got cancer and I helped to take care of him during his treatment even though he’d been an abusive drunk who destroyed my self-esteem during my adolescent and teen years, and then he died. My friend — oh wait. Yeah, that whole help-your-abuser-and-watch-him-die thing was probably the trigger. Damn brain.
Anyway, I stopped going out socially for the most part. I bought a tv for work (we had a lot of network clients and I had to be familiar with their shows during pitch meetings), and fell into the habit of lying in bed staring at the screen, watching DVD box sets I bought at the Virgin megastore on my way home from work. I put less energy into staying in touch with friends because I didn’t feel like I had anything valuable to contribute to my relationships (the friends I had were super cool and impressive, whereas I had devolved from similarly cool and impressive to worthless potato). When I had to go to a meeting or conference for work, I’d just remember how I used to be and feel and would try to act like that even though I didn’t feel that way.
Then I went to work for a distributed company, and lost the sole thing that forced me out of my apartment and to interact with people. I became a hermit, mostly venturing out only for WordCamps, where I would again just try to remember what I used to be like in social situations and act like that. Sometimes I was successful, and sometimes I failed. Sometimes I had to bail because the depression and anxiety were unconquerable that day. 99% of my interactions were conducted in text online. Having stepped into a position that was contentious in some circles, I was abused by strangers online who had issues with my boss and saw me as an acceptable proxy. Every mean comment chopped away at my self-esteem, even when I knew logically that I was a symbol to them, not a real person. I was a woman in a mostly-male environment, with all that brings. I lost some of my niceness as I tried to protect myself more. The first few years I managed okay (or so I thought), with only an abrupt tone or sometimes flarey temper to give me away. But.
Then I lost a relationship with one of my best friends. This person hadn’t told me along the way that I’d been changing or behaving unlike the me that was their friend, so when they said one day that they didn’t like me anymore and that I was unpleasant to be around, so we weren’t going to be good friends anymore because they’d been faking it for awhile (jeez, does this sound like an overdone breakup scene or what?) it more or less destroyed me.
The already severe chronic depression intensified, and I had a harder and harder time getting up in the morning. You know the lead aprons they put on you at the dentist when you get x-rays? I felt like I was wearing 3 or 4 full-body lead aprons all the time. It was physical, not just psychological or emotional anymore. It made it really hard to fight it with things that used to help — exercise, eating healthy food, etc. — because I didn’t have the energy to do those things. So I just stayed in bed most of the time working on my laptop, unless I was required to physically be somewhere.
During this time the death thoughts moved in. Not in a “I want to kill myself!” way; my grandmother’s guilt trip about what suicide does to the family was as deeply ingrained in my psyche as the early trauma that kept getting re-triggered. My variation of suicidal ideation was more like lying there and just thinking about how much nicer/easier it would be to not exist anymore. If I wasn’t concerned abut my mother and niece having to deal with my death, I’d have done something about it. The belief that being dead would be better than being alive with depression was so strong that when people I knew and admired killed themselves (attributed to depression) my gut reaction was “Good for them! They made it! I wish I was as brave as them!” I knew logically that their deaths were tragedies, that the world was a lesser place without them, all those things, but I didn’t have normal feelings anymore. My fish were dead.
I have skipped over a lot in this narrative. How I did a lot of emotional work in my twenties to get past my childhood trauma. Unsuccessful (and frankly, re-traumatizing) attempts at getting help from doctors of western medicine. How the sudden appearance of anxiety caused me to fuck up tons of things, throw money away, and generally not make smart decisions. How the OCD that sprang up in the suicidal/bedridden years meant I was typing and mousing on a laptop for 12-18 hours a day sometimes, causing nerve damage in my arms/wrists/hands. More relationships that died because I wasn’t me anymore.
But there’s also good stuff. The people and things that really did help some during my time “in the pit” — especially the people willing to be true friends and confront me about how I was acting as I fell further and further in, rather than just bailing on our friendship and leaving me to continue being a miserable wreck. Finally finding some help that worked in the form of a naturopath who put me on some stuff that got rid of the suicidal ideation in about 2 days. Not 4-6 weeks — 2 days. Acupuncture helping to keep me on a more even keel. Starting a bluehackers chat room at work for support among co-workers dealing with similar issues. And more stuff.
But there you have it, the very personal, mostly embarrassing/humiliating story of how my brain — which I once loved as my greatest asset — has betrayed me over the years, how I’ve experienced depression, and how you, if you are dealing with this, are not alone.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
If you are considering suicide, please don’t do it. If you don’t have friends and family that can guilt you into staying alive, think about my grandmother! If you don’t have someone you can talk to, call the national suicide prevention lifeline. (When they start calling it a lifeline instead of a hotline? I am so old.)
If you work in open source/technology and suffer from depression, you might check out bluehackers. It’s awesome. If you attend conferences like OS Bridge or OSCON, look for BOF sessions to connect with others in similar straits.
Consider posting your own experiences to help fight the stigma. I’ve had a draft of this post in WordPress for two years. It is scary to tell your secrets, knowing that there are a lot of crappy people out there who will approach you with judgment rather than empathy. To those who are feeling pretty judgy right about now, I can only say that I didn’t choose this. No one does. And quite frankly, I’ve accomplished a fuckload of stuff in the past 10 years that has been beneficial to others, even if on a personal level I was the equivalent of a bitchy vegetable. So if anyone is judging me and other people who deal with this crap, they can take a hike, and they suck.
If you just want to say to someone, “This is crap and I’m dealing with it, too,” without getting into details, drop a comment here or shoot me an email. Connecting with others who deal with this stuff has been huge in helping me dig myself out of the patterns; maybe it will help you, too.
* I’ve told this story before, leaving out the suicidal intent, claiming I was after the cast. That wasn’t why I jumped from the window, it was an afterthought after I landed. Guess what? People don’t like to talk about how they tried to commit suicide or how they’re dealing with mental illness because then people look at you funny and treat you weird and you feel ashamed and embarrassed and you regret saying anything. Welcome to stigma!
** My grandmother’s brother blew his brains out with a gun. Even though she loved me and I’m sure her demands that I stay alive came from a good place — and they did keep me alive — I wonder how much of that reaction was a more selfish thing. Did seeing me with the steak knife trigger her and remind her of losing her brother? She’s dead, so I can’t ask, but I do wonder. Trauma affects so many people.
I’m taking a class on behavioral neuroscience. As expected, everything is fascinating and I’d like to spend all day for a few years just learning about how brains work — there’s been so much new research and development of knowledge since I was last immersed in studying anatomy/physiology/psychology around 20 years ago. Just now I watched this Nova video about epigenetics, and my mind is racing with ideas and implications. Holy crap, this class is going to be cool.