I realize that a common theme emerging in this blog is struggling with depression… but that is a common theme in my life. Particularly over the past couple of years.
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and in my efforts to do my part to remove the stigma of mental health issues, I’ve decided to share with you a very troubling episode in my life. Fair warning–I’m going to talk very frankly about suicide and suicidal thoughts.
I can’t tell you what specific night it happened–all I know is it was in December. I had a meeting the following morning and needed to be up early, so I decided to go to bed early. I had not been sleeping well that week, so I considered taking an over-the-counter sleeping pill, but decided against it because they usually leave me feeling groggy the next morning.
I curled up in bed and read until my eyes were heavy…and it all felt like the start of a great night. I was tired and cozy in my warm bed on a winter night. The new puppy (Riley, who was then only six months old–and I had only had her for two months) was curled up at my feet, the old cat was curled on the pillow next to me. I thought sleep would come easy. But the second I switched off the lamp, it started.
Depression and anxiety go hand-in-hand. They fuel each other, feeding into a constant, spiraling whirlpool of dark emotions and thoughts. But the anxiety that comes with depression is, in my opinion, a particularly harsh version. Not only does it keep you on edge, off kilter, and feeling like control is just beyond your fingertips… it also makes you doubt yourself, second guess every thought, and constantly suggests (like a little naughty devil on your shoulder) that you are more of a danger to yourself and others than you realize.
At that point in my life, things were complicated and hard.
There was conflict in the church (which I’ve spoken about in previous blogs, so I won’t go into it here). Some members had left–something that still weighs heavy on my heart and mind. I had shed many tears over it, and still feel the burden of that anger and sadness on my soul. And in the middle of the turmoil my beloved dog, Omar, died a painful and agonizing death… the verdict was that he had drunk antifreeze somewhere.
There are hazy snippets of a memory of Omar licking something off the parking lot at church (because that dog would eat anything) and so I cling to the idea that it was nothing more than a terrible, senseless accident. The dog I did everything with, the dog I loved more than I ever knew was possible, had found a spot of danger in the world of safety I had tried to create around him. I never took him out without a leash. I never let him run free. I had him well-trained to respond to my spoken commands. He even responded to subtle hand gestures. He was all love and trust and friendship to anyone he met… but there was that one little spot of danger in the midst of it all and I lost him.
There were people, friends and colleagues, who were concerned that the timing of Omar’s death had to be more than a coincidence. In the midst of conflict, my dog dies of antifreeze poisoning?
But I would protest the notion that someone had done this horrible thing deliberately. Surely, no one I knew was cruel enough to do this–so I insisted it was a terrible accident, mostly because I believed it was and partly because I didn’t want to believe that anyone connected to me in any way could be that heartless.
But when people are angry at you–angry enough to leave their church because of you, angry enough to create constant friction and unforgiveness–you begin to wonder. There’s a little thought in the back of your mind that you put to rest just to have it emerge again and again when you least expect it.
And so, on that December night, the thought arose again.
I miss Omar.
Before I even realized it, I was on my feet, pacing the floor. My stomach was a bundle of nerves and knots. I tell myself to go back to bed… and so I would.
But a few moments later I was on my feet again, pacing the floor, not recalling how I had gotten there.
As the hours unfolded before me and I kept looking at the clock, realizing I was going to get less and less sleep before this long, all-day meeting I had to go to the next morning, the more my stomach churned.
Soon, I gave up going back to bed.
I tried to walk off the nervous energy anxiety causes… but it was just making things worse. I missed Omar. I was tortured in my heart and soul about the way things had gone at church. I was hurting, deeply. And while I had the obligation to recognize the hurt in others, no one seemed to have the obligation to recognize my hurt. Which made me feel very alone. I was lonely, as many pastors are. And the one trusty companion who had loved me unconditionally from the beginning was now a baggie of ashes in a box on my mantle…
The new puppy, Riley, would look at me every time I walked back into the room… but it wasn’t like it was with Omar. He just knew that I was suffering and would come and rub against me until I stopped my anxiety-driven pacing and hugged him instead.
It was now the wee morning hours… two o’clock, three o’clock… it almost didn’t make sense to try to sleep now. And so I paced.
In the kitchen I noticed the windshield wiper fluid I had recently bought–the kind for cold winters–sitting high on the counter where it was out of reach of the dog but in my sight so I would remember to take it to the car in the morning.
I glanced at the ingredients: ethylene glycol.
That’s what had done it. The constant urination turning into not being able to urinate at all as Omar’s kidneys failed. The way his body felt cold to the touch, even though he was still alive. The way he shivered uncontrollably. The body aches he seemed to be having. The drunken way he walked and staggered. And, in the end, the head-pressing and the seizures as he lay helpless in my arms. The way his blank eyes would look at me after one episode would pass and he panted for breath.
That’s what had done it, the little voice of anxiety whispered in my ear, That’s it. And maybe you’ll do it, too.
I remember the way he looked when the emergency veternarian carried him into the examination room. He was so weak and so sick, but when he saw me, his tail began to wag. And it wagged even as I tearfully said goodbye, as if he was was letting me know this had to be done. It wagged as the vet injected the cocktail of drugs that would put Omar to sleep for good… and it wagged until the drugs took effect. I remembered the heartbreak of that moment, looking kissing his nose for the last time, knowing I’d never have him lay in my lap while watching television again. Knowing, I’d never have him roll over on his back for another belly rub. Knowing I’d never wake to another one of his sweet cuddles.
Would I? I stared at the wiper fluid. Would you?
I walked away from it–back to the puppy that wasn’t Omar–and before I knew it I was back in the kitchen and that orange fluid was there, in my field of vision all over again.
Would I? Why wouldn’t you?
This continued on for what seemed an eternity until I finally rebelled against that little voice and carried the wiper fluid out to the car in the frigid night air, slippers scraping on the driveway as I went, no coat to protect me from the cold.
But as I returned to the warmth of my bed I passed the closet where I store my camping gear. All the way at the back, in a locked case, is an old shotgun. It was my grandfather’s–There wasn’t anything special about it, as far as a gun collector would be concerned. It wasn’t rare. It wasn’t unique. It didn’t have any notable features. But it had been grandpa’s and so I kept it, even though I myself was not a hunter, a gun collector, or even a gun enthusiast.
It’s in there. But it doesn’t have any shells. It can’t harm anyone.
No? Are you sure?
And so, a new series of pacing and worry and agonizing about what I might be able to do if things got any worse. That’s the nature of depression-linked anxiety. It’s constantly worrying you with the things you might be able to do if things got worse… and while you’re fighting for recovery, it’s fighting against you.
It was about four o’clock in the morning when I dug through my camping supplies and dragged the heavy gun case out of its storage. I fumbled with the lock and checked–just to make sure there wasn’t a shell stored in the gun that I wasn’t aware of.
Are you sure that’s why you’re looking?
Of course it would be empty. Dad would never store a loaded gun. And he had taught me better than that as well. Gun safety was always top priority in our family. No toddler is going to accidentally shoot his sister in one of our homes.
Are you sure that’s why you’re looking?
I returned the gun to its case, locked it, and stashed it at the back of the closet again. Safely out of reach.
Is it really safe?
And then I resumed pacing.
I paced until I was so exhausted and so in need of sleep that I felt I would collapse. I flopped on to the couch, thinking I could get an hour of sleep before I had to be up again… but as I lay, exhausted and worn down by the anxiety and seemingly endless night, the tears began.
I didn’t feel like I could trust myself.
I wondered if I should call the police and report myself as suicidal. I wondered if I could hurt myself… if I would. I began thinking of all the ways I could steal my life away… wondered which was quicker, which was painful, which would be most like simply going to sleep… sleep…I so desperately wanted to sleep.
The tears flowed.
It was one of those ugly cries–where you don’t try to wipe the tears away or hide the sobs. It just came freely and for a flicker of a moment I thought the anxiety had won, that I wouldn’t make it to see the sunrise…
Suddenly, the puppy was in my lap, nuzzling up under my chin the way Omar used to. I wrapped my arms around her–the little ball of energy, the one that never seemed to stop vibrating, the one that didn’t like to cuddle or sit still–and she let me hold her. For a long time I just help her and sobbed into her floppy ears.
After a while she looked at me and licked the tears away from my cheeks. She laid her head on my shoulder and just let me bury my face in her neck.
That little voice of anxiety was silenced, just like that. That eternal night finally started to move toward dawn again. The ugly spell had been broken long enough that I could finally rest. I don’t know when I drifted off to sleep, but I did because the next thing I knew I was groaning about the buzzer on the alarm.
She had saved my life that night. I don’t have any doubt about it… that night Riley saved my life.
That little voice had worn me down so completely that I thought there was no hope–no way of escaping it. I couldn’t see anything but the darkness of night and wasn’t sure the sun would ever break through again…
But she had saved my life.
I went to my meeting and somehow managed to keep myself awake through the whole thing. I came home and slept the whole evening and night. When Monday rolled around I made an appointment with my doctor and told him about the anxiety. He placed me on Ativan, which I took for the next three months, until I had gained the edge with my coping skills and finally gotten some rest.
But I never forgot how Riley saved my life that night.
Thankfully, there hasn’t been a night as bad as that since… but I struggle with depression, and anxiety just naturally goes along with it. Though I haven’t been at the edge like that again, she’s been there, cuddling with me, laying her head against me when she senses I’m getting tense, licking at my hands when she knows I’m worried.
She saved my life that night–so, a year later I registered her as an emotional support animal. Some of my friends and family laugh about it–they think ESAs are a joke… but I know. I know that she saved my life that night. I had been ready to surrender and she nudged me back to life.
There are countless ways for a person struggling with mental health issues to find healing. For me, it has been a mix of medication, counseling, and cuddling with a dog. For you, or someone you love, it may be another combination… but encourage them to find help. Help them find help. And don’t laugh about what they’ve found–it may be the difference between life and death. Would you choose the alternative for them just because you don’t understand what they’ve found?
Clergy people are lonely. Study after study has shown this to be true across the board, even amongst those who are married–we are alone. While we give ourselves endlessly to others, in our time of need we are often left to fend for ourselves. Single clergy people are served a double whammy–not only do we feel the same loneliness our married colleagues feel, but when we go home we do so alone, and that can be insurmountable. I’ve found having pets makes a huge difference, and having Riley registered as an Emotional Support Animal makes it easier to travel with her and gives me the peace of mind of knowing that Riley can easily be with me wherever I am sent.