Five years ago, I was having thoughts of suicide on a daily basis. Things were not good in my relationship at home. I was completely overwhelmed at work. I literally could not see any way out of my situation. And all of that made suicide feel like an actual solution. What's worse is I don't think anyone knew how far gone I was. No one knew that I was walking around on the daily, contemplating suicide. My girlfriend didn't know, my friends didn't know, my family didn't know and my colleagues didn't know. Had they known, I have no doubt they would have reached out to me. The fact that they didn't know is scary because it means I was really good at living a lie. And because no one knew I was suffering, my sense of loneliness and isolation was greatly compounded.
Why didn't I ask for help?
Because I was totally immobilized by fear. You know the fight or flight response, our evolved threat response that helps us react to danger? That surge of adrenaline that enables parents to lift wrecked vehicles off their children? There's a third component to it. We don't often hear about it but it's just as real. It's the freeze response. The fight response can help us confront a danger that we might be able to overcome. The flight response mobilizes us to escape when we realize we're outmatched. But what about those times when we're outmatched yet so overwhelmed that we can't even flee? Enter, the freeze response or the "if I don't move then you can't see me and thus can't hurt me" response.
It would probably be fair to say that five years ago I spent about eight months of my life in a semi-frozen-fighting-and-fleeing state. I was frozen in my personal relationship because I didn't feel safe at home and by "safe" I mean that I knew my relationship with my girlfriend was on the rocks. Yet, despite knowing we were unhappy, I was at a complete loss for solutions. When she would try to talk with me about things, I would literally just shut down. I was so overwhelmed and under-resourced I couldn't even talk about our problems. I would just sit there like a deer in headlights, frozen.
At work I would vacillate between fight and flight. I was fighting the cases, trials and prosecutors I needed to fight. I was fleeing everything else, especially socialization, exercise, self-care and any other non-work-related activity. Did I mention that the multiple sexual assault cases, felony assault on a police officer cases and other challenging matters I was handling seemed to be getting a TON of media coverage at the time? There was a period (i.e., a very long fucking time) when the first result produced by Googling "James Ferguson Alaska" was a scathing article about a sexual assault case I was handling. To say that I felt beset on all sides would be an understatement. I felt like I was living in the middle of a battlefield under active shelling. Munitions were exploding all around me. But that was where I had to live and work. There was nowhere else to go. So every day, I did what I had to do. I put on my helmet, kept my head down and trudged through the battlefield when it took everything I had to simply put one foot in front of the other. I felt numb and like I could die at any moment.
So why didn't I ask for help? I mean if there's anything that is the human equivalent of a "check engine" light or a dead canary in the coal mine, it ought to be recurring thoughts of suicide.
Here's a glimpse into my thoughts from that time:
"Who could possibly help me? No one can help me! Everyone has their own caseload to work. Nobody has time to help me with my shit. And HOW could anyone help me anyway? What are they going to do, take these cases to trial for me? Of course not. How is this going to end? Is this ever going to end? This is never going to end. My relationship is in shambles. Why can't I talk to my girlfriend? I'm going to lose my girlfriend. I'm going to lose my dog. I'm going to lose my house. My client is unhappy. My client is saying the meanest things to me. My client is literally saying to me that I am "digging his grave and hitting him in the head with the shovel." My client hates me. My picture is on the front of the newspaper with ugly things written about this case. All of these jurors hate me. The judge is ruling against me. I am a fucking failure. I am not good enough to do this work. I am a fraud. [self-loathing, self-loathing, I should just kill myself]"
Note, self-loathing is different from self-pity. I think self-pity still contains a shred of self-compassion in there somewhere. Perhaps self-pity seeks to elicit compassion from others. I was far beyond that. Self-loathing for me was was active warfare against myself. There was no self-compassion, only shame and contempt for myself interspersed with thoughts of self-harm. I was waging war against myself. And what's the greatest act of war? It's annihilation, total destruction, termination. The greatest act of war I could commit against myself was suicide.
How perverse is that? I was burning out but using the few shreds of energy that I had left to hate myself.
The good news (spoiler alert) is that I lived. Eventually, the troops ran out of mortars to lob, the smoke cleared and the sun came out. It primarily happened by virtue of me clearing a backlog of heinous sex assault, murder, robbery and other difficult trial cases that I'd inherited from a retiring colleague. Of course, when the smoke cleared, my girlfriend had broken up with me. I'd lost my dog. I'd lost my house. And I was literally in pain from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. I was in so much pain that every physical movement hurt. Seriously, I'd never had my toes hurt for no good reason. I barely had the motivation to get out of bed. But, for the most part, the thoughts of self-harm passed. I went to therapy and that produced some powerful breakthroughs that addressed the thoughts of self-harm and shame. And, independent of therapy, I did my own self-work that has made it all better.
So what's the point of sharing all of this? I'm not sharing it for attention. I'm not sharing it for its shock value. And I'm certainly not sharing it for sympathy. I don't need any of those things. I share it because:
NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT THIS!
AND WHEN NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT IT,
IT FEELS EVEN MORE SHAMEFUL TO LIVE IT.
PERSONAL STRUGGLE IS A HEALTHY RESPONSE TO PERSONAL CHALLENGES.
THAT PERIOD OF TRIALS I WENT THROUGH WAS A CRUCIBLE FOR ME.
I'M THE MOTHER OF DRAGONS!
OKAY, MAYBE I'M NO KHALEESI. BUT YOU GET MY POINT. (AND LET'S BE REAL, YOU ALL KNOW I'M JON SNOW.)
BUT SERIOUSLY, I SURVIVED AND I'M BETTER FOR IT.
But not everyone is lucky enough to make it through. I know I'm not the only one who's felt this way. I can't be the only one who's felt overwhelmed, under-resourced, ashamed for all of it and then hated myself for it. I share this because even people like Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade and Robin Williams--people who had more money, resources and access to help than most of us--have lost this battle.
I share it specifically because there's something that we can all do, which costs no money, and requires only a brief conversation with one or two people who love us.
ESTABLISH A "HELP WORD."
Talk with two or three of your most trusted friends or family and establish a "help word." What do I mean by help word? It is a single word that you can email, say or text to these friends/family, that tells them to deploy support. It is a single word that takes the place of you having to vocalize those feelings that are trapped in your throat or crushed in your chest. It actually allows you to ask for help without having to say the word "help." Hopefully, it allows you to ask for help without feeling like a failure. And because it's a word you created with your friend, in advance of your struggle, it already means that you're going to be at least a little bit understood when you say it.
On a positive note, I think it's also fun come up with a "happy word" or phrase that you and your friend can use as a queue for celebration. A friend of mine came up with #init for a help word, as in "I'm currently in it" and uses #thefixer (a favorite Pearl Jam song) as a happy word.
Whichever words you choose, I encourage you to take action and establish a help word now. And if you're currently #init let someone know. If you don't have someone, let me know. Simply having this conversation is likely to produce connections and support. And having a person who gets you, when all you have to say is one word, and they're ready to lend an ear, a shoulder or hand, that's a powerful antidote to self-loathing. I think that's called love, or compassion, or support. Whatever it is, we could use more of it. #thefixer