Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Fight for My Life

Completion of "The Cross I Bear" By Lee Jones

I started this blog post in August of 2012, right after the suicide of pro football player O.J. Murdock. I had every intention of completing the post back then, but I found it too emotionally wrenching to complete. Finishing the post would require me to stir up some emotions and thoughts that I would rather have remained dormant. But I had to wake up those feelings in order to say what I wanted to say in this piece. It was, and still is, a painful subject for me. It's now May 2013. It’s been nine months since August 2012, so I need to go ahead and birth this message. Around this time five years ago, my depression almost forced me to commit suicide.

From The Beginning

I recall having cyclical bouts of feeling ‘blue’ or feeling anxiety for much of my youth, but I never associated those cycles with depression until late in my life. The sources of my depression were probably sown years ago during my adolescence. I had an emotionally challenging childhood. I rarely felt loved: I am not saying my parents did not love me. But I did not feel loved. I did not receive the support or encouragement that I wanted, particularly from my father who I looked up to. My parents loved me the way they thought I should be loved, rather than the way I needed to be loved. In addition, I am a preacher’s kid, which came with its own set of pressures and expectations. My father was the center of attention and he reveled in it. He commanded attention at all times. Early on, I got the clear message that I was to be seen and not heard. Sometimes not even seen. I grew up in a very strict home. I was never allowed to celebrate holidays, never had a birthday party, could not go to the movies, and was banned from listening to secular music. I had to read the Bible aloud at church. There was no such thing as freedom or open expression in my household.

When I wanted to play sports in high school, I had to literally beg my parents to play. They allowed me to play but never came to see me perform. At the time I was not bothered by their absence. Or so I thought. Later on, I discovered that it was pretty hurtful to look up in the stands and not see my parents or any relatives cheering me on, while my teammates had their parents, family and friends supporting them. Many times, my teammates and coaches asked me if my family was at a game. I would lie and make up some excuse as to why they weren’t there. I never asked my parents why they never came to see me play because I was afraid of the answer I may have gotten. So I just suppressed my feelings and suffered in silence.

I spent most of my time with my father, even though I never felt much love from him particularly as I got older. He was cold, distant and very judgmental. Sometimes he would shame me from the pulpit when I became fodder for one of his sermons. His ‘love language’ was to give me things and money rather than encouragement, affection and time. But even the things were gradually cut off as I grew to my teen years. He would promise me something but then renege. He would either have an excuse or would conveniently forget what he promised. Since I thought he loved me because of the things he gave me, it's possible that I may have equated him with not following through on what he promised as a signal that he no longer loved me.

As a teenager my father would often refer to me as “the boy,” rather than by my name. I hated that. Although I did catch on at the time, it's now clear that it was another way for him to see me as something rather than someone. Even though I never wanted for anything, I would have exchanged all of it for his validation, his time, his attention and feeling genuinely loved. Sadly, at many points in my life, I duplicated the frigid, distant relationship between my father and me in my relationships and connections with other people.

Let me be clear. I really believe my parents raised me the best way they knew how. Had they known I was not really a happy child, and that unhappiness would follow me into adulthood, I genuinely believe they would have done some things differently. Had they known better, I believe they would have done better. They were great providers and they ‘spoiled me.’ Materially, I had almost everything I wanted. I never wanted for anything except love, validation, and a sense of being wanted.

©Lee P Jones
Hiding in Plain Sight

When I was young adult I would segregate myself. I did not have very many friends except for the one or two from the neighborhood that I grew up with. But I was still guarded with them. I really did not cultivate any friendships, and I usually kept people at a distance - no matter how they tried to get close to me. I would have labeled myself an isolationist: someone who kept to myself and avoided meaningful relationships with others. I will never forget, when I was around 20 years old, that a friend named Warren drove by one day to pick me up, so that we could hang out on a Saturday evening. I really liked Warren because he was the opposite of me. He was effortlessly gregarious, had many friends, was very assertive and enjoyed life. As I recall the day he came to pick me up, I was my typical, distant self with him. I think he got fed up with me and decided to speak from his heart. I remember him saying to me, “Lee, you are going to have a hard time in life because you don’t need anybody. You don’t let anybody in.” When he told me that I remember feeling a deep sadness. The sadness stemmed from me knowing that he was right. As usual, my response was, “Okay.” That made him angry and he ended our evening out by dropping me off back at home. Our relationship was never the same after that night. Eventually we disconnected, which to this day I regret. He wanted to be a part of my life but I would not let him. I treated him just as icy and aloof as if he were a stranger. Some of that, of course, stemmed from my poor self-esteem. I was afraid that if I got close to anyone or let anyone in they would feel the same way I did about myself. And I did not like myself at all.

Sometimes people misinterpreted my coldness as me being snobbish, or ‘bougie’, or elitist. More than a few times word got back to me about what was being said about me when I was not around. People really thought I was trying to be better than them, when in reality, I was scared of them. I wanted to connect but I was scared. I wanted to be more like Warren, someone who easily made friends and was popular with folks. I was afraid that if I let myself go and tried to make friends that I would be successful. That did not fit the paradigm. It’s called the fear of success. Making friends meant I would be liked by people, validated by people and even scarier, I would have to show up emotionally in a way that was very different from what I was used to. I would have to open up and be vulnerable and that seemed abnormal to me.

The Challenge of the Church

Then I discovered in my teen years that I was attracted to the same gender. In the African American church being gay is perhaps the worse thing a person could be. Gay bashing by black preachers is commonplace. Gay bashing is still occurring today, but it’s not as prevalent as it once was. All a preacher had to say was, “God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve” and the congregation would respond with a self-righteous ‘Amen!’ or “Preach it!” My father never did much gay bashing in his sermons but homosexuality was certainly on his extensive list of sins that would send you to hell. He used the terms “sissy” and “bull dagger” to refer to gays and lesbians on the occasions when he did rebuke us from the pulpit. The church taught the only way I could be spared damnation was to either pray to be delivered from these ‘urges’ or to find someone to cast that demon out of me. So, I got the message loud and clear that I had to hate myself because I was an abomination. I was taught that an all-loving God hated me because I was attracted to the same gender. I felt that I was not worthy of God’s love, or anyone’s love for that matter, including the love I should have had for myself. The church justified what I already felt; that I did not deserve to be happy because I am defective.

Besides the condemnation of my sexuality, I think the Black charismatic church compounded my depression because they taught that my suffering was because of sin in my life. Although attitudes are slowly changing now, the church frowned on folks who said they were depressed. I was taught that if you're suffering from depression or any sickness it is because of sin, a demon or a lack of faith. In order to rationalize that theology, the church had to teach that God was nearly always angry. They taught that God was vengeful and watched from above with a scorecard to mark down your transgressions and mete out the appropriate punishment. Depression was simply punishment from God for something the person did. What was missing from the church was a strong understanding of the disease of depression and the striking absence of empathy. The church-at-large I grew up in eagerly taught about the wrath of God but never imparted much about the compassion of God. Some of that was from ignorance of the Bible and some was from self-righteousness. Whatever the case, love and compassion weren’t practiced very much.

Even those churches or pastors that were more enlightened about the challenges of human life were at a loss to properly respond to those with mental health issues. By my mid 20’s, I had left the dogmatic “Holiness or Hell” churches and joined a church that I thought was more Christ-centered. It was a mega-church (7,000-plus members when I joined), which was new to me since I never belonged to a church with more than 200 worshipers. The pastor was a dynamic teacher and preacher (he still is). But I distinctly remember in 2001 or 2002 going to this pastor and telling him I needed prayer and guidance because I don’t like my life. I told him I am unhappy and I don’t ever see me being happy. He responded with cheery anecdotes and philosophical musings. He undoubtedly thought his response was helpful, but it was typical church-speak. That is what pastors do who are not trained to effectively respond to people who are suffering from depression or other mental health challenges. He never once asked me why I felt the way I did, or if I thought about seeing a mental health professional. He reminded me of my father because he was another pastor that did not care about me. I left church that day feeling worse than I did when I came, because I reached out for help and I did not get it. Instead, I got some words that probably made him feel better. I really don’t blame him for his response. He is not a psychologist or a therapist, so I should not have expected him to give me anything that would help to shake my doldrums. In fact, it has been my experience that many preachers and pastors themselves are secretly depressed or have their own mental health challenges.

But even if religious doctrine does not stop people from seeking help, the notion that only white people go to psychiatrists and therapists often does. I have always heard people say that black people don’t need to “go lay on no couch.” As if somehow being black in America makes us immune to the need of seeking help since our ancestors did not “go crazy” when faced with the brutality of slavery, racism, lynching, and Jim Crow. But it is precisely that brutal past that makes us more of a candidate for mental health intervention than less of one. Instead, we invented a musical genre that celebrates misery named the blues. We are supposed to sing about our ‘blues’, not seek help for it, even though the trauma from the past is still leaking down from generation to generation today.

Since the church did not help, I concocted my own remedy. I just decided to pray harder, throw myself into my job, and get involved in church activities, including singing in the choir, on praise teams, and in a local community choir. It’s ironic that I was anointed to sing to people about the goodness of God and yet I did not feel any of that same goodness myself.

My Answer Lies in the Big City

I often traveled to bigger cities to get some temporary thrills that made me feel much better about life and myself. I hated to return home because I would experience anxiety and deep sadness because it meant my out-of-town ‘high’ was going to wear off, and I would return to my unhappy existence. But one day I got an idea. I figured that since I came alive in big cities, why not move to one so that I can stay alive. My expectation was that if I relocated to a bigger city, I would have a more connected and exciting life. So I decided to move to Atlanta, Georgia in the fall of 2006. I always had a good time in Atlanta, so I thought it would be a great place to relocate. It also helped that the Atlanta metro area was teeming with other Black gays who I assumed I could connect with and feel a sense of community. Essentially, I thought I could be ‘healed’ in Hot’lanta.

After taking several weeks to get settled in Atlanta, I decided to try my hand at dating. I started dating someone that I had known prior to moving to Atlanta. We had a mutual attraction to each other so we decided to give it a go. I thought things were going along great. But then, one day in the summer of 2007, I called him and he did not return my call like he usually did. I called again: no response. I texted him: no response. I sent him instant messages but he never responded. In effect, he disappeared. I went by his home to try to find him and either he did not answer the door or he was not there. I spent a week trying to reach out to him but to no avail. The fact of the matter is that he kicked me to the curb and I did not know why. But I felt somehow responsible for his disappearance. Yes it hurt and yes I was disappointed, but I figured I deserved it for whatever I did.

After a few weeks of brooding, I started dating again but without much success. Then, in early 2008, the guy who disappeared in 2007 had resurfaced. He was back on the scene. He apologized for disappearing. The reason he said he stopped talking to me is that he was going through some things, and he did not know how to tell me. He still never told me what those things were and I never asked. I was not completely sold on his excuse, but given how low my self-esteem was, he could have told me that aliens abducted him and I would have partly bought into it. I still liked the guy so I agreed to start dating him again. It was going along smoothly til his birthday rolled around in April.

He and I went out and celebrated his birthday. He seemed to enjoy the night we spent celebrating. I was happy because I thought he was happy. But the very next day, I called him and left a voice mail message. He did not return my call. I texted him: no response. I instant messaged him: no response. This again went on for a week. He totally disappeared a second time. I felt like the sucker of the world. My self-esteem hit rock bottom. I thought I was being rejected again because of something I did or did not do. I was also angry. Angry that he did not tell me why he rejected me a second time (or the first time, for that matter). I guess I was naïve to think that things would be different with him this time than it was the first time.

After his “second going,” my depression became more prevalent. His leaving a second time triggered something in me that I had never felt before. It unleashed such extreme unhappiness that I did not want to get out of bed. I felt alone, I felt unloved, and I felt unwanted. I could not concentrate at work. I had trouble sleeping. I started believing that maybe I am not supposed to be happy. There is a passage in the Bible that says, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” I was feeling that surely misery and pain shall follow me all the days of my life.

One morning I woke up from a night of erratic sleep, and I started assessing how my life had changed or not changed since relocating. I thought about how I had no close friends in Atlanta, about how my dating life was dead, and about how I didn’t feel the fabulous sense of community I thought I was going to feel when I moved. If anything, I felt like an outcast. I quickly got angry and decided that I needed to make some changes. The changes were going to be comprehensive, drastic and sudden. But the changes came with an ultimatum. Either these changes better work or I was going to end my life. It really had become a do-or-die situation for me. Either I was going to start winning in my personal and professional life, or I was going back home to my family - in a coffin. I was serious.

Just One Card

Shortly after making myself that promise, I was rummaging through my wallet looking for something when I came across the card, of a therapist, one of my friends in Atlanta had given me about three years earlier. I was a frequent visitor to Atlanta before I moved there. One weekend I came to Atlanta and I stayed with this particular friend. During the course of my stay, he shared with me that he was seeing a therapist. For some reason he gave me his therapist’s card. I thought it was odd since I did not live in Atlanta, but I thanked him and put it in my wallet. I had no intention of seeing a therapist in Atlanta or back in my hometown or anywhere else. I believed that therapists were for people that did not believe in God. True Christians did not need the help of a therapist. And yes, black people did not go “lay on the couch.” I thought anyone who needed a therapist was probably not mentally stable and bordered on crazy. But I never felt that my friend was unstable or bordering on crazy; he seemed normal to me. In fact, his sharing his struggle with me and the steps he was taking to get better probably had more of an impact on me than I realized at the time.

The card remained in my wallet for at least three years, despite my negative view of mental health specialists. After coming across the card in my wallet, I thought it might be a good idea to get a little help with the changes I was making. I thought perhaps it would be a good idea to run my thoughts by someone who could tell me whether I was on the right track or not. Once again the teachings of the church and the very real stigma in the black community, around seeking the aid of mental health professionals, throttled me from immediately picking up the phone and making that call. I laid the card down on my desk and it sat there for a couple of weeks. But deep down, I knew that if I wanted to live, I had to get over my shame and fear and give the man a call. I had to have enough faith in my future to get some help. I finally called and set up an appointment.

When I went to initial appointment, the therapist asked what prompted me to see him. I talked about that guy disappearing on me twice, about how alone I feel, and how disappointed I am with my life in Atlanta so far. He asked for details about my parents and my childhood. He also asked how I typically felt each day and what I thought about on a daily basis. At the end of my assessment, he wrote a few notes on the paper attached to his clipboard and then looked up at me and said, “You’re depressed.” I said, "Yes, I do feel unhappy at times, but not all the time." He said, “No, you are clinically depressed.” That hit me like a ton of bricks. I came in expecting to be given some advice on how to move forward, and I wind up being diagnosed as depressed. I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. I remember thinking, “How in the hell did my life devolve to the point where I’m now clinically diagnosed with depression?” His telling me that I am depressed only made me more depressed. He said that if I was willing that he would start seeing me regularly to treat my depression. I agreed to try it. After all, I thought, "What do I have to lose, except my life?" I had reached one of the lowest points in my life and to not tackle this depression meant certain death.

After a few visits with the therapist, I started to feel better. I think I felt better because for the first time in my adult life, I was free to say anything I wanted and not feel scared that I would have to pay a price for doing so. I opened up and spoke freely with no filter. It felt liberating to say what was really on my mind and not feel judged by the other person. During those sessions, I took off the mask that I had spent most of my life constructing. I may have felt better, but that did not mean I was getting better.

I regularly attended sessions with my therapist. But I think I had deluded myself into thinking I was getting better. What made it clear that I was not getting better was when my birthday rolled around in February 2009. I have to say that it was perhaps the loneliest birthday I ever had. I had no one to go out and celebrate with me. I decided to go out to eat because my parents encouraged me to treat myself to dinner. While at the restaurant, I really did not enjoy the meal because I was full of anger because I was alone. On my way home from the restaurant, I stopped at Whole Foods and got a bottle of champagne and a slice of cake. I came home and ate the cake and drank the entire bottle of champagne that night. I woke up the next day – even more enraged. I said, "This can’t happen again." I really am going to end my life if it’s always going to be this dreadful. I started thinking that all those sessions with the therapist were a waste of time and money, because I was as miserable as I ever had been. Maybe I had unrealistic expectations that my life would to improve rather quickly after seeing the therapist. Maybe I thought my depression was like any other illness; I would be cured after a few days of treatment. Instead, I felt like I was sinking lower into a cold, dark deep well with no hope of catching the rope to get out. I felt trapped with only one way out – ending my life.

I had a session that same week of my birthday with the therapist, and I told him that I had another birthday and it was the worst. By that time, my anger had been replaced by sadness. I still occasionally got angry when I was by myself to avoid crying. I told him that our sessions were not working and were a waste of his and my time. Nothing was changing and I was tired of trying. I told him that I had set a date to end it all, and I was determined to follow through with it. I had resolved that, by my next birthday, things had better drastically change or that would be my last birthday on Earth. I promised to not live one day past my birthday, if nothing changed. I wanted to end my life on my birthday because my oldest sister died on her birthday. I wanted my family to remember my birthday the same way they remember her’s. I had images of my mother coming to visit my grave on my birthday just like she does on my sister’s birthday. I was willing to die just so my parents would finally show me how much they cared.

After I told the therapist that I was serious about my do-or-die ultimatum, he agreed that the sessions were not as effective as they needed to be. He said that since I’d moved from thinking about suicide to setting a concrete date, we needed to take drastic action. And that drastic action was to be on anti-depressants. I immediately felt my insides sink. I used to judge people who took anti-depressants, and here I am now being told I need them. At first, I refused to get medication, but then after praying and asking God about what I should do, I practiced my faith and agreed to try it.

I got the pills and started taking them. After a week or two I felt different. Maybe not better, but different. I stopped thinking about suicide. I took that off the table as an option. I was still ashamed that I had to take medication, though. I did not tell my family. To this day they don’t know. I did not tell anyone at my church, especially my pastor, even though I am an active part of the ministry. I still fear the judgmental posture the church can take about my illness. In many ways, it was easier to disclose my sexuality than to disclose my taking anti-depressants. I did tell three people about my taking medication for my depression. And they proved to me why I consider them my closest friends.

Unfortunately, none of them live in Atlanta, so I had to phone them individually. I called each of them and told them that I was seeing therapist. I shared that bit of news, first, to assess their reaction. Each of them expressed support and said that it was probably a good thing that I was getting some help sorting things out. Then I told them that I am on anti-depressants. Mysteriously, each one of them paused after I told them that. The pause scared me. Then, they spoke. One said he could relate because at one time in his life he had to take anti-depressants. I was surprised. He had never told me that. I never knew he had battled depression because he has always been cheerful and so self-assured, since we first met in college. Another one said there is nothing wrong with taking medicine to get better. He was happy I was taking that step. The last one said he has taken anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication at certain points in his life, so he was there to support me. All three told me how much they love me and hoped that I get better. Their reactions alone made me feel better. I was relieved that they did not scold me for seeking help or taking medication. They helped me realize that while I thought I was being weak by seeking help, a sign of strength is recognizing that you need help and setting out to get it. That’s not weakness; that’s wisdom.

Even though I got the support and love of my closest pals, I was still punishing myself for having to take medication for depression. Then, one day, I was having a talk with a friend in New York City that I don’t consistently dialogue with, but we always connect in a very rich way when we do talk. At some point during the conversation, I had a moment of transparency and told him I was taking ant-depressants and I was ashamed about it. He listened and then gave me a response that shifted my entire thinking about the medication. He said, "Think of the medication as your own personal stimulus package" (using government spending as a metaphor). It is designed to kick-start you into the right direction; to make you more productive so that your crisis will end. That response blew my mind. I immediately went from seeing the medication as a deficiency to viewing it as an asset. The pills were a tool for getting me out of my well and back on solid ground. Not only did the medication pull me out of my well, it also pulled me back from a grave that I was sure to put myself in.

©Lee Jones
It’s About the Pain

I used to self-righteously say that I would never commit suicide. I was one of the ones who always looked down on those who attempted suicide. But now, I know better having gone through my own battle with depression. Most of us do not know what would trigger us to fall into potentially lethal depression. I certainly did not know mine til it happened. I thought people who attempted suicide were weak people who were trying to take the easy way out. I was wrong. Suicide is essentially an act of aggression. The sadness and pain are what we are violently trying to get rid of. It's not a cop out, it’s just a frantic attempt to stop the emotional torment. A pain that is so weighty that a person would do anything to end the agony. When a person reaches this point, they see death as the only sure-fire way to stop the hurting.

Most folks are surprised when they hear of someone they know committing suicide because they most likely thought the person was fine. The person who has made up their mind to end their life often appears content and even happy. They have a peace of mind that stems from knowing that their suffering will end shortly. I had a certain amount of comfort in knowing that my life was headed to a tipping point. I’m almost positive that anyone who knew me, or saw my ‘public face’ in 2007-2008, would never have guessed that I was on the brink of suicide. No one knew because I hid it. In fact, to this day outside of my therapist and the medical doctor who prescribed the medication, no one else knows that I have been suicidal. This post will obviously change that. I’m taking a risk by being vulnerable and disclosing something so painful and something that I have worked overtime to hide. I concede that I am afraid of the reaction of friends who really know me. I am scared they will stop liking me and sever from me. But those of us who struggle with depression or who were on the brink of suicide need to come out of the closet. If my story can save a life then I will suffer whatever ridicule or judgment people may hurl at me for sharing my truth.

Who would have thought that a card that was given to me three years earlier would save my life? I know if my friend had not given me that card to keep in my wallet, I would not have sought help. And I would not be here writing this post. I would have been absent from the body, five years ago. Clearly, God’s universe knew in 2005 that I would need that card in 2008. If depression and thoughts of suicide can happen to me then it can happen to anyone. Suicide rates are skyrocketing, particularly in the African American community regardless of gender, age and sexuality. But there is help available if folks have the courage and faith to seek it. Even if my story does not save a life, I hope it at least helps to start a dialogue in the African American community and the Black church, concerning the perilous shame attached to those who are thinking about getting help from mental health experts. I can’t help but wonder if the stigma prevented the Kansas City Chief's linebacker, Jevon Belcher, from seeking help before killing his girlfriend and then taking his own life. Or maybe someone could have passed a card to the 22-year-old Seattle-based rapper, Freddy E, before he decided to take his life. Or would Chris Lighty have still been alive if he had gotten the proper intervention.

There are a number of men and women in our community who are suffering in silence who could use a card in their wallet or purse right now. If you are someone who does not feel just right, seek some help. If someone wants to attack you for getting help, at least you will be alive to hear the foolishness they say.

Symptoms of Depression and the Warning Signs of Suicide

Courtesy of Lee P Jones originally posted in Hot Rhetoric Magazine