Sunday Reflections: Exit Strategies, a personal reflection for National Suicide Prevention Week (Trigger Warning)
Trigger Warning: Sexual Abuse and Suicide are discussed in this post
The first time I ever thought about it I was in the 8th grade and being abused by someone living in my household. I wrote a will, typing it up on the old fashioned typewriter I had asked for Christmas that year, and folded it into a tiny square and tucked it under the slats of my brother’s bunk bed. I was only 12 or 13 so I didn’t really have a lot to leave behind, it was more of a symbolic gesture. I remember leaving my over-sized Wham poster to my best friend, knowing that she was the only person who would appreciate the enormity of the gift I was bestowing upon her and give it the respect and adulation it deserved. I miss that Wham poster.
Later that year I would find a way out of my traumatizing environment and on the whole I did better. I’m 42 now and throughout my life there have been a few other periods where I have descended into another dark period and formulated for myself what I euphemistically call an “exit strategy”. I spent months during one of my darker times driving over a very high bridge to work and every day I did I thought to myself, if I need to, if it gets too bad, I can just drive over this edge.
My 4th really dark period occurred just this summer. It was not, in fact, a good time to live in the Jensen household. Right after The Mr. came and got me in Ohio to take me to see the doctor, he himself spiraled into a very serious physical illness that laid him up for weeks, pneumonia and pleurisy. So there the two of us were, trying to parent from bed while my thyroid and brain chemistry tried to get re-balanced and he tried to breathe. I was forced to have conversations with The Teen about mental health and what was happening to me, in age appropriate ways. I worked really hard to hide the true extent of my struggles from both of my girls. And only later, as I started to claw my way out of this darkness did I begin to tell a few close friends that it was so bad that once again I had devised an exit strategy.
“The next time,” one of my best friends said, “please call me when it gets that bad.” But I don’t, only being able to talk about it when it’s not so immediate and dark. In part because I don’t want to be that person, I don’t want to be that person whose brain gets messed up and who contemplates things like exit strategies. I love my husband, I love my kids, and I’m blessed to be able to do the things I love – be a YA librarian and write my blog. But depression and anxiety aren’t really about liking your life, they are about brain chemistry and hormones and, in my case, totally messed up thyroid function. Sometimes you never find a specific cause, it’s just a thing that happens and when it does each person must find the right course of treatment to help them.
I said to my close friend recently, “It must be so hard being my friend.” To which she replied, “No, it’s not hard at all. Though it is sometimes scary.” There was so much grace in this statement, this idea that loving me isn’t hard and the thought of losing me is scary. It spoke of my life as having value at a time when I needed reminding that what was happening wasn’t my fault and people do care.
This week was suicide prevention week. In addition to my own personal struggles, in the last 4 years I have had 4 friends or teens take or attempt to take their own lives. Three of them succeeded. One of them now suffers from brain damage and permanent disability. I have friends who constantly mourn, years later, the loss of a loved one from suicide. Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among teens and it is on the rise among adults in part due to our failing economy and the very real financial struggles and stress these events put upon us. 1 in 5 teens and 1 and 4 adults is struggling with some type of mental health issue.
So why am I sharing this with you? There are many who claim that suicide is a selfish act, but when you are in the thick of it, it doesn’t feel that way. I know that at the times that I was truly thinking about exit strategies I did so out of my desire to end the very real pain happening inside my body, and the pain I perceived I was causing and thought I would continue to cause my family. I didn’t want to continue to be a physical, emotional and, most importantly, financial burden on my family. And the physical pain that comes with some symptoms of depression and, for me, more specifically anxiety, are very difficult to live with.
I don’t actually want to die. And I certainly don’t want to take my own life. But depression and anxiety can trick your brain into thinking that would be the best solution for everyone involved. I have thought that my kids would be better off without me. I have felt broken and abandoned and alone and a burden. I have been ashamed, too ashamed to ask for the help and love I needed. But somehow, I have been lucky, because in the end I have always eventually asked for help when I needed it. Sometimes it has come close, dangerously close to being too late. This summer The Mr. and Mary and Mike and Ally and Amanda and Robin and Heather and my girls helped me once again claw my way out of darkness. They were patient and kind and did simple things like text me daily and say I love you and you will get through this. There was a time when I didn’t think I would, and now I am, day by day. Today I’m doing pretty good, reminding me that there is hope.
Even though it has happened before, I am always surprised when it happens again. It’s not something I choose, it’s not something that anyone would choose. I’m happy, enjoying swimming with my kids and reading books and being a success at work and then slowly it starts to creep in again. And because I don’t choose it I can’t just choose to be better. For me, it takes a combination of medication – thyroid support and other medications – and love, support and kindness from the people I love. The Mr., he is as patient as a saint and more kind that it seems should be humanly possible.
I was devastated when one of the teens from my library took his own life shortly after graduation. I felt not anger, because I understood where he might be coming from, but a tremendous amount of sadness to know that he was in that dark place where you start thinking about exit strategies. When you work with teens, it’s important to keep in mind that at all times several of your teens are trying to slay their own mental health dragons, some of them are failing and trying to think of their own exit strategies. It’s also important to remember that you are in no way qualified to help when these issues arrive, though you can do small things like be a caring, nonjudgmental adult who takes the time to affirm the value of their existence. Listen. Be patient. Be kind. Remember that some of the “baddest”, most “difficult” kids may be wrestling with issues that really deserve different labels. What we see as difficult may in fact be a code for hurting. Now, more than ever, we should always chose kind. Sometimes that one kind moment can be the difference between following through on an exit strategy and finding the courage to ask for help. You often will never know, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
For more on teens and mental health, please visit the TLT #MHYALit Discussion Hub
- The Foundation for Hope – hope611.org
- NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness
- National Mental Health Organizations
- WHO | Mental Health – World Health Organization
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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