13 Reasons Why (I’m Still Alive)

Out of the Darkness: Overnight Walk DC — June 17, 2017. I’m fifth from the left. All of us want to #stopsuicide .

Over the past day and night I walked sixteen miles through the streets of Washington, DC. Even after a shower and a long nap today I’m still feeling the after-effects: The muscle soreness. The blisters on my feet. And the chafing — oh, the chafing! All par for the course when walking in a sweltering, humid city at the dead of night.

And through it all? It was one of the most life-affirming moments I’ve had in the past several years. The hundreds with whom I walked were there with unique stories of loved ones they lost to suicide — or their own struggles with suicide, anxiety and depression. Walking with this group made me feel like part of something bigger. A community full of others who didn’t feel complete. Yet all of us together made each and every one of us more full.

This was my first Out of the Darkness Overnight walk, an initiative from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to raise resources and awareness. On average there are 121 suicides in the United States on a daily basis, and the number of attempts daily is estimated to be in the thousands. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the USA. While having raised funds for AFSP as part of this initiative, another goal was to have so many of us walking together through the night — the time when many feel most vulnerable to feelings of hopelessness and compelled to act upon them.

Many participated in The Overnight to remember those who were lost to suicide while many, like myself, were there primarily to reflect on our own personal struggles with suicide and our journey towards recovery. While I know that many of my friends have been affected by suicide and suicide ideation (I asked them for names of people I was also walking for to put on the back of my t-shirt), this experience helped me feel that I was not alone. Others had struggled as well. And even those who had lost daughters, brothers, children and partners to suicide cared. And wanted to make sure that I and others would no longer feel that the only option available to remove the pain and anguish would be death. That there would be many more options and coping resources available to anyone who needed them.

I walked thinking of these individuals. My name (Mike) is in the center. Some had been affected by suicide or suicide attempts for a very long time. Sam, at the bottom of the list, died from suicide three days before I walked. Each person has a story. None of them are alone.

I’m doing immensely better than I was at my darkest hour. I’m still on my journey through recovery (and I likely will be for quite a while), but I’ve been able to utilize so many resources that have helped me move forward. This list works for me — and may not be for everyone. Nor is it a guarantee that everything will be lollipops and roses from here on out. But some of these items may resonate with you. And may help you feel that there are ways to cope with and even find joy in living another day.

And there are thirteen (in no particular order of importance). I won’t jump into a debate about the merits of the televised adaptation of “Thirteen Reasons Why” and whether or not it sends the wrong messages about suicide. Instead, I’ll co-opt the number to provide a different thirteen reasons. Thirteen reasons why I’m still alive.

  1. Crisis response. Suicide hotlines have had mixed reviews by some who have used them. They’re absolutely not perfect. And they’re not a replacement for therapy with a professional. But they serve a purpose — someone is there to empathetically listen right now. A counselor may ask questions and provide information about mental health services in the area if needed. They operate through active listening and reflection — allowing you hear what they understand you saying. Even that acknowledgment that there is someone out there listening with out judgment can make a world of difference. I’ve utilized the (USA) National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800–273-TALK) which will usually route the call to a local/regional center. I’ve also utilized Crisis Text Line (text GO to 741741) which states that they help you “move from a hot moment to a cool calm to stay safe and healthy.” There are other resources available which allow you to reach out have someone listen. For me, this has been valuable and life-saving. (It’s worth mentioning that many of these services are non-profit organizations and rely on donor support. Hold times can only become shorter if there are more resources to have people staffing the phones. Please consider making a donation — especially if it has helped.)
  2. Family. I am fortunate to have an empathetic, sympathetic, nurturing family which has been there for me through thick and thin. I also have an amazing spouse who has helped guide me when I’ve felt helpless and hopeless. To be honest, one of the mechanisms I had been using to help reinforce staying alive has been the guilt feeling of the devastation my family would feel if they were to lose me. And that is important. But I’ve started to learn to shift my thought process: they are a resource. I might not be able to tell them absolutely anything in a crisis. But I know that they will do what they can to help. (Family can be defined however you want to — sometimes family is made up of people who are not relatives. And that’s fine. Whether you have family or “framily,” they’re a resource.
  3. Antidepressants. Again, keep in mind that these items are not necessarily in order of importance. When my wife and I discussed my getting help a while back, it was because I was not functioning. I was not at a place where I could get up and attend therapy sessions. My first intervention was with a wonderful psychiatrist who helped me “get to a standing position.” I was prescribed a specific reuptake inhibitor to provide a more chemically balanced cocktail of neurotransmitters. What was a subtle difference to me appeared far more apparent to my wife as an increase in positive energy. Since then my prescriptions have been fine-tuned a bit. But the main impetus helped ready me to visit…
  4. A therapist I can click with. I’ve had therapists before — even in childhood. They were always these older people who seemed to know everything better than I did and tried to understand me but didn’t quite. As an adult, I realized only recently that if I didn’t think I was making any further progress with a therapist, I could voice that and make my own decisions about my care. And exactly that happened when I dropped my very nice, very well-meaning therapist of several years because I simply didn’t feel that my sessions with her were adding value.
    My therapist now is awesome. She’s my age and has kids my own kid’s age. She has piercings and tattoos. And while we’re on the same wavelength, she tells it like it is. And I respect what she has to say. I feel confident that she wants to help me out when I have appointments with her.
  5. A therapy I can click with. The therapy is just as important as rapport with a therapist. We’re using dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) to help train my mind to best cope with feelings of anxiety, depression and hopelessness. We review incidents that have happened. We analyze. We determine where my mind was going with it all. And then we come up with a strategy to help me stay afloat the next time rather than spiral downward into that dark place. Does it work all the time? No. But it has certainly helped me move forward when incidents occur that, in the past, would have derailed my entire day.
  6. A safety net. My therapist helped me devise what is often described as a “safety plan” should I need one. This is a means to pre-determine my coping mechanisms should I find myself in a place where I feel the darkness of hopelessness coming on. I identify certain situations that might trigger these feelings and either avoid them or ensure I have someone there to help guide me through. I use some of the cognitive coping methods I’ve learned in therapy. I engage certain very close allies by phone or text who will listen and be there for me. I haven’t had to utilize them, but I have phone numbers for my therapist and psychiatrist ready if I need them after hours. And I have crisis resources available to me. Even if I don’t quite use the safety net to the fullest extent, knowing that it is there presents me with coping options. There’s a plan in place. There are people who know they’re part of the plan who are there to help. All I have to do is ask. (There’s a wonderful online resource which will help you devise a safety plan — and even put it on a mobile app. Check it out here.)
  7. Helping Others. I know that I feel better when I’m helping. I feel useful. I feel that there’s a place for me. And that’s why one of my coping mechanisms is to dive into help mode. It could be trivial, one-time items, like helping a relative fix their computer. It could be listening to a friend who needs to vent about their partner, their kids or their job. It could be my volunteer work for a non-profit organization — whether administratively or in the field. I love to teach people how to do stuff. In turn, I love to see how they can apply what they’ve learned and pass it down. That gives me pride and hope. And purpose. And a reason to help again tomorrow.
  8. Others Helping. This is not an easy one for me. I hate asking for help. I hate feeling needy. My recent experiences have helped me realize that not only is it perfectly okay to get help from others, but in most cases the assumed resentment they have towards me for asking is all in my head. I’m not alone in wanting to help people. I’m starting to learn to let go of a feeling of total self-sufficiency.
  9. Faith. This is a tricky concept. And it’s not something which I absolutely have absolutely all the time. Is there a higher power? Does God pre-ordain everything according to Their grand plan? I honestly don’t know most of the time, and when I do my viewpoints are extremely fluid. I can’t even concede to having faith in myself some of the time — as I sometimes become concerned that my judgment or ideas are inferior to that of others. (Something else I’m working on in therapy; see number 5.) So — what type of faith drives me forward? The faith that there is change going forward. Faith that whatever is occurring at this very moment will change in some way as we step into the future. And if things suck right at this very moment, there’s faith that something will change. It might suck even more, but chances are the change will be for the better if things are really bad at this moment.
  10. Friends. I have people. Wonderful people. Some I’ve known for a very long time. Some I haven’t even met in person. Some I speak with several times a day; some with whom I have two exchanges annually: one where they wish me a happy birthday on Facebook and one when I do the same. Each of these friendships is unique in some way, and knowing that some of these relationships have sprung me into surprising directions helps me approach them as potential opportunities.
  11. Strangers. While friends are crucial, strangers serve an important purpose, too. I enjoy the opportunity to be nice to strangers in line. Or to banter with the woman at the supermarket who, last week, told me she thought I was fine because “I don’t like men who look like Steve Harvey, and you don’t look like Steve Harvey.” (I’ll take it!) I like to smile at cute people walking cute puppies on the street. I like to share a moment with that stranger who is rolling her eyes at the person having an intimate conversation on their cell phone just a bit too loud. I like to let a stranger merge into my lane when they have no other choice. There’s no pressure to get it right because I’m just a stranger. If I get it wrong or if I’m awkward — they’re just strangers I’ll never see again. I can apply this online as well. Not everyone needs to be friends with me. I don’t need to appease everyone.
  12. Giraffe Farts. Or anything else that sounds funny and unexpected. Humor and laughter truly go a long way for me. If I can find a funny moment in life, on screen, in a comedy routine or in a memory, I can laugh internally and feel a smile form. And when that smile is there, it’s not as easy to feel hopeless. Sometimes profane stimuli will elicit a funny response. I can never, ever heard Tom Jones’s “What’s New Pussycat” again without thinking of John Mulaney’s stand-up routine about his time playing it on the jukebox at a diner. Even better if I can make someone else laugh in the process.
  13. The future. I’m learning not to fear the future but rather to embrace it. Some of it comes from the experiences friends have had — and the frank conversations I’ve had with them. I’m learning not to assume that everything unknown will be a task I won’t know how to accomplish or learn how to do — but rather that there are components I can learn in sections to make things less intimidating and less likely to provoke anxiety.

And I also see a future with me in it. I’ve begun to think of so many things I want to see in my future:

I want to run again. Longer than a 5k. Maybe, dare I say it, a half-marathon.

I want to present a paper or at least a brief talk at a conference.

I want to see my son’s eyes light up when he finds his passion. Or when he falls in love for the first time.

I want to eventually finish the basement with carpet tiles.

I want to help people feel in control of their own bodies and their own mental and physical health. And to help ensure that they have access to this care.

I certainly attribute being alive to knowing that there’s a tomorrow where some, if not all, of these are possible.

I don’t feel all of these thirteen reasons at every given moment. Some of them remain a struggle. But even having one or a few at a time helps me move forward one step at a time.

… but I’m just going to wait until the chafing heals.