Why I Never Thought I Would Attempt Suicide as a Former Mental Health Worker
What is depression? I’ve asked that question over a million times. And in my years away from the mental health profession, I assumed that there was now an answer. The riddle had been solved. And indeed there is an answer. Actually, quite a few. According to Google, there are 56,800,000 answers to this “simple” question. At the time I first asked, I thought I was in a great position to answer my own question. After all, I graduated with honors at one of the nation’s premier colleges of nursing with a specialty in psychiatric nursing. I earned a scholarship for excellence in psychiatry and parlayed this into a successful career in psychiatric nursing.
But that’s not all. I used my experience to found a series of very successful businesses. I pushed hard and learned the businesses of psychiatry, healthcare and healthcare staffing. I founded and chaired one of the nation’s largest healthcare staffing companies. By third party perspective, I was “rich.” A millionaire. Successful and happy. As such, I was confident that I could never experience the mental illnesses I used to treat. Maybe I was overconfident. After all, we psych professionals are the ones that are trusted to “heal” the brain. Confidence in this healing process is required to be a good clinician. However, this attitude actually fools a person into believing that they are somewhat invulnerable. Even invincible. I was one of those people.
But — as my life was completely disintegrating, it seems that I just stood by and watched. An innocent bystander to my own free fall from the top. Before I was seemingly forced to turn things around, to ask the right questions, I kept saying to myself, “There’s no way that anything could be so wrong with me!” Maybe there’s something wrong with the world, or maybe I had a lot of bad luck in the last decade, but something wrong with me? I honestly never considered the possibility that I could experience mental illness. Not me!
Then came what should have been my awakening. I woke up in the hospital after being involuntarily committed for a serious suicide attempt. I was on constant observation. Even while going to the bathroom. I was, in effect, a prisoner in my own hospital bed. Me — on suicide precautions. Yet I was immune to all of this. I denied my suicide attempt to everyone including my family. Even myself. I blew it off and regarded it as nothing but a mere gesture. A cry for help? Hell no. I didn’t need help. After all, there was nothing wrong with me.
“Nothing…wrong…with…me!” Those words resonate with me even today. And unbeknownst to me until I returned home from the hospital, I had destroyed everything that I owned before attempting suicide. Including my home. I put holes in the walls, destroyed all of the appliances, shattered all of the glass and even managed to mutilate all of my furniture. And to this day I do not remember doing any of that. I had conned my way through a 10-day inpatient stay at a psychiatric facility owned by the company where I used to be a valued nurse supervisor. But my return home traumatized me. Nothing wrong with me? Now I wasn’t so sure.
Yet in time, I somehow managed to sweep all of this under the carpet. As if it never occurred. When you fail to see a problem, to acknowledge any wrongdoing, falling seems impossible. Or maybe my circumstance was just too painful to acknowledge. Either way, I felt that I could not fall. Nope. Not to depression with psychosis, to polysubstance abuse and addiction. Not an anxiety disorder, depressive pseudodementia, and pretty much everything else in the DSM-V related to such “weaknesses.” Including suicide.
Here’s the thing. In society, depression is often seen as a weakness. A failure. Even in the healthcare profession, many professionals see such failures as a personality weakness. I thought I was too successful to be weak. Make bad choices? I was an ex-CEO, a career decision-maker. I didn’t make bad choices? A genetic outlier or anomaly? No. There was no significant family history of mental illness. My occlusion from the truth was blinding. My denial was so immense and my fall from grace so far and profound, that once I realized that I was in the maw of the “black dog,” it was way too late. I didn’t stand a chance.
So yes, I have asked many questions. What happened to me? How could somebody so resilient, so knowledgeable about mental health, who had gained the respect of leaders in the industry, who seemingly had it all—have become the outcast? The loser? The weak one? If I was any or all of these then how could I ever trust myself again? Did I fall to some psychological uber-failure or some freak biological phenomenon? I could either try and find answers to these questions or simply give up. Put my faith in my Maker and hope for some kind of 11th-hour miracle.
Now, when I began asking these questions, I was at the lowest possible point in my life. I was incarcerated for grand theft. I tried to steal food to eat. I had become that poor and desperate. So waking up in jail for having to steal food to eat was a bit of a shocker. After all, I had been a millionaire just a few years back. And the detectives led me to believe that there would be additional felony charges filed against me. I was “profiled” and deemed a suspect in many other crimes. Crimes I did not commit.
Innocent or guilty, I just knew that soon I would be homeless. That my family now considered me the black sheep. But, landing in jail gave me one thing. Downtime. And with this came the opportunity to debrief, to think and reconnect with my Maker. More importantly, I was living within a much-needed structured environment. It also saw a psychiatric nurse practitioner. I asked to get on medication and she agreed. To me, being incarcerated, this time criminally so, was one hell of a sobering moment. My wake-up call. Looking back, it may have saved my life.
Being in jail and facing hard time for grand theft, felt like the very lowest rung on the ladder of society. One step below homelessness. I thought, “at least the homeless are free.” And now I had lost even that. My freedom. And as losses go, I had lost everything in my life. Not only my wealth and respect, but all of my friends and business colleagues. My home and cars, my jewelry and most of my clothes. I even lost my business, professional and drivers licenses. Gone. No material assets of value. As poor as a person could possibly get.
And that was the easy part. Even more traumatic, I lost my beloved Dachshunds, Gromit and Grometta. I suffered a breakdown dropping them off at the animal shelter. My kids had to bear witness to this heartbreaking event. It felt like I was sending my puppies to their own deaths. Maybe I was. To make matters worse, add to this near-complete list my relationship with my two teenage kids. I felt I had deserted them. Maybe I had. Even more devastating, I deserted myself.
Was all of this my fault? After all, I’m the one who fell. Likely so. I certainly bear full responsibility for my losses. I also suffered what are likely irreversible changes to my physical health. At best, I am a shadow of my former self. And having been a former bodybuilder, athlete, model and actor, I took great pride in my health. And my looks. Sadly enough, this is the abridged version of the god-awful nightmare that had become my dark reality. My fate was seemingly decided by my actions of the recent past, facing hard time in prison. Getting hope back seemed hard enough. Figuring out what to do next was virtually impossible.
At this point, I decided I really have but two streets on which to walk. I can continue this precipitous fall towards the abyss or find my own way out. Put yourself in my shoes. What would you do? Down one street are huge potholes, giant barricades and obstacles. Full of land mines you have laid for yourself. Any other street seems easier. But, somewhere along this street are the answers to your questions. And down this street, you have no choice but to face your inner demons. And to walk this walk, my walk, you would have to do so alone, with blinders on, and with no real direction—no MapQuest to get you “there.” Hell, you don’t even have a clue where there is. That is street number one.
The second street is “Easy Street.” Down this street, you walk whichever way everyone else goes. Maybe no rights or wrongs. Everything you own is strapped to your back. Your only worries are, “Where will you eat tonight. Where will you sleep?” However, this street is a filthy brick road that leads to nowhere. To homelessness. That perspective, the feeling of having come from wealth and losing it all is far worse than never having it in the first place. I was 53 years old and felt like I was 70. Hell, I felt like I was dead yet breathing. And looked it. Maybe I earned my way down here. Imagine my hell down here. On street number two.
Despite facing numerous challenges in my life, deciding my own fate became the greatest challenge yet. I was emotionally and functionally debilitated. My dilemma had me frozen in time. Fortunately, time is something that you have in prison. That is all you have — time. Time for regrets. Time for shame. Time to cry. Time to blame the world for bringing you down. Time to blame yourself. Time to hate the world that you are in. Time to hate yourself. Time to curse your Maker.
And time to apologize to your Maker. To set your soul right. When your future was as bleak as mine, the vast majority of time is wasted staring into your own wake. Your past. The questions you ask down here start with “Why…?” Why did I go this way? Why did I give up? Why didn’t I see this coming? And why me? Time—no longer your friend. Down here, in my hell, time is the enemy. And all decisions, including your own future, are put on hold. Because your fate is no longer in your hands. There are no choices. That too, the right to choose, has been stripped away. Now you really have nothing left. Except time.
Jumping ahead in time. After being released on the first charge, I was charged again. This time for burglary of a business. Now, with multiple felonies staring me in the face, I knew I would do hard time. Years. Deep down I knew I was not guilty. Despite that, all hope of a normal life was lost. Beaten-down, utterly destroyed, now a broken man beyond repair, I had found the bottom. Once again, I was ready to die. I asked my Maker for a second chance. A purpose. Hope. And my prayers seemingly went unanswered. What else could possibly go wrong with my life? I had nothing left to give besides my own life. And time.
With no hope, I found time for one more endeavor. A backup plan. After all, I expected to be sent to one of Florida’s state prisons. None of which have air conditioning. That is how Florida punishes you. Caged up in 100 degree-plus heat and 80 percent humidity. Violent felons with nothing to lose. Lifers. Every last shred of dignity stripped. Hell, even animal shelters like the one where I volunteered have better conditions. They have air conditioning. This repeated and frenzied cycle of borderline insanity went through my mind day in day out for weeks. My backup plan? I would once again try to die if sent to prison for a crime that I knew I did not commit. This time, I would die. I had plans, real plans.
As part of the bargain with myself, I pressed forward as if I would eventually be set free. At this point, I finally began to ask the right questions. How could I make my suffering count? How could I repay myself and my kids? Could I reach out and help others? Keep them from falling. Maybe even save one life. At this point, I did make a life-changing decision. I did choose between one of the two streets. I chose street number one. The “hard way.” To share my hell with others—hoping to prevent or ease their suffering. I did this with the hope of resurrecting my relationship with my kids. And to heal.
As the weeks ticked by, I kept praying in earnest for hope. And I do mean that is all I prayed for. Hope. Life was breathed back into my vacant soul. Maybe it was my medication kicking in, or maybe my Maker took mercy on me. Likely both. I found hope by way of my renewed faith. That often happens in prison. People find their God, their Allah, their Jehovah, their Maker. It is an odd thing. All of us down here for committing crimes against humanity, the ones to blame for all of society’s ills. There I was. One of them. Asking my Maker not for forgiveness, just hope. Hope that my life would be spared. That justice would prevail. Hope. Plain and simple.
And hope was enough. After taking the maximum amount of time to decide, the state attorney saw no hard evidence that I had burglarized a business. I had simply visited that establishment some time back and they found my fingerprints and DNA. Someone had broken a window at that business but had not taken anything. Likely me. Living up to the bargain with my Maker and myself, I faced my next major challenge. I needed a plan. How could I reach out and help others?
First off, I had to understand how the seeds of depression were sown. Seeds that grew slowly and silently. So insidiously that even I, a savvy psych nurse, didn’t see it coming. Was I blinded by the truth? Or had I become progressively debilitated by the ugliness and the blackness of my mental illness? To the point that it was impossible to see not only where I was, but where I was going. After all, nobody in the history of mankind would allow themselves to fall as far as I did. That is if they knew what lay ahead.
It’s obvious why I ask, “What is depression?” Getting out seems a matter of life or death. Since I no longer want to die, I have chosen life. And a damn good one. Here is how I think. In order to fix something, you first have to know what is broken. I am a very simple-minded. In order to understand complexity, I have to break down a problem to its least common denominator. This approach serves me well in that it allows me to document, in great detail, what I find. That way I can share in a meaningful manner my experiences with others in need. That has become my life’s mission.
For a year, I focused on the psychology of my failures. But after writing over 2000 pages of introspective prose, I came to one conclusion. Psychology alone could not have brought me down. I realized that to solve the jigsaw puzzle of my fractured self, I would literally have to research my way “out.” To find my truth. I discarded everything that I was in the past in order to lay a new foundation for whom I was to become in the future. I began using my dreams as “fuel.” Somehow, I had to get well, strong and resilient. And do so before I could embark on this lifelong endeavor.
Methodically, I learned the art of professional research. Trying to understand the language of research alone is an immense challenge. Understanding molecular biology, sub-cellular biology, and even quantum physics were challenges that I overcame. During this process, I continually redefined my life goals to mirror those of my newfound career. A process which continues to this day. My mission was, and still is, to reach out and save one life. Prevent one person from falling as I did. I decided to paint my own reality — one brushstroke at a time. As art so often stems from pain, and flushing that pain from my life and onto paper proved to be the very best therapy.
I am now symptom-free. For the first time in at least a decade. Also, I meticulously document every detail of my research and recovery. I use only government-backed research both in the U.S. and abroad. To determine not only how I had fallen, but how to get back up. The researchers I use for my mission, and to model myself after, are the finest researchers in the world. Hands down, nobody in the profession will likely argue that.
So, questions remain. What is depression? Have I solved the riddle? I preface my answer with a few of the key questions that I have asked along the way. Is depression a disease? Or just a “basket” diagnosis? What are the primary contributing biological factors that result in depression? How does each of these factors present itself in the symptomology of depression? How do biology and psychology interplay with each other? Is depression both preventable and reversible? If yes, then how so?
What about the other challenges that I faced and overcame? Including psychosis, addiction and anxiety? The premature aging and comorbidities as seen with depression? They are all very much within my target range, but not yet in my crosshairs. Depression is. There is one thing that I can share with you right now, up front. These things, these horrible things, these so-called mental illnesses, are not the result of some kind of weakness. Some genetically-enhanced psychological malfunction. These things can happen to anyone. Hell, it happened to me. And according to third-party perspective, I was the least likely person on the planet to fall as I did.
I plan to use The Mighty to share my findings. In a way that we can all understand. Those that are down and out are the ones that need “straightforward and simple” the most. There is so little energy down there. So little hope. I know that one all too well. My goal here with you? To make a difference. Save that one life. Maybe I fell for a reason, even by design. Part of a bigger plan. A plan to do exactly what I am doing now. Reaching out to someone—someone like you, someone like me. This mission has brought me hope. And I plan to pass that on.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.
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Unsplash photo via Simon Wijers