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The Question That Allowed Me to Finally Open Up After My Overdose

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

As I arise from my 37th sleep in a psychiatric facility, I’m reflecting on a discussion group I attended a few days ago. Aside from the fact I left completely and utterly drained, it was an eye-opening experience and I learned something. Even us old dogs can learn new stuff it would appear.

So, how are you?

Did you mentally respond, “I’m fine?” Or, “Good. How are you?!”

Like Pavlov’s dog, most of us respond with a conditioned answer. “How are you?” is so common our responses are automated. That’s fine for chitchat with the checkout chick, but when you’re with your nearest and dearest, when you have big emotions you’d love to share (or would benefit from sharing), it’s not helpful to reply with a conditioned, “I’m fine.” But what other options are there? “Are you OK?” is becoming popular, but it’s still not enough.

They’re closed questions — a single word will suffice for a polite response: yes or no.

I have learned a new way. And I want to share it with you.

How’s your broken snow globe today?

How would you respond to that?

What about:

What color was your day?

What animal are you today?

What flavor ice cream are you today?

What’s in your jigsaw puzzle today?

What song are you today?

Does it seem ridiculous? It sounds weird, I know. But try it. I’ve been practicing with a friend and it’s amazing how much information it elicits. My friend is an artist, so, “What color was your day?” works well. She knows color, it’s meaningful to her. Her day was navy blue, almost like denim, stiff and inflexible and not full of the carefree color and joy she hoped for when her eyes first opened in the morning. She had many plans that didn’t happen and the things she worked on didn’t go the way she wanted it. It was a navy blue day. It was a lot more information than, “OK,” which is the most likely response to, “How was your day?”

I struggle with color. I picked daisy yellow, but I don’t know why and I can’t describe my day like that. But I can tell you what’s in my broken snow globe. Today my broken snow globe is arising from a deep, fulfilling sleep. Today my broken snow globe has hope and rainbows in it — there’s no snow. It has sunshine and leafy trees with a pair of loved-up pigeons. Today my broken snow globe feels full of possibilities. It’s 7:48 a.m., so who knows what will be in the globe by the time I lay me down to sleep? But for now, my snow globe feels good.

I landed in this hospital after an overdose. And a familiar response post-event was, “Why didn’t you tell me?” All I can say is, “I couldn’t.” I had no words left. I held on as long as I possibly could. As the staff remind me here on a regular basis, I was — and still am — extremely ill. A rational response was far beyond my capacity to a conditioned response question like, “How are you?” Or, “Are you OK?” I typically responded with, “not good” and “no” for many weeks, but still, it’s a closed question and doesn’t elicit more information. Many people prayed for me, for extended periods of time, and for that, I am very grateful. Perhaps by the grace of God that is why I’m still here. With more heartbeats to beat, more breaths to breathe and more work to do.

I know I’ve said this before, on multiple occasions, but if someone you know is really struggling with depression — or you suspect that is the case — the important question is, “Are you safe?” There is, of course, no guarantee anyone will respond with an honest answer, but the opportunity is there. It’s still a closed question – yes or no — but if you’re worried, it gives a clear indication intervention may be required.

Failing that, “What’s in your broken snow globe today?” is more fun, generates conversation and forces the other person to really think. What is in my broken snow globe today?

I’m sure there are a million open questions we could come up with that ask, “How are you?” in a fresh way that generates honest conversation based on facts and feelings from the day that has been.

“Where are you on the roller coaster today?”

“Which room in the house are you today?”

“What cookie are you today?”

Many of us struggling with mental health issues have learned coping strategies to familiar situations. The coping strategies may be maladaptive, but they’re still coping strategies we automatically revert to when life gets miserable for whatever reason. My coping strategies are to stop eating and stop talking. They’re learned behaviors. Clearly, I need to unlearn them, but unlearning is much more difficult and takes a lot longer. In the meantime, breaking the pattern of asking old questions, breaks the pattern of learned behaviors. Nobody asked me about broken snow globes when I was growing up, so I don’t have a conditioned coping strategy. I can talk freely in a way I cannot at this point in time with a familiar question like, “Do you want to talk?”

Do I want to talk? Yes. I want to tell you my soul is being torn to shreds and the emotional pain of taking one more breath is more than I can possibly cope with right now. I want to tell you every moment of every day, I want it to end. That I function minute by minute with no sight or reprieve in front of me. I want to tell you I can’t do it any more. I want to tell you I need help, but I don’t know what that help is or where to go or if help is even a possibility.

Do you want to talk?

I shake my head. No. I have no words.

Original photo by author

Originally published: April 22, 2020
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