Samantha Johnston: Talking openly about depression, suicide can be difficult but needed
The Aspen Times
Earlier this month, I lost an Aspen friend to suicide. If I didn’t talk to him every day, and sometimes twice, I talked to him several times a week. Sometimes he was connected and close. Sometimes he seemed so far away. All the time I talked to him. None of the time I asked enough questions to dig deep enough to discover that his pull to commit suicide would be stronger than the pull of his children or his dog or his friends or his family. I wish I’d asked more questions and listened harder. It’s hard not to feel like he deserved better from me.
I lost my dad 16 years ago to a freak hospital tragedy. It was devastating. He was a super hero. The people who loved him lost the shiniest, brightest star in the sky. But if I’m digging up the most honest words I’ve ever spoken out loud just for this column (and I am), I felt relieved that he died peacefully in his sleep. I always believed that he would die by suicide.
He was appointed to the Air Force Academy. He was a standout fullback for the University of Colorado Buffaloes. He was a decorated Vietnam Veteran. He married the girl of his dreams. He was a business success. He had two children who absolutely adored him. Yet, he was never enough.
He suffered through a lifetime of highs and lows. A lifetime of self-doubt. A lifetime of wanting to feel as happy as everyone told him he should be. Yet sad. A lot.
The highs were the days I never wanted to end. He had joy in his eyes and a radiance in his face that gave me hope. He laughed. He didn’t feel burdened by his own mind. He talked about the future.
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The lows were the days when I would call home during a lunch break at work hoping that my dad would answer. When he didn’t, I’d drive the 45 minutes to my parents’ house in hopes that when I got there he would still be alive. But for the Grace of God, he always was.
The darkest part of loving someone with severe depression is knowing how deeply he was loved by so many people, yet also knowing there was no way to make the feelings of those around him absorb the pain that he felt in the darkest corners of his heart.
There were doctor’s appointments and counselors and psychologists. There was medication and challenges in dosing and days that got worse than we could imagine and days where rays of hope appeared where they never seemed to be before. Depression was our family secret. We didn’t talk about it to friends or to families or to strangers. We didn’t talk about it with each other.
My dad was the life of the party even though he didn’t drink a drop. He never met a stranger. If he was your friend, you had the only friend you needed. If you weren’t his friend, you wanted to be. Curious. Brilliant. Disciplined. Hilarious. Gritty. Authentic. He was everything when depression wasn’t winning. When it was, we missed him so much. We told people he wasn’t feeling well. I guess that was true, but I wish we had explained why. I wish we had been less afraid that speaking up would make him seem somehow less than he was. I wish we had cared less about what people would think. Mostly, I regret that how we treated it may have made him feel even less OK.
If I had cared more about his mental health and less about protecting him from a world that wouldn’t understand, maybe he would have been less alone.
Just as our friends and family who struggle with depression, those of us who live with them have parallel highs and lows. We have days where we reach out, we connect, we care; then there are the days that we feel a heavy heart and think what more can I do, and how long can I continue to try to help.
If you’re feeling troubled, reach out to a friend or call a hotline and talk to a stranger who doesn’t know you and doesn’t judge. If you have a friend or relative who has these struggles, take that extra few minutes, ask the difficult questions or make that extra call.
The world was a lot different 16 years ago. We know how to handle depression better today. But we’re a long way from the promised land.
Samantha Johnston is the publisher of The Aspen Times. She misses her dad every single minute of every single day. She’ll also honor him now by telling the stories that weren’t OK to tell 16 years ago.
If you or someone you know is in crisis or considering suicide, there are resources available locally and nationally.
Aspen Hope Center provides a free, 24-hour confidential Hopeline for anyone who needs help or is in a crisis. Reach the crisis line at 970-925-5858.
Mind Springs Health has A crisis and assessment team service line at 970-201-4299.
Colorado Crisis Services is a free, 24-hour organization that helps with mental health, substance abuse or emotional help. Confidential services are available at 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255 to speak to a trained professional.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has a 24/7 support line available by calling 1-800-273-8255.
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