Warning: In the next 2 entries, I will be discussing details about my struggles with severe depression and suicidal ideology. If you are sensitive to such material, please feel free to skip these posts.
Depression as a Mormon
I can remember feeling overwhelming sadness and despair as young as 8 years old. Not just sadness that you feel when something goes wrong or when you have your feelings hurt. At times, there was this constant feeling of unhappiness that I couldn't explain. I remember being on the playground at school and sitting on a swing or climbing to the top of a play structure and just sitting there, thinking about how everyone else seemed so happy and wondering why I didn't feel that same way. I had friends, hobbies, I was active in physical activities, my home life was generally happy and normal, but I rarely felt joy.
As I grew up, I thought about death and dying often and would be more comfortable isolating myself from others than being involved with social activities. I had friends at church who also lived in my neighborhood, and if it wasn't for them inviting me to do things together or hanging out with me, I'm sure I would have been a complete shut in.
My first thoughts about committing suicide were around age 13. Beyond my constant feelings of sadness and lack of joy, I was dealing with normal teenager problems. These problems made my feelings of depression worsen. I didn't like school activities like dances or parties, I didn't like talking to girls and didn't know how to make new friends. If there was a girl I liked, I would fantasize about how I could talk to her, what it would be like if we were a couple and how our first kiss would be. But that's as far as it went. I had several imaginary girlfriends, but never felt comfortable enough to pursue a relationship, even a friendship, with any of them. I would tell myself how worthless I was and how no one would care if I didn't even exist. I fantasized about shooting or hanging myself and wondered if anyone would even notice I was gone. I also remember riding my bike around town and feeling the urge to suddenly pull in front of a large truck or vehicle and dying.
As time went on, I internalized these negative thoughts and feelings of rejection. I still had friends that I considered to be very close to but we wouldn't see much during the summer when school was out. No girls would ever show interest in me. I wondered why. I was somewhat attractive, I was kind, maybe a little shy, but not a jerk. Why were all the jerks getting girlfriends? These feelings of rejection and isolation intensified my already depressed frame of mind.
My understanding of the afterlife consisted of my spirit being taken out of my body and brought to some kind of beautiful, carefree world where I would be free from all earthly worries and pains. I would probably have some kind of magic powers, like being able to fly or float and would be able to interact with people on earth through their dreams or visions. I could meet and talk with God and others who have already died and everything would be better. The idea of leaving one world for a much better one was very appealing. Suicide didn't seem like a bad idea. Sure, I was scared of the act itself and worried that it would hurt, but the payoff seemed well worth it. In LDS doctrine, unlike most Christian faiths, the concept of Hell isn't really relevant. There is an Outer Darkness where you are cut off from the presence of God and it is reserved for the worst of the worst of people. However, this isn't some eternal fire and brimstone torment, and it isn't a result of someone committing suicide. Because of this, I never had a fear of going to "Hell" as a result of suicide as people in other religions might.
Also, during this time as a sex deprived horny teenager, I had overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame because of the things I would imagine. If I was to think of sex or give in to masturbation, I would feel absolutely worthless and unworthy of living. According the Mormon teachings, sexual sin is next to murder as being one of the worst things you can do. So, having these feelings and thinking those thoughts (as a normal, healthy teenager does) was a serious sin in my mind. Not to mention, during worthiness interviews with the bishop (you can look up what those are if you want), I would completely lie when he'd ask if I kept myself pure from sexual sins or temptations. This led to even more feelings of shame knowing that I was lying. But, in my defense, I would NEVER admit to anything of this nature to a member of the church, and I don't think anyone else should. In my mind, it was none of their damn business and it seemed inappropriate for a grown up to be asking a 13-17 year old kid, in a roundabout way, if he pleasures himself.
All of this shame combined with justifying suicide led to years of suicidal thoughts and ideations.
My Parents Reaction:
For the most part, I kept this aspect of my mindset a secret from everyone. I kept a journal and would occasionally write about how sad I was feeling and how I was convinced that someday I would kill myself. One day, my mom admitted to me that she had read through some of my journal and wanted to know why I felt that way. I could tell she was extremely worried, hurt, and shocked that I could even consider suicide. I didn't want to worry her so I made the excuse that I was exaggerating and that I didn't really feel like that. She seemed to be ok with it and told me to talk to her if I ever felt that way again. She also suggested that I pray more and look to heavenly father for comfort and support. I shrugged it off and agreed. Seeing how hurt she was, I never felt comfortable talking to her about my depression again. I also never wrote about suicide in my journal from then on.
I once mentioned to my dad that I was feeling really sad and thought I was depressed. His response was that everyone goes through bad times and (paraphrasing) people in other countries go through things we'll never even comprehend, so really, I have nothing to complain about. No matter how bad I think I have it, there are countless others who have it even worse. I know his intentions were to help me realize how good I have it, but I experienced the opposite effect. I just focused on how terrible the world really is and how I'm totally undeserving of the benefits and blessings I have. Other times, when I would mention a negative thought or trial I was facing, my Dad's response was usually a story from his own life and he'd try to use that as an example how my situation wasn't as bad as I might think. I never felt like bringing up depression again with my dad.
My Girlfriends Reaction:
After High School, I went to one year of college, during this time I was able to be much more outgoing and personable and even had my first real girlfriend. She meant the world to me. I was in absolute bliss when I was with her, but I still had episodes of depression and I let her know that I had these feelings for a long time. She told me that as long as I follow the teachings of the church and do what the prophet says, then I should never feel depressed. In essence, if I truly had faith in the gospel, I would have nothing to be upset about. I ended up feeling even more unworthy because this meant that I wasn't living up to the standards of the church and that I must be doing something wrong. Maybe I was being punished because I wasn't trying hard enough.
I didn't seek out help for my depression and it went undiagnosed. I thought I could just work through it on my own. As long as I kept believing in the church and having faith, my depression would go away. What better way to dedicate my life to this concept than to serve a mission for my church?
Depression as a missionary:
I continued to keep my depression a secret. On the paperwork for missionary work, there is a section that asks if you've ever had any mental health issues or experienced depression. Thinking this would disqualify me from serving a mission, I checked off "no".
I was given my mission assignment to serve in Southern California and was very happy I didn't have to travel out of the country. I kept in touch with my girlfriend and she was always a huge source of strength and encouragement as I went through my mission. I considered her the only person who truly understood me and knew of my struggles.
As I have mentioned in other blog posts, I had many doubts about doctrine and felt cognitive dissonance because deep down I don't think I really believed what I was defending. I tried to mask my concerns by researching and coming up with answers to every hard question I was asked. I was confident in my ability to defend beliefs that others considered crazy or bizarre. I was desperately trying to convince myself that what I was doing was right and good and that if I did my best, I would be blessed. However, the constant negativity of rejection, disparaging remarks, put downs, and arguments from those I would come in contact with would result in feeling despair, anger, sadness, and depression throughout my mission. To me, this meant I just needed to try harder and those feelings would go away. I strived to be perfectly obedient and meticulous regarding the standards of the church. It was scrupulosity on my part, thinking that if I focused on every jot and tittle, that my heart could be changed and my depression would go away. It helped for a while, but depression returned with a vengeance.
At this time, I started to fantasize about ending my life with sleeping pills. My previous fear about suicide being painful was now void since I could just fall asleep and never wake up. I had a constant struggle with this in my mind and would fight the urge to overdose. I had even bought a bottle of extra strength sleeping pills from a drug store and kept the bottle on my desk as a constant reminder that I could take my own life at any time, and my decision to not do so was empowering. Unfortunately, it was also a constant reminder of my suicidal thoughts and justifications. Towards the end of my mission, I was bombarded with thoughts of suicide and found myself thinking and fantasizing about death on a daily basis. I imagined what it would be like to just die in bed one night and my mission companion finding me in the morning. I thought of the news articles that would be written about a missionary committing suicide on his mission and how his depression was undiagnosed. I thought about going straight to the celestial kingdom since I would die as a missionary, during the most obedient and worthy time of my life. I had to fight this urge constantly.
I made it through my mission, fighting through my spiritual doubts and suicidal tendencies. I felt accomplished and thought I could do almost anything since I was able to get through such a tough time in my life. However, things were about to get a lot worse.
The Breakup and the Death of a Friend:
Several months after returning from my mission, I was living with some of my close friends while they went back to college and I was working full time. I didn't feel any desire to go back to school yet. Also, my girlfriend was on her own LDS mission and wouldn't return for another year. We kept in touch through emails and letters but eventually she broke up with me through a letter that mentioned she was thankful for the time we shared together, but ultimately, we had to break up because she prayed about it and "heavenly father didn't want us to be together." A few months after receiving her break up letter, a close friend died in a car accident. I was devastated.
I had a very hard time accepting his death and the break up, but I was trying my best to move on. I think I could have recovered eventually if not for what happened next.
When my ex-girlfriend returned from her mission, she immediately started dating my friend who was my roommate at the time. I also found out that they had been writing to each other for the past few years and planning to date when she returned. This absolutely crushed me. It also caused a major rift in my circle of friends. I became very irate and angry, my friends turned against me and took sides with my ex-girlfriend and roommate, because let's face it, who wants to be friends with the angry, sad guy? I tried to get through it, I tried to be ok with it all, I even tried to work through things with my roommate and let him know that I was going to be ok with him dating my ex, but my depression got really bad. I tried to convince myself that maybe this was all just part of God's plan. I felt horrible pain in my chest and throughout my body. I was in constant mental and physical agony. This was my breaking point.
Breaking Point #1:
I was 22 years old still living with my friends, including my roommate who was now dating my ex. I remember praying to God to kill me or to help me get into a car accident or something. I was just done being alive. I had lost the first person I actually loved along with every one of my friends. My natural depression was now compounded with the trauma of deceit, betrayal, and isolation. I went to a grocery store and bought a couple bottles of sleeping pills. I wanted to make sure to take enough to ensure I didn't wake up or recover. At the time, I didn't know anything about the problems with over the counter drugs being used for suicide attempts and the probability that it would fail resulting in permanent internal damage. I just knew that in movies, people could die by overdosing with sleeping pills, that was good enough for me.
During the evening of New Year's Day 2006, I began swallowing 3-4 pills at a time, I sent out some vague text messages to friends about being sorry for the way I had been behaving and asking for forgiveness. I sent a message to my ex about being done with everything. She ended up calling me. Unbeknownst to me, she was keeping me on the phone as one of my other friends, since they were all hanging out together, called my parents to come get me. I continued to take a few pills at a time until my mom knocked on the door. I let her in and told her I was suicidal. She and my dad took me to a hospital. From that point on, my memory is very hazy. I don't remember being the doctor's office or talking to anyone. I just remember eventually being sent home with my parents.
I later went back to the apartment and removed all my stuff. The next several months felt like a dream or some kind of alternate reality. It's hard to explain. I think in my mind, I had convinced myself that I had actually died and this was some kind of weird purgatory or dream state. I was put on medication and went to see a therapist. I don't remember anything meaningful coming out of those therapy sessions and the medication just made me numb. I began thinking more clearly a few months later and made the decision to move away. I wanted to move out of state and start being more independent. I also wanted to work on myself on my own terms. My parents supported me and hoped for the best.
Moving away and starting fresh:
I had visited my mission a couple times since being home and decided to move to that area in Southern California. I found a studio apartment and got a job at a retail store and moved there around May 2006. I felt amazing for the first few months. This drastic change in scenery and lifestyle was better than any therapy. I had hope and optimism. I was still dealing with weening myself off of the medication and trying to resist the urge to call or text my ex friends and chew them out, I did a few times but resisted most of the time. I continued to go to church and put some of my hope into by religious beliefs. I told myself that depression and feelings of hatred and negativity were just Satan trying to take control of me. I didn't want Satan to win.
Breaking Point #2:
One night, a feeling of dread came over me. I had a huge backslide into depression for no apparent reason and I was almost immobile. I called in sick to work for a couple days and stayed in my room. I contemplated suicide again and decided to end it all. I started telling myself that this fresh start was just a cop out and me just running away from my problems. I would never trust anyone again, I wouldn't make friends or date. I was just wasting my life. Why not end it and move on to the eternal version of existence where everything is pain free and happy? This life was just a waiting room for a better afterlife after all.
Again, I started texting my friends (ex friends) and saying I was sorry and wouldn't bother them anymore. I turned off my phone, took a shower, and started making a plan to end my life. I was going to either hang myself with a belt or stab myself in the heart with a large kitchen knife. I think one of my friends realized what I was saying and ended up calling my parents. After my shower, I turned my phone back on and my parents were frantically calling me. My mom told me that they had the police on the way to check on me. I tried to tell her everything was OK and that I was just feeling sad. I didn't tell her about my plans. The police showed up a little while later and talked with me. They offered to get me help if I needed it but I didn't want any. I told them I was fine and that it was just a misunderstanding. They left and I felt disappointed that I made my mom and dad worry so much.
I decided then that I would never text or call anyone if I felt that way again. If I was going to commit suicide, no more vague messages and goodbye notes.
For the next couple years, I had some ups and downs, but all in all I was recovering. I was working full time, did whatever I wanted to do on my own time, and made time for hobbies. In 2007, I decided to go back to college and work towards a degree. I had passion and goals and they were all on my own terms. I felt great. I look back now and consider this to be one of the best times of my life. I felt accomplishment and joy because of my ability to pull myself out of a very dark place. However, I also made the realization that it wasn't my belief in God or going to church that inspired me to do these things, it was me. I stopped asking God to help me get through this and started focusing on my own efforts. Religion wasn't the cure, for the most part my beliefs were helping me justify taking my own life. This would be a key factor in questioning my beliefs later on.
Part 2: Depression as an Atheist (coming soon)
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