The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a United States-based suicide prevention network of over 160 crisis centers that provides 24/7 service via a toll-free hotline with the number 1-800-273-8255.
Yesterday, I did something I never thought I would do in a number of ways: I gave a speech at Clermont County’s 20th Annual Candlelight Vigil to remember and recognize those individuals lost to suicide over the previous year. I was humbled to be asked by the associate director of the Clermont County Mental Health and Recovery Board to be the featured speaker after she read my column in the newspaper about my depression struggles.
I spoke about those struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. My hope with my speech was to communicate to those present, whether they lost a loved one to suicide or not, what it’s like living with depression and suicidal thoughts.
Anyone who knows me, knows one of my top fears is public speaking and yet, last night, I spoke for about 15 minutes. It felt good and the people afterward were so lovely to me. I will likely do a separate blog post about public speaking itself.
One 80-year-old woman hugged me after and said she wished I lived closer so we could be friends. That was one of the loveliest compliments I’ve ever received in my life.
You may need headphones because the phone recording the event is far away from where we are speaking, but nonetheless, I hope anyone that takes the time to listen to my speech, it helps them.
A little after 11 minutes is when my section of the ceremony begins. I highly recommend watching after my speech because that’s when they do the reading of the names and hearing how many people over the previous year died by suicide, including the range of ages, is humbling and sad.
For those who would prefer to just read my speech, I largely kept to it, as you can see me reading it off of my phone. I only ad-libbed a few lines. Here it is:
Good evening, and thank you for having me. I’m Brett Milam, the editor of The Clermont Sun since January 2017.
I never expected to be standing here still alive to tell my story. A story that is not all that unique, but I hope in telling it as raw and unfiltered as possible, will help to explain what it’s like living with depression and suicidal thoughts.
On Sunday, I turned 31-years-old. I always figured I would be dead before I was 30, like I was heading toward some inevitability I couldn’t change.
I wish your loved ones had a chance to experience another birthday. I’m sorry that they didn’t.
But I’m here today to tell you that it’s not your fault they didn’t. And it’s not their fault, either. I hope what I say here tonight will help alleviate that pain in some measure and explain what I mean in giving both sides of a tragic, preventable death absolution.
I will attempt to do that by explaining what it’s like to live with depression and suicidal thoughts.
For years, I lived with the seeming inevitability of my own death, where on a daily basis, I thought, ‘Depression is going to kill me.’ And that I’m powerless to stop it. That it’s bigger than I am, stronger than I am and immutable. Immutable, meaning, as much a part of my identity as my red hair is.
For years, I thought daily about killing myself. The first time I can recall it being something more actionable rather than a vague weight behind my ears occurred exactly four years ago today. I wrote an article for Ohio Outdoor, one of our supplemental magazines, about Gunslingers Outpost run by Mike Salvatore.
I visited Mike at his gun shop in Bethel and he was the loveliest man, passionate and helpful — the sort of person a reporter like me loves to interview because he makes writing a feature article easy.
But my depressed brain was also thinking something else: Now I know how to get a gun. How easy it would be. How relatively inexpensive it would be. How accessible it is.
For weeks and months after, I kept that knowledge in the back of my brain, with the magazine in my office desk drawer. Whenever I was ready, I’d flip through the magazine, remind myself of the shop and go do what needed to be done.
I did get close, once. I emailed Mike on January 10, 2018, about four months after I’d done the story to ask him what his operating hours were. I guess I had reminded myself of the shop, but needed to remember when he was open to stop by. I told him I was considering coming.
In hindsight, I don’t know what was going on in January 2018, but it doesn’t really matter. After all, I saw my end by my own hand as a self-fulfilling, inevitable prophecy. There didn’t have to be a specific life trigger to set that off.
At some point, I worried about the gun malfunctioning. About how stupid I would look if I didn’t succeed in killing myself.
That’s when, sometime after my email to Mike, I Googled what it would be like to suffocate. And to see how possible it was. It didn’t take long to find online forums that explained in detail different ways to attempt a suicide, often from supposed survivors of such attempts. Even though this Googling scared me, it became my new plan. How could I mess up suffocating myself?
I thought about how I would do it in Clermont County instead of Butler County where I live, so my parents wouldn’t have to be the ones to find my body. I thought about how I would drive to one of many remote parts of the county, so I had the privacy to set-up the mechanism by which I would die. And I thought often about how easier a plastic bag is to procure than a gun.
And I can’t tell you how many times I mentally wrote out my suicide note. Daily. On my commute to or from work. On walks and hikes. While laying in bed amid the darkness, where the spirals often occurred.
Sometimes the suicide note was long. Sometimes it was short. Sometimes I figured I would just say, “I’m so tired.” And that would explain it all. And sometimes, I would get tired at the thought of even writing one, that I think that often prolonged my life.
Living like this is not living, even though I seemed functional from the outside. I still got up, took a shower, brushed my teeth, went to work, and interacted with co-workers, friends and family. I, along with my sports editor and reporter, put together a weekly newspaper, week after week after week. I wrote thousands of words on dozens of subjects, including mental health.
When you silently suffer for so long, you get adept at lying to yourself and to others. At masking yourself. That’s perhaps the most shameful thing I still feel to this day. How easy it became to pretend I was okay. To pretend that nothing was wrong. To pretend I wasn’t thinking about killing myself all of the time.
Despite my personal passion and knowledge about mental health issues, stigma and the like, I was held captive to the stigma like anyone else. I was held captive to the way depression lies. I once naively thought such knowledge would help me “think” my way out of depression and suicidal thoughts. That I was capable of pulling myself out of this hole by myself.
But I was sick with a disease of the mind. That requires outside help. That requires someone to help me see how depression lies. To be sure, I have to be willing and open to helping myself. But that still wouldn’t come until much later.
Even on a professional level, as I had with Mike, I was sometimes mining my stories for personal reasons.
As an example, nine months after my email to Mike, I attended my first Clermont County candlelight vigil, the 17th one in 2018.
I distinctly remember sitting at Veterans Memorial Park in Union Township, mesmerized by the candles, feeling that one day, my own family would be lighting such a candle. That one day, my own family would be releasing a balloon into a graying sky in my name.
When depression so distorts your worldview, you’re not thinking about what having to light that candle would do to your family. Instead, depression lies to you and tells you that your family would be better off without you. That you’re too much of a burden. That by dying, you’re releasing them of that burden. I felt that way about my parents, my twin, my sister-in-law, who is my best friend, my brother, and the rest of my family. Heck, I even felt that way about my dog, Dallas. So deep was my depression and so distorted was my lens, I thought even she would be better off without such a pathetic dog owner.
And it’s not just that you feel like a burden upon them. But also, that they will move on. Maybe they will be sad for a little bit, but they’ll get over it. The world will keep on turning without me. Their worlds will keep on turning without me.
But also, it’s not only about the burden or that the world will keep on turning. I think the hard thing for families of those with depression and those who unfortunately ended their lives because of it to understand is that it’s also not about the family at all.
Let me explain by way of an apt analogy by David Foster Wallace, who himself died by his own hand in 2008. In his book, Infinite Jest, Wallace explained that the suicidal person isn’t considering death because it seems “suddenly appealing.”
Rather, a person becomes suicidal, and may ultimately make an attempt, because they are in so much agony and pain, akin to someone trapped in a burning building. As Wallace notes, “Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors.”
In that way, Wallace says it’s hard for the onlookers to understand the weighing of those two terrors and the decision made. That isn’t to glorify the decision, but to help understand how one arrives at it.
I lived in a burning building like that for so long and felt so tired by trying to hang on any longer that the terror of falling gave way to the promise of being released from the pain.
I never wanted to die. But it was as if I needed to die. That in death, I could finally find peace.
Even when good things were happening, I thought about death. Two months after that candlelight vigil in November, I went to a party for my father’s 50th birthday with my then-girlfriend. It was one of the best nights of my life and yet, I have a distinct memory of standing there, looking at the stars that night and thinking, “Yeah, but I’ll be dead soon.”
That’s depression. Always there. Always taunting. Always lying. It didn’t matter that I was enjoying professional success being in charge of my very own newspaper not long after my college graduation. It didn’t matter that I was enjoying personal success with a girlfriend I loved a great deal and who loved me. It didn’t matter that I’ve always had parents and siblings who have been there for me. Depression doesn’t care.
They didn’t know. And that’s why it’s not their fault I suffered silently for so long. And that’s why it’s not your fault that your loved ones suffered and ultimately took that irreversible step.
It’s so hard, so damn hard, to reach out for help, even if loved ones would be willing to help. It’s terrifying. Depression tells you that everyone will look at you like damaged goods, if they believe you at all. That alarm bells will go off and men in white coats will take you to a psychiatric hospital. That you will become only more of a burden.
In 2018, I remember inviting my mother to dinner at Outback Steakhouse, just her and I. It was rare that I would initiate a dinner date and just the two of us. I was planning on asking her for help. I rehearsed in my head the simple line, “I need help, mom,” dozens of times. How can four words be so damn hard?
Yet, they were, because I never said them and instead, continued my suffering, somehow, for the next three years.
In January of this year, I finally took the step of asking my personal physician to prescribe antidepressants to me. By June, I finally began seeing a therapist. Because those are the two twins of treatment, as I saw it. One wouldn’t work without the other.
And I also finally began having conversations with my family, explaining what was going on in my head. I also wrote about it in my newspaper.
Everyone along the way, from my personal physician who prescribed the antidepressants, to the intake person at Modern Psychiatry and Wellness in Butler County, to Chris, my therapist, and finally, to my family, including my mother, father, sister-in-law, twin sister and brother, were there to help. Not to scorn. They didn’t look sideways at me. They were there to help and I’m sure they were terrified, too. The most loving family member still feels ill-equipped to know how to handle someone suffering from depression.
Let me tell you this: It doesn’t take a degree or expertise to simply be there and to be open. Anyone at any time can do that and be that for someone else who is suffering.
One of the other items in my recovery, as it were, was to begin eating healthier and exercising more often. The benefits of both are readily apparent and have been to me for some time, but one of my depression vices was to overeat, to wallow in my depression by overdoing it with calories.
Reclaiming my life from depression meant also reclaiming my bodily autonomy. Instead of it being overshadowed, quite literally, by depression and weighing me down — when the fog of depression began to lift, it was like re-discovering my body. Hey, I can feel good when eating right and exercising. Hey, I can see the physical changes occurring when I stick to it. And hey, I can see the changes mentally, too.
The medication, the therapy, the better diet and exercise, it’s all about helping me to see again beyond the depression lens. It’s all about allowing me to live again.
In my closet at home, I’m one of those people with a bag full of plastic bags from the grocery store. You never know when you might need a plastic bag kind of thing. That mountain of plastic bags used to taunt me, like the heart under the floor in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.
On a daily basis, the image of a plastic bag used to float before my eyes, ever-teasing.
I stand here today to tell you I haven’t thought about a plastic bag in that way in nearly two months. I haven’t thought about killing myself in nearly two months. I haven’t even had depression spirals, where negative thoughts pile onto each other.
Because I reached out and took that scary step of finally … finally, asking for help.
It’s funny, in the throes of my depression, I used to resent people who got better and recovered from their depression. How come you can get better, but I can’t? And now I’ve become one of those people who has gotten better, although I’m still a work-in-progress.
In fact, just this morning, I saw the writer I resented post about today being the 22nd anniversary since his suicide attempt.
So, I would understand if someone still being weighed down by depression resented me because I used to be that person.
But it really is possible to beat back depression. To stop thinking of it as inevitable. To stop thinking this is how my life ends.
Depression lies and distorts and tries to take control.
Tonight, I stand here as proof of its mendacity. Tonight, I stand here as proof that I am bigger than my depression. Tonight, I stand here as proof that I am not my depression and I am the one who is in control.
Tonight, I stand here. Alive.
Thank you for listening.