Happy New Year, everyone!
Several friends have lost loved ones recently - some after prolonged illnesses, some because of Covid, and others died suddenly and shockingly. January has been a rough month to behold.
It began with the sudden passing of a friend’s mother and ended with her memorial service. As I watched the Livestream and heard the testimonies of her life I fully recognized what it looked like to not simply be living to die.
Now let me take you on a journey - a journey from death to life. It will take you down into the darkness with me but I hope that by the end, we are both back up in the light.
Confession: I wanted to die.
I was depressed and suicidal for several years.
Why was someone as privileged as me suicidal and depressed?
I was blessed with a large and loving family (two parents and nine siblings). I always had food to eat and a place to sleep. I went to school. I worked and excelled in my job. My parents were supportive, loved God and taught us to do the same. I was a hard worker and was surrounded by people who wanted to be around me.
But I didn't want to be around myself. And the one person I couldn't get away from is who I was stuck with.
In Psalm 139 the Jewish King David says,
“Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.”
Of course, he was talking about God’s constant presence in his life, but that’s how I felt about myself.
When I looked at myself, I didn’t like what I saw. I was too needy, too weak, too self-centered. I cried too easily, overreacted too often, felt too much. I wasn’t smart enough, pretty enough, funny enough. I was too frightened of everything and everyone. All I did was mewl about my petty issues when there were people out there with real problems. I was ungrateful.
I wasn’t worth being around and I seemed to be the only one who realized that. So I worked hard to be loveable. I was terrified that if I allowed even my closest friends and family to see what was truly inside me, they wouldn’t love me either. I was afraid that they already knew too much and if I didn’t change soon and quickly, they would finally realize that I wasn’t worth being around.
I used to beg God to just make me His robot. Because then I would never do anything wrong; I would never disappoint Him or anybody else. I wasn't like Pinocchio singing,
“I've got no strings
To hold me down
To make me fret, or make me frown
I had strings
But now I'm free
There are no strings on me”
I wanted the strings because if I followed my good and kind puppeteer then I would finally want to be alive.
The Spiral Staircase between Death and Life
I used to go through consistent cycles of depression and hopefulness. I’ve been a Christian for most of my life so it was hard to stay depressed for too long since I had an active (if uneven) relationship with God. But at first, I didn’t realize that the cycle was more of a spiral - and it could turn downwards or upwards.
I wasn’t too concerned about when I was depressed because depression was comforting in its own way and never “led anywhere.” It would soon pass because it was a cycle, or so I thought.
But if there’s a staircase between life and death, then it’s shaped like a spiral and I was walking back and forth on it with those cycles of depression and happiness.
Walking towards Death
When depression cycled further down to suicidal thoughts, it scared me. I knew that suicide was a no-no and I wasn't about to exit a "terrible" life to be trapped in a truly terrible eternal death.
In the beginning, whenever my thoughts swerved towards suicide, I could always scare myself into hobbling back up the staircase. Yes, I didn’t want to live with myself, but hell was not somewhere I was going to end up.
But slowly I began to wonder: did I have to end up in hell? Was suicide truly unforgivable? Maybe it wasn’t. Soon, killing myself didn't seem so bad.
I made soft attempts at suicide - stretched those muscles a bit to see what I could risk. When it came to considering my method - I guessed that whatever I chose, I needed to give myself an opportunity to repent and get myself into heaven. I told myself that my family and friends would get over it eventually - that somehow they would recover and be better off.
What a lie!
Flying back up the staircase
While I was busy trying to figure out how to make it happen, a friend of mine actually killed herself. It was like a bomb exploded. The truth of suicide hit me like jagged shards of shrapnel - painfully, digging in deep and mutilating my preconceptions. That was the first major change in how I viewed death and suicide.
I saw firsthand that there was no recovery for the people who lost a loved one to suicide.
There is, forever, a gap, a gaping wound, an acute sense of loss. It's been years since she killed herself, yet I don't drive down the street where she lived, and died, without feeling the stab of pain.
Yes, that experience cured me of thinking that suicide was going to be a good thing for my family. I couldn't do to them what my friend did to hers. But it didn't cure me from wanting to die.
I instead began pleading with God to let me die. He clearly didn't listen to me - at least, He must’ve listened to the real cry of my heart which was, "Help me to want to live!"
But I knew that I couldn’t manipulate God into killing me and I couldn’t kill myself. But what could I do? Could I turn away from death? What was really at the top of the staircase?
Turning towards Life
In one of the most terrible chapters in the Bible, Cain is hurt and angry, and his brother is becoming the scapegoat for his awful feelings. God sees what's growing in his heart, and He warns Cain,
“Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, you can lift up your head; but if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” - Genesis 4:6-7
While I was caught in depression, death was crouching at my door, waiting to destroy me. If I wanted to learn to live, I couldn't stay there waiting. I had to start taking deliberate steps towards life, even though I didn't really know if it was worth it.
So I went to a suicide counselor (and other counselors after that as well). I told my parents and some of my siblings (sorry to the others who are reading this for the first time). It’s all been baby steps so far. Each person has helped a little, whether it was with a prayer, a conversation, or good advice. God also sent me an Aunt who’s been walking with me. She hasn’t crowded me (because I tended to flee when people got too close) but at every major turn upwards, she’s been there with a gentle challenge to keep me moving up the staircase.
It began with renouncing the death wish.
Renouncing a death wish
A death wish is just that - a strong desire to die. The desire for death is burning, a fond dream to reach for or think about with longing. It’s linked to relief and freedom even if you don’t know what’s on the other side of death, or if there even is another side. I’m sure that there are many people who hope that there’s nothing there, just emptiness. Others hope for a rebirth, and others hope for forgiveness. But I think that most hope that whatever’s over there, they’ll find peace.
My Aunt challenged me on the death wish. She told me that though I had stopped wanting to kill myself, I was still laying in a coffin.
What did she mean? Even though I had decided not to kill myself, death was still my goal, death was still the true state of my heart.
I prayed with her, made a decision to not want to die, but I couldn’t say with certainty that I wanted to live. I compromised with, “God, make me want to live.” And He answered that faint request, step by step.
Walking towards Life
The words were enough to get me moving - or at least exercise the muscles to eventually pull myself out of the coffin. But every time I started on a depressive spiral I had to choose again to not want to die and to ask to want to live. I had to wait out the storm of emotions that usually triggered the depression or actively turn my mind from it. I’d pray and ask God to help me. I’d read my Bible and say out loud verses of encouragement. I’d listen to uplifting music or watch a movie or read a book. I’d go for a long walk. I’d reach out to a loved one to just air what was in my brain and let them say the words I needed to hear to not turn back towards death. I’d think about the good things in life.
That may sound too simple, but I'm serious. What I needed was hope and encouragement. I needed something else to focus on. Think about it - even if you’re not a Christian, focusing on less oppressive things usually helps you feel less oppressed.
“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” - Philippians 4:8
We have a choice in what we think about. Often it doesn’t feel that way. Instead, it feels more like you’re strapped into a roller coaster and have to follow the track to wherever it leads for as long as it wants you. But your thought life isn’t a roller coaster. That’s something I had to discover for myself over time.
Changing the direction of my thoughts has been a struggle. At first it was a losing fight with me barely throwing a punch. The good, true, right, lovely thoughts felt insincere and sounded like lies. And though it got incrementally easier, even now, it’s sometimes work, and I have to dash myself into God’s arms and beg Him to help me. And then I dash myself into a loved one’s arms so that they can help me parse through the lies and recognize the truth. Sometimes I will even recognize in their words things that God was telling me inside but I was having a hard time believing.
Hearing how they saw me helped me to see the distorted view of myself. They helped me dissect the lies I believed about myself, people, and life. Hearing the truth spoken to me helped me to say it to myself.
What I noticed was that, over time, my lows became a little less deep and a little less long. I noticed that I had stopped wanting to escape my own company, even temporarily.
And now that I think about it, why did I assume that death would be an escape from myself? I probably would have been just as stuck with me as before.
Wanting to live
That’s where I’ll leave you for now. The next step toward wanting to live is something else that I want to share with you. But since I’m still on that journey, and it will take much longer to share, I have to leave it for another post.
But the steps began with hope.
Watching the memorial service for my family friend, seeing the people she’d touched in life and the works that God did with her because she was ready and available, unafraid, and confident in her God and herself, increased my hope for a life like that. I didn’t want the same things, but I hoped that God could do some good things with me too.
I didn’t want to simply take the next breath, I wanted to be fully alive.