I spoke to several classes at a local high school this week, sharing about the messiness of life. During my talks, I offered students the choice of three stories: the first about failure, a second about eating disorders, and a third about depression (including attempting suicide).
All of the classes picked the depression story.
Throughout the day, a few students came up to thank me for sharing or ask questions. As I was thinking about the talks, comments, and questions, I wondered if they were craving a serving of realness, of a story not tied up into a pretty bow “and life finished happily ever after”. Perhaps they are starting to notice that there are few bows in life, that life feels messy. That a lot may not fit into a checklist “do this and things will work out” view. Perhaps they are wondering if they are enough or if something is wrong with them, because they feel messy.
I’m glad to offer a story. Not because of the specific details of my story as the sharing really isn’t about me. Rather, that maybe it will help another to feel a tad less crazy, a spark of hope, an ounce of connection. That it might help someone hurting to put a scratch in their internal record that’s playing “you suck, you’re failing, you need to try harder” so eventually the record won’t be able to play anymore.
Today I’d like to share the outline of the talk I gave. Please note that it does reference suicide. In addition, while I’ve read back through once, it has not gone through the usual editing process. The story still stings at times, and I felt it was more important to share imperfectly, rather than reread, reedit, and decide not to share.
Life is messy — for us all. And perhaps the more we risk to share the messes and the stuck times, the easier it will be to get stuck less often, and to get unstuck more quickly when we do.
MESSES AND HUMAN-ING (V2)
I struggled in my later teens and early twenties; they were not the funnest years (depression, eating disorders, and other mental health/self destructive/addictive-type odds and ends). Looking back now, I see that through the struggles I did learn a lot, a lot about things that I needed to learn. There were gifts in the struggles; through them I’ve become who I am today, grounded and centered. I see there were many lessons and lots of gems of wisdoms that came up.
Sometimes I wish I could go back and share some gems of wisdom with my younger self in hopes of avoiding some of the pain and/or getting out of it more quickly. And I’m not sure I would have listened. Maybe, maybe not. And ultimately, I suppose it doesn’t matter. The past is the past. I can’t change the events. And it’s okay.
As I live more life, I continue to learn and be reminded that we all experience struggles and harder times. Life gets messy sometimes. And perhaps one of the biggest gifts we can offer is to share our challenging experiences — hearing about the challenges of others helped me feel a lot less alone when I was struggling.
So in this vein, today I’m going to share some of my experience with depression, including attempting suicide. Eating disorders tie in too (so much is related!).
Backstory: I did gymnastics for many years. It was part of what shaped my mindset: right/wrong, black/white, good/bad. I started to look more and more through this lense, and looked more and more outside of myself for approval. And more and more, I began to feel like I was failing. Not good enough at gymnastics, not quite good enough in school, maybe even failing at life.
Going into college, after the Olympics didn’t work out, I was feeling pretty low, though didn’t know how to say that (you don’t say you feel hurt, sad, down!). So I kept it inside and figured I needed to “just try harder!”. So I just tried harder on all fronts: gymnastics, school, body and weight. And by the end of my freshman year, I was beginning to feel out of control with binge eating and gymnastics, and terrible about myself. My head was spinning: You suck, you suck, you suck.
The spin continued to intensify over the summer: You suck, you suck, you suck. I kept putting on the happy face, convinced I needed to just try harder. And things went farther downhill.
Going into sophomore year, I’d gained 40-50 pounds and ended up redshirting in gymnastics. It was harder and harder to get up for school. I was sure everyone was looking at me, wondering what was wrong with me, so I put on an even happier face: Everything’s fine! Yeah, a little down, though I’m working on it!!
And I went farther downhill.
Thoughts of suicide, of being done with the pain started to creep in.
The pain of depression was interesting. It wasn’t sharp so much as it was heavy and ever-present. Kind of like drowning slowly. I went down inch by inch, not really realizing that I was lower until it was like — how’d I get here? And then it all felt too heavy to change, to hard to fix. And all I could think about was trying to fix myself — or escaping.
Before the holidays sophomore year, one night I found myself looking at the pill bottles under my bed: antidepressants and ibprofen. And I thought about taking a handful to stop the pain. I thought “no” — and then I thought yes. And I swallowed two handfuls. And then I felt afraid. It was a different feeling than the numbing pain of depression.
I ran to a teammates’ room across the way and said I needed help; they took me to the ER. And we spent the night there. All I’ve got to say is that getting your stomach pumped, a rectal exam, and answering lots of questions about how you’re feeling is not the funnest way to spend an evening.
Eventually they let me go home, I’d convinced them I wasn’t going to try anything else. I stayed with my teammates that night.
The next day, we went in to talk to the coach and call my parents. And I don’t really remember a ton of that. And there must have been some follow up, though I don’t remember. The whole episode was as cry for help, though then I went back to “being okay”. Because now I really felt like I needed to be okay. And I didn’t feel okay.
While I never seriously thought about suicide like that again, it took quite a few more years before anything started to change. It was like I kind of had to go lower, continuing to try to “fix” things in the same way, before I finally was like: this isn’t working, I’m tired of hurting, I’ve got to try something different.
I share my story for a few reasons:
-I don’t think we talk enough about the messy times/messiness of life. And it’s not to romanticize it or blow it up. Rather, it’s to share that we all have hard times and soft, tender, messy spots. Because it can be easy to think everyone else has it all together. Which brings me to the next point:
-Highlight reels: There are many (e.g., social media), and they aren’t real. And this is important to understand. I spent years comparing myself to everything outside of myself. And I could never measure up — because no one can measure up. Life is messy and not perfect. There is no “there”. And it wasn’t until I quit trying to be perfect, “there”, and not messy that I could actually start to live, to recover, and to actually enjoy life (because life is meant to be fun and IS fun, if we let it be).
-Scratch the record: It’s easy to get stuck, listening to the same broken record over and over (for me in depression and eating disorders, it was “you suck, you’re failing, you’re broken — what can’t you get it together?”). For healing and recovery, rather than focus directly on the groove you’re stuck in and that you should be able to climb (which inadvertently can make the groove deeper and harder to climb out of), instead find ways to scratch the record. And then keep scratching it up until it won’t play well anymore. This way, whenever it tries to play again, it’ll start hitting scratches and eventually go off track. Here are few ideas for scratching the record that have helped me: Get head wrapped around that life is messy for everyone (mantra to self that I repeat every day!), feel your feelings and emotions (pushing them down doesn’t work), and set a solid foundation with food, drink, sleep, and exercise (when you feel crappy, it’s harder to show up).
We all experiences struggles and painful times in life — because we’re human. We’re all learning as we go. Life is messy. There are no Fs. And on the most fundamental level, we’re all truly doing fine as human beings. Sure, we may need to tweak some of what we’re doing, and we will make mistakes. However, our inherent worth is never in question.
Life is messy — and you’re doing fine.