Mindfulness has helped me a ton through my own mental illness. Having anything that can ground us to the present and keep us from spiraling about past decisions or future issues that haven’t even happened yet can be one of the most useful things to have as a musician. As a yoga teacher and someone who works for suicide hotlines, I can’t tell you how many times a 10 second grounding exercise has been the difference between keeping myself or someone else from doing something they would always regret.
And with that, I want to tell you all about why I got involved with suicide prevention in the first place.
8 years ago, I tried to kill myself. While I’ve really only shared this piece of myself with very close friends and family, I’ve reached a point of comfort with this part of myself that I want to share it as a way to make others feel ok about having these thoughts and urges. If I knew then what I know now, it probably wouldn’t have changed very much because sometimes, it doesn’t matter what you know. What you feel kind of just takes over.
There are so many ways that our perception becomes limited. These limits are created by a number of different factors; our biology, our psychology, society around us. These are the factors that create the bubble which surrounds us and makes up exactly how we perceive the world around us.
This bubble that is created for us has the ability to expand and contract based on how we interact with any of the factors that I just mentioned. Most of us have experienced the challenges of when our perception contracts. Think about the last time you were cut off in traffic or felt like a car was going to hit you while walking; and let’s face it, in South Florida it was probably today. When it happened, maybe you felt your heart rate start to quicken, your face flush and your blood boil, and then you focused on the license plate or the face of the person that almost caused you harm as they sped by. Or maybe you were just focused on how creative (or not creative) you could be with the words you wanted to hurl at the person. Then eventually, you would have relaxed and moved on with your day, and then you likely would have just forgot about it altogether.
But imagine you couldn’t. Imagine you stayed stuck in this narrow, dark place. That’s what it can be like to live with a mental illness. At least, that’s what it was like for me at the depth of my own mental illness. My perception had become constricted and darkened and collapsed. I felt like an athsmatic who had lost his glasses in a hurricane.
I was 20 years old when I tried to kill myself, and this was the result of things really not going right for a long time. The main cause of my depression had been a deep and complicated relationship with my body; I was always heavy growing up and the insults and teasing from high school classmates encouraged me to go on a serious diet in the summer of 2008. Even though it was nice to get compliments from people about my new body, these comments only encouraged me to keep going with my weight loss. The thought of putting on even a pound would send me into a tizzy; the longer I went without eating, the more “full” or “complete” I would feel, but what I didn’t realize at the time was that this was one of the key contributors to my dark and narrow perception.
As time went on, my relationship with food became even more complicated. By my freshman year of college, I was eating one small meal every two days. My depression was really only perpetuated by the sluggishness that is accompanied by not eating, and at that time my doctor diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. The doctors prescribed me with several different medications to combat the highest highs and the lowest lows I was feeling, and as a result I was feeling completely hopeless and thought that I would never get to a point where I would feel completely happy again. I was afraid I was going to feel this way forever. At one point, I was taking an anti depressant, an anti-psychotic, a mood stabilizer and an anti anxiety pill, and for any of you who have ever taken any anti-depressants, you know that, particularly if you’re not on the right one, this can really shroud your perception and seriously affect how you view the world around you.
The doctors at my undergrad eventually got in touch with my professors, and they recommended that I take a leave from my studies to focus on my mental health. Without a reason to wake up in the morning, I just stayed in bed all day every day. I ignored my friends and family, didn’t eat at all.
And so one night, about a week later, I was at home and something made me swallow about 75 of my antidepressants because I didn’t want to see the next day. Nothing happened at first; I was scared that I hadn’t taken enough pills so I took more. I remember then feeling really tired so I went to lay down, and the next thing I knew, I woke up on a breathing machine in the hospital.
Shortly after falling asleep, I began to have a seizure. If it wasn’t for my roommate who heard me fall out of bed and onto the ground from the next room, the doctors told me that I would have very likely had brain damage. He threw me over his shoulder and brought me to the hospital and I didn’t wake up for three days. After I had been physically rehabilitated, I was transferred to a mental rehabilitation center and spent four weeks being weaned off imy medication, because the doctors realized that it was the medication that really exacerbated my suicidal ideation and that I didn’t have bipolar disorder after all. You may be asking yourself “why is this guy who played tuba here a few years ago telling us this?” It’s really important to me that none of you ever feel so alone that you feel like you have no choice but to end it all. And one of the biggest things I want you all to understand is that your lives have so much value and that they’re important. That you’re important. You are so much more than a bad day you had on your instrument last week or a bad lesson you had a few days ago.
People seem plenty eager to talk about suicide if it’s behind closed doors and in hushed voices. This is the part I’m doing differently with you today. By sharing with you, I hope to raise my voice and de-stigmatize the conversation surrounding mental health. Currently, there are some strong cultural taboos in discussing suicide. Oftentimes people will say that suicide is a choice. Can suicide be a choice if it’s the only choice available to the person at the time? 95% of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable illness at their time of death which to many is seen as a character flaw. As long as mental illness and suicide are stigmatized, it will remain a very real, but hidden public health threat and a source of terrible pain for all those affected. My hope is that mental illness and suicide are no longer stigmatized and the cost on families and communities is diminished.
One final thought; if you’re contemplating suicide, I know there’s a hope somewhere deep inside you. Keep that hope alive. We need you and we need you to be leaders in this conversation whether we’re ready to have it or not. This is the conversation that may be able to keep someone alive.