Legion of Leia contributor Dr. Janina Scarlet wrote this amazingly brave and powerful piece about her personal experience on her site Superhero Therapy. This is reprinted here with her permission. If you know anyone who is contemplating suicide, please call 911 or the national suicide hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
When I woke up on Friday something felt wrong. It felt as if someone punched me in the gut repeatedly. Despair. Pushing away these emotions without taking the time to figure out why I was feeling them nor taking the time to provide myself with the compassion and comfort that I needed, I headed to Camp Pendleton, where I focused on my clients with PTSD.
My work is when I feel alive. I am so incredibly privileged to be able to help others, to have them trust me enough to see them through their most vulnerable moments, to have me help them through their suffering and guide them on their journey to recovery. I felt better. Hopeful. My stomach wasn’t tightening as much.
However, once I got out of work, the feeling returned tenfold. My mind was screaming at me, “SOMETHING’S WRONG!” I chose to ignore it, shush it, and head to my other job at the anxiety clinic. At 4:00pm on the verge of a panic attack, which I rarely have, I decided to call my mom. She picked up on the 2nd ring.
“Hello?” she said. There were voices in the background. The immediate thought that went through my head was that my parents are probably at a restaurant and I might be interrupting their dinner.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“At the hospital with your dad.” She answered calmly. Her tone made me think that perhaps it was a minor procedure. Like me, my dad has a history of heavy nosebleeds after we were all exposed to Chernobyl radiation. I thought that perhaps he went in for that.
“What happened?” I asked, remaining calm, taking an emotional cue from my mom.
“He overdosed on Ambien. He left a note.”
The words were like a bombshell in my mind.
“hwye8 3709udj m0qmeoka; lkkhkjgkjh” and other gibberish was all my brain could come up with for a few minutes. The stomach was under attack again, as my throat felt as if someone was choking me.
After a few minutes of mutual silence I was thrown back by a tidal wave of anger toward my mom. How could she have been so calm right now? Then immediately the logical part of my brain answered that question, She wasn’t calm, she was stoic. For her own sake. And for mine.
After taking a few breaths to calm down, I managed to ask my mother a few more questions before she had to get off the phone to meet with the attending psychiatrist.
Making a conscious decision to put my emotions on hold, holding my breath as much as I could, I went into immediate problem solving mode. Do I still see my clients tonight or do I cancel? My immediate cognitive reaction was to still see them but the creeping tears from the blanket of my emotional avoidance told me that it wasn’t a good idea.
Stoic. Like my mom.
I called my clients to cancel, stating that I had a family emergency. They were all understanding and wished me well.
Once I got off the phone with my last client, I then called my friend to pick me up. By the time he picked up the phone my emotions came charging out like football players onto the field. I never realized that it was possible to feel so many contradicting emotions all at once – guilt, shame, anger, confusion, relief that he’s alive, fear, empathy for both of my parents, somehow numbness, if that makes any sense, and deep rooted devastation.
While waiting for my ride home I noticed myself slipping into the self-blame mode. I was just in NY with my parents two weeks prior to this. I knew my dad was a bit depressed and struggled with sleep. I helped set him up with a therapist, I gave him some breathing and self-compassion resources to help him manage his symptoms, I spent time with him. WHAT DID I MISS?
The guilt was eating away at me like a hungry vulture, “You’re a freakin’ psychologist! You should have known. You’re supposed to “have your sh*t together!” Why are you falling apart like this? You should just be grateful that he’s alive.”
These thoughts continued until I made the conscious decision to open up to 4 of my friends. One of them had a family member die by suicide, another recently lost an acquaintance to suicide. Having people to talk to and be able to normalize this experience was extremely powerful for me. In reflecting on this I saw that I was judging myself the very way that most of my patients with PTSD judge themselves. Connecting with others helped reduced my own self-stigma.
Over the past few days my emotions have been changing at the very least hourly. Oscillating between extreme gratitude, guilt, numbness, compassion, and excruciating sadness, I was able to connect, while at times needing to numb my emotions and lie to my unsuspecting friends who would randomly text or email me for the past few days to say hello and ask how things are going.
This morning I made a conscious choice to go to yoga as a form of self-care. About half-way through the class the emotions harshly hit me in the face. It was around the time I really started to relax my body and the inhibition locks I placed on my mind were starting to open up as well. There was a moment of panic. Should I leave the class and go cry in the bathroom? There was also a critical moment, Stop it! Pull yourself together! Making a deliberate choice to stay in the room and practice self-compassion, I placed my hand on my heart and breathed as I continued my exercises. A few tears dropped, I don’t think anyone even noticed, but I felt relief.
I wasn’t sure if I should talk or write about this or if I should keep this to myself and the 4 people I had told. After careful consideration and after seeing the benefits of open communication about this first hand, I decided to write about it. I realized that by not talking about this I am stigmatizing suicide and mental health conditions. I don’t want to do that. Perhaps this is a controversial statement but I am of the opinion that suicide isn’t always preventable. Sure, sometimes there are signs but sometimes there aren’t and by avoiding the topic we might be adding to the problem. Sometimes when someone attempts or commits suicide, we might feel the need to lie about what truly happened to them for the fear of being stigmatized. I believe that we might sometimes, maybe even often times, be able to help the person who is considering suicide (click here to find out more information) and we also need to openly talk about it and offer love and support for the surviving family members. I’m hoping to start an open conversation about suicidality to reduce stigma that currently exists about it. If you or anyone you know has ever felt suicidal or if you lost someone to suicide, I would love to hear from you.
If you or a loved one might currently be in danger of committing suicide, you can always call 911 or the national suicide hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and they will tell you exactly what to do. If you are going through something and don’t know how to cope, please reach out. If you see someone else struggling and you’re not sure if they need help, ask. It might be the very action that could save their life. Suicide usually stems from the feelings of hopelessness and the lack of coping resources. If you or a loved one is struggling with suicidal thoughts or another mental health condition, consider seeing a therapist or telling your therapist if you are already seeing one in order to get the resources that you need to help you through.
Sending much love into the universe and to all of you.
Dr. Janina Scarlet is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, a scientist, and a full time geek. She uses Superhero Therapy to help patients with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and PTSD at the Center for Stress and Anxiety Management and Sharp Memorial Hospital. Dr. Scarlet also teaches at Alliant International University, San Diego. Her book, Superhero Therapy, is expected to be released in July 2016 with Little, Brown Book Group. If you would like to learn more about Superhero Therapy, please feel free to contact Dr. Janina Scarlet via Twitter @shadowquill, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Shadow.Scarletl, or via her website at www.superhero-therapy.com