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Defending Hope


Guess what the best predictor of suicide is? Here are some possibilities, in multiple choice form, since I used to be a psychology professor.

  1. a diagnosis of depression
  2. a diagnosis of anxiety
  3. feelings of helplessness
  4. feelings of hopelessness
  5. all of the above
  6. none of the above

I just threw in those last 2 options because students hated those. They are a bit sadistic, I have to admit.

The correct answer is…#4. Hopelessness.

I have only recently become aware of Hope. Among the cast of characters in my mind, like the Inner Critic and the Drill Sergeant, you’d think discovering Hope would have been a pleasant surprise. But I was actually annoyed with her. I had been calling her by a different name: Delusions of Grandeur.

In a previous post on optimism, I defended its merits even when it believes in something that is statistically unlikely to happen, like winning that lottery. Or that you’re going to win when you’re down 0-6, 0-5, 0-40 in a tennis match. I don’t feel like I risk too much by being optimistic, because when I lose, it’s really not that devastating. I wasn’t expected to win.

I don’t feel the same way about hope. Hope wants me to believe in things when the stakes are high. She wants me to put my dreams out there, knowing that they may get dashed. To open my heart up, knowing it might get broken. To believe in something, knowing that I might become disillusioned.

I blame a lot of my failed relationships on Hope. I yell at her whenever I think about the pain I’ve endured. How foolish she was. What the hell were you thinking? That was a terrible idea! Why did you not heed the warning signs? Why didn’t you protect me?

That’s why sometimes I am not so kind to her. Especially after I’ve been hurt. Hope must die! I must kill her off! So she hides from me. Slips between the cushions of the couch and throws pillows over herself so I won’t find her. Because I’m really not that thorough in my vacuuming.

Sometimes she tries to placate me. Pretends she agrees with me when I say things like, what’s the point of trying to get a book published? No one will probably read it, anyway. But then she tricks me into writing another blog post. Like tonight. Maybe it will make you feel better, she says. That’s the goal, after all. Not fame and fortune. It’s meant to be for you. Except she still secretly believes I will become a famous writer someday.

The truth is, I need Hope. I mean, she thinks I’m great. How can I kill off a part of myself that thinks I’m great? And she inspires me to do great things. It is because of Hope that I became a therapist. Without her, I would never have been able to help anyone.

And even when she breaks my heart and leaves me disillusioned, she convinces me that things will get better. That is the thing that keeps people alive, even in the midst of depression, after all. The hope that things will get better. So Hope has actually saved my life many times.

So I guess I’ll try to be nicer to her.


Walking the Line


They say there’s a fine line between creativity and insanity. I would actually draw the line between sanity and insanity, with creativity and insanity on the same side. Sane people would be on the other side of the line. The further you get from the line, the more extreme you become.

For example, people who are creative might be the depressed artists who use writing, painting, music, or whatever to express their pain. But the further you get from the line, the more likely you are to lose touch with reality. The more likely you are to think that things like suicide might be a good idea.

People who are on the sane side might not have experienced depression, but they can imagine what it might be like and have empathy for people who are depressed. The further you get from the line, the more likely you are to believe that depression isn’t real. It’s just an excuse that lazy people use to avoid taking responsibility for their lives.

I would say that most of the time I’m pretty good at walking the line, but sometimes I get pulled over to the insanity side. Usually because I’m feeling someone else’s pain. Because my emotions are pretty intense already. So once they are combined with someone else’s feelings, it becomes too much. Then my demons seize upon my vulnerable state and try to convince me that my pain will never end. Why go on living? Follow me into the woods. You’ll be free from your pain over here.

Writing requires being able to walk the line. I have lots of entries in my journal from the times when I first started to feel depressed but none during the times when I was in the depths of despair. Because at that point, all my energy was focused on survival. If I wrote at all when I was happy, I usually didn’t have much to say because I was too busy enjoying life to have time for introspection.

I’ve been trying to keep my balance over the past month, but sometimes I have to cross over to the insanity side to bring people back. It’s a risk to my mental health, but what can I do? It’s like going into a burning building to save someone you love. How can you stand there and watch it burn down without at least trying?

Maybe it takes more than one person to bring people back to the sane side. Maybe you have to form a human chain like you do in a tug of war, where someone is anchored at the line. That way the person who has to go deep into the woods won’t get lost. They have people who are holding on to them, pulling for them, making sure they’re able to get back. That way demons can’t win.

So maybe I need to start recruiting for a team, just like I do in tennis. Find a few sane people, some people who can walk the line, and a few who are adventurous enough to cross the line so I can save someone who is lost.

If only I could find some sane people.



Undeserving, Part 2


There’s a scene in “Good Will Hunting” where Will and Skylar are in bed, basking in the glory of love, when Skylar asks Will to move to California with her. This scene ends in an argument in which Skylar asks Will to look her in the eye and tell her he doesn’t love her, and he does. Even though he obviously loves her.

People think that when we get the thing we want–the loving relationship, the great job, the coveted degree–we will be happy. But sometimes when we get what we want we get depressed, like I did after I got my Ph.D. Or we start a fight, like Will did. Or we sabotage our marriage, like my first husband did.

I’ve had several students in the past few weeks who became suicidal in the midst of good fortune. I explained to them that sometimes we have to bargain with that part of ourselves that tells us we are not worthwhile. If you just let me have this one good thing, I promise I will pay for it by making myself suffer. I still won’t let myself believe I deserve it. Which they totally understood.

After having this conversation several times on Friday, I finally understood that this is what ended my first marriage. Everyone told me he thought he didn’t deserve me, which I sort of understood on an intellectual level, since he called himself a poor, half-breed bastard. But I never really believed it, because I thought he was the best guy I had ever known. And I still think that.

And I realized intellectually that he tried to end our marriage a month after we finally got the house of his dreams, and we were finally making money, and our lives were finally stable. But it still didn’t make sense in my heart, because even after we signed the divorce papers, he told me it was the saddest day of his life. Which was consistent with what he said on our wedding day, which he said was the happiest day of his life.

But on Friday, I finally understood how he felt. He didn’t deserve to have all of these good things happen to him. He felt like my clients did, who became suicidal when they were about to get what they wanted. Except instead of killing himself, he destroyed our marriage. And it hurt my heart to feel how worthless he felt. I could finally feel his sadness instead of my own.

When I explained the bargain we make with our inner demons to one of these clients, he commented on how overwhelming it was to believe he thought he was that bad. But I reminded him that there is also a part of him that knows he is good. Which is why he is in therapy. Why he is alive today.

This is also why, at the end of the movie, Will decides to move to California with Skylar. Because even though some part of ourselves may tell us we are undeserving, we can ignore that part and choose to love ourselves, anyway.

Questions for God

Questions for God

This year I sent my parents a Valentine’s card with a religious theme about love, which made them happy. My dad half-jokingly said, “Could it be my prayers have finally been answered?”

I stopped going to church long ago because I didn’t agree with a lot of the doctrines of the Catholic church. When I asked questions, I wasn’t satisfied with the answers, and I couldn’t get on board with a God that wants us to accept his rules without understanding why. I mean, why would he have sent us Jesus if he didn’t care whether or not we understood him?

But that’s not to say I gave up on understanding God. Through years of reading, praying, meditating, and talking to others, I feel much better about my relationship with him. But I still have questions. Many of them have to do with mental illness.

Last week the student group I advise, Active Minds, sponsored a presentation by the JCK Foundation, whose mission is to end stigma associated with OCD and other mental disorders. The foundation was created in honor of John Kelly, who suffered from OCD and eventually took his own life at the age of 25.

One of the problems I had with the Catholic Church was the belief that suicide is an unpardonable sin. It’s obvious that John was an amazing person whose compassion and goodness were felt by anyone who knew him. So much so that his friends and family created this foundation in order to do what John did in his every day life–to help other people who are suffering. Is it possible that this one final act could have nullified all of the good that he brought to the world?

John tried so hard to beat OCD. He kept a journal. He took meds. He went to therapy. Did every kind of alternative treatment in existence. Helped other people. But still, the pain was unbearable. I can imagine how someone who was in that much pain could decide that they could not bear a life where there was seemingly no hope of getting better.

I’ve heard many people say that when their loved one was near death, they gave them permission to let go. Isn’t it possible that God would have done the same for John? That he might have said, you’ve done your job on earth; you don’t have to suffer any longer. Wouldn’t that be something that a loving father might say to a son?

Or did God say, don’t give up! There will be a cure someday. You need to persevere! Even if that’s what God said, he forgives us for being fallible. No sin is supposed to be greater than God’s love. So why wouldn’t he forgive this particular sin?

I have been thinking about John Kelly for the past 5 days, even though the presentation wasn’t that good. But I could feel John’s compassion as his friends and family talked about him, and I was moved by how they have chosen to spread compassion as far as they possibly can in honor of him.

I  choose to believe that God is happy about that.


After I wrote this post I found this article that says the Catholic Church no longer believes that suicide is an unpardonable sin. That God is the only one who decides who should go to hell. Thank goodness.

Darkness and Light, Part 2

I am deeply saddened by Robin Williams’ death. I love the roles he chose as an actor. He was a comedic genius. And he was full of life–a light that seemed to shine a little brighter than the average star.

As a psychologist, I don’t have any special knowledge about why Robin Williams committed suicide. I wasn’t there. I didn’t know him personally. I wasn’t his therapist. I do know that, no matter how well you think you know someone, it is difficult to fathom the depths of the darkness they live in. Because who wants to share that with other people? Who wants to burden other people with additional darkness? It’s hard enough to deal with our own.

I also know what it’s like to have multiple depressive episodes. My psychiatrist compared relapses to breaking your leg in the same place multiple times: with every break you become more vulnerable to injury; it takes a little longer to recover each time.

My dad had 3 major depressive episodes. His last episode hit when he was 69 and lasted for almost 4 years. It was a tremendous amount of work for him–and my mom–to recover again. I know sometimes he didn’t want to try. And I know he felt that way more often than he let on but tried to be strong for my benefit.

In my last depressive episode, there were times when I wanted to give up, too. Well, it’s not so much that I wanted to give up. It’s more like the depression told me that I should. And in my weakened state of mind, it was hard to fight back. I am thankful that I was able to do so in the end. That was my 2nd major depressive episode. I’m trying to do everything within my power to prevent a third.

What if Robin Williams had 5 or 6 depressive episodes? What if the demons of depression never took a break unless he threw himself into something like acting or drugs or alcohol? I don’t drink and I have never used drugs, but if I had to live my life feeling the way I did at my worst, maybe I would. I don’t know that I would have been any stronger. So I don’t think it’s fair to accuse Robin Williams of being weak. Clearly, based on his body of work, he was anything but weak. He was fighting it all the time.

I was also taken aback by the anger that some people felt about his suicide. But I don’t judge them for it. I can understand why, if you have been personally affected by suicide, you would identify more with the people who are left behind and have to make sense of this loss for the rest of their lives. Fortunately, I have never been there, but if my dad had ever given in to his demons, I know I would have been devastated.

I think that people who see mental illness as a weakness, an excuse, or a nonexistent entity fear the darkness in themselves. They try to deny it in themselves and in others as vehemently as possible, lest it find a way to escape. But some of us don’t have that luxury. We can’t lock our depression in a closet and throw away the key; it is too powerful. It does not obey our will.

One positive outcome of having known that kind of pain is that it has deepened my compassion for others. It motivates me to alleviate whatever suffering I can in others. In my opinion, the people who know what it’s like to live in darkness are the ones who are the most motivated to enlighten others. So if Robin Williams inspired more people to become light bearers, then that is at least one good thing that can come from this loss.