Depression, addiction, alcoholism, eating disorders and suicide are a family matter. They not only affect the patient but also his or her relatives, friends and even coworkers. It never happens in a vacuum. Some people seem to inherit a predisposition towards mental illness and addiction, unrelated to life’s struggles. Other cases are triggered by external circumstances. It’s an extremely complex issue that cannot be addressed in a short post on a website. Our vantage point is that mental and emotional illness has many faces, many stories, and some of them have a happy ending. This is one of them.
What follows is a conversation between my sister Laura Carbonell, 48, a suicide survivor and recovering alcoholic with over twenty years of sobriety and me, Lorraine C. Ladish, 50, a former bulimic with fifteen years of recovery so far. My first book, published twenty years ago was entitled I Feel Fat, about my struggle with a severe eating disorder. Both Laura and I have suffered from bouts of extreme depression at different times since we were very young. Today we can look back with gratitude. We still have life, each other, and the drive to help dispel the stigma associated with mental and emotional illness.
Lorraine.- We’ve both dealt with depression on and off throughout our lives. Few people who know us today would imagine our past struggles. Do you remember at what age you started feeling depressed?
Laura.- As I once shared on the website Talking about suicide, “At the age of 5, I already felt like an outcast and had difficulty making friends. I had questions about life. I wanted to know what it was about and why we were here. This, I felt I couldn’t communicate to other 5- or 6-year-olds.” I guess I had depression, defined as “an acute sense of reality.” And I couldn’t agree more with the statement.
Lorraine.- I also remember feeling anguished at 7. I would wake up in the middle of the night and think about death. The concept of eternal non-existence freaked me out. But full-blown depression didn´t kick in until I turned sixteen and had a motorcycle accident. I realized there was something wrong and it wasn´t physical. It was an existential void. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I couldn’t get out of bed. I contemplated death, but I never tried to end my life. I´m so glad you survived your suicide attempt twenty-four years ago. What do you remember about it? What were your reasons?
Laura.- I´d been numbing my feelings with alcohol since I was sixteen. At twenty-four I tried to quit drinking on my own. All the fears and insecurities rushed back. I had no tools at my disposal to help me face life. I spiraled down into acute sadness and I just couldn´t even try to reach out, trapped in a life I couldn´t handle. The only thing that kept me going was my job as a teacher. In that fog, I just wanted to end the pain. I didn’t even make the conscious decision to end my life. It happened in a split second.
Lorraine.- Did you think of asking for help at that moment? I can´t even imagine, and that´s considering I do know what not wanting to live feels like.
Laura.- No I didn´t. The other day, as I read the news of Robin William’s suicide, I immediately decided to share on Facebook the American Association of Suicidology helpline. Then I remembered. That’s not a number you will decide to call if you really want to commit suicide. It’s not something you plan out and then think, “Oh! Wait, I’m going to ask for help!” It’s great that there are these resources, but I don’t believe I would have called even knowing they existed. The fog is usually too dense to think clearly. You need to get help before you reach that point.
Lorraine.- Back then I felt I failed you as a sister, because while you were struggling with alcoholism I was dealing with my own depression and eating disorder. We were estranged for three years, while I tried to pull myself out of my own hell. I know you missed me and I missed you terribly as well, but in my twenties I felt I had to fight for my life or go down with you.
Laura.- Nobody fails anyone. I don’t feel that way. Not now, after all these years. We all have our own battles. I think that what mostly helped me was that nobody treated me differently. Not many people knew what I was going through. Only my best friend, her mom and close family. We kept looking forward and turned the page. It all happened the way it was meant to.
Lorraine.- You also suffered for me when I was depressed. I once had a nervous breakdown after a breakup, at thirty-one. You were already sober. You watched me break down … Then it was me going to doctors, trying to recover. You even took me to 12-step meetings. I will never forget that.
Laura.- I honestly think that the best help is one’s own. Nobody can actually do anything for you but be there. By that I mean you can call, chat, listen and maybe – eventually – even laugh about it together. There is a lot of laughter in 12-step recovery groups. I feel that finding the light side to our problems helps put them in perspective.
Also Read: Tips to Deal With a Midlife Crisis
Lorraine.- Yes, you and I have managed to laugh together about a lot of our struggles, thank goodness. But it´s taken us a lifetime. Meds and therapy definitely helped me eventually, but it was a long journey towards finding the right combination. I´m also grateful that I realize depression and anxiety are nothing to be embarrassed about.
Laura.- Shopping for a therapist who is a good fit will do wonders. But it´s not easy. It’s a hit and miss. It needs to be someone you really click with. Two years ago, after so many years of sobriety, depression plagued me again. A good friend told me to seek help. I cried and cried during therapy but it was cathartic. I discovered I wasn’t as abnormal as I had always thought I was! I´m just very sensitive and didn´t know how to handle feelings. I had to learn to voice my feelings and that’s not easy when you try to constantly numb them.
Lorraine.- How do you feel about me and my addictions and mental illness struggles? I´m acutely aware of yours. Are you ever afraid that I will fall back into an eating disorder or depression? I don´t want you to try and commit suicide again. You´re my sister, and my kids´ godmother and aunt.
Laura.- Actually I don’t worry because I know that you now have the tools and the drive to overcome anything, in the best of spirits. As for me, suicide is the end of pain as I see it. Some of us are better at dealing with pain than others. Honestly, knowing I have a way out if I want to is a relief, but not something I contemplate anymore. Still, the waves of pain come and go and it’s a matter of learning new skills to cope. I think we all need a purpose or several purposes in life and once we recognize them and pursue them, we are more able to find meaning in an otherwise meaningless life. This is especially true of addicts, who once we quit our addiction have to find something else to occupy our time and attention. Addiction is an escape from oneself and life, once you quit you see life ahead like a desert of nothingness. There is no escape left, so the detour could well be depression and ultimately suicide.
Lorraine.- I hope you will let me know if you ever think about it again. I couldn´t bear to lose you. And as far as life purpose goes, I find my eating disorder came to a screeching halt when I decided to become a mother, but I also know that´s not the case for everyone. Being a mom helped me channel a lot of my scattered energy. And writing has always helped me voice my feelings. Maybe I´m just lucky that way. On the other hand, it´s hard to sit back and watch someone destroy themselves.
Laura.- You cannot help someone who doesn’t want the help. You can reach out, try, and that’s all you can do. The rest is up to them. You cannot become their babysitter. I’ve mastered the ability to forget those things that don’t pertain to my present and suicide is one of them. While I do understand and am willing to help anyone who reaches out, I have moved on and look ahead and every day I find some new endeavor to give me a sense of purpose. Right now that is enjoying new challenges, evolving as a person and sharing my life with my loved ones. Life is a trip.
Lorraine.- I agree with you. The past is in the past, although I don´t want to forget it, but build on it. Most people who know me today don´t realize I´ve overcome an eating disorder, let alone depression. Even my children … But as they grow up they will of course find out and if they are ever in that predicament, I will be there for them. Or at least, try.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline