Living With Demons on your Shoulder

For one reason and another, depression and suicide has been a lively topic among my internet friends of late. Opinions, as they do, vary from those who rage at the suicide for taking the coward’s way out through various reactions including my personal one: there but for the grace of Something go I.

You see, I’ve fought depression much of my life. Consciously… probably since I was around 15, which is when the delights of narcolepsy entered my life. I didn’t get diagnosed for another 20 years, which meant I spent 20 years chronically incapable of fully waking up while being chronically sleep-deprived – one of the interesting quirks of narcolepsy is that the most restful kind of sleep simply doesn’t happen.

Unsurprisingly, sleep-deprivation-induced depression followed not long after.

Now, I’m not claiming that every person who suicides – or every person who gets suicidal – feels the way I do. In the same way that the same dosage of any psychoactive medication acts differently on each person, each person’s personal demons vary, sometimes a lot. But one thing I am sure about is this: if you haven’t stood on the edge of that precipice with something telling you to go ahead and just lean forward, and it will all be much better, you can’t understand what drives someone to it.

Me, I externalize it. A lot of people with depression issues do. Partly because it helps to keep a grip on reality, when you treat depression-induced thoughts as originating from somewhere else, something else. If you can convince yourself they’re not you, you can fight them. If you can fight them, you can… well, you can’t really win, because they’ll always be there waiting for a moment of weakness, but you can keep them away for a little longer, a day at a time. Sometimes, a minute at a time, or a second at a time.

It’s not that rare with authors – our brains are already broken in interesting ways – but it’s uncommon for one to write them into their fiction in a way that perfectly encapsulates what depression is and what it does to people.

Let’s start by clearing up one thing. Sadness, grieving in response to a loss… that is not depression. It’s sadness. Grief. It passes with time, and even at its worst there are moments of joy and hope. Depression is not like that. Everything is poisoned.

J. K. Rowling is describing depression when she describes the Dementors and their impact.

Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you.

This is precisely what depression does. There is an absence of hope, an inability to believe that there can ever be anything positive in your life again. That isn’t sadness or grief, and it isn’t necessarily expressed by tears.

This is how it was for me.

I was dead inside. I could fake being “normal” in small doses, but I couldn’t keep it going for long. There were a crapload of other things going on in my life and I was completely overwhelmed by it. More than that, I could tell that my issues were causing problems for my parents and siblings – this was before The Husband came onto the scene.

The periodic thoughts that would drift in whenever I let my mind go enough – that it would be easier all around if I simply didn’t wake up in the morning – started to happen more often, and gradually got more detailed over a period of several months. I didn’t tell anyone: why would I burden anyone with any more of my problems? It was just me being stupid, after all. (I should add that I was on prescription antidepressants while this was happening and had been stable on that medication and dosage for several years).

It felt as though there was this other presence sitting on my shoulder, using my mind to think thoughts I didn’t want to think, and getting stronger all the time.

I remember several times where I’d sit in my car punching the dash and muttering, sometimes damn near screaming, “No.” Never more than that, just “No.” And all the while the whole plan to take myself and my problems out of the way of everyone I cared about rolled through my mind as if I wasn’t even there.

Fill up the car, get myself some hose that would fit over the tailpipe and be long enough to get into the window, then go to the storage units down the road and get myself a garage-sized unit. It didn’t matter that the check would bounce, because all I had to do was drive in, set up, and go to sleep in the car. By the time anyone thought to check, it would be too late.

What stopped me was the cat. Her Royal Fluffiness, Miss Shani. You see, I believed that if by some miracle the check didn’t bounce it would be at least a month before anyone suspected anything. I genuinely believed my parents would not miss me or bother to check on me when I didn’t answer the phone. But I knew the cat would be locked in my apartment with no food or water if I didn’t keep coming home to her.

So I held on. A day at a time. A minute at a time. A second at a time.

I held on, believing that there was no hope and no future. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life (and this is coming from the woman who drove from Houston to past Philadelphia with an untreated broken ankle, who upped stakes and moved from Australia to the USA to get married). I sincerely hope it will remain the hardest thing I ever do in my life.

Obviously, I clawed my way back from the brink. It was a close thing. Looking back, I think one more crisis would probably have tipped me.

The point, though, is this. When you start believing that you’re doing your friends and family a favor by getting out of their lives, it’s not you talking. It’s the demons. The depression. The Dementors, if you will. They’re sitting there on your shoulder whispering these lies into your mind because they feed on despair and exist to turn everything around you gray and hopeless. I don’t give a shit what the actual physical explanation is – this is what it feels like. I’ve heard so many, many similar stories from others who have been there and found their way back to a world where they can hope and find joy to think that it’s unique to me.

If that’s what your mind is telling you, it is lying.

It’s not you.

It’s the demon on your shoulder trying to destroy every good thing in your life.

Fight it. One day at a time. One minute at a time. One second at a time.

Because you don’t know what life will bring, but it’s a lie that nobody will miss you.


25 thoughts on “Living With Demons on your Shoulder

  1. I know what the barrel of my .38 tastes like. It was an unruly bunch of drunks on google chat a few nights that kept me from pulling the trigger. A line from Bojack Horseman “you were born broken. That is your birthright” yeah I sympathize with that. I am also very neutral on suicide just as I am with euthanasia. The mental pain can be as bad as the physical yet many see the two issues very differently. Someone says to me they are going to do themselves in my mind does not immediately jump to oh god no don’t do it. I want to know why. What got them to the place I know too well. I understand. The demons start making a lot of sense. I won’t judge anyone who takes that route. Living with emotional and physical pain I know there are times you will do anything… anything to make it stop. Oh and what ultimately keeps me here. A pony. She is all I have. When we were apart and I thought I would never see her again is when I came closest to the end. When her life is over I don’t know if mine will be far behind.

    1. ” I am also very neutral on suicide just as I am with euthanasia.” Don’t be. Death is our ancient enemy, it is not our friend. Suicide is a cowardly way of shifting the pain. Euthanasia is a failure of love, don’t kid yourself. When we breathe out, God inhales. That’s how close he is. Even in your darkest moments, you are not alone. His shoulder is against yours. Get a pet, find a hobby, tell somebody. But you are one of the tribe, and you cannot harm yourself without diminishing all of us. You don’t have that right.

    2. Yes, both can be terrible, Jess.

      If it helps any, there are quite a few folks who would miss you dreadfully if you took yourself away from us.

      I know it can seem like there’s no reason to go on, and when the demons are loudest it’s bloody hard to believe that anything will ever change.

      Hang in there.

    3. @HoustonGrandma, yes, we are all diminished by the untimely loss of one of ours.

      Over the years since the episode I posted about, I’ve found myself counseling friends and acquaintances in places that were as bad as I was, helping them through their worst times. I won’t say I was – or am – any great shakes as a counselor, but if someone wants to talk or vent at me, I’ll listen, I won’t ridicule, and I’ll do my best to help. It seems to work for others, so I’ll keep on doing it as best I can.

  2. I am just so desperately tired of feeling like this. I have high points, and with each I wait for the other shoe to drop. Because I pay for the high points by having the floor fall out from under me.

    1. It’s a horrible feeling, isn’t it?

      This might sound kind of weird, but have you considered that by waiting for the other shoe to drop you could be inadvertently attracting shoes? What I mean by that is that if you’re looking for something to go wrong, you can wind up sabotaging yourself by acting or speaking in a way that turns other people off. I’ve done it often enough, and it’s a hell of a habit to try to get rid of.

      It’s something to consider, at any rate.

      The way I handle the tendency to start watching for something to go wrong on me is to focus just on what’s happening now, and do a kind of mental “hand-off”, along the lines of “I’ve done everything I can about this situation. It’s out of my hands now.” then let what happens happen.

      It’s about the one positive thing that comes of having been at rock bottom: you *know* you’ve been able to handle that. You might be tired and hate it, but you still know you can handle it if you have to.

  3. I cannot begin to understand. I have been depressed but never to the point of considering taking my life. I don’t enjoy music, reading, eating, sunsets, or whatever, and wonder why anyone does… but I don’t want to end anything. There’s not a pain component to my depression and there’s certainly no energy in it to make the effort to fill up the car or find a hose. I have the dementor sucking all the good out of life, but I lack the energetic demon telling me to end it.

    1. That’s good, that you’ve never felt the need to end it. The next step is to find things that you *do* enjoy – and also things that leave you quietly contented. (I personally find that quiet content is vastly underrated. Those moments of simple peace when I’m not particularly happy, just content… they’re often what trigger my best thinking).

  4. Its a huge lie that, “no one will miss you.” We, your family, love you for the duration, even on a biological, cellular level. We would be both sad, and miss you, for forever.

  5. Consider for a moment that perhaps they are actual demons on your shoulder whispering in your ear. Human existence has long had stories about malevolent entities and their active efforts to take the good in life from us. We like to think its brain chemistry, or neurotransmitter levels, but perhaps we do have an enemy working against us.
    Whether its real or delusion is ultimately irrelevant. I have found its far far easier to actively resist the creeping depression when it can be visualised as something separate or alien from me. Name the enemy, give it a face, then grab it by the neck and stuff it down the garbage disposal.

    1. I’ve never gone quite to the level of stuffing it down the garbage disposal, but giving it a name and reifying it as a separate entity certainly makes it easier to fight it.

      I’m practical about that kind of thing. Whatever is actually going on, if it works for me to treat this as actual demons, it works and I’m going to keep doing it. If it works for someone to visualize their demons in sparkly pink tights, more power to them.

  6. The seeming inability to believe that the future could and might be better than the past and present is always illusory. Penetrating that foggy curtain can be more difficult than anything else one will face…but having done so, the sufferer can never be re-afflicted. It’s not quite a Nietzschean gift of strength for having survived a trial, but it’s in the same zip code. It’s one of the reasons that the greatest of the virtues are faith, hope, and charity.

    1. Yes, indeed. I suspect that’s one of the reasons I’ve never been that bad since. There is a certain strength built from the knowledge that you’ve faced down your inability to hope for anything and come out of it more or less intact.

  7. The book The Noonday Daemon is worth reading. Very articulate first-person account of living with clinical depression.

    Helpful, several ways.l, I think.

  8. When I was in my twenties and early thirties, I considered suicide every day when I woke up in the morning. I didn’t really think of myself as depressed as much as just *tired* of everything. Everything, including the things that are supposed to make you feel good, was just a chore. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t crying all the time. I just felt that if I put a bullet in my head, I could finally just be rid of it all. I also know what the barrel of a pistol tastes like.

    But I didn’t do it. At first, it was my belief in God. I believe that suicide was a sin, and I was obligated to try. Then it was because my mother had cancer, and I felt that it would be cruel to her to kill myself while she was dying. Then, when she died, my father was distraught, and I felt that I had a responsibility to him. And then I got married, and I felt I had an economic responsibility to my wife. I always felt a sense of responsibility and obligation, and that was stronger than this constant itch. And, of course, unlike a lot of suicides, I wasn’t in *despair* as such. I didn’t horribly object to living one more day — I just didn’t particularly want to do it.

    And, suddenly, 15 years had passed, and I realized that somewhere along the line, I started enjoying life. My faith had gotten stronger, and I loved working in the church. My marriage was working out and I loved being with my wife and family. I started finding things I really cared about at work and in my community. About the time I turned 50, I found myself driving to work saying a little prayer thanking God for another day.

    Now I’m 62, and I’m enjoying life more than ever before. I’m happier to be alive than i ever thought I would be. The person I was 40 years ago seems like a completely different person. I’m not sure what made the difference. I’ve always been a person of faith, and somewhere along the line it changed from being an issue of obligation to one of celebration. But I don’t know that it’s what did it. My wife has been fantastic, and supported me during bad times. That was important in getting me through the worst of it, but I don’t think it’s what changed me. My health is worse as a 62-year-old than it was 40 years ago, so it’s not that.

    I just don’t know. But I do know that I’m glad I didn’t follow through 30 or 40 years ago, and I thank God I made it to the other side.

    1. I’m glad you didn’t, too. That sense of responsibility to others was certainly a blessing to you, even if it didn’t seem that way at the time.

      I do think the feeling tired of everything is a major and often unmentioned component of serious depression. That combined with the more obvious despair or an inability to see the possibility of life improving… (I generally ignore my own tired of everything, because always tired is something that comes with narcolepsy).

      Thank you, and thank you to your wife for supporting you through the dark times.

    2. “I always felt a sense of responsibility and obligation, and that was stronger than this constant itch. And, of course, unlike a lot of suicides, I wasn’t in *despair* as such. I didn’t horribly object to living one more day — I just didn’t particularly want to do it.”
      THIS nailed it for me. I’m probably 10 years down the road from the worst of it, and it just keeps getting better. Now I’m trying to love my daughter through it with meds, therapy, and faith. It’s so much worse than bearing it myself.

  9. for anyone looking into the abyss and considering…
    what kept me from tipping over into it was seeing how the death of my younger brother – from cancer – devastated my mom. she quit her job and moved 500 miles to be near him & help him; got his meds & groceries for him: got him to the doc appts; fought his hospital/doc/insurance company battles for him.

    but he died anyway. that’s life, I suppose. his death hit her so hard, so so very hard, that she aged 10 years overnight. they say losing a kid is the worst thing that can happen to a parent. having seen it up close, I’d agree.

    now imagine if that kid – you – died via suicide.

    don’t do that to your mom, people.

    1. Yes, life can do horrible things, and cancer is a terrible way to die.

      And yeah… That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve learned from that time: taking myself out of my parents life that way would have been a terrible thing to do to them, even though at the time I thought it would be doing them a favor.

      I’m glad I didn’t. And I’m glad you were able to see what your brother’s death did to your mother and use that as your lifeline.

  10. I always say, that for a depressed person, our biggest enemies are ‘accuracy’ (about the past) and ‘certainty’ (about the future).

    Just being willing to question our own accuracy and certainty (at the times we feel most accurate or certain) is a big battle won.

    By the way – I have someone close to me who has in the past been delusional (BPD 1, now treated pretty successfully). I remember well what his delusions sounded like, and how sure he was of them.

    So (given that we share a strong genetic link), when I have an attack of the ‘Thots’ (those demons that take over your mind), I think that he and I are not that different. I mean that literally – that I have a slightly milder form of his delusional disorder. His delusions (when he had them) blocked out all the sunlight, whereas mine let in just enough of the outside world that I can be conscious that I am having them – though they are perhaps just as compelling (“things aren’t good, they haven’t been good and they never will be good. And that’s an inescapable fact “).

    So, I am not that different than him. Demons. Delusions (as in literally – a subtle delusional disorder). The Thots. Something that takes over our mind and reengineers our perception of ourselves and our world.

    So it’s useful for me to think of the thoughts themselves as a form of delusional disorder, just like a schizophrenic or BPD 1 sufferer.

    PS: I was never actively suicidal. I have my mothers suicide to thank for that.

  11. This spoke to me. Thank you because it encourages me to keep saying “No!” to the demons. Depression LIES. Thank you for reminding me that my cats, my husband, my kids, and my friends need me. Not perfect me. Just here. xo

  12. What is the source for the background photo in your banner? It’s a powerful image. My own demon likes that image, that fox is messing with my mind.

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