June Converse

My Journey from Awareness to Acceptance to Authenticity

Most of you know, I suffer with bi-polar. Let me change that verb. I have bi-polar. I decided not the use “suffer” because I don’t live a life of suffering. I live a life of challenges – the challenge to stay out of the pit, the challenge to stay focused and not cave to impulsive behavior, the challenge not to judge myself for my “issues”.

Depression is often depicted as a deep hole in the ground. The depressed sit at the bottom. The walls are high and there ARE NOT many handholds. The bottom is cold and smells rotten. The light at the top is so far away it’s impossible to imagine the strength to make the climb. Sometimes it’s impossible to imagine ever standing to your feet in order to extend to the hands reaching down to help.

Another feature of the pit that most people don’t imagine is the ladder. For the chronically depressed, this ladder is the type that’s used in rocks – kind of like staples. They are hard to see, hard to wrap her fingers around. It takes a lot of strength because the climb is vertical.

For others – bi-polar and acute depression – the ladder is more like you’d find in a library. The ladder slants into the room and has handrails. The climb is hard, but the incline makes it more manageable. Thankfully, this is the type of ladder into my hole.

The Climb

When I was a girl, my father was building our house. He would stand at the top of his ladder (and to a little girl that was a damn tall ladder). He’d call down for me to bring up a tool or a box of nails. My little body would fill with excitement of adventure and fear of falling. I was going to climb the ladder. My hands would start to sweat and that would add to the experience.

With a tool strapped to my belt or a box tucked under my arm, I’d put one hand in front of the other and make the climb. That was hard but not the point of today’s blog.

The Descent

I always made it to my father. I’d hand over the requested item and then it was time to go back down. I’d look at the ground and my excitement turned to nausea. I couldn’t see the next rung below me. I’d grope and hang for a split second in the air. My father used to get angry with me, call me a chicken and shame me into moving. My mother would stand below, holding the ladder and coaxing me down. Once I found the first rung with my tiny feet, I gained confidence and moved to the ground with ease.

What’s the point? Over the last few weeks, my book hit the market. I got some unwelcome news. I’ve taken on “too much” and therefore I’m more stressed than normal. I’m at the top of the ladder and depression is calling me to come on down.

The First Rung

When I was a girl, once I moved my foot one rung down, I was able to go all the way without stopping. If I didn’t spend too much time thinking about it, it was easier to reach the ground. It was the first step I would struggle to complete. The same is true for stepping down into the pit. If I can find the first step, I rush to the bottom. But I don’t want to be in the pit. I want to stay at the top where, like my father, I accomplish something. At the top, I pound nails and achieve my goals.

So, I have to recognize the first step and not put my foot on it. In the past, when I was really hurting, I didn’t even try to recognize the beginning of the descent. The pit, you see, was comfortable. Not pleasant but known.

But now, I recognize the pit for what it is, and I’d rather not go there.

MY First Step

In the last few weeks, I’ve been able to identify my very first step. It’s actually quite easy to see. When I’m about to descend, I start to question everything I’m doing.

  • “You should quit writing. No one wants to read your stuff.”
  • “You should quit the book clubs. You sound like a know-it-all and people hate that.”
  • “All that effort with social media is a waste of time. You’ve gotten two new followers in six months. What’s the damn point?”
  • “You can save money if you quit all this shit and focus on keeping your house in order. Just think, if you quit, you can scrapbook and read and volunteer.
  • “People only like you because you do things for them.”
  • And on and on

MY first step is ALWAYS the desire TO QUIT – give up what I’ve worked for (my career, my hobbies, my relationships) – judge what I’ve accomplished (or not accomplished).

When I recognize that step, I can turn around and climb back up. I can head to the roof and my bucket of nails. I can climb back to my goals and get to work. But I HAVE TO RECOGNIZE the start of the descent.

Recognizing the Step

It’s hard to recognize the first step once you’ve started the descent. But when you land at the bottom (or hopefully stop in the middle of the ladder) and take the time to think backwards, you have a chance to halt and move back up. Unwind the thought process. We don’t jump into the pit. We take a ladder down – one foot in front of the other. Take the time to find the first step. I think you’ll discover it’s most often the same. Your pattern, your trigger. For example, maybe your first step is:

  • A negative comment by someone (and this is especially triggering if it’s someone you respect)
  • A failure – big or small. A perceived failure.
  • The news (CNN, Fox, whoever)
  • Something bad happening to someone else
  • “Should”ing yourself
  • If you’re a creative – a bad critique or even a well-intentioned piece of advice
  • A financial problem
  • A disappointment of any type
  • A broken commitment
  • Falling back into a bad habit
  • Sometimes it’s as simple as eating the wrong thing (a massive amount of sugar-y dessert can send me racing down the ladder)
  • Etc.

When I recognize the step, I don’t automatically stop the desire to quit. But I can say to myself – “this is your first step. Don’t make any decisions at all. Don’t spend any $. Use some of your go-to self-help techniques.”

Does It Stop the Descent?

Yes and no. For me, I find myself recognizing the first step and still taking a couple more toward the pit. But I also find myself stopping and turning back to the light. I rarely get all the way into the pit. Even if I end-up in the mud, I don’t stay as long. I find the stairs easier and the climb faster.

What is your first step? Is your first step the same each time? How can you encourage yourself to turn around and head to the roof? Can you make a plan to stop your pattern or at least slow it down?

Click here to download the Journaling Activity that goes with this blog

A dear friend of mine chose to end his life recently. He was 33 and beautiful. Sweet, funny. Silly. Even when he was driving me crazy, he’d make me laugh. You never knew what was going to come out of his mouth and sometimes it was so inappropriate all I could do was wipe the laughter tears from my face.

When I first was told, I heard the words but felt well …. I guess I would say I felt the shields go up and I wouldn’t let it in. Until someone said, “That was so selfish.”

The barrier has been blown and the feelings are crashing across and over me. I am sad. I am fighting feeling guilt. But what I mainly feel is RAGE.

You want to know what selfish is? – it’s a person who dares to call someone who hurt so badly that taking his own life was the only way to stop the intense hurt.

Selfish is the person who feels like they know what someone is going through and are allowed to give their opinion.  That’s selfish and arrogant.

Selfish is the person who, instead of thinking of the family and this victim, thinks of THEIR opinion. Their UNINFORMED opinion.

Let Me Inform You

I have tried to commit suicide once. I have sat in my bathroom surrounded by every pill in the house many many times. I have done the research on the “best” or the “surest” way or the “least painful” way. I have almost dialed the Suicide Hotlines. So, I know what I’m talking about. WHAT YOU NEED YOU TO KNOW:

I cannot know what Sam* was going through and I should not pretend I can.

I do KNOW his pain was so thick he could not see out of it. Imagine a fog so thick you have to pull over and wait it out. A fog that engulfs the car inside and out. It’s cold and horror movie scary. Even if someone is sitting right next to you, the fog is so deep you can’t see far enough to find that person’s hand. The fog is isolating, disorienting.

I do KNOW he was thinking of OTHERS and not himself. But he was seeing others through the dark grey the fog. He was afraid FOR his family. What if he brought them into the fog? What if he ____? (fill in the blank). A person willing to take that final step is TRYING TO TAKE CARE OF THOSE HE LOVES.

Is he misguided? Absolutely. But the fog is so thick, the sun can’t pierce through. And it feels never-ending. It just keeps rolling in and over. In the mouth. Up the nose. Clogging the ears. It’s a cold sweat and shaking hands and a racing heart.

Do I wish he would have reached out? Absolutely.

Selfish People Will Say

Selfish people will say “He should have talked to someone”. Those people have never sat in the fog. You think there is no one out there. It’s like being on a dark planet. Imagine you are surrounded in the stuff. You can’t touch it. You can’t smell it. You can feel it only as cold on your skin. You can’t even see it in any ‘real’ way. The fog is ephemeral. How do you sit in a therapist’s office and explain what feels at the time as completely inexplicable? How do you explain the imaginary fog that feels as real at the time as the therapist now sitting in front of you?

We’ve all been sad. But this is not sadness. This is not even despair. This is ABJECT FEAR the fog will NEVER float away.

Did he make the wrong choice? Yes, but not because he was selfish. He made the wrong choice because the fog will float away even if he couldn’t see it at that moment in time.

Do I think he could have gotten help and found healthy coping mechanisms? Yes. I have. But it’s hard to find someone who you trust and then the climbing out of the fog is misery – a different kind of fog. It’s all so embarrassing, shameful. If you have not been there, you cannot possibly know so please do not say “HE SHOULD HAVE ______” – if you want to judge someone, look in a mirror. That’s as far as our judgment is allowed to go.

Do I feel sadness for his family? Yes. Sam will be missed by many.

Do I think Sam was selfish? NEVER.

Please STOP

I know you would never say Sam was selfish to his family. BUT STOP THINKING IT and for damn sure, DON’T FEEL YOU ARE QUALIFIED TO SAY IT TO ANYONE. All you do is show your ignorance and shame the people who have sat in the fog. And, let’s be very clear, you have no idea who else may have  sat in the fog.

Just be compassionate. That would be selfless and loving.

To My Friend and His Family

I wish I could be there for you. I wish I could explain better what he was going through. I will tell you that he loved you and he was not being selfish.

Sam – The fog has lifted. Smile in the sun my dear friend.

To Those of You Who Feel Allowed to Judge

Shut up and I hope the fog never descends on you or those you hold dear.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline -- 1-800-273-8255

*The name has been changed to protect privacy.

The first time was in eighth grade. The little bottles were arranged like soldiers. There were fourteen bottles -- one for every year of my life. I didn’t make that connection then but looking back that seems poetic or foreshadowing.

The little red one I remember the most. It was the exact size and shape of a Good & Plenty candy. Rather than pink, however, it was harlot red with a thin blue line. I wanted to collect them all, but worried I’d be caught, I only stole two. The next few were more inline with my previous experience: white powdery circles that I knew would taste bitter.

I placed my treasure – 33 in total – in a sandwich baggie. Enough? It had to be. This baggie went with me everywhere. In English class, I’d put the plastic treasure chest between my thighs and squeeze each one while Mrs. Darden made fun of me. I’ll show you, I’d think. On the school bus, I’d put my nose inside, breath deep and enjoy the aroma I could not name. While struggling with my homework and my father’s savagery, I’d place a pretty red one between my fingers and roll it around, careful not to crush the tender coating.

The day finally arrived – the day I’d swallow my treasure. I have no idea what precipitated the decision, what final insult I could not survive. I planned to tell no one. My treasure, my secret. Darren saw the bag. He sat next to me in English class. He was funny and kind and skinny and pimply. His blue eyes found mine and he simply asked, “What’s that for?”

I clutched the bag to my chest, shrugged. Even now, I don’t know what Darren thought. Did he think I was planning to become a drug dealer? Did he understand my goal to leave this place? Funny, you know, I was never scared of killing myself. It was just a decision. Not even sophisticated enough to be called a plan. Just a way to have some control. But Darren said the one right – or wrong – thing. “If you throw it away, I won’t tell.” In retrospect, I see that his “telling on me” shouldn’t have mattered. I would not be around to suffer consequences anyway. I was fourteen, of course it mattered. I flushed my treasure away at the next opportunity.

That was the first abyss I remember. I had no way of knowing that I’d spend a lifetime becoming a master pit builder.

Pits of despair are universally understood but individually experienced. Whether these chasms are created due to circumstance or hand-excavated, we all sit in our pits alone. Not alone, exactly. We share the hole with guilt, self-pity, exhaustion and a healthy dose of blame.

Even though each pit is a unique creation, I’ve learned there are some commonalities among pit-dwellers. Pits are dark and the smell of culpability permeates the walls. Tears – yours and others – force mud to ooze between the toes. There is only cold. Wails, even the silent ones, echo off the walls.

Each pit is furnished with two vital pieces of equipment: a shovel and a permanent marker. With the shovel we can dig deeper, making the light at the top smaller and smaller, the climb harder and harder. I’ve carved crypts and rested, I’ve flagellated myself or beat the walls in anger.

With the marker, I use words to prove my need to stay in the abyss longer. I use my creativity and pain to slander individuals or the entire world. Whatever we write on those pit walls, we also chisel into our soul. The words may fade but never disappear – they will be waiting in the next pit.

People see me in my pit. Some pretend they don’t notice the desolation carving wrinkles on my face. Other people rush on past, afraid I’m carrying a contagion. A select few – and these faces I will forget or forgive – throw more dirt in my hole, enjoying my dark reality. Then there are the angels who put in their hand, offering me a chance out. Sadly, these beautiful people are often forgotten.

The shovel and the marker are also tools of rescue and redemption. When I let enough light in, I redesign or reconfigure cruel, hurtful words. Pasts cannot be re-written but they can be reframed. New truths can be constructed, new strengths developed. I can cling to the infallibility that the sun rises every day – just look up -- my hole may be deep and the sunlight narrow, but it is there, it is giving me light.

I met a man yesterday whose wife of 52-years died in her sleep nine months ago. He’s in his pit but he’s using his shovel to create footholds and the light is getting brighter. He’s extending his shovel to those of us who are willing to help pull him out. He’s used his marker in anger for her leaving; for guilt in things not said, promises not kept. But, when he remembers their years together, he adds hearts to her name and memories to each letter. It’s okay to rest in your pit for a season. Sometimes the pit is the best rest you’ll ever have.

I wish I could say I’ve never created another baggie. I have. Oh, it looked different – I no longer need to steal from my mother. But I’ve stood on the edge, both arms extended, wanting so badly to crash into the darkness and take permanent residence. But a version of Darren peers in, extends his hand, and waits on my choice. That’s the thing about pits -- we can stay, we can entrench ourselves or we can climb.

When -- if -- you decide to climb, it will be your muscles that hurt, your heart rate that explodes, your sweat pouring forth. Only you can face the doubt – the doubt in your ability to make the climb, the doubt in your right to leave the pit. Only you can do the work. And, let me be honest, it’s easier to dig pits than it is to ascend the depths.

I alone experience my version of despair. I alone know what I experience when I lose, fail, or suffer. You too have suffered. But you do not suffer like I suffer and I do not suffer like you suffer. You cannot be my strength and I cannot be yours. While you can stay in the bowels as long as you like, when you are ready to leave, only you can put one foot in front of the other.

I went to school with Darren for five more years. We ran in the same circles. He never spoke another word to me. Not one word. He also never told. He could have destroyed me with one juicy piece of gossip. I doubt he thinks of me. I think of him daily and have for 38 years. Without meaning to, he saved me.

There is one more universal element to the pits. We all have them. Look behind you. Do you see the scars on the ground, the newly planted grass, or the unsettled soil? Look ahead. Do you see where shovels sit and wait? Get ready to climb. Build your muscles. There is danger ahead. Look to your left, to your right, look up – hope is there somewhere. Take her to the pits with you.

This wave of despair started on Friday, December 1.  Today is December 31 and I have tried everything I know to alleviate the darkness.  I’ll dig out a few feet and then sink  deeper.  I’m pushing through my third wave of suicidal and self-harm thoughts and plans.  So alone.  So scared.  No one to talk to and even if I had someone, my thoughts and words would make no sense.  My thoughts run away in tangents and even I recognize they are jumbled, contradictory, bordering on madness.  I think that’s what most people don’t understand – even if someone sat next to me and asked me to talk, I’d make no sense.  Opening my mouth would be tangible evidence of my insanity – for me and for anyone listening.

Touch freaks me out.  Innocuous comments send me tumbling.  Desperate to be alone but angry that I am.  Watching others have fun, feeling left out and isolated but unable to join.  Bad mother, bad wife, bad friend … bad.  Just bad.  Disappointing to everyone.  Always have been – my parents wanted a ‘nice girl’ and instead ‘they got me’ – heard that all my life.  Must be true.

Have you seen the commercial where the woman talks about not being able to get out of bed?  I bet many of you think “just get up”.  But it’s not an unwillingness to get up – it’s an INABILITY to.  Do you see the difference?  Unwillingness describes a choice.  My choice is to not feel this way.  My choice is to be normal – not exceptional but just normal.  My body, mind, and soul are not obeying my choices.   I hate myself and I hate everyone around me. 

What if this is the time I find the will power to go through with it?  I know how.  I’ve got everything I need.  What, exactly, is stopping me?  I could stop hurting.  In just a few minutes, with almost no effort, I could be asleep.  My family would no longer have to walk on eggshells.  I would no longer have to fight and claw.  I would no longer have to find normal and then live on pins and needles waiting on the next fall into the pits.

I have no more tools to try.  All my coping techniques are failing me.  Even writing this is not alleviating the pressure in my chest or the clog in my throat or the desire to sleep. 

My husband is in the next room, getting ready to go exercise.  When he leaves, I’ll be alone again.  I’m desperate for him to leave and desperate for him to rescue me.  So, I’m faking it, holding on by my fingernails.  The second he walks out the door, I will collapse into --- tears and then sleep --- an abyss.  He thinks the sleep is good for me – that I’m tired.  I’m exhausted because I’m fighting my impulses with every fiber I have.  Fighting not to eat a gallon of ice cream, fighting not to buy buy buy, fighting not to throw things through the wall, fighting not to say the words that are clogging my throat, fighting not to swallow every single pill in this damn house.  I’m fighting to appear normal.  I’m fighting to do the next thing – anything – productive.  Fighting to make my thoughts coalesce into something linear.  I’m choking on tears so much that the back of my head feels like it will implode from the pressure. 

I want – need – him to leave.  I want – need – to be alone.  But some part of me recognizes that being alone is going to increase the anger, energize the fight, ignite more despair, prove my unworthiness to be with others, validate that everyone is better off without me.  Still, he needs to go.  Soon.

I can’t pull out of the spin.

This will be the hardest piece I’ve ever written -- it is the piece I never wanted to write.  It is the piece I’m scared will destroy me.  But, it must be written as it is important and in some ways, eating me alive.  I am not a therapist.  I have no statistical studies for what I’m about to tell you.  This is my experience, my story.  That said, over the years, I’ve learned that I’m not that unique – I thought I was this crazy person who lived in a world no one understood.  That’s not so.  My willingness to be vulnerable – and go to therapy and group sessions – I’ve seen that I’m not so unique.  With that knowledge, I share this hoping someone will feel less alone and that family and friends can see a bit more into the suicidal mind.

Am I Qualified to Discuss Suicide?

I’ll just lay it out for you – I’ve tried once (and now that I’ve opened this wound, I’ll give you all the details in another blog soon).  I’ve planned and prepared three additional times.  I’ve planned but not prepared countless times.  As recently as 10 weeks ago, I sat on my deck with the Suicide Prevention number tapped into my phone.  All I needed to do was hit call.  So, yea, I’m qualified.  Over-qualified.

What Prompted This?

A new show, Kevin (Probably) Saves the World, aired recently.  Excited because I love Jason Ritter, I tuned in without understanding the premise.  I liked Jason Ritter, the commercials looked cute, that was enough for me to give it a try.  The premise, though, punched me right in the gut.  Kevin, you see, had tried to commit suicide and is now back in his hometown with his twin sister seeking a new path.  Kevin is not a good person – he’s selfish, narcissistic, a jerk.  Yet, he’s been tasked by the Godiverse to develop kindness and anoint 35 people to help save the world.  Pretty quickly, I’m tense and hurting and worried and anxious and frightened – the unexpectedness of this topic hit me hard.  In retrospect, maybe I should have turned the show off. 

At one point in the show, he has angered his sister and she’s pretty much done with him.  She’s been his champion and he just refuses to carry his end of the relationship.  I won’t be able to quote her but basically she said … When you tried to kill yourself, I realized then that you don’t care about me.  You only care about yourself.

My body went rigid, my throat closed, I reached toward my husband but did not touch him.  This topic is raw for both of us.  It is him who found me, rushed me to the ER, stood over me while charcoal was forced down my throat, watched as the police arrested me (it’s a crime in GA apparently) then loaded me in a paddy wagon. 

I wondered if he felt the same way as Kevin’s sister.  Did he think that my attempt at suicide was about me?

Inside My Suicidal Brain

Kevin didn’t get the chance to defend himself – or he didn’t take the chance – so maybe he agreed or maybe he just couldn’t make her understand.  Or maybe the writers of this show have no idea what they’re talking about.

Each and every time I’ve contemplated taking my own life, my over-riding emotion was “MY FAMILY WOULD BE BETTER OFF” – it was ALL about caring about them.  Yes, sitting here today, feeling good and healthy, I see the error and flaw.  I see that killing myself would harm my family greatly.  BUT IN THE MOMENT, IN THE DEPTHS OF DESPAIR, all I could see was the BURDEN I was.  If I was gone – these are my thoughts in the darkness – my family would be better off financially, my children would no longer have to put up with a mother who changes personality with the waxing and waning of the moon, my husband could find a woman that provides peace and calm to his life.  I was NOT thinking about me.

I understand that this is not the case for everyone who considers or completes a suicide attempt.  But, I’ve spoken to lots of people who dip into the pits of despair and they are more like me – wanting to make life better for those they love.  The logic is faulty, the results disastrous but the intention is to love our families in the best way we can at that moment in time.  It’s a very dark place to be.

Suicide Hotlines/Finding Support

I think they are AWESOME, VITAL.  Yet, I’ve never called one.  Because when I believe that I will make my family better if I’m dead, I don’t want to be talked out of that.  Does that make sense?

During the fight, I’ve never told anyone – I’ve never dialed a friend or my husband.  You sit on the edge of the abyss, with thoughts like a runaway train and you believe that no one could understand.  You know that you couldn’t even form a coherent explanation.  You’d sound like the nut you believe yourself to be.  So, I hold my breath and try to find some light. 

Can I be honest?  I’m not alive because I fought the fight and won.  I’m alive because I’m chicken … afraid of pain or brain damage or being thrown into an institution with no rights (that’s what happened the one time I took the bottle of pills).  I’m not alive because I’m strong.  I’m alive because I’m weak.  I’ve never said those words before. 

Advice for Family

I want to tell you how to handle a suicidal loved one.  I want to give you a step-by-step rescue guide.  I’m sorry, but I can’t.  I don’t know what would have helped me in those times – you are utterly alone in that darkness – and at least for me, I sought isolation and used great excuses to obtain it (headache, tired, sick) … never once did I let on that I was lying in a pit of muck. 

If you are worried about someone, pick up that phone, make that call.  To them.  To a crisis center.  To a pastor.  To someone who can enter into the darkness with the sufferer.  

Why I Wrote This Today

The sister’s comment in Kevin (Probably) Saves the World hurt me deeply.  I wanted people to know that it’s more complicated than a deep, dark pity-party.  And, if I’m totally honest, I was pissed off.  I am pissed off. 

Maybe my honesty will open the door for someone to tell the truth of their situation or seek help in the darkness.  Maybe my honesty will allow family members to view this through a different lens – see at least a touch of selflessness rather than selfishness.  Maybe my honesty will help me to heal a bit more.  Maybe my honesty will get you to pick up a phone and find professional assistance. 

If you want to ‘discuss’ this in more detail, you are welcome to email me directly via the website.  I will hold your confidence completely.  Please do not write to attack me – I can handle that all on my own.

All of my novels, at least so far, have an element of mental illness within a character. Decide to Hope is the most autobiographical in that I struggle in many ways exactly as the female protagonist.
- J.C.
June Converse with purple hair
In April 2012 I had a mental breakdown. The real thing. I have about 36 hours that I don’t remember....
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