Several months ago, I went to a family gathering. I’d worked all week, and I was exhausted. The event was miserable, and I felt incapable – truly, utterly incapable – of talking to anyone. I felt like I’d been drugged, the paralysis of exhaustion and family and socializing was so great. On the drive home, all I could think about was suicide. Fantasies of death filled my being.
Maybe this would be frightening to someone else, but it wasn’t to me. Living with these thoughts — thoughts that I know I won’t act on, but are invasive and disturbing nonetheless — is part of my life with mental illness. They come at odd moments: when I’m feeling particularly down or tired, when life feels even marginally overwhelming, when the kitchen is a mess. They often vanish for weeks or months at a time, and then like an apparition they will reappear for no apparent reason.
I’m not unhappy. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier — I love my job, my partner, and who I’ve become. I work hard, I exercise, and I’m healthy. Every week, I take an inventory of my mood, and always to my astonishment I find that I am deeply happy. Life is brimming with joy. Things have never been better for me, including my mental health. I’m on stabilizing meds, and have numerous supports to keep tabs on my mood.
And yet, death still lies near at hand. I don’t think I will ever act on it, but I have to always be mindful of it, the way a diabetic must always be mindful of their insulin levels. I am only alive and thriving now because of an enormous regimen of rituals, checks, and balances that keep me stable.
Here are just a few of my disciplines that keep the Noonday Demon at bay:
- Consistent sleep and enough sleep are non-negotiable. I need nine hours of sleep a night, and I need to go to bed and wake up at the same times every day. If I don’t, my mood starts destabilizing.
- Reading works my mind, and anything that works and expands my mind is medicine.
- Even a little bit of alcohol makes me miserable.
- I keep a fitness, diet, and mood journal. This helps me live more mindfully, and to avoid mindless, unhealthy behavior.
- Cardio and yoga are non-negotiable.
- Too much social media is like too much candy: it’s lovely in small doses, but in large quantities makes me sick, and too much for too long will kill me.
- I need hard shutdown times: no work of any kind after 8 PM, for example.
- One Introvert Day a week, in which social events and appointments are banned, and I only do what I want to do.
I adopted all these disciplines not out of pride, or out of Type-A need to dominate, but quite simply out of desperation. I’d rather die than go through 6 months of acute anxiety and depression ever again, but I am haunted by the reality that, very possibly, it will come again. And when it comes, I need to be prepared. Till then, I have the ghost of suicide to contend with. That ghost is an ever-present reminder that all the devils of hell are never far off. So far, my systems are working: I’m alive, and happier than ever.
As I’ve committed myself to my rigid system, I’ve observed something that truly surprised me: I started to find greater stability, and greater peace, than many people around me. I was used to being the psychic cripple in the room: the one who was always too fragile, too sensitive, too volatile to do much of anything meaningful, hard, or valuable. But in the past few years, I’ve found myself in the surprising situation of being the stable one.
I’ve come to realize that living with suicide has given me a gift that many other people never develop: a system. A liturgy of life.
Because, inevitably, life will fall apart. That divorce, breakup, or failure will come. That falling out, illness, or death of a loved one will come. Ordinary people, just like you and me, get fired, addicted, broken up with, heartbroken, abused, or sick every single day.
And if we aren’t ready for those dark moments — if we aren’t prepared with a ritual, a life-giving liturgy that is so ingrained in us that we can follow through with it even at our darkest moments, than our lives may be destroyed, or recovery may be delayed. Not only has my liturgy made me more strong, despite all my fragilities, it has also made my future self more resilient, more likely to recover.
I know that the Noonday Demon will come for me again someday, and that I must be prepared for that fateful visit. But here’s what I also know: it will come for you, too. You, like me, will know heartbreak, desolation, and despair. We simply cannot afford not to build life-giving structures and disciplines for ourselves. I encourage you to do so now, while the sun is still shines.