Today author Shaun David Hutchinson joins us to share his story about depression, his suicide attempt, and the 19 years that have passed since then. See all of the posts in our Mental Health in Young Adult Literature series here.
A few years ago, I went to the emergency room with pain in my stomach and back. In less than a day, I was undergoing surgery to have my gallbladder removed. After I’d recovered, when co-workers asked or I was trading war stories with people, and my surgery came up, no one ever said to me, “You probably could’ve gotten better if you’d just tried harder to not be in pain,” or “That’s not a real thing; you were just looking for sympathy, weren’t you?”
Yet people with mental illnesses hear these sorts of things all the time. We’re judged and ridiculed and made to feel broken. Which is why I’m so open about my own struggles with depression and my suicide attempt at 19. I refuse to feel ashamed about it. I was sick, I needed help, I got treatment. I don’t feel ashamed about having my gallbladder removed, why should I feel shame about having depression?
But while I often discuss my depression as a teen and my attempted suicide, I don’t often talk about what came after. Usually the story ends with, “I attempted to kill myself and I survived and I’m lucky and happy to be alive.” But what does that mean? We say, “It gets better,” but how? I know my story is only one story, but I thought telling it, describing my life after my suicide attempt, might help others who are struggling to see what “it gets better” can look like.
The first thing about depression is that there’s no cure. Depression (like many mental illnesses) is something you’ll have for the rest of your life. But it is manageable. You can live a full, happy, and healthy life with depression. It won’t always be easy, but it is possible.
After my suicide attempt, I was in the ICU for about a week, the regular hospital for a few days after that. Then I was committed to a psychiatric hospital for a week. At the time, I was content that I hadn’t died, but still severely depressed. I didn’t want to be in the psychiatric hospital, and I told the doctors what they wanted to hear so they’d release me. Because I’d attempted to OD on Tylenol, I couldn’t be medicated at the time. I was apparently convincing enough that my doctor let me go. But I wasn’t “better.”
Over the course of the next couple of years, I stumbled about. I enrolled in and dropped out of college multiple times. I spent a lot of time with my best friend, and tried to start dating. I made a lot of terrible choices, including dating some extremely questionable guys. But I made some amazing friends too. I started going out to a club with a group of people, and we spent every Thursday night dancing to 80s goth music at a club in Downtown West Palm.
During that time, I began to feel happy again. Some of my best memories from back then were working in the Sunglass Hut with my friends and dancing badly in the clubs. But I wasn’t “cured.” The depression was still hanging out just beyond my vision, waiting to rear its ugly head.
I ended up making the poor decision to move to Georgia for a short time because of a guy I’d met and spent one night with. When I realized my mistake, I moved home and met another guy who turned out to be a cheater and a liar, and I started messing around with drugs. Ecstasy, acid, pot. I never did the hard drugs, but the drugs I did take, I took a lot of. My life was a pretty big mess. I’d dropped out of college for the fourth time, and was working as a waiter at a TGI Fridays. Due to my bad choices, my parents and I weren’t talking, I didn’t speak to my brother for a few years, and I’d had a falling out with my best friend because I was an idiot. Eventually, I moved with the guy I was dating to Rhode Island.
For a while I settled into a semi-stable kind of life. I worked a series of shitty jobs. I broke up with the guy, and dated a string of new guys. Some were nice but I broke up with them because I didn’t feel like I deserved to be loved. Others were terrible for me but I was too dumb to see it. I’d go to clubs in Providence, full of hope at the start of the evening, and return home a dejected wreck, convinced I was worthless.
There were plenty of good times too. Again, I made some amazing friends. I fell in love with a guy I often joke is the one who got away (though if I’m being honest, he’s much better off with the man he eventually married). I took a solo trip to Italy. I spent Wednesday nights singing karaoke at this cool-but-no-longer-there gay club. I drove to Boston on the weekends, and ran through the city like I owned it.
But I’d never really dealt with my depression. I’d pushed it into the corner of my mind. I’d willfully ignored it. And doing so eventually bit me in the ass.
When I was 25, I moved back to Florida. I had, for the most part, patched things up with my family. I’d decided to return to college and try to make something of my life. For over a year, I did well. I was taking six and seven classes a semester, and getting As in all of them. I took a job working at Starbucks (mostly because they offered health insurance to part-time workers). I reconnected with my best friend. Things were going well, and I felt happy. Then I met a guy. Matt #1.
Over the course of the next two years, I became very, very lost. I fought with my parents again, I hurt my best friend…again. I dropped out of college with only one semester left. #1 and I engaged in a self-destructive on-again off-again relationship that refused to allow me to ignore my depression anymore. I was, for a very short time, homeless. I would get drunk and pass out on my bedroom floor. I started cutting myself again (something I hadn’t done since I was hospitalized) and put out lit cigarettes on my hands. All of which culminated with me being fired from my job at Starbucks right as I was on track to be a store manager.
During that time, I began to realize I needed help with my depression. I sought out psychiatrists who put me on various medications, but I was too self-destructive back then to understand what I needed to do. When one doctor put me on Effexor, and I started to feel a little better, I kept upping my own dosage because I figured if a little made me feel better, a lot would make me feel great. But it doesn’t work that way. Medication provides immense benefits to people with mental illness, so I don’t ever want to discount the good it can do, but I couldn’t see that at the time.
Then came a turning point. #1 and I had broken up for what felt like the hundredth time. I was drunk, laying on the floor of my apartment, reading a battered copy of one of the Roswell High books to keep the room from spinning. I woke up the next morning surrounded by broken glass. I didn’t remember breaking the glass, and though I hadn’t cut myself, I knew I could have.
That was the lowest I’d been since I was 19. I decided it was time for a change. I isolated myself from my friends—not because they were bad people, but because I needed a fresh space to confront the choices I’d been making. I moved back home, got a job in an office, and quit smoking. I made the decision to stop dating. I’d thought dating shitty, shady guys was the root of my problems, but the real cause was that since the day I got out of the psychiatric hospital when I was 19, I’d been running. From myself, my problems, and my depression.
I decided to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be, and I needed to do it on my own. During that time, I became a certified EMT (though I never got a job doing it), went to firefighter school (but decided that, while I loved it, it wasn’t for me), and I went to Europe with my mother and brother (one of the best trips of my life). I got my own apartment and focused on my job. I took up writing again and went on to publish my first book. I spent a lot of time getting to know myself, and I finally understood how to separate my depression from the bad things that happened in my life. Bad breakups hadn’t caused my depression anymore than they’d caused my hernias or my migraines. And in learning that distinction, I began to understand how to live with depression.
I started treating my depression like the disease it is. When the pendulum swung and I felt myself slipping, I took the time I needed to get well again. When I had a shitty day at work or when something didn’t go my way, I learned to stop treating it as a symptom of my illness. I learned that I can feel sad or angry when not depressed and sometimes happy when I am. Because depression isn’t a punishment, it’s a disease and nothing more.
I spent five years alone. That’s how long it took for me to really and truly understand and love myself. When I was ready to start dating again, I did so confident in who I was and certain I was worthy. I met Matt #2 (though always #1 in my heart). We began dating, moved in together a year later, and this November we’ll celebrate six years as a couple. I’ve now published five books, with more on the way. I’ve traveled and made amazing friends and reconnected with old ones. I just spent the last year working from home and writing full time, and now I’m back at an office job I love. I have a lot of plans for my future. I want to travel the world. I want to keep writing books. I want to grow old with this weird guy I love. I want to watch my nieces and nephews become adults. I want Marvel to call me and let me write a YA gay Iceman book, and to see Doctor Who cast a woman to play The Doctor.
It’s been 19 years since I was 19 and tried to kill myself. There were plenty of really crappy times, and equally as many wonderful ones. Over the next 19 years, I expect more of the same. Like I said at the beginning: there’s no cure for depression. That’s something I keep at the front of my mind. I will always suffer from it. There are days when I can feel it coming, and I call out sick from work and take care of myself. Then there are days when it pounces so fast I don’t even realize it until I’m in the thick of it. And while it’s been quite a while since I’ve suffered a major depressive episode, I know that it’s not only possible, but likely, I’ll go through one again. But I keep moving on. Because for every night spent crying, there’s a night spent dancing. For every fallout with family, there’s an awkward holiday dinner to laugh about later. For every dream that falls through, there’s a dream that becomes reality. For every Matt #1, there’s a Matt #2.
Probably my favorite line from We Are the Ants comes from Jesse’s mother when Henry asks her whether she’d press the button and save the world. She tells him she’d press it because, “Jesse believed life wasn’t worth living, and I refuse to prove him right.” And when depression makes me feel like life isn’t worth living, I keep going because I refuse to prove it right.
So when I talk about suicide and about how I’m happy I didn’t die, this is why. These last 19 years of failures and successes and crappy nights and beautiful days. When we say it gets better, we don’t mean it’s better all the time, but that there are better moments worth living for. Trust me on this one. I’ve got 19 years of living to back me up.
One last thing I want to say: Suicide isn’t something you can ever take back. I was lucky. Luckier than I had a right to be. After reading The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley, I had a teacher email me and ask if I felt it was irresponsible to show two different characters attempting to commit suicide and come through it unscathed. While I disagreed that they were unscathed, her question made me think. A lot. And I want to make it clear that suicide isn’t a temporary solution. It’s final. And there’s nothing glamorous about it. The lesson isn’t that I survived suicide and you can too. It’s that suicide should never be the solution. It’s that life is worth living, and suicide nearly robbed me of that. So, please, if you’re even remotely considering taking your own life, seek help immediately. Your life is worth living.
Meet Shaun David Hutchinson
Shaun David Hutchinson is the author of numerous books for young adults, including The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley, which won the Florida Book Awards’ Gold Medal in the Young Adult category and was named to the ALA’s 2015 Rainbow Book List, the anthology Violent Ends, which received a starred review from VOYA, and We Are the Ants, which received 5 starred reviews and was named a best book of January 2016 by Amazon, Kobo, Publisher’s Weekly, and iBooks. He lives in South Florida with his partner and adorably chubby dog, and enjoys Doctor Who, comic books, and yelling at the TV. Visit him at shaundavidhutchinson.com.