To read Part One by Darla Isackson, click here
Note: This article is adapted from a chapter of Darla Isackson’s new book: After My Son’s Suicide: An LDS Mother Finds Comfort in Christ and Strength to Go On. Since her recovery from major depression, Debbie had the opportunity to work professionally as a Behavioral Health Specialist working with suicidal people and their families in a hospital setting for ten years. Debbie also became a volunteer for The National Alliance on Mental Illness, and has had the opportunity to share her story and expertise with church groups and support groups for those dealing with grief from a loved one’s suicide. She said, “People appreciated my knowledge as a Behavioral Health Specialist; however, hearts weren’t touched until I shared my own story of unrelenting, debilitating depression. Only then did they begin to understand how people can get to the point where suicide seemed to be the only option.” Anyone who has ever experienced depression or dealt with a depressed loved one can greatly benefit from Debbie’s story and insights which she shares here.
In the beginning, from my outward appearance, few people knew that I struggled with depression—not even me. I complained to doctors about headaches, stomach problems, and fatigue but it wasn’t until years later that I was correctly diagnosed with Major Depression.
The next few years were spent trying different antidepressants, even electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), but all to no avail. I still attended church exhibiting my pasted on smile, even teaching a weekly gospel doctrine class in my ward. However, once the symptoms of depression began to micro-manage my thoughts, body, and social life, my world as I knew it ceased to exist.
I had always lived the gospel with enthusiasm and had enjoyed the companionship of the Holy Ghost. Now, however, I felt nothing except fear-based thoughts and impending doom. I was often reminded of the source of such thoughts, so I embarked on a plan to increase my spirituality by doubling my efforts in scripture reading, temple attendance, prayer, and service to others. These efforts left me exhausted and even more depressed than before.
I exerted every ounce of strength to exercise faith, and fervently prayed that the Lord would take pity on me and help me find ways to alleviate or cope with my mental anguish. I received priesthood blessings promising that healing would occur. Each time I would do well for a day or two and then bitterly weep as I descended back down into the depths of despair.
During these years my children were denied the benefit of a functioning mother. The guilt that persisted from not fulfilling my sacred responsibility is unexplainable. I often wondered how much my illness would affect them in later years and was convinced that my continued survival would mean their inevitable downfall.
Finally, I was unable to get out of bed. I feared everything; I found pleasure in nothing. Now, all I could do was sob out my lamentations to those who had heard them hundreds of times before. I was told over and over again that things would get better, to just hang on—but after years of continued suicidal ideation, the encouragement of others began to fall on deaf ears and a numb heart.
While awake, each minute seemed to last for hours, with days and nights that had no distinction from each other. My only relief came when I was asleep.
When my illness progressed to its most severe point, I couldn’t even cry or speak. Extended family would call and beg me to pick up the phone, all to no avail. I felt totally apathetic, as if I was already dead but in a body and brain that refused to die. I stayed in bed rarely bathing or communicating with anyone. I had no hope for recovery.
I reasoned that the Lord had given up on me since I was unable to do what any good wife, mother, and member should be doing. I also believed I would most certainly inherit space in spirit prison for my inability to be happy or cope with life. The words, “No unhappy person will inherit the celestial kingdom” (spoken at a BYU devotional) kept ringing in my ears.
I had lost the ability to reason out what that statement meant and used it to whip myself. I lost all self-respect and mourned the loss of the person I once was. I remember crying out to the Lord, “Why didn’t you take me home when I was still a good person? Just look at me now!”
It is hard for me to admit it, but I think it is important for you to know: I am not any stronger or more spiritual than those that die by suicide. If I had had the strength to get out of bed and leave the house, I probably wouldn’t be here today.
Also, if alcohol or illicit drugs had been available, I would have reached out for anything to alleviate my suffering. Instead, I numbed my brain with food (or no food), television, or just round- the-clock sleeping. Regardless of one’s ineffective coping mechanisms (such as becoming a workaholic or participating in illicit sex), the primary reason these negative behaviors continue is because of the inability to rid oneself of intense emotional turmoil.
A woman who suffered decades of the most debilitating physical problems imaginable, experienced depression only in the final months of her life. She confided, “Debbie, I would rather suffer everything I have gone through than have depression for just one day.” Truly, the hell that is experienced in the mind of severely depressed individuals would cause the strongest of individuals to fall to their knees and beg for mercy.
Is it so unfathomable to imagine that someone can no longer go on living in such a condition? So beyond one’s imagination to even contemplate how devitalized one can be when all colors have turned to gray?
I especially want you to understand three things about the mindset of a suicidal person:
For those who had previously been sensitive to the tutelage, promptings, and peace given by the Holy Ghost, not feeling the Spirit can be unbearable. I had come to believe that I was not acceptable to be in our Father’s kingdom, feeling that the love of God had been stripped away. I felt like a terrified victim–naked and vulnerable. These feelings were not due to unrighteousness, but because of an insidious chemical imbalance combined with psychological, biological, and environmental factors.
It is impossible to understand the severity of a suicidal person’s emotional pain unless you have experienced it with the same intensity and duration. Perhaps you have seen people who suffer horrible physical pain and wonder why they are able to withstand life’s fiery darts, while others give up without so much as consulting anyone. No one knows the mind of another, however, or the multitude of other factors which may be involved.
When suicidal, the focus is on one’s own pain, not the pain that suicide will bring to others. My sincere desire was to cease being a burden on those I loved. It wouldn’t matter how much I was told or shown I wasn’t a burden, my brain held so tightly to that thought distortion, I was no longer able to see the truth.
How I overcame my thought distortions and how you can overcome yours will be the primary focus of the rest of my story.
Perfect In Christ
I had an experience that forever changed my way of thinking concerning my self-worth and value to God in spite of my inability to function. It was a day like all the others had been during the past years. I struggled to get out of bed to use the bathroom. After washing my hands, I tried to be careful not to look up where we had a mirror over the sink. I broke my cardinal rule and accidentally found myself staring into the mirror at the face of someone that slightly resembled me. I remember saying with complete conviction, “You are the most ugly, pathetic creature God ever created.”
Imagine my surprise when I heard the following words spoken clearly to my mind: “Debbie, you are perfect in your sphere.” Was the word “sphere” referring to my illness? I thought the Lord held me responsible for not serving Him and His children and that I was worthless because I couldn’t function. I believed that was the reason the Holy Ghost was kept from being my companion and comforter, leaving me in this unbearable darkness. (I didn’t understand that my illness kept me from feeling the spiritual help that was there for me all along.)
After my husband suggested that my sphere was depression, part of my mortal experience, I was even more reassured. I share the above story to give those suffering from a feeling of low self-worth for any reason a stronger hope in Christ and to testify of His tender love and acceptance of us when we simply do the best we can.
While this experience didn’t instantly heal me, it jolted me out of my most negative thoughts about myself! A combination of learning new coping skills including challenging my false thoughts through Cognitive Behavior Therapy—CBT, prayer, medication, and the Lord’s mercy eventually allowed me to see life in living color once again.
Factors That Contribute to Major Depression
The death of a loved one is one factor that can contribute to depression—it did mine! I am including the chart below that you saw in Part One to remind you of the many factors that may be involved. So many applied to me. Each circle is intertwined, signifying the connection between biology, environment, psychology and spirituality.
A New Beginning
After my suicidal thoughts diminished and as I improved, I felt like a kid in a candy shop trying to decide which candy to enjoy first. I had so many goals that I couldn’t wait to accomplish. First on my mind was the hope that I could help others who were experiencing the nightmare I had just woken up from.
I had the right credentials for a job at LDS Hospital’s psychiatric unit, which allowed me to teach coping skills to patients, many of whom had previously attempted to take their own lives. The most important skill that helped me (and I assume helped patients) overcome depression is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
I was one of those too ill to function until the chemicals in my brain returned to more normalcy. Taking the right medications gave me the energy and ability to think so I could implement the CBT techniques that I’m going to explain here.
In order to get out of depression I had to learn that I could challenge my thoughts; I had assumed that just because I thought something, it must be true.
The following thoughts held me hostage twenty-four hours a day:
- I am a horrible mother. My children would be better off without me.
- My husband deserves a wife that is normal. He won’t divorce me, so I need to die so that he can be blessed with a better spouse.
- I am worthless and a waste of space on this planet.
- No one understands how hard I’ve tried to overcome this illness.
- I’ll never be able to feel the Holy Ghost again. My faith is weak. Satan has power over me now.
- There is absolutely no hope of getting better.
I’ve come to recognize that the foundation blocks of depression are built on lies. Whether they come from Satan or from the illness itself, the brain is bombarded with the kind of self-loathing I expressed when I looked in the mirror. All the truth about our spiritual identity, our basic spirit self, is lost in the mire of unchecked thought distortions and absolute lies.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy—taught to me by a psychiatrist—helped to dispel some of my thought distortions. It did not cure my depression, but it did allow me to find relief from false ideas that kept me stuck in despair.
When the psychiatrist gave me the assignment to write three statements that could be more true for each of my negative thoughts, it took me an entire week to unlock my fixated thought that I was a horrible mother. Until this skill became more automatic, I wrote each negative thought on a separate 3×5 card with three statements of what could be more true listed underneath. I carried the cards with me and each time one of those thoughts surfaced I’d find the appropriate card and read it out loud.
Here’s an example of a card I used to reframe my unwanted negative thought:
Negative thought: I am a horrible mother.
Reframe negative thought to make it more accurate. (Find evidence to show the negative thought may not be true.)
1. I hug my children and do the best I can.
2. I love my kids.
3. I have an illness that prevents me from being a better mom.
I was referred to the book Feeling Good by David Burns. He does an excellent job of explaining cognitive therapy and how to use it. I recommend it for anyone suffering from depression. He also has an excellent workbook.
The Lord knew our thoughts would influence our feelings, which in turn directs our behavior. Let us remember that He is the Master over CBT. We would do well to follow His guidance as put forth in the Book of Mormon:
But this much I can tell you, that if ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, and observe the commandments of God, and continue in faith of what ye have heard concerning the coming of our Lord, even unto the end of your lives, ye must perish. And now, O man, remember, and perish not” (Mosiah 4:30).
Conversely, here is a modern-day equivalent of the above verse:
If we watch ourselves—hoping and believing faith-based thoughts, these thoughts will give way to positive feelings and words, which in turn will influence our behavior for good, whereby we will desire to keep God’s commandments and generate even more faith to endure trials, and in the end we will be exalted to enjoy the lasting fruits of Godly peace and joy for ever more. And now, O brothers and sisters, remember these sayings and live (Debbie 28:1).
I learned to “watch my thoughts” through CBT.
How CBT Can Help You
We are all at risk for self-incriminating thoughts that can rob us of peace.
You can use this technique and teach this skill to anyone stuck in negative thinking.
Even grade school children can become adept at it if they have incentives. It is one of the best ways I know of for protecting us against the lies that spread their infectious venom throughout the mind, body, and spirit.
I often watched awards being given out for various accomplishments in life deemed to be extraordinary, such as the academy awards, gold medals from the Olympics, or sports trophies from celebrated athletes. I think there ought to be a new award just for those that swim in mental illness, where the pool is filled with quicksand instead of water. Those who suffer with mental illness most assuredly deserve many gold medals for all the times they put forth a Herculean effort to survive just one more day.
Do you remember when I said that all my doubled efforts to increase spirituality caused my depression to worsen? I cannot conclude without reminding you (and myself) that the Lord never asks us to run faster than we have strength. I broke the laws of good health and suffered unnecessarily because of it. But I did the best I could with the knowledge I had at the time and that is all that is required.
Take heart. God is in charge. He knows your true spirit and the true spirit of any loved one you are concerned about. Let us find comfort and joy that He has given each of us all eternity to continue growing into our potential.
Note: Learn more about Darla Isackson’s new book, After My Son’s Suicide: An LDS Mother Finds Comfort in Christ and Strength to Go On, by visiting her website: