“The tragedy of it is that nobody sees the look of desperation on my face. Thousands and thousands of us, and we’re passing one another without a look of recognition.” — Henry Miller, American novelist and painter
“Stick around and we’ll talk,” I said, breaking open a square straw bale.
It was a Saturday morning. I had just finished cleaning the hog barn and was bedding down the squealers.
I enjoyed watching the weaner pigs run through the fresh straw like a bunch of playful children. It always made me laugh. My buddy, Joe (not his real name) had shown up unexpectedly. I was happy to see him and motioned for him to come inside.
He told me that he had come to say goodbye.
“Goodbye?” I responded. “Aren’t you a little old to be running away?”
Joe wasn’t smiling and the smile on my face quickly faded.
I positioned a couple bales of straw in the alleyway and motioned for Joe to take a seat.
He did, reluctantly.
“Why are you saying goodbye?” I asked. “Where are you going?”
Joe just sat there with his head down and hands between his knees.
A lot had happened to Joe in his 16 years.
A few years prior, his older brother had been killed by a drunk driver, his father had died suddenly and his mother had remarried and relocated to a farm. Of late, Joe had seemed especially burdened. I thought it would pass.
“I came to say goodbye because – because I’m going to kill myself.”
Though I too was young at the time, I knew I was hearing a cry for help.
Joe was deeply troubled and filled with despair. We’ve all walked this dark road at one time or another in our life.
In a state of desperation, we all look for the same thing — a way out — a tiny pinpoint of hope — an end to our suffering. How we choose to bring about that end will vary. Some of us will battle through the darkness while others will succumb to it.
A person filled with despair may express suicidal thoughts. These should always be taken seriously. Desperate and depressed people oftentimes feel overwhelmed by irrational fears. Though fully aware that such fears are irrational, they seem helpless to quell them.
Despair brings about a range of emotions — a nightmare of variations. Our moods ebb and flow. Life may seem bleak and hopeless as we lie awake in our beds at night. By morning, our mood may have lifted slightly and we feel cautiously optimistic. But by the afternoon, we can feel panic-stricken again. It’s a terrifying rollercoaster ride with no end in sight.
One thinking pattern common to a person who is depressed or overwhelmed with despair is what psychologists term the Negative Triad.
The Negative Triad is comprised of negative thoughts about 1) the self (damaging self-talk/feelings of unworthiness), 2) the world and its people (people are generally untrustworthy, cruel and disapproving), and 3) the future (pessimistic thoughts about what our personal future holds and the future of society in general).
Low self-esteem and disempowered states of being are closely linked to the first element of the Negative Triad: negative thoughts about the self. Over time, this disparaging/ongoing internal dialogue works to erode our sense of self-worth and can lead to self-loathing and despair.
We all suffer occasionally from depression and despair. It would be irresponsible to suggest that we can avoid such states simply by having a well-grounded sense of self. However, it does seem that the greater our self-esteem, the less time we spend in such disempowered states.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, the way out of despair is to let someone else in.
“This can be difficult to do because, if we feel so desperate that suicide seems to be the only solution, we are likely feeling frightened and ashamed. There is no reason to be ashamed of feeling suicidal and no reason to feel ashamed for seeking help.” You are not alone; many people at one time or another have stumbled through the dark night of despair and survived, usually returning to normal lives.
On that day, I remembered something my father had said to me, “Sometimes you don’t need the answers. Sometimes you just need someone to listen when you ask the questions.”
I pressed Joe to share what he was feeling and then I just sat there and listened.
He talked to me about the unfairness of his brother’s death, the rage he felt toward the drunk driver who had struck him down and then left the scene, the loss of his father, the upheaval of his new home and family. He wanted desperately to understand why these people had been taken away and why he was still here. Through the tears, a tiny pinpoint of hope appeared.
I’m not suggesting I have all the answers — I don’t and I too have suffered my share of depression and despair. I still do upon occasion, but I have made a vow not to let darkness win.
I have come to believe that there is always hope – even in times of great despair — even in times of great personal loss. Perhaps hope is born out of our despair and our need to transcend it.
Joe is still a friend today — happily married and successful.
We don’t often see each other but when we do we smile, share a hug and pick up right where we left off. If I were to ask him about his feelings on that day (though I never would), Joe might say that his desperation was prompting him to choose a permanent solution to a short-term problem.
I think that most people who have emerged from the long, dark night of despair would agree.
Murray Fuhrer is a local self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.