Want a Peek Behind the Mask? Ask a Different Question

Life continues to teach me that you only get the answers to the questions you ask.  I’ve learned that lesson that in familiar ways, like raising teens.  I’ve learned it as a news reporter and interviewer.  And I’ve learned it in a deeply-painful way, married to man who kept many secrets.

You can be a breath away from truth, from deeper understanding or a major shift — but you never think of, or voice That One Question.

And you move on making judgments and reaching conclusions based on the information you’ve gathered, blissfully unaware that it is limited. Very. Always.

I was reminded of that lesson recently as read one of those self-administered depression diagnostic tests.   As I glanced over the questions I came across the critical one, the question I was trained to ask when I volunteered at a crisis hotline:  Are you suicidal?   And I immediately answered it in my head the way I always have; No. No, I am not suicidal.  And even when discussing the issue with trained professionals, that 2-letter answer pretty much ends the discussion.   That box is checked.  Liability is limited.  Next question, please.

But if you want a revealing peak behind the mask of someone who hides depression, try asking it another way.

Ask your friend or relative or client or self:  “Do you find yourself thinking of death as a welcome relief?” It’s a very different question which for me, and I suspect many others with depression, has a very different answer.

I first remember thinking I wouldn’t mind dying (painlessly and in my sleep, of course) in high school.  Those are tough years for lots of people, and they certainly were for me. While my friends with (what looked like) more-normal, secure and carefree lives skied and partied and vacationed, I was wearing a full-body brace, working several jobs to pay for school and navigating a volatile home environment, all while pretending everything was well, as was clearly expected of me.

Adult life has brought its own painful challenges, as it tends to. I’ll spare you the gory details. But due to environmental, biochemical, hormonal and/or hereditary reason(s), my brain can grab hold of the negative emotion I am feeling (betrayal, grief, fear, etc.) and blow on it like an ember until a full fire rages, convincing me that death would be far easier than soldiering through more, seemingly-unending pain. I know it’s not a popular or a comfortable thing to say or even read, but I would bet the ranch that other people who house the uninvited guest-that-is-depression know exactly what I mean.

Don’t get me wrong, I have experienced extreme joy, deep love and a true sense of purpose in my life, too. My children alone make every breath work taking. It is absolutely not by choice that I have such dark thoughts! You see, in addition to being prone to depression, I am an optimistic, easy-going, loving, funny, independent, resourcesful, creative, intelligent woman with a big heart and  easy laugh.  That is how people know me. And it is also a primary reason why I have gotten so little support through The Dark Times.

Now, I feel I must repeat; I do not, nor have I ever planned or even seriously contemplated taking my own life.  But. If a life-switch existed that allowed me to walk over and flip it to “off” with the assurance that the people I love the most in the world would be in no way negatively affected, I’d have done it.   No doubt.

And that is why, if you are trying to diagnose an immediate threat of suicide, by all means ask the questions on the questionnaire.  Be blunt and ask if someone has a plan and the means. I posed those very questions more than a few times to callers on the hotline.  But if your intent is to start a conversation that will give you behind-the-mask access, and a real chance of understanding what someone is struggling with, try asking that question instead.  If they’re willing to share, it could help them lighten an unbearable load, while giving you valuable, hidden information that would help you better diagnose, support and understand a person who desperately needs and wants to feel understood and supported.

Terry is the founder and president of Giving Voice to Mental Illness, Inc. a 501(c)(3)which produces the Giving Voice to Depression podcast. She and her sister Bridget, who both live with depression, are the co-hosts.