“A Return to Love”

Today is the 20th anniversary of a suicide attempt that left me in a coma, on dialysis with kidney failure waiting for a kidney transplant. The months leading up to this attempt were very dark. I had recently been promoted as a Commercial Lender, but unbeknownst to me, the Branch manager “fixed” the commercial portfolios so that the one I managed had all the problem accounts and the one the other portfolio manager had contained all the A+ accounts. I was spending countless hours at work and knew the janitor by his first name as I was often at work until 10pm. A common question asked of someone who is depressed is “Why are you depressed?” With each depressive episode I have had, I reflect on this question and ask, “What happened? Why did I get depressed? What did I do wrong?” – like it was completely in my locus of control to regulate my mood by magically turning a switch on or off. I have come to learn that this is not a question you ask someone who is depressed. Most don’t “choose” to be depressed – or do we? Maybe on a subconscious level we do because deep down, I know that I didn’t love myself or accept myself. Was that the real cause of all my pain?

So what exactly happened 20 years ago? As with any episode, it is multi-factorial and each one is unique offering an opportunity to learn and grow if you are lucky enough to have the benefit of hindsight and reflection.

At that time in my life, I had expected the promotion and transfer back to Vancouver to be a positive one as I was now closer to my family and friends. What I didn’t foresee was:
1. How much I would miss the wonderful friends and colleagues I had made while previously working in the small farming community of Chilliwack. In fact, I met one of my “besties” to this day during that time. Because I was working so much, I found it hard to make time for my family and friends in Vancouver as I was drowning in my work. As a result, I became socially isolated.
2. I also didn’t realize the impact the real estate market would have on me. I went from my 2-bedroom 980 sq ft apartment in Chilliwack to a 1-bedroom 675 sq ft apartment, for 2.5x the price and mortgage payment. I never expected the anxiety I felt from being “tied down” to the weight of my mortgage – it physically crushed my chest making it difficult to breathe at times. I bought just before the leaky condo bubble burst in Vancouver and I watched in dismay as my property value plummeted. I now felt chained to a job I was growing to dislike more and more each day – like an animal trapped in a cage with no options of escaping.
3. I was naïve to business politics and I didn’t anticipate the lack of support I would get at the new Branch, as the previous Branch Manager I worked for was an honest man who did not play favorites. I had no idea that my portfolio would be comprised primarily of bad debt accounts.
4. Because the distribution of my portfolio was unequal, I was working 10-14-hour days from January – June. The important things I would do for myself to maintain mental wellness – like exercise and eat properly – were neglected. As such, my exercise regime became compromised and my vegetarian diet consisted of frozen foods and canned soup. Hardly healthy or nutritious.
5. My self-confidence steadily declined as I felt in over my head at work and was too proud to admit it or ask for help. The seeds of self-doubt grew into uncontrollable weeds that I could no longer pluck from my consciousness. My judgment was clouded by negative self-talk that was defeatist and seemed to grow increasingly louder as the months wore on. I got very tired of listening to this constant barrage of verbal abuse that eventually I believed the only way to be free from these thoughts was to commit suicide – then and only then would there be silence.

Due to my previous mental health history, I was seeing my psychiatrist regularly. As in previous depressive episodes, it often took me several months of sliding deeper into the pit of depression before I would muster up the strength to say I needed help. Many times words were not needed as my psychiatrist could determine by my affect that something was not right with me, for example:
– I would not talk during our sessions as I had nothing to say
– The blank look of hopelessness in my eyes spoke volumes
– The visible weight loss I experienced was evidence that I had lost the desire to eat or nurture myself
Other signs of depression were the endless hours I would spend in bed not wanting to face the day, my work responsibilities or my life; the social isolation that I fell into as I no longer found joy in being around my friends or family since was it was an effort to “put on a happy face” and I no longer had the desire to exercise. I felt a lot of shame and guilt around the self-deprecating thoughts I had and would not admit that I was suicidal unless my psychiatrist directly asked the question: “Do you have thoughts of suicide? Do you have a plan?”

I was prescribed a new antidepressant, Zoloft, in February 1994. For my previous depressive episodes in the early 90’s I was prescribed Prozac, however, I was assured that Zoloft was “new and improved”. It later was discovered that there is actually a connection between suicide and Zoloft – and that “suicidal ideation, thoughts, and behavior – collectively termed as suicidality, and suicidal acts have long been linked to antidepressant usage. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), including sertraline (Zoloft), are believed to increase suicidality risks [1]”

Ultimately, I think it was a combination of the various stresses in my life (i.e. moving, new job, intense portfolio, financial stress, lack of socialization, poor diet, no exercise, poor self-esteem, etc) that resulted in the events of June 9, 1994. What I remember the most was the thoughts that plagued me. The self-critical thoughts that repeatedly told me that I was worthless, what was the point, I was no good, no one cares about me, I may as well kill myself, etc. If my voice of reason piped up with a rebuttal such as “that is not true, you have worth”, the voice of doubt quickly set me in my place with comments like “You are such a chicken, you can’t even kill yourself. You aren’t even good at THAT!” The tug of war between these two sides of me was exhausting. I had such a hard time turning off those thoughts and after 6 months of being terrorized by this voice, I decided that the only way to stop them was to end my life. I couldn’t take it any more and I seemed to believe every word of this negative stream of thinking.

So, I wrote a note, poured a large glass of anti-freeze, drank it, grabbed my cat and cuddled him as I fell asleep hoping that I would never wake up again, that my life would be over and I would finally find out the truth about Jesus, God, Heaven, White lights and “the Afterlife”. (Note: If you are depressed and reading this, please do not try this as it does not work!)

The next morning, I was supposed to be at a breakfast meeting with my boss. When I did not show up, my boss called Mandy, the Customer Service Manager at the Branch to see if I had forgotten about the meeting and had gone to the office. Alarm bells went off when they realized that I wasn’t there. Mandy called my Dad – who was unavailable as he was in a meeting and my Mom – who was out of the country at the time visiting my brother in Japan, but by the Grace of God, my Step-Dad happened to be home as he had a dentist appointment (normally he would not have been there to answer the phone). He knew I had been depressed and so he raced over to my apartment. He made his way into the building and found me barely breathing. He called 911 and I was rushed to Royal Columbian Hospital. Again, I was blessed as the ER doctor had special training and knew to insert the dialysis line in the larger femoral vein versus subclavian vein, as was typically standard practice. I remained in a coma for a few days and when I regained consciousness I was transferred to the ICU until I was well enough to be placed in a private room on the general ward. I had dialysis three times per week, as my kidneys were not functioning. I was told that I would need a kidney transplant if they did not recover. I can tell you that I was certainly not impressed when I realized I was unsuccessful in my suicide attempt and was equally dismayed when I felt like I was going to be “handicapped” for the rest of my life. I even remember when the ER doc came to see how I was doing, I honestly had a hard time looking at her as I wished she hadn’t used “heroic measures” to save me.

While I was recovering, my friend Lisa gave me a book to read by Marianne Williamson called “A Return to Love”. There was a section in the book on surrender: “Surrender means the decision to stop fighting the world, and to start loving it instead. It is a gentle liberation from pain. But liberation isn’t about breaking out of anything; it’s a gentle melting into who we really are. We let down our armour, and discover the strength of our Christ self. We are simply asked to shift focus and to take on a more gentle perception. That’s all God needs. Just one sincere surrendered moment, when love matters more than anything, and we know that nothing else really matters at all. What He gives us in return for our openness to Him, is an outpouring of His power from deep within us. We are given His power to share with the world, to heal all wounds, awaken all hearts.”

I didn’t grow up in a family that expressed love verbally – I don’t think I’ve ever heard my Dad say “I love you”. And I doubted his love – partly because I doubted that I was loveable. I really looked at being adopted as a negative thing. I was Unwanted. Unloved. Discarded. That was the story I told myself over and over again. This has since shifted for me, but during this time in my life I was still stuck in that negativity. When I was recovering from my suicide attempt, my moment of surrender came when I was at my Dad’s. I knelt on the bedroom floor, my head in his lap and I surrendered to God. I remember saying, “I didn’t do this to be a gimp for the rest of my life. Please God. Please. Help me.” I didn’t want to remain on dialysis nor did I want to have a kidney transplant. I prayed for God to heal my kidneys. I sobbed. My Dad sat in silence and stroked my hair. He allowed me to be. He didn’t try to change the moment with words. He didn’t shame me or say “How could you have been so stupid?”. He just allowed the space of silence to be filled with his loving presence. After several minutes of heavy sobbing he said “It will be okay”. And so it was. A few weeks later, my kidneys made a physical recovery and I celebrated that fact that I could urinate again! I never, in my wildest dreams, ever imagined that that would be something that I would celebrate – LOL! My nephrologist said I was a walking miracle. Maybe I am. All I know is that moment on my knees was when I had reached my lowest point. My heart was finally open and I was as vulnerable and raw emotionally as I have ever been.

Even though my kidneys’ had made a physical recovery, I still had a lot of work to do mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I recall reading about a research project with two groups of AIDS patients – one group accepted their condition and had a strong support system. The other didn’t accept their condition, lived in shame because of it, were shunned from their communities and did not have any family support. They studied the outcomes of these 2 groups and not surprisingly, the positive group lived longer lives/had a better prognosis as well as less severity of symptoms and complications from their health condition than the other group. What dawned on me at that point in my recovery was that I had not accepted myself. I was living in shame because I had been diagnosed with a mental illness and I did not want anyone to know about it. I had also been told by my psychiatrist to not disclose my previous mental health history to anyone at work since it is confidential and the business world can be cut throat and ruthless. However, this kept me in the closet and stuck in shame. After reading “A Return to Love”, I began to think about healing. How do I recover? How do I learn to love myself? Is there another way to feel other than depressed and anxious? Slowly, very slowly, a crack of light began to shine through my broken heart. I figured that perhaps God wanted me here and it wasn’t my time. Since reading that book, I have spent the last 20 years learning to accept myself and trying to find natural ways of dealing with mental illness.

The sole reason I became a Naturopathic Doctor was because when I was struggling with my illness there weren’t many natural mental health experts. I had been seeing an ND since 1996; however, his expertise was not in the mental realm. I eventually went to a nutritionally oriented psychiatrist who practiced “orthomolecular” medicine – Dr. Abram Hoffer based in Victoria. Dr. Hoffer had been ostracized from the conventional medical community because he favoured using nutraceuticals (or vitamin supplements) over pharmaceuticals. I saw him in October 1999 when he was in his 80’s. After being on his protocol for several months, my depression and anxiety lifted. I could not believe it! It was at this point that I took stock of my life and while journaling one day, I asked myself one question: “If money didn’t matter – what would I be doing with my life?” The answer that came up for me was to help people recover from the mental illnesses that I have had (i.e. depression, anxiety, social phobia, an eating disorder) using naturopathic and orthomolecular medicine.

I would like to add that another pivotal moment for me in making my career change to become a Naturopathic Doctor was the death of my friends’ cousin to suicide in 1998. There were many family dinners where I sat across the table from his cousin and while I could tell that he was depressed and I knew that he was struggling – I was too stuck in stigma and shame to be able to reach my hand across the table to offer help or support. When I learned of his death – incidentally on the same day that I found out I had malignant melanoma – I felt guilty that I had not said or done something to help him. After all, I had tried to kill myself 4 years earlier and was still struggling with depression myself. Up until that point, when I learned that someone had committed suicide, I often found myself thinking – “Now they are at peace”. Of course I am projecting the pain and anguish I experienced onto them. I don’t recall thinking too much about the family that was left behind – only that the person was now free of the mental prison they must have been in. I also felt sad that they weren’t able to overcome their pain. I imagined that it must have been their time; otherwise God would not have let it happen.

When I attended the funeral, I witnessed first hand the aftermath of suicide. I saw the devastation of the family that is left behind – the distraught parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grand parents, cousins and friends. For the first time in my life, I appreciated another point of view of suicide other than the desire to end one’s own pain. That had always made it excusable and understandable to me – that in the moment someone decides to take their own life, they aren’t thinking about you or anything except ending the mental pain they are experiencing. I know for me, I didn’t love or accept myself and therefore, it didn’t matter what anyone else might go through if I died because I didn’t feel they cared or loved me either – which I know is not true, but that is how you feel when you are depressed. You don’t care – about yourself or anyone else. It was during this funeral that I realized that if I succumb to suicide in this lifetime, perhaps my soul would not evolve and I will just have to face it in my next lifetime (if there is indeed a “next lifetime”). I resigned myself to the belief – whether it is true or not – that if I am to evolve on a “soul level” that I must not succumb to suicide in this lifetime. I can tell you that in subsequent years, on more than one occasion, this single belief has been enough to stop me from further suicide attempts. Instead, I have reached out for help. Attending that funeral also helped to open my eyes to the aftermath that I would leave behind if I was successful in killing myself. I did not want to do that to my parents or those that loved me.

This article is not about justifying suicide, condoning or endorsing it. It is meant to educate about the pain that someone is in when they are suffering and it is my hope that the walls of stigma and shame are broken down. If you know someone that is depressed, maybe a phone call from you will make all the difference in his or her life. Don’t get upset if they don’t call you back – don’t take it personally. Just reach out again anyways. Maybe knock on their door to make sure they are okay. Don’t give up on people who are depressed because they are too negative or it takes too much effort. Try to put yourself in their shoes, be compassionate and understanding, remove the judgment and critical views you may have and open your heart so that their heart may, in turn, be healed.

When I work with patients, I teach them about the 8 pillars to health: 1) stress 2) sleep 3) exercise 4) nutrition & supplementation 5) thoughts & emotions 6) how they behave and react in the world 7) their environment/support group and 8) spirituality. In my work, the foundation is always compassion – for my patient and teaching them to love themselves. At the end of the day, I think it all comes down to love: Do you love yourself enough to make the changes I am going to ask you to make? Do you love yourself enough to take the steps that I am going to ask you to take? And in the case of mental health, do you love yourself enough to not take your own life? It is my hope that you do and that your heart is open enough to learn how to love yourself and you allow me to help you down the road of recovery. I remember when I walked down that road of recovery I had a theme song and it was “I Can See Clearly Now The Rain Is Gone” – you can watch it here.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FscIgtDJFXg

Lastly, from “A Return to Love”:

“The past is over. It doesn’t matter who we are, where we came from, what Mommy said, what Daddy did, what mistakes we made, what diseases we have, or how depressed we feel. We don’t need another seminar, another degree, another lifetime, or anyone’s approval in order for this to happen. All we have to do is ask for a miracle and allow it to happen, not resist it. There can be a new beginning, a life unlike the past. Our relationships shall be made new. Our careers shall be made new. Our bodies shall be made new. Our planet shall be made new. So shall the will of God be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. Not later, now. Not elsewhere, but here. Not through pain, but through peace. So be it. Amen.”

I hope you pass this message on to someone you know that may be experiencing mental anguish and consider sharing this video that I made and I hope you enjoy it! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-7sRQRy0xY

Reference:
1. Suicidality and Suicide Attempt in a Young Female on Long-Term Sertraline Treatment http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3662142/

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12 Comments

  1. Pingback:Inspirational Friends | ACROSS THE POND

  2. Cecilia

    Chris, I just want to applaud your courage to be so open and vulnerable, and generous in sharing your experiences. By doing so, you are really doing important work in removing the stigma and helping prevent others from reaching the level of pain and distress that you went through. I am so happy to see how you’ve reclaimed the joy of life! Best of luck to you and your family and may our paths cross again in the future.

  3. cheryl

    Thank you for sharing, it is hard to understand the struggles people endure, and i appreciate your capacity to share this story. I am sure it was both challenging and liberating. You are very courageous. And much loved, thank you!

  4. Mike Zayonce

    Hi Dr. Bjorndal
    Thank you for sharing your story you have become very inspiring for me and I have never met you. I’m in the middle of a relapse right now with depression and anxiety just on a weekend pass from Grey nuns hospital.I’m also from the the Lower Mainland and had a very similiar situation about 4-5 years ago that ended me up in the royal columbian hospital. I’m very eager to add a more natural approach to my treatment plan and you seem like a really good fit for me.

  5. sue

    Dr. Chris,
    Wow, your article came at the perfect time. Your strength, wisdom, self love and compassion inspire me. Today I will hold these close to my heart. Tomorrow I will surrender some more!
    Thank you for sharing this with me and others,
    Sue

  6. Sheldon

    Thank you Dr. Chris for sharing this honest and insightful experience with us! Recently at school I have been watching a close friend struggle with thoughts of suicide and was told that I was one of the last things that stopped him from going down that road. What you say about calling them and reaching out – not being afraid to be wrong or to be vulnerable is so true! Learning the CBT model and getting to that point of being okay to ask someone if they have thoughts or plans for suicide is so crucial and thank you for mentioning about that! Very inspirational to see the depth of work you have done in your life!
    Gratefully,
    Sheldon

    1. Dr. Chris

      Hi Sheldon! Great to hear from you and I hope you are doing well! Your friend needs supportive, caring, non-judgemental friends like you by their side. :-)Dr. Chris

  7. Michelle Stolk

    I have been suffering from depression and anxiety for 25 years and I still consider myself a young 39 years old. I am so grateful that Dr. Chris is my Doctor. I feel that because she has had depression and anxiety as well, she knows exactly how I feel and to know that she is no longer on medications, gives me tremendous hope that this will happen to me as well. I really do feel that my body is no longer accepting anti-depressants and I need to make a change. Though I am a new client, I feel that I am already on the path to recovery. I have many changes to make, but if that means me no longer being on pharmaceutical drugs than that in itself is worth it. I feel that Dr. Chris knows exactly what I am going through since she has been there first hand and she has an amazing plan for me and my life. I am looking forward to the new me that will emerge as it is long overdue. I am so thankful that Dr. Chris is looking out for my well being.

    1. Dr. Chris

      Dear Michelle – I look forward to being your partner in health and remember that the most important thing is that you are on the road to recovery. You will be taught tools that will help you navigate whatever curves or bumps there may be in the road and remember to focus on the journey, as well as the destination of optimum health. Sending you healing thoughts, Dr. Chris

  8. Pingback:Dr. Chris Bjorndal The Beauty of Defeat by Dr. Chris Bjorndal - Dr. Chris Bjorndal

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