My name is Kephen Merancis and there’s really no easy way to start the conversation that we need to have. It takes a lot of courage to break the wall of silence that stigma builds. It takes at least a little bit of hope to begin the process of walking out of the darkness. And it takes support to rise above the pain caused by mental health conditions and substance use disorders.
In the following three thousand words or so I will be painfully honest with you, I will be vulnerable about my own personal life experiences with a mental health condition.
From my willingness to be open about this, I hope that you will feel an emotional connection, perhaps even to your own story. If you are experiencing depression right now, I hope that by learning of my story that it plants that small seed of hope inside of you if you don’t currently have it, and I hope that by telling my story it encourages you to reach out for help.
To begin, I want to share with you a journal entry I wrote when I was 25 years old, it will help you begin to form an idea of what I experienced.
“For the last six months I’ve been everywhere and yet nowhere. Inside of me I’ve been throughout the wilderness of my own consciousness. Traversing the bad places that I had never wanted to go back to. It’s almost humorous to think that I was naive enough to believe that I would not return here. Such is the nature of the beast. To be done away with, only to be reborn again. I should have heeded my own advice, remembered that it is not a battle with one win or loss, but a war forever raging.
These hours are days and the days like weeks, these weeks passing like months and soon the leaves will fall again, the breath of life will wisp away into the cold wind of autumn. Normally the darkness settles upon me in the dead of winter, but this year I’ve been feeling it since last winter. It has not gone away with spring and summer.
I often ponder if it is noticeable to other people. That question was answered a few months ago when someone pointed out to me that I have not been myself. That I was different. I suppose it is true that we are what we feel.
I look in the mirror and into my own eyes and I wonder who is there staring back. Who am I? Is this me? If not, then where have I gone to? When am I coming back?
It’s like feeling sick, like you have the flu or something. You’re tired, forever tired. You don’t want to do anything, or go anywhere. Nothing interests you, nothing matters anymore. You don’t care about anything, sometimes not even other people. You become self-absorbed, like your drowning in yourself. You hear people, you see them, but their words pass through you and they look like characters in a film, a movie that you’re not a part of.
I could sit for hours staring at a wall. Just sitting there, blank faced. Not seeing what’s in front of me, but seeing everything that’s inside of me. Lost within my own self. Treading across the wasteland I feel within. Encountering bad things, bad memories and failed attempts, reliving things that I’d rather not. Completely and utterly disconnected from a social existence. My body is here, but I am not.
I’ve been doing what I have to do, but nothing more. Walking, talking, working, eating, sleeping and repeating. But I’m on autopilot. Most of the time I cannot remember what I did the day before. I am not here. I am not here.
I have grown quite good at pretending to be okay, faking my smiles and my laughs, it’s easy to do, especially when people want to believe that everything is right with the world. Sometimes optimism is it’s own blindfold. At times it seems as though I am trying to fool myself into thinking this is not really happening. Hoping that if I pretend long enough, that even I will believe it.
Some days are better than others. Some days I can walk outside and I can feel the sun. To feel is to know that I am alive. But these are just momentary glimpses of life, flashes of organic connections, a clear picture forever followed with more white noise.
These things used to scare me. I’ve been here enough times that this place is now familiar to me, these walls have imprisoned me many times before.
It is here, deep inside of me that the real understanding of depression can be made. What people see on the outside is a mere raindrop to the ocean that swallows me from within.
I’ve spent most of my time here distant, withdrawn, depressed, unmotivated, emotional, aggressive, irritable, uninterested, sleeping when I should be awake and awake when I should be sleeping.
All of these things and many more, make up the walls that keep me here. I do have brief grace periods, sometimes lasting days. Those feel like waking up from a nightmare, they make you wonder what is happening and how much of it was real.
On the worst days I am my most silent. So much is happening inside me that I cannot exist outside myself. These days are marked with the worst kind of thoughts. Thoughts of dying. Thoughts of sleeping and never waking. Thoughts of ropes and pills. Thoughts that make me glad I don’t own a pistol.
No one wants to die, but some people don’t want to hurt anymore.
Hurt is a complex concept. We grow up thinking that hurt is a physical feeling, that falling off a bike is the meaning of hurt. And then people hurt our feelings and we realize that hurt is more than the pain of flesh. So too is it a pain of the mind.
I wrote those words on September 18, 2011. It was one of many writings I did while I was experiencing the ups and downs of my mental health condition.
You see, I have bi-polar disorder, and the first time I became suicidal I was a teenager. When I was 14, I started venting troubled thoughts in a private journal. I started opening up about my feelings in this journal because a teacher encouraged me to keep writing after enjoying something poetic I wrote during a class project.
Little did she know that one day in the future, writing would help save my life. But not yet, because the first time it could have saved me, the words were overlooked.
My parents found that journal when I was 15 and asked me about it, but I pretended like it was nothing and so my parents never asked about it again. Those words in that journal were the first warning sign that something was wrong, a sign they chose to ignore because they wanted to believe that I was just being a moody teenager and that everything was fine.
Like most parents, mine were not well versed on the signs and symptoms of depression, let alone a more serious mental health condition like bi-polar disorder.
My first experience with attempting suicide happened three months before my 17th birthday. I waited until my parents left the house to go to the grocery store, and when they did I placed my letter of apology on their bed, it was a suicide note that I had written in advance.
I then walked out of my house for what I believed was the last time. I can remember how different everything felt. I felt lighter, like the burden of choosing to live and suffer, or to die and be free, had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt as though I was ready to let go of my struggle and my life, which to me were synonymous.
I was acutely aware of everything around me for the first time in a long time. The colors of things looked brighter and crisper, the sounds more sharp, the smells were stronger. Some seventeen years later I can still remember what the yellow grass at my feet and the humid air from the overcast sky smelled like that August evening.
I walked down the hill behind my fathers shed, far enough to be away from the house, but not so far that someone wouldn’t find my body.
In my hand I carried a small off-white colored cup the size of a pill bottle. Inside of it were a mix of ingredients that I had put together myself. In my poetic mind I felt like dying by poison seemed appropriate, and was inspired by the Greek philosopher Socrates who was forced by religious authorities to take his own life by hemlock.
I felt like I was being forced to take mine in order to be free of the mental pain I was experiencing.
I remember holding that small cream colored cup to my lips, just holding it there as the murky liquid touched my mouth. Many thoughts raced through my mind.
Thoughts of people, of events, of feelings. Of anger and pain, of regret and guilt, of shame and loneliness, feeling as though I didn’t belong anywhere nor deserved to belong anywhere, so many emotions that tears started streaming down my face. And in that moment the land around me fell silent, as though I and nature both held our breath together.
As that little cup slipped out of my hand and away from my face, I watched it in slow motion fall to the ground. I watched its contents spill out into the grass.
I didn’t drink it though. I never allowed it beyond my lips. No matter how much that voice in my head told me to do it, I couldn’t drink it.
I remember falling to my knees behind my father’s shed in defeat, while the overcast sky began to release a soft rain. I yelled out in tearful anger that I was too weak to end my own life. I blamed myself, I blamed god, for I was angry that I was stopped by my fear of death.
My fear… it was stronger than my pain in the beginning, but my fight had only just begun. When I was 18, I once again became suicidal and began having impulsive desires to take my life.
After realizing that suicide by poison would be too slow, too painful, and not likely to be successful, I began contemplating more efficient methods. I started thinking about more violent things like intentionally crashing my truck on my way to or from work. Other times I’d think about shooting myself.
The thoughts would even rush into my head sporadically without my control. I’d just be driving when all of a sudden I would feel this immense desire come over me to just swerve to the right and flip my truck into the ditch. Or while eating lunch, the thought of holding a gun to my head would just creep in. Even if I wanted to I couldn’t make these thoughts stop.
In January of 2005, two months after my 19th birthday, I reached my next breaking point. The feelings inside, the desire to end my life, were so strong that on the morning of the 28th I knew I would never see the sunrise again. After an argument at work, it became apparent that I needed help, my coworkers offered to take me somewhere, but I decided to go home to tell my parents they could either listen and save me or they could keep pretending everything was fine and let me go forever.
This time, they listened and I spent a few days in St. Mary’s hospital in their psychiatric ward on the 4th floor, while my father removed the firearms from our house.
I spent the next two years seeing counselors, psychiatrists, social workers, and taking a half dozen different kinds of pills. Some of those pills helped, some hurt, some caused hallucinations, some did nothing but make me sleep a lot.
Eventually I found one that worked well and I stabilized, and like many people do after feeling better, I was convinced I was fine and stopped taking my medications.
For six months I remained well, in fact I had not been that well for years. In 2007, I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.
After a few weeks at bootcamp, the shin splints I that I had been developing before I left home had begun affecting my training. As the rigors of training wore down my body, that new found resilience of my mind collapsed and awakened once more was the power of my disorder and it returned with all of its previous influence.
I became suicidal while in San Diego, California as the belief that I was weak, a failure, a burden, became embedded in my every waking thought. The scissors they gave us to keep our uniforms free of loose threads suddenly found their way into my thoughts with a different purpose.
One night, I cut myself on the thumb to see how much it would hurt, but it didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. There was more blood than I expected so I wrapped it up and when one of my Drill Instructors saw it during inspection, I told him that I had just cut myself with a shaving razor by accident. Little did he know, I was having impulsive thoughts of where else I could stab or cut myself.
In my letters home, I tried to not mention these things, but I was being swallowed by the darkness of my own mind. I knew I needed help, but I was caught between feeling ashamed and embarrassed of my mental health condition and feeling like a failure and a weakling.
While I was at boot camp, I met other young men like me, who didn’t respond the way we were supposed to. Instead of our DI’s being able to break us down to be rebuilt stronger than before, we were broken in so small of pieces that we could not be rebuilt without serious professional help.
While posted in the barracks of another platoon, I was ordered to watch over a recruit who was deemed a flight risk, meaning they thought he’d try to runaway.
When I walked in, I saw him curled up in a fetal position in the corner sobbing uncontrollably, his arms wrapped around his knees. After the DI left, I tried to console the recruit from the door where I was ordered to stand guard. The kid could not have been older than 17, and at this time I was 22. I knew he heard me speak to him, but he never turned around and never responded to my attempts to reach out.
When I saw him in his state of mental crisis, I saw myself, not literally curled up in a corner like him, but as equally mentally unstable. I was stationed there with another recruit from my platoon who told me to stop talking to the kid because he wasn’t one of ours and wasn’t our problem. But I didn’t see him as a problem, I saw him as someone who needed more help than a Drill Instructor was trained to offer.
I still often think of that recruit and wonder what events had led to him being in that condition before I got there, and what became of him after I left.
On a different occasion during a visit to medical, a recruit from another company than mine was sitting next to me, he asked me why I was there. I decided to be honest and told him I was bi-polar. He then began to describe to me what he was experiencing, which were clearly symptoms of a serious mental health condition.
After that conversation I found the willpower to seek help for myself and I confessed to my DI’s and to a Naval psychologist that I had bi-polar disorder, something that I had not reported when I first enlisted. I had seen various different doctors before enlisting and so my medical information was scattered all over the place.
During enlistment I didn’t report nor give them the contact information for the physician who diagnosed me with bi-polar disorder because I knew it was a disqualifying condition. I deeply believed in joining the military, and there was nothing I wouldn’t do to make it happen, even if that meant illegally withholding important medical information.
My commanding officer recommended I receive an uncharacterized discharge due to my condition, rather than see me receive a dishonorable discharge for withholding that medical information.
While waiting to be discharged I spoke to a recruit who had asked me why I was leaving. Most of the other young men there never cared to ask why I was leaving and those who did ask didn’t know what being bi-polar meant. But this young man was different, he told me his sister had bi-polar disorder and that he loved her no matter what.
Those words felt very heavy to me. It was the first time that I understood that having a mental health condition didn’t mean that I was less than or not good enough. That being broken didn’t mean that I was worthless. On day 47 of boot camp, I left that place, but that place has never truly left me.
It’s been more than ten years since that event. To assume that everything has been great since then would be a false assumption.
Having bi-polar disorder or any other mental or behavioral health condition means that there is not a cure, a magical pill or therapy that will take it all away. It’s a process that begins with therapy or medication, or both, it’s a learning process where you and professionals figure out what the best treatment is for your personal circumstance.
It takes self-awareness, it takes compassion, it takes education, it takes action, it takes time, it takes faith in something, and most of all it takes hope. The hope that tomorrow will be different, and maybe even better than today.
People used to ask me why I wanted to end my life. It wasn’t that I wanted to die, it was that I didn’t want to hurt anymore and I didn’t see any other way to end that suffering. Not enough people noticed that I was suffering, not enough people knew what the signs and symptoms were in order to recognize that I needed help.
Those reasons are why awareness matters, people need to understand how to identify someone who is suffering from some form of mental or behavioral illness, whether it’s some variance of depression, an anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, or any other serious condition.
Part of awareness also means we become aware of the language we use to discuss mental or behavioral health. There is a reason why mental health advocates and organizations are trying to end the usage of the word “commit” when we refer to those who die by suicide. Criminals commit crimes like theft and assault, people who die by suicide are victims and not criminals. They complete suicide, they die by it, they are victims of suicide.
While suicide itself can be an impulsive act, the process that gets a person to that point, for the majority of victims over the age of 15, can be a long drawn out process, ranging from weeks, to months, to years, or even decades, and often includes several suicide attempts before they are successful. The culmination of that process is suicide, that’s why we now say someone “completes” suicide.
It is the endpoint of a process where there are signs and symptoms that something is wrong, and so we must begin to learn what to look for, what to listen for, how to ask directly if someone feels suicidal and how to act when faced with someone who is. Awareness and prevention, those are my goals with this advocacy project, and together with others who share the information and resources collected here, we can achieve those goals.
In the words of Margaret Wheatley, “Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.”
This writing is available as an audio track on SoundCloud: