April 16th has often been the hardest day of the year for me.
By hardest, I mean that I have suffered more mental health set backs on this day than any other day of the year. From self-harm, suicide attempts and psychiatric hospitalization it has been a rough go.
Why has this date been so troublesome?
That is an unfortunately easy answer. I have always liked to connect things together. An the string of connections that brings me to April 16th is pretty clear and direct in my mind.
When I was a junior high student I took a traditional shop class. The teacher was not particularly traditional. I was fascinated by and inspired by the woman who taught the class. I was an eager and fearless pupil who loved using the tools and machines. Well, until I made a mistake setting up my wood for a cut on the table saw. My thumb came to close to the blade and suffice it to say, it was gross. 26 stitches later and some physical therapy and everything is pretty good now.
It gave me an opportunity to bond with the teacher, Ms. Kerr. She’d check up on me to see how I was doing and how the healing was progressing. Unfortunately, my time in her class was short as our elective courses rotated by semester. My locker was by her class, so she’d still check in with me in the morning. I really looked up to her and was thankful for a wonderful female role model in my life.
Later that school year I began experiencing mental health difficulties. I was depressed and had started to regularly self harm. The school administration sent me for counselling with the school psychologist. I was not the only person struggling that year, as the school board and teachers were at odds over their contract. Ms. Kerr left the school.
One afternoon in April, I heard her name mentioned several times in hushed whispsers as I gathered my equipment for badminton practice. It didn’t sound good – I could swear I heard references to death. A teacher at practice noticed that I was quiet and seemed upset. She managed to get me to talk about the rumors I had heard. Unfortunately, she could only confirm that Ms. Kerr had passed away.
She knew that I had been close to Ms. Kerr, and she arranged to have the funeral details given to me, so I could attend. The school also kindly let me sit with the psychologist while they made the announcement. My family took me to the funeral. I wore virtually the same outfit I had been wearing when I was injured. I sat in the pew with my family and listened as the speaker told us that Ms. Kerr had taken her own life. I sobbed loudly and was consoled by my parents. They knew my own struggles with suicidal ideation. Her funeral was held 6 months to the day after my accident – on April 16th.
I felt guilty. I felt ashamed. I felt like I was to blame. There must have been something I could have said. Was there something I could have done? If I hadn’t had my accident, would she still be alive? My feelings and thoughts were complex. She was a strong role model. A woman in a man’s field. I looked up to her and through her saw that I was not limited to being a mother or wife.
Her funeral was the start of my trouble with today’s date.
More April 16ths
Every year, in some way or another I have marked the passage of April 16th. Most years my mother has sat anxiously by the phone waiting to hear that I ok. I still bear scars from cutting myself through self harm from multiple years. April 16th has left a mark on me in more ways than one.
Some years were definitely easier than others. In university there were a couple years I barely noted the passing at all. I definitely noticed the year that Virginia Tech had a shooting, and called my mom crying.
Unfortunately, some years were much harder. I spent one year in inpatient therapy and still managed to cause myself self-harm. It was an extreme low in an already low period of time. I was bouncing in and out of the mental health ward of the hospital. However, on this trip I finally received a diagnosis of bipolar. Things did not turn around right away.
In hope of making a new start, I moved with my partner to my pseudo-hometown. We bought a house and moved in with my “get-better-kitty” Sam. I had adopted Sam after my last hospitalization as a “getting better” reward. Sam was a great addition to our family, but even he could not keep me out of the hospital. Between suicidal ideation and depression I returned several more times.
Finally, in 2014 I hit another rough patch. In March I had been admitted for a 3 week stay in the mental health ward. My medications were adjusted and after some monitoring I was released.
A week later April 16 popped up. I could feel the anxiety welling in me, so I left work early that day and went home to rest. I knew I was at risk so I took an extra sleeping pill in hopes that I would sleep the night away and therefore make it through the day. Unfortunately I woke up early in the evening and made the decision to end it all.
Despite safety practices to keep large amounts of medication out of my hands, I had 2 weeks worth of pills in a pill management system from the pharmacy. I took them all then returned to bed. Fortunately shortly after my partner woke up and noticed my pill systems in the wrong location. He woke me up demanding to know if I took them all. I was barely coherent, so he dragged me to the emergency room.
The Change Point
That trip to the hospital was my change point. My doctor was not going to be immediately available for treatment, but he stopped by my bed in the telemetry unit to talk to me. I told him we had to stop meeting like this. Something needed to change or I would definitely end up dead the next time. He agreed. We took a two pronged approach – medication and therapy.
We ended up trying a radically different direction with my medication. Instead of the cocktail of various anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, mood-stabilizers and anxiety medications we switched to just lithium. He admitted it was not the most orthodox choice of medication, but since I had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, he was willing to try it.
I went cold turkey off my old medications which was rough. Then we titrated up to a therapeutic dosage of the lithium. I felt different almost immediately. The almost constant desire to be dead abated.
The medication change got me stable enough for an 8 week inpatient therapy program at a private hospital several hours away from home. While I was there my partner left me, but I gained way more knowledge into myself and how to effectively manage my mental health care without resorting to self harm or suicide attempts. I also attended a grief group to help me process my teacher’s death.
My Mental Health New Year
Now I consider April 16th to be my New Year celebration. I have been suicide attempt free since 2014. This day is now a marker of renewal and reflection, not of inconsolable grief and guilt. I still reflect on the impact Ms. Kerr has on my life, but I can now process the grief in a life-affirming and healthy way. I look forward to the date on the calendar instead of dreading it.