Warmer weather brings daffodils, rhubarb at the farmer’s market — and, for some, despair…
It’s a popular and perhaps dangerous belief, reinforced by that inescapable Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” that winter is the peak season for suicide. Yet experts have known since the late 1800s that it’s not true: More people take their own lives in the spring months than in other times of the year. No definitive explanations have emerged for why this is so.
I can offer an unscientific one from my own experience. For those who are trapped in despair, spring can feel like an affront, the gulf between outer and inner worlds too wide to cross. The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay hinted as much in her poem “Spring,” which asks, “To what purpose, April, do you return again?” Rejecting the season’s bright optimism, the poem concludes: “It is not enough that yearly, down this hill, / April / Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.” What has happened to people for whom the beauty of spring, and the coming pleasures of summer, offer no consolation?
More than 30 years ago, I tried to end my life at this time of year. The previous December my first child, a girl named Anna, died two days after she was born. Her fatal heart defect came as a terrible shock. Haunted by a line from Samuel Beckett — “They give birth astride of a grave” — I entered a state of deepening depression that went unrecognized because it looked so much like the grief that would be normal under the circumstances. I was grieving, of course, but as the weeks passed I realized that I had also completely lost the knack for staying alive.
Whatever engine in the brain or body keeps people moving forward, driven by the biological instinct for survival, had simply sputtered out in me. Unaware that I was gradually being engulfed in a severe depressive illness, I couldn’t understand how everyone else could be so busily engaged in their lives, productive, even happy, while I was paralyzed, obsessed with the meaningless of what had happened to my child.
Within weeks, anxiety had become an overwhelming physical sensation. I couldn’t sleep for more than a few hours at a time. I awoke in the dark, at three or four in the morning, and sat up with my heart pounding, my mind spinning its wheels through the various unlikely fixes for the unmoored condition I was in: get a new job, apply to graduate school, move back to the city, move to the countryside.
Suicide began to press itself into this list of potential solutions. The powerful feeling of loss had turned into something else: a constant thrumming of dread. Each day felt endless, with no sense of forward motion, no belief that I would ever feel better. Time was unbearable: time needed to stop. One morning I admitted aloud that it would be better if I were dead.
At this late stage, I consulted a psychiatrist who confirmed that this was more than grief: I was experiencing a major depressive episode, with melancholia. He prescribed an antidepressant, but after a few weeks on medication I was no better, and he suggested that I check myself in to a psychiatric hospital. I didn’t know anyone who had been in a psychiatric hospital, and feared the stigma attached to that. By then it was March, and I kept hoping that if only I could survive the long winter that began with my daughter’s birth and death, I would feel better with the coming of spring.
At the time I was a book designer for a publishing company in Midtown Manhattan, and on a sunny day just after the equinox I went into St. Patrick’s Cathedral on my lunch hour and lit a candle for my daughter. I knelt in a pew and read the 23rd Psalm several times, asking God to help me preserve my life, and hoping to feel some shift in my state of mind. But as I emerged from the cathedral’s shadowy interior into a bright afternoon where spring was definitely in the air, my despair was just as overwhelming as it had been all winter long.
I walked back to my office, picked up the X-Acto knife from the drafting table, and took the train home. After cutting my wrists, I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. But my hopelessness — my inability to believe I would ever feel better or regain a desire to live — was so powerful that I was certain I would never get out of there. My second and far more life-threatening suicide attempt took place two days later on the locked unit. A scar on my throat, still visible, reminds me of that day and the dark time leading up to it.
I came perilously close to becoming a statistic, confirming the dangers the deeply depressed face come spring. In the decades since, thanks to effective treatment — electroshock, a fine therapist — I have found satisfying work and been blessed with a happy marriage, good friends, and a son who will soon graduate from college.
These years have been the lucky continuation of a life that came all too close to ending. Depression is still with me, though well managed with medication and regular exercise. But I’m aware that people lose their lives in situations similar to what mine was: in unrecognized and undiagnosed mood disorders or in situations where their lives are unrecognizable after trauma or heartbreak.
For a long time, winters were very hard to get through. It was as though my body remembered Anna’s death and the dark months that followed. The arrival of my son, 13 years later, helped me to feel better during that time of year. Now I look forward eagerly to the spring.
It brings new pleasures by the week — asparagus in the farmers’ market, excitable toddlers in the playgrounds — and also a reminder to try to reach out to people who have lost someone recently, or those who seem withdrawn. They may need to be given a chance to talk about how they’re doing, and if things are very bad, encouraged to get the professional support they need. I can confirm that with time, help and love, things get better.
My birthday arrived in April, with the daffodils. I’m another year older, and so grateful to be here.
Mary Cregan is the author of “The Scar: A Personal History of Depression and Recovery.”
Published in The New York Times May 18, 2019
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.