Bill Zeller, Congresswoman Giffords, and mental health


Two things really rocked me today. One is the suicide letter from Bill Zeller. The other is the shooting in Arizona.

First, Bill Zeller. I am not going to reprint the suicide letter here. He killed himself, and he left a 4000 —line note. He asked that people do not reprint excerpts, but he would like a wide range of people to read the letter. So, here is a link to the letter in full. I really recommend reading it.

Zeller wrote a lucid account of what happens to one's insides after sexual abuse. It's the best account I've ever read, actually. And, having my own history of sexual abuse , I can say that his feelings are very familiar to me.

Though I know the feelings are not normal, what I'm telling you is that there are a lot of people walking around with feelings like Zeller. I'm sure of it. One reason I know is that I just read research that the more children a woman has, the less likely she is to kill herself. Which means that people who kill themselves think they are not worthwhile and are not doing anything good for the world. And I completely understand that.

This is why I want to write. Because I've been in therapy for 35 years. Some days suicide seems so obviously the right choice that it's amazing to me that more people don't do it. I don't really understand why more people don't do it.

I read Zeller’s note and I think it's incredibly sad that he couldn't turn to someone for help. There is someone reading this post, right now, who feels hopeless. It's so hard to see our own lives clearly. Resumes are like that—each line is distorted because we distort our vision of ourselves. And just as professional can help us see our work history more clearly, a professional can help us see our personal history more clearly as well.

When things are going terribly, and you haven't been able to fix things, you need help. Everyone who cannot get a job should get career counseling. Because if you haven't gotten a job in a year, you probably need someone to help you change how you see yourself. And everyone who has been sad—depressed and can't fix it—should get help.

It is not reasonable to think that if you have been sad for more than a year that you can fix it yourself. It is not a shortcoming of yours. It's a part of being human that we are complicated and sometimes we get stuck.

People need help. Look at yourself. Ask yourself if you need help. Believe me. You are not a uniquely, an unsolvable problem. Most of us are not complicated to a therapist in the same way that most of us are not complicated to a professional resume writer. We are complicated only to ourselves. The more impossible your problems feel, the more you need someone to talk with about them.

Something I love about this blog is that you reflect me back to me in a more clear way. You call me names, you tell me when I'm too hard on myself, you tell me the obvious solution, and then you echo the obvious solution in the comments until I give in.

I am lucky. And I still need to go to therapy.

Andrew Sullivan is live-blogging the unfolding of the Arizona shooting and he notes, at one point, that psychologists who are watching videos of the gunman are fairly certain that he was having a psychotic episode. (Which means, of course, that this was not political. And, while I'm writing in parenthesis, Sullivan also notes that the intern who saved Congresswoman Giffords was Hispanic and gay and, until a week ago, could have been stopped randomly in Arizona and asked to prove his citizenship.)

The mental health system is broken. Few people have enough money to get good mental health care. And few dollars are spent to encourage people to use those expensive benefits. But we can help change that by spreading the word that going to therapy is a hard first-step, but it's life-saving.

So, I was thinking that in honor of Bill Zeller, and the killings in Arizona, everyone today could each post some encouragement to the person who feels stuck but is hesitant to get help.

The world gets darker and darker if you don't ask for help. Can you write, in the comments section, how you forced yourself to ask for help? Can you help someone else today?

152 replies
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  1. a_to_z
    a_to_z says:

    I finally got help not because I cared about myself, but because I cared for all the people I was hurting, by slowly killing myself.

    • MJ
      MJ says:

      I was about to post essentially the same comment. The best I can do for others in my life is try to fix myself because slowly killing myself (and hoping that makes them happy) isn’t helping any of us.

      If your biggest problem in life is perfectionist self-hatred, irrational self-identification as a failure and disgrace and a career that makes you miserable (and so horrified by the idea of doing it until death/retirement that shooting yourself now seems like a REALLY good idea), you really aren’t “that” wretched on a global level – you need help. That “you” being “me” of course.

  2. Cathy
    Cathy says:

    Go ahead; make me cry.

    I had two small kids and I flatly refused to abandon them the way I had been emotionally abandoned (if only I had been physically abandoned, too, but I wasn’t that lucky). So I read books and tried for help in baby steps, from the therapist who didn’t want to deal to the friend who said, okay, if it wasn’t all that bad, then if you imagine it happening to me, how do you feel? So, yeah.

    I make an effort to notice others, to comment when they do something good, to smile at small children (so they know I see them as who they are) and help when someone needs a lifeline. It’s something. So in that vein I’ll say, Thank you, Penelope, for helping people and letting them help you in turn.

    • Summer
      Summer says:

      I would like to tell you that being physically abandoned does not in any way make a person lucky, although I used to work hard to adopt the perspective that I was lucky not to have my insane mother in my day-to-day. I promise you that, as a person who walks through life much like Mr. Zeller, wondering with each and every human interaction what it must be like to have real emotions and what motherhood would be like if I were able to maintain intimate relationships with my children past their toddlerhood, which was when my mother left my life.

  3. Wayne Allen
    Wayne Allen says:

    Hey there,
    I’m coming at this from the other “side of the room” – I’ve bee a therapist for 30 years, in Ontario. What you noted was exactly what I thought when I read Zeller’s note – the big “if only.” And, P’lope, I agree that what seems complicated is what therapists do. After 30 years, I’m still passionate about offering a light, and helping my clients to turn it on.
    Despite universal health care up in Canada, therapy is not covered (unless administered by a psychiatrist – they’re overwhelmed with numbers, and reach, IMHO, too quickly for the prescription pad, despite countless studies showing therapy (typically 10-13 sessions, ) to be as effective.
    While I do charge a flat fee, I’ve many times adjusted it to what a client can afford, and many of the non-profit centres up here are filled with competent therapists.
    In other words, therapy is available, and the ultimate act of wisdom is often simply starting.
    I’m a Zen guy, and like simplicity. Deep dialogue shifts things, opens inner doors, and lets the light in. Pure and simple.
    And, I’ve had a therapist/supervisor for 32 years, off and on, and know that when the sledding got tough, that dialogue kept me going.
    Thanks for tackling this topic, and I trust you know I think of you, your marriage, and your ‘dance,” often and with warmth.

    • k
      k says:

      Roberta, listen to your spidey sense. If that first sentence was enough to cause you to bail, it really will be as intense and crushingly saddening as you fear. If you need to get anything else in your life done for the next few days, just take Penelope’s point for what it is and move on.

  4. Daniel
    Daniel says:

    Thank you for writing this! I was saddened by Zeller’s letter also but more so by the comments and reactions that people had to his story. I’m glad that you’re able to be honest about your situation and let people know that there is hope.

  5. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    When I had my first child, I felt despair, in many ways. I functioned fine. But I felt terror. I finally got help. And I come from a family in which everyone gets therapy and my brother is a psychoanalyst so if it’s hard for me, I can only imagine for others. Please. Get help. It’s not your fault, you are not bad, no one will look down on you. Having it out in the open won’t make it worse. It won’t. My son is at Princeton. Brings Bill Zeller closer. He and I were just IMing about the note when I checked your blog, Penelope.

    Those messages for gay teenagers apply to many people. It gets better. Life is innately hopeful, from the right sofa, the right chair, the right shoulder.

  6. trog69
    trog69 says:

    I’m jealous, but not surprised that someone half my age, and twice as eloquent also has the courage I never could gather up.

  7. minksnyc
    minksnyc says:

    Hello everybody and to you who is looking for encouragement.

    Last holiday winter was a very low bleak moment; suicide was constantly running through my head. The hopelessness, the loneliness was unbearable. My therapist whom I was seeing for the last ten years was understanding but she still didn’t get that I wanted to die. (I finally had the guts and the confidence to stop seeing her and in return started seeing someone who is more responsive and direct)

    The only thing that got me through was reading about buddhist philosophy. Particularly, the notion of the mind. How the mind is full of obscurations and the feelings that we feel are not permenent. And the other aspect was having compassion and love for myself. I also decided that I was no longer going to be a victim. A victim of child abuse- physical and emotional, abandonment, and being an orphan. The gaping hole that was left by my childhood got fulfilled with destructive relationships/ obsession/ drinking/ drugs/ complete isolation/ desperation.

    Now, it’s fulfilled with my own love and compassion. I feel like myself meaning comfortable in my own skin.

    It takes work and commitment. You can’t be passive.
    Know that you have the ability within you already.
    Prayer, spiritual guidance, and hard work.

    check out the tricycle website for excellent resources.

  8. Nowgirl
    Nowgirl says:

    This is a great recovery post.

    My dad committed suicide. I myself have major depression that spikes in January and February like clockwork. Annually I load up on intense drugs and promise not to kill myself.

    Except this year.

    My mom got me to try acupuncture for my depression last fall. The effects were profound for me. Today I worked and skied and cooked and laughed. I never thought I could live like this in depression season.

    The gift of this, the miracle, was my mom’s gentle insistence. Sometimes it’s not about asking for help. It’s being willing to take direction.

    Sending love to you and your family.

    • xtina
      xtina says:

      I love this comment. I completely agree about being willing to take direction. I, too, miss my dad the most in January, which is when he passed 15 years ago (I was 14).

      In November, I started seeing a counselor for the first time in my life. Though I have only had three sessions so far, I find that she is helping me greatly. And a lot of it has to do with being able to realize that if I couldn’t fix myself after 15 years, what made me think it was ever going to happen without help?

      Also, acupuncture is the best, and I’m glad every time I hear someone say that it has helped.

  9. Cate
    Cate says:

    At the very beginning of my freshman year in college, I was ready to give in. I couldn’t see a way that my life was going to get better. Zeller’s letter sent chills up my spine–that’s where I was. But I had spent most of high school depressed and hating myself and wanted a new start in college, so I decided to give medication a try. It was so hard, because I was certain medication wasn’t going to change the fact that my life sucked and I was pathetic. I’m not going to say it was a smooth ride, but the medication put me on a more even keel, allowed me to develop some coping techniques, and eventually my brain chemistry sorted itself out, I guess, because now I’ve been off the meds for many years now. I’m happily married, with a beautiful daughter, and a successful business. I can see now that depression ruined my high school and at least part of my college experience–it made me make bad decisions and withdraw from people that cared about me. Seeking treatment not only changed my outlook, but changed how I interacted with people, and literally changed my life. GET HELP!!!

  10. Aria McLauchlan
    Aria McLauchlan says:

    I would like to comment as a person who has been affected by depression and mental illness, not because I have experienced it myself, but because I have watched my friend who has been battling with serious depression for over a year now. As the role of friend, I say this as loudly and as clearly as possible to anyone reading, and suffering: WE WANT TO KNOW. We want to be told. Please, do not keep this to yourself.

    I know we can’t always know the full and exact reaches of the sometimes crippling pain you feel, but I do know that we won’t shy away from what you share. I don’t believe that a feeling can ever be so dark that it can’t be shared with another human being. ‘Sharing the load’ works.
    With love, and hope.

    • melanie gao
      melanie gao says:

      I want to echo this. To our friends who are struggling – we’re there for you and we’re capable of loving you more than you know. Trust us. Talk to us.

      And whatever you tell me, it will stay between the two of us. I promise.

  11. Olivier
    Olivier says:

    “You are not a uniquely, an unsolvable problem. Most of us are not complicated to a therapist […] We are complicated only to ourselves.” Ah but that is the crux, Penelope: some people would rather keep their mystery, even at the price of death, and think the simplicity offered by the therapist is false and degrading. In other words: no bromides please.

  12. CW
    CW says:

    For those of you that struggle

    Know that no one battles alone

    We are six billion souls caught in a whirlwind

    And the eye of the storm

    Is also the fire inside

    Use that flame to warm your hands

    And as a light to guide others towards their homes

    Maybe if we keep it lit long enough

    Everyone will find their way

      • k
        k says:

        A poetry catcher! I never thought I’d encounter a real live one. I’ve only just heard of the existence of you and the others by what must be the seventh degree of separation.
        Thanks for being ready when this one blew in.

  13. Warrior
    Warrior says:

    Thank you for naming the issues behind the tragedy is deeply alarming that such tremendous denial exists about the grip that darkness / despair can have on a person, and how clueless we are that each of us are fighting it off all_the_time. Your post made me recall a facebook message posted last year after the author’s friend unexpected committed suicide. The post reflected on the high level of stigma still surrounding mental health and left the Toronto community breathless and agitated. The author received hundreds of responses from folks chiming in with their personal stories battling the ‘darkness’ and the tactics used to fight against it, the main lesson being the one you identified: that you mustn’t believe that you aren’t worth being helped, there are enough compassionate people out there who can step between you and your pain long enough to listen and the hope they can offer may be just enough to give you that extra energy you needed to heal…

    the note is available here and is a profound read:

  14. Sawth
    Sawth says:

    I thought I was the failure until my mother tried to kill herself. She was diagnosed and I realized that maybe it wasn’t all my fault, that maybe I was ok. But I couldn’t deal with an altered world view and everything hurt. And I coped by banging my head on the shower wall and making patterns on my arm with a razor. Physical pain gave me a reason to take care of myself, I couldn’t handle the emotional pain. And then I fainted at work because I was exhausted.
    And somehow one day I went for help. Because it didn’t seem possible for anything to be worse than my reality. And it wasn’t fair that my mother’s problems would destroy my life. And I went for a while and then stopped. And then went again. And then again.
    And one day I felt better and wanted to try life on my own.
    I don’t see anyone regularly now, but I will call someone if I need help. I still have many problems and issues but I think that such is life.
    I wish my mother had gotten help so much earlier in her life. Her problems affected everyone around her and I don’t want to be like that.

    If you are feeling bad and like there is nothing left, why not try getting help – how could it be worse and what if it was better?

  15. Christie
    Christie says:

    Within each human lives the Physical, spiritual and soul realm. The reason why I think alot of abused people are unable to get the results they so desperately desire is becauase they only tackle it from the physical (Emotional part). When something so hurrific happens to a person like abuse it effects the very core of there existance. I wish society would punish offenders for there hebavior and I am not apposed to totally wiping them off the face of the planet. Or cutting off there arms,legs and any private part they may arrive enjoyment from so they could never offended another human being again. Yes if this was the only way to protect society from this type of person to re offend again I would support this. Pray works along with forgiveness but no where does it say to be stupid.

  16. Janis Schubert
    Janis Schubert says:

    What a sad loss of a young life. Bill’s writing eloquently explains how much pain he was in each and every day. I am sorry that he was not able to find someone to help him.
    I have battled major depression for nearly 20 years now. It takes persistence to find a professional that can help, yet in the depths of depression persistence is so hard to have. And it is hard to have hope that the pain will ever end. I have found my way out of that deep, dark place, though the possibility of falling back in is always with me. But my children and others I love and who love me keep me trying to stay out of the pit.
    To anyone out there who is depressed or has a terrible secret like Bill had and who feels that they cannot tell anyone, please, PLEASE keep trying to find help. And realize that you need to find someone you can talk to and who you can tell. Secrets like this can only keep their power as long as they are held inside, held where they can continue to poison the soul. No matter what has happened to you, you are loved, you deserve love in return, and you deserve to be happy and live a long life. Remember that when the darkness threatens and don’t face it alone. There are people who care and will help if you will only let them.

  17. Jens Fiederer
    Jens Fiederer says:

    While suicide might seem like the rational choice, there really isn’t any hurry, and you kind of want to stay around to see what happens. George Eastman did it right. John Kennedy Toole was a tragedy.

  18. Karen
    Karen says:

    I forced myself to get help last year, again, because I felt like I was falling in the hole again. The feelings are familiar, yet so oddly comforting in the sadness that I knew it was depression talking and not the real me. My problem now is that I have asked for help, but still feel stuck. Help takes effort on your part, after the asking for it part. And that’s what I struggle with know. How I ask for the right help.

    On a side note: You might like this episode of This American Life: Act One- it’s like Bill Zellar’s letter, but in audio and similarly sad yet oh so poignant.

  19. z
    z says:

    i drank and used an assortment of drugs from the time i was 12. i didn’t know i was self-medicating, i just knew it made me feel physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually better to be high. i got sober 17.8 years ago. there was no rock bottom for it, i just wanted to see how things would turn out, and i knew i’d have to be awake for it. i also knew i had something to say about how things would turn out.

    i never want to drink or do drugs when i feel the pain, the agonizing physical pain of depression. but there have been times in the past 17.8 years i’ve wanted to die. just can’t seem to get close enough to it. i’m not being flip when i say that. i can be right at the edge of it, completely bereft of hope, excruciatingly lost…and something else will pop into my head, or someone will call, or i’ll turn on the television and something will make me forget myself and laugh. once, i was speeding down a freeway and considered turning the wheel so i’d crash into a wall…i reflexively glanced in the rear view mirror, and it was filled with the sweet face of my dog, smiling and wagging at me from the back seat. there’s no way i’d hurt her, and i cried instead of crashing.

    so, i have this furry angel of a dog. and i do have a few choice, trusted friends i can call. and, even though i don’t regularly go to meetings anymore, i can always find one.

    and sometimes, i just sleep it off.

  20. Kate
    Kate says:

    I asked for help last year when I couldn’t sleep a full night through. My doctor suggested I go to a sleep clinic, and they determined I didn’t have sleep apnea and that the problem was likely stress-related. I broke down crying in the sleep doctor’s office when he brought up depression. To me, that meant a person who couldn’t bring herself to leave the house or return phone calls or do anything productive. Now, I know that’s not true. I’m on meds, I still have some sleepless nights, and there is still stress in my life, but I feel much more even emotionally. Please don’t think of depression as a personal failing.

  21. KatherineB
    KatherineB says:

    Reading Bill Zeller’s note reminds me so much of my darkest periods of depression. I remember being depressed/hopeless when I was 8 years old. (My demons are chemistry and physical abuse as a child) I have been lucky that even in my darkest despair, suicide didn’t enter my mind. I have been lucky that I somehow had the wherewithal and fortitude to seek medical and psychological help. I have been lucky that I see glimpses of hope in music, the ocean, books, my child, movies…the things that touch me in my soul and lift me up just enough to keep going.

    I don’t think that I am better or bigger than Bill; I really think I’ve been blessed with the ability to see my luck and run with it. I wish more people were able to see their luck or try and make their luck or ask someone to help them identify their luck.

    Today, if you are suffering, think of the luck in your life. Find just one thing and hold onto it as tightly as you can. If you can’t think of one thing, ask someone to help you identify that one thing. If that is still not enough, call your doctor or local mental health line and say this: “I’m having these feelings and I need help. I need help right now. Give me one thing I need to do. Just one.”

    If you are watching anybody suffering, I beg you to reach out. Yesterday, I was feeling really bad. My daughter’s Sunday school teacher said “Are you alright? You look sad.” I said “I am a bit sad.” She said “I’m sorry.” That was enough. That’s all I needed to see my therapist today. Somebody saw it – really a complete stranger – and noticed. She noticed. That was it. Notice people. You don’t have to solve their problems or think you’ll embarass them. You just have to say in some way “I notice you.” For most depressed people that is a key part of fighting the darkness. It isn’t the solution but it is a step toward saving somebody’s life – literally and figuratively.

  22. chris Keller
    chris Keller says:

    Uncanny that I sent excerpts of your blog and some of the most apt responses to a suicidal friend today. Before you even suggested it! I will now send another few excerpts and links. My friend freely admitted he was suicidal, and gave up a secret in his post. All these common elements . . .

    Your readers who talked about being compassionate towards oneself and loving oneself have gotten closest to the heart of it, I believe.

    Thank you to all the readers who try to lift you up Penelope, in in so doing, lift up many others as well.

    I think we must take care of ourselves and be kind to ourselves; while looking right and left and doing a small or large kindness for the person at arm’s length

    Think of all the people who sprang into action to help in Tucson . . . a profound a lesson in the milk of human kindness–even as the extreme opposite crazy cruelty of the lone shooter was unfolding. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times . . .”

  23. Peter Wilson
    Peter Wilson says:

    I see suicide is a way we have of taking care of ourselves and I won’t say that it should never be taken as a serious option, but it cannot hurt to first ask for help and let someone know that you are really hurting, it does not have to be a friend or someone you know, it may even be better if it is not. I speak from experience. “If you were living that kind of life, you won’t even like to die.” quote from a woman in Odiama, Nigeria taken from the film “The Age of Stupid”. She was referring to living like people in USA compared to the way people live in Odiama. I see that we are all connected, whatever happens to me changes things for all of us. I find that just the act of asking for help these days lightens my load, emotionally.

    Thank you Penelope for this message!

  24. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    The year is 2007 and I believe it was the month of September. I’m sitting on the floor of my dining room, my back is against the wall (literally) and I was planning how I would kill myself the next day. I had various weapons I could use but I didn’t want to leave an ugly corpse. I knew if I contacted the right people I could find enough medication to overdose. In the past thinking about who would take care of my pets was enough to make me pause and then get back into therapy. I had started when I was 21 and 16 years later I was still going. Every 6 months or so I would check in, get a “tune up” and after about a month or so I felt better. Over the years I had been on and then off Prozac. On when I felt I needed it, off when I was “cured” of that bout of depression. There was even the time I call my “year in Hell” where I was off and on medication I can’t even remember the names of. I was a zombie and the depression was better than that. I knew how to cope (I thought) with my depression so I said no more medication for me. But each time the depression was getting worse. It was a black wave that pushed me down deeper and held me down longer. So there I was sitting on my dining room floor and I no longer cared about my pets, my career or my family. Only one thing stopped me from killing myself that day. One thought that gave me the strength and courage to tell myself to wait one more day. And this is no joke…my house was dirty. I could not stand the thought of my family going through my personal items. My need to kill myself came on so strong and suddenly that I hadn’t thought of what to do with my stuff. I promised myself that if I still wanted to kill myself the next morning then I would do it. Thankfully the next day I had a clearer view of my life and I knew I needed help. I went back to the same office that had tried to help me before and with a new diagnosis and the right medication my life is a lot better. I still go to therapy and I struggle some days with taking my medication. I still have bouts of mild depression, I probably always will. For anyone that has a plan for killing themselves please give yourself 24 hours. If you have used Mental Health professionals in the past and it didn’t work please try someone new. If you can’t talk to your family or friends then please find a hot line to call. I’m glad I waited and I’m glad I asked for help.

  25. intan house
    intan house says:

    Thanks, Penelope for your post. I just read Bill Zeller’s letter and how I wish that he reached out to someone. Same goes for everyone out there who is in need for help, just reach out. I lost someone to a suicide last year and yes, the pain was tremendous for those who were left behind..always wondering why.

  26. downfromtheledge
    downfromtheledge says:

    He couldn’t stand the idea of how the truth would cause people to think differently of him. Was that really his own distortion, or did he accurately internalize the stigma that would befall him? We, as a society, let him down. Something is backwards if you can be honest in death, but not in life.

    The sad part is, the shame and hiding reinforces the crippling alienation (when in fact, sooooo many people are hurting).

    The sadder part is, people will pretend to be compassionate and empathetic towards Bill Zeller NOW, when they never would have in real life. Same with all the publicized gay teen suicides over the past year. GIVE PEOPLE YOUR LOVE AND ACCEPTANCE WHILE THEY ARE ALIVE.

    Not a single thing he wrote seemed “crazy” or even “abnormal” *given what he has been through* – I guess I share your amazement that more people do not succumb to suicide given the trauma life inflicts on so many.

    Those who are suffering cannot speak their truths for fear of the condemnation of others – just look at your last post!!! People cannot even conceive of the kind of despair so many go through. They are the sort who judge suicidal people as selfish…all the while their only concern being how the death affects THEM. Hmmm…..

    When I write about trying to come back from the brink of suicide, I sure as hell don’t do it with my name attached. Would I ever work again (will I anyway, LOL), is there a snowball’s chance I could be a legitimate member of society ever again?

    I almost killed myself 3 years ago. And 2 years ago. And last year. There are a lot of days I feel as Bill did; the pain and darkness have been intertwined with your very being for so long that there’s just no way out. Most days I don’t see a way back from all that has happened. Your courage to keep trying gives me hope. I have tried to “get help” but not found the kind I really need. It’s not as easy or available as everybody thinks … and even if you DO get real help, that in itself incites revulsion in some. Is it any wonder that people feel trapped and hopeless?

    Thank you for writing this post for the people who “get it” instead of holding back because so many DON’T.

  27. Y
    Y says:

    I have been reading this blog for several years now and never felt the need to post before…My father committed suicide when I was 20, and while I have gotten very depressed I could never do to the people I love what he did to us. When I went of the anti-depressants recently and started to feel down, I realized while holding my infant son that I would never want him to go through what I went through, and starting taking my medicine again the next day. That study is right.

    Reach out, people. Suicide is not brave. And it is not the only answer.

  28. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    Thank you for the blog entry today. I come from a long line of depressed people and I think I am the first to seek counseling instead of prescription drugs or even worse, doing nothing. Let me assure you, I’m no better than the rest of my family, I am stubborn to share my feelings and stubborn to even admit when I’m depressed. And although at first I felt awkward about talking about myself and I wasn’t a huge fan of my counselor, after I got used to it I have to admit it was nice to get some feelings off my chest.

    Long story short- just do it. Talk to someone. There are hotlines, and oftentimes insurance companies have some sort of program in place for employees to seek help and counseling. I recieved 6 free sessions and every session after that was at a reduced fee, like a copay. Just ask your HR department or surf your company’s handbook.

    Also check with your city, county or state. Scott County in MN offers free family counseling sessions (I can’t remember how many or what qualifications they have in place).

    Penelope- thanks again for sharing.

  29. Lee Ann Lambert
    Lee Ann Lambert says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this post!

    I have witnessed in my own family and circle of friends the havoc that can be wreaked by an undiagnosed or untreated mental disorder. I myself suffer from seasonal affective disorder, which can be quite debilitating during the winter months. And while I’ve never felt suicidal (although I have had recurrent thoughts of death), before I sought help, there were days that I could not function.

    We try to hide those scary things inside us because mental health issues and mental illness are treated as something to be ashamed of in our society. The general population, and even health care workers, haven’t been properly educated when it comes to mental health, and there are still stigmas and broad assumptions (such as every person with a mental disorder is dangerous) that are applied to those with mental illness. This is wrong.

    And yes, help can be expensive and hard to find. But there are programs in place. Call hot lines. Ask your doctor. Ask your HR person at work. Use Google. Find an online support group and ask where to begin looking for help. Just get help, and use that help for the rest of your life if you need to.

  30. Kate
    Kate says:

    Another comment from another side of the equation, but first, I really wanted to share this blog with you – it’s normally a fun, smiley piece of sunshine in my day but the last two posts have made me cry (especially when I linked to Lori’s blog, her posts ripped my heart out), and relate to both your concerns today.

    I’ve been very lucky that I haven’t (yet) found myself in that dark and alone place that so many people go through but I’ve had friends who have and as someone who’s had the honour of being trusted enough by a couple of them to be someone they’ve reached out to, all I can say is please talk! Those people around you, they’re looking for an excuse to help, even if they don’t yet know you need it. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed, I think the best thing you can give people sometimes is the chance to show how much they care for you.

  31. Asma
    Asma says:

    When I was in college, I was ready to kill myself. Life did not seem worth living and I couldn’t see how it was ever going to get better.

    But now 15 years later, I am reaching new goals in my profession, I started my own business and I feel my life is blessed. I have three beautiful children who bring immense joy to my life.

    I got through my dark times because of friends who wouldn’t give up on me. They would talk to me and encourage me when I needed it.

    I am sure everyone who is contemplating suicide has one person in their life who would be willing to listen and hold their hand.

    Talking helps. It makes it seems like your problems are a lighter burden if you share that burden with others.

  32. brooklynchick
    brooklynchick says:

    Thank you for speaking so powerfully about your own experience. I am lucky, although I have considered suicide, I was able to get help because my parents encouraged me to go (yay for pro-therapy parents!). It has changed my life, but it hasn’t made it all better. But IT HELPS. I have someone to call in my lowest moments.

    Please get help if you need it. Here in New York: is run by a great organization that has helped a bunch of my friends, including students (yay for sliding scale!).

  33. tbird
    tbird says:

    Thank you so very much for posting the link to Bill Zeller’s letter. Several of us, who hail from abusive christian residential lock-up homes, greatly fear that this letter will not be online for very long because of Bill’s focus on the atrocities within the IFB (Independent Fundamental Baptist) denomination to which his family belongs.

    I am certainly not here to get into a debate regarding which denimination (Catholicism or IFB)is most prevalent with child sexual abuse. I am here to say how horrible it is that it takes something like the death of Bill Zeller to bring to the forefront the prevalence of sexual abuse of children within the IFB. The focus on the Catholics, and perhaps the misconception that ONLY the Catholics are guilty of such horrors against children needs to come to an end. And QUICKLY, before this happens to anyone else.

    My heart aches due to the fact that Bill’s rapist was not named. However, his letter brings an important question to my mind. The first being how many adults would have had access to a 4 yr old boy? Surely, someone that his parent(s) trusted. And over a long period of time. It would make sense to me that, considering he was not yet of school age when this abuse started that either it was a family member or someone from his CHURCH! Yes, his church. Even minimal research will show that the IFB is a perfect haven for pedophiles and sexual predators. More often than not, the victim is shamed or frightened into silence. And for the perps who ARE discovered, it is sadly common for the church to “handle it within the church” rather than notify the authorities. Then the perp is “forgiven”, which usually allows them to commit the same horror against another child. Repeat offenders of sexual abuse is VERY common within the IFB. This link will show what is merely a drop in the bucket, reflecting ONLY those that have been caught:

    Another ploy used by the IFB is to blame the VICTIM. You read that right. Consider the story of Tina Anderson. She was raped more than once by a deacon in her IFB Church, who is a man named Ernie Willis, a married father. At the age of 15, Tina discovered that she had become pregnant by Willis. Upon reporting what he did to the pastor of her church, a man by the name of Phelps, Tina was made to stand before the congregation of her church and APOLOGIZE for becoming pregnant. The pastor then sent her away to another state to have her baby and avoid being interviewed by law enforcement. Ernie Willis is due to go to trial soon. Tina’s family was so immersed in the mind-numbing and mind CONTROLLING clutches of the IFB that they followed the pastor's instructions without question.

    Jocelyn Zichterman, founder of the Freedom from Abuse Network (and a victim of abuse within the IFB herself) has helped make tremendous strides toward the exposure of all the cover-ups and corruption through the decades within the IFB denomination. Apparently, this exposure has ruffled quite a few feathers, because the facebook page she created for survivors of abuse within the IFB, “Survivors of IFB Cult Abuse” was reported by what we believe to be the IFB (who else would have done it?)as a “hate” group or something to that effect, and taken down. In it’s place, more than 20 OTHER “IFB cult Survivors” groups have been created. They are not hard to find. A simple facebook search will take you to them. I encourage everyone to go there and look.

    Being a former resident of a IFB “lock-down” home in my teens, the infamous New Bethany Girls Home, operated by Mack Ford (Mack W. Ford), myself and a multitude of others, whether they were residents of New Bethany, Hephzibah House, Victory Christian Academy, Heritage Boys Academy, Bethesda Girls/Boys Home (google “Lester Roloff”), Reclamation Ranch (google “Jack Patterson”)ALL understand the URGENCY to help the general public KNOW what really goes on within the IFB. PLEASE LISTEN BEFORE ANOTHER PERSON DIES AS A RESULT OF THE SAME THING THAT HAPPENED TO BILL ZELLER. The IFB does not need to be allowed to produce another wasted life.

  34. RebeccaD
    RebeccaD says:

    Therapy saved my life, pure and simple. I, too, was sexually abused and it took ten years of therapy to get to a point where I could carry on with my life. There were so many humbling moments in the journey – the most vivid of which is still burned in my brain. Part of my struggle was depression, though I never characterized it that way until long after it was passed. And I was a hard-ass about taking drugs, just would not do it. One of the manifestations of this depression was a horrifically messy apartment. “Messy” is a kind word. I lived in a pig sty, And for weeks on end, because I could not bear to have the super come in my apartment, the faucet leaked from a worn-out washer. Then the steam heat turned on one day in NYC and I came home from work and my walls were dripping from the hot water just running out of the faucet and the steam heat just blasting. You know what? If I’d owned a gun I might have put it to my head right then and there. Frightened and frantic, I called my oldest sister and she talked me down. The super was kind, the greatest act of kindness I’ve ever been the recipient of and then after all of that, I asked a friend to come in and help me clean it up. Another act of kindness. And real healing began. You have to ask for help – the people who love you will give it. And often times, so will relative strangers. But you need to ask. Just ask.

  35. Shandra
    Shandra says:

    Thanks for this post.

    I’ve been in that place due, for more or less the same reasons. It took me a long time to get help because on the surface I could function – actually in some ways I was better at work (although in more junior roles) because I could get entirely focused on that just to get out of the rest of my head.

    I got help because a sibling attempted suicide, and it shocked me into it. I have to say though that that first round of therapy did not help. It probably was a combination of a bad match and my just not knowing really how to be honest or even experience my feelings.

    But it wasn’t terrible and a few years later when I couldn’t sleep at all – ever – I tried it again. That time I got a slightly better therapist but still not a great match. But that got me to the next time, and then I found the person I could really work hard with. And now while I still have issues, they are not like that.

    So I guess the moral of my little tale is look for help, and keep going. I am so, so happy to be alive today. I have a good solid 16 year marriage and 1 soon to be 2 kids, a decent career (maybe not as great if I hadn’t had to juggle all the flashbacks, etc. but still good) and a deep capacity for joy.

  36. Robert P
    Robert P says:

    I agree with you about mental health provision. I live in Belgium where there is good public health care from which I benefit greatly with regard to my own mental illness. There is also a fairly robust social security safety net, from which I also benefit greatly right now because I am unable to work. There is even a scheme called Article 27, named after the clause in the UN Declaration of Human Rights that asserts the right to participate in cultural life, which gives those on basic minimum income the odd cheap cinema ticket etc. While there are certainly pitfalls to this approach, what is fundamentally being asserted is that one’s existence is valuable in itself and that one’s value is not contingent on some ridiculously blinkered idea of one’s perceived “productivity”. After all, if your life is only valuable for the benefit it provides someone else, and if their lives are only valuable for the same reason, no life is intrinsically valuable, so why bother doing anything for anyone?

    People need to be able to fall apart and know that it is OK and that they won’t starve when they do and that there will be people there to help them put the pieces together in some way that will work better for them than what went before. Ultra-capitalism doesn’t permit people to do that.

  37. Cara
    Cara says:

    To the person out there: there is nothing wrong with you; you are great, you just have a problem in the way your brain is working right now.

    I decided to get help just two months ago after my friends refused to leave my office until I called a therapist and made an appointment. I just thought that was a little stressed out and it was my own fault for not being able to keep up with the demands of my job. It turns out that I have crippling depression and panic attacks from my job. I took a sort leave of absence and am in therapy and on meds now.

    It gets better. In my case, I’m still not there yet, but the mental break (I couldn’t d any work. I pent all day in my office with the door closed crying and shaking) caused me to finally see that this was never the life I wanted. I am going to quit my job as a lawyer and do what really makes me happy – making things (purses and bags specifically). It gets better, butyou need to get help first. If you can’t bring yourself to handle looking for a therapist, ask a friend or family member to find one for you. I asked my priest, and she was incredibly helpful and supportive. People care for you, they will help you if you ask.

  38. R
    R says:

    Start by just locating your phone. You don’t even have to pick it up if you don’t want to. You don’t have to leave your home to talk to someone as long as you can find the phone. Then, once you’ve found it, you can call a number you know, or look up the number of a mental health professional. You don’t have to do it all at once. Take one small step to help yourself, and you may find that sometime, maybe today or tomorrow or next week, you can take another small step. That’s how everybody gets better.

  39. Holly
    Holly says:

    After a number of years of running from my problems stemming from sexual abuse and ADHD I sought therapy. Turns out, I cannot get relief from one without getting treatment for the other. It’s been a long, arduous journey, but it saved my life.

    Now I’m sorting through the wreckage of my life after those painful years of not knowing how to cope. But. Ultimately, I see most days a chance to start to do better and I’m starting to love myself for the first time.

  40. amy parmenter
    amy parmenter says:

    It is amazing how resistant some people are to help. They think it means they are weak or, if someone else can tell me how to do it, I can certainly figure it out for myself. And this is my analogy for that – “Yeah, And you can also build a house without using power tools – but why would you?”

    I think it’s a cultural thing. I’m jewish and I think jewish kids are raised to believe their feelings count and they have a voice. Some other cultures may be more like, children should speak when spoken to… Chances are they will not grow up to think they deserve to be heard. Sad.

    Get help for yourself. It will be the first step you take in recognizing that you are worth it.

    Thanks Penelope.

    • Jani
      Jani says:

      I think too that people are afraid to feel differently. Many want to feel better, but feeling the way they do has become so much a part of who they are that the thought of changing those feelings is often a scary thought.

  41. Alotoralittle
    Alotoralittle says:

    Thanks for your bravery, Penelope! I think there are times when people who are getting good professional help can still benefit from medication (just my opinion). I talk about that here:
    Also, I think that until you get the right kind of help, it’s impossible to know what you want to do with yourself, and very hard to be productive at a job. Organizations are looking for healthy people who project a good work-life balance, so it is worth it, all the way around, to get professional help and avail yourself of medication if you need it. Think: when you are feeling unhealthy, you may think that you want to pursue career X, but, after seeking help and feeling better, you may be able to plug yourself into an entirely different career in a more successful manner. Just my humble opinion. No judgement.
    Thanks again for your insight, especially in regards to the young man who helped the Congresswoman.

  42. Izzy
    Izzy says:

    I grew up in a home with an alcoholic father, an enabling mother and nobody talked about anything. My mom gave up after 17 yrs of marriage, and after 2 yrs of living with her, she left for another life when I was 10. We moved back in with my dad. My dad died of his alcohol addiction three days before my 14th birthday and his funeral was on my birthday. I’ll never forget that day. I don’t remember much afterwards however…not for a long long time. I don’t even know how I survived all the shit that happened afterwards but I think not being ‘present’ saved me in so many ways. I even moved out to a friend’s farm and commuted to school with someone who lived out there. AND NO ADULT EVEN CHECKED ON MY WELL-BEING!!! WHAT THE HELL???I lost my great-aunt just months afterwards, a lady I loved with my whole heart. My grandfather died 2 years later. My entire family was leaving me….again. My sister and I have tremendous issues from this horrific upbringing. While we weren’t physically beaten or abused, the psychological effects of this erratic and unjust adult behaviour by those who were charged with our care, well, it caused much damage. I have struggled my entire life with depression, anxiety, abandonment and poor self-esteem. I nearly killed myself with anorexia, until I nearly fell out of a bus and saw the health nurse at my place of employment. Then I turned to drugs and alcohol, lost my first year of university and really didn’t care about my behaviour or my life. I was lucky I didn’t get AIDS, I was that indiscriminate in my partners. I was in that black pit, that frightening black pit, that I always felt was ‘just around the corner’. I saw a psychologist, and it helped a bit. I went thru a local Eating Disorder Clinic, and that helped a bit. My emotions and behaviour see-sawed all over the map but each care provider I went to, helped a little more. I found a relationship that gave me stability and was my lifeline as I was for him. Not a healthy one for long term but it got me through. It allowed me to keep seeking help, get thru school again at a different university. I have seen many professionals in the past 25 years and will continue to when the going gets tough. I am lucky I have friends, a strong Baha’i faith, and strong will to keep going. I now have another relationship, am more stable, but always with an ear and eye to that black pit, although it gets a little farther away as time goes on. I will always advocate GET HELP!! THERE ARE PEOPLE OUT THERE TO HELP!! I lost many years of my life and abused myself a great deal before I sought help. I have been on meds, which took a while to figure out the best kind and dosage, but I keep taking them. I know I have an illness, my family history of depression almost dictates that I am succeptible to this. I continue to seek ways of healing myself, and have a circle of loving kind compassionate friends that I can turn to. I work in the field of Addictions, interesting enough, with the First Nations people of my country. I think I am suited to this work and feel their pain deep in my heart and soul through having experienced a very small part of their collective great pain. I can’t say I was sent to a residential school but I certainly didn’t have parents to raise and nurture me.

  43. IMA2FOUR7
    IMA2FOUR7 says:

    Thank you for such wise and important words.
    I always love to read your blog BUT TODAY–WOW!
    The best gift my friend ever gave me was the card of her former therapist. This was such an important gift it helped me turn my life around and made a huge improvement in my personal health.
    And I am going to get in touch with people who I can tell that I am there and that I care.
    Please continue in your own strength to be a force for positive change in our world!
    You are spot on today!

  44. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Oh my goodness. This is such an amazing response. And I’m it’s so uplifting to snuggle up in a chair with my coffee and read the responses. I meant for this to be a resource for other people, when they are down. But of course, this is a great resource for me, too. All the people who have worked hard against darkness – so inspiring to know that I”m not the only one who has to work hard.

    I want to contribute to this string. So I will tell a story.

    I was at the Word Trade Center when it fell. And I was in shock for months and moths. I walked around only half-there mentally and emotionally. But I thought because I was showing up for everything physically that I was okay and I didn’t need help.

    A friend told me about a guy who was at the World Trade Center and who was a mess but wouldn’t go get help. She said if I would go with him, then he’d go. So I went with him. I wanted to help him.

    Later, once it was clear that I needed help to. And we had been going to the recovery group for a while, the guy told me that his friend told the same thing to him — that I needed help and he should go with me to the recovery group so I’d get help.

    So we were each willing to help the other person, but helping ourselves was so difficult. I learned so much from that experience, but a big thing I learned is that there are many people, no matter if you know them or not, who really want to help. It’s important to ask for help.


  45. Joselle
    Joselle says:

    There have been a few times in my life where I have been so debilitated by depression that I basically stopped functioning. I stopped going to a class my freshman year in college and then eventually stopped going to school without telling my mother or friends. I felt so alone. I commuted from the suburbs into NYC to go to NYU where I felt fat, lonely, alone. I walked around the campus and went to bookstores instead of class. Then I just stopped going to school for a year. I don’t know how I pulled myself out of this. It wasn’t therapy. I was just existing for a year. What saved me, really, was needing money. So I got a job. This echoes what you’ve shared, Penelope, that your career can save you when your personal life is falling apart. It wasn’t a career–it was a job at a mall bookstore–but it put me back into the land of the living. And every day I had to go in and earn some money and put on a facade of normalcy and functioning, was a day I got closer to doing it for real. Faking it made it real, eventually.

    I made it back to school and hung out with friends and was a good worker but had no sex life and was my fattest. I entered into a secret, sexual relationship with someone who had previously abused me as a child. I didn’t admit that what he did was abuse until years later in therapy but it was. And I was emotionally abused and humiliated by him throughout my early twenties but it was the only relationship with a man I could handle. When I mustered all the strength in the world to end it, again, it wasn’t therapy. It was Weight Watchers. I was so sick of being fat and ignored or mistreated by men, so I just joined. I turned all of my focus to losing weight and for the first time in my life, I was successful. My self-esteem skyrocketed not from the weight loss but from committing myself to something and following through. I went to a meeting once a week, I counted points, I exercised and I reaped the rewards. Within nine months, I was 50 pounds lighter and I could no longer tolerate being abused. Then I walked into a therapist’s office.

    Therapy was very powerful. I let myself off the hook for being abused. I ADMITTED I was sexually abused. I placed responsibility on the adults who should have protected me but didn’t and took that burden off of myself. I saw my past clearly for the first time. And it enabled me to stop hiding from sex and men with food and anger and isolation by finally being a responsible adult. I got a better job, I dated, I went clothes shopping. All of these things that seem superficial were very difficult things for me to do, so to do them was a triumph. It meant I finally grew up and stopped hating myself.

    The next time I forced myself to ask for help was when I went on But before that, I took up running. I trained for a 5K, which doesn’t sound like much if you’ve run a marathon but it was huge for me. One night, I ran for 5 miles–more than I needed to and more than I’d ever run in my life–and I got to a point where I felt like I couldn’t run more but I didn’t want to stop. So I just kept running while I cried and I just said, out loud, if I can finish this run, I can meet the person I want to share my life with. Even though I was meeting guys in bars and at work, it still wasn’t working and I was still getting into sketchy situations. I finished my run, ran the 5K and put that night away. When I went on Match, I met my husband. On our first date, I knew I’d marry him. It wasn’t that panicked, infatuated, going-too-fast feeling I’d felt before. I felt a calm in my center that I’d met someone who was a true partner. 4 years later, we are married and I am with the most caring, respectful, sweet, reliable person ever put on earth.

    I also asked for help with my career. I was unhappy as an editor. I found Brazen Careerist and read every word. I can honestly say this blog changed my life. It gave me the courage to be responsible for myself, to ask for help, to take action and to be honest, even if it’s embarrassing (like parts of this post).

    I don’t know why I got through what I did. I know people go through worse but I did not have much support as a child. I was an only child who really was on my own emotionally. I was very scared to ask for help for a lot of my life and in many ways, that made me miss opportunities that I sometimes still regret. But there was always some hope in me that things could get better. In my case, I only needed one minute or hour of courage on a certain day to change my life. And every time I have, there has been somewhere there to help me. Don’t give up.

  46. Missy
    Missy says:

    I just read Zeller’s letter and it was haunting. People can overcome so many obstacles in life, but sexual abuse seems to fester for a lifetime. I have many friends who experienced physical abuse/abandonment/and or neglect as children and have made a commitment to overcome this and are now leading healthy and productive lives. However, the people who have experienced sexual abuse seem to continuously make dangerous choices and are still not free of the abuse…. I guess I’m writing this as a plee to pay attention to the children in your life. They are innocent and can be taken advantage of so easily. Be careful about who they are exposed to and watch out for any signs. I totally agree that giving hope to those who are suffering is so important because all can be overcome. However, I think it is just as important to remind adults to do the best they possibly can to help prevent children from ever experiencing the pain that Zeller felt. As parents our top priority should be to make our children feel safe.

    Life is difficult enough without a “darkness” eating away at your soul. I want to thank my parents for providing such a safe environment for my sister and I. Having a happy and carefree childhood has shaped the successful adult I have become.

  47. Tina Portis
    Tina Portis says:

    As a parent of 3, I have done everything in my power to talk to them about their bodies and by the age of 3, I taught them how to wash themselves so that I nor anyone else should ever touch them in their private places. I have spoken to them even about each other and am very careful to pay attention to signs of sexual abuse (children using the bathroom on themselves, withdrawn, etc.) Zeller’s letter is so sad. The only hope I found in my life was through Jesus Christ and my own personal relationship with God. I love others more than myself, protect my children and provide a safe, loving environment in our home. Penelope, thank you for posting this letter.

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