We Are All in the Same Waiting Room

By Dar and The Rev. Tara Woodard-Lehmann

Trigger alert: Depression, suicide

Read Time: This is a longer post than usual but I hope you will find encouragement — and hope.

In the past couple of weeks, two celebrities died of apparent suicides within a day or two of each other – American fashion designer Kate Spade, and celebrity chef/author/TV producer and personality Anthony Bourdain. This sparked many articles and blogs about mental health and suicide — which is quite a complex issue as many factors (and combination of factors) can impact a person’s mental health (i.e., brain nerve cell communication, genes, hormones, temperament, stressful life events, chronic pain or stress, early losses in childhood, trauma, Seasonal Affective Disorder, medical problems, medication side effects, brain injury, etc.)

A beloved friend of mine (who is godmother to my kids) also courageously shared on Facebook about her personal experience with depression and a time when she needed to reach out for help. She shared this story in hopes that it will help and encourage others — to take care of yourself and your own mental health, to be kind and compassionate (to yourself and others), to realize and believe that you are worthy of seeking help. With her permission, I share it here with you:

"Parts of this memory are incredibly vivid, while other parts are blurred by time and years of hiding. But this is how I remember it.

A constellation of factors led me there. It was a waiting room. The air smelled of body odor, cheap perfume, and disinfectant. The carpet, I think it was blue, was worn thin. The decor was sparse. I don’t remember much color. We sat in standard waiting room chairs — uniform and dated, but not uncomfortable.

There were others. A jittery young woman, picking at her nail beds. A disheveled, hairy older man, slumped over his chair. A wiry young man, in handcuffs.

Each accompanied by another person — some sort of companion.

My companion was my husband.

When we walked up to the reception desk we were handed disposable, sticky name tags. I believe one was blue, the other red. I don’t remember actually writing our names on the tags. Maybe we did.

It became clear the purpose of the tags was to distinguish the "companions" from the "patients."

My sticker was the same color as all the other patients. The tags seemed like a strange demarcation, but I was more desperate than embarrassed, so I wore my color-coded patient badge and waited for my name to be called.

I remember what I was wearing: a sleeveless Ann Taylor dress, cream base with yellow and brown flowers. I lost 30 pounds in the past month, and recently took the dress in for alterations to fit my new, thin frame. Many complimented me on how "healthy" I looked. If only they knew. Stress was eating me from the inside out.

My hair was in a pristine bob. My makeup was impeccable. I wore closed-toed dark brown pumps.

I just started a respectable job at a respectable institution. I was in one of those designated "helping" professions. I had a lot of credentials. I was an ordained minister. A full-time chaplain. I even weaseled my way into an assistant professor position, lecturing large classes in the day and facilitating smaller seminars in the evening.

I was trained in grief and suicide prevention counseling years before. I went through three years of seminary training and two more years of pastoral leadership. I won awards for pastoral care. I ran homeless shelters. I led youth groups. I directed faith communities.

I was the one others came to for help.

My own vocation is (part of) what made seeking help more difficult. If I confessed my own brokenness, it would automatically disqualify me.

If I admitted my own feelings of this slippery, suffocating depression, I could lose everything. My reputation. My job. My dignity.

At least that’s how it felt.

I just made a big move, bought a modest "starter" house, and jumped into a role that was probably too big for me. But I had to stick with it. I was putting my husband through a graduate program. We had no other source of income. It felt all up to me to hold everything together, including myself.

But at some point, I hit a wall. I remember lying in bed wishing I could just sink into the mattress and never wake up. I had struggled with anxiety and depression before, but nothing like this.

Miraculously, I had the sense to tell my husband. That is one of the many graces in my story.

I told him I felt like I was standing on a steep cliff, and that some sort of force, a force stronger than gravity, was pulling me toward the edge.

I was certain I would slip and fall off, unless something or someone somehow tethered me to the ground. I needed an anchor.

I didn’t just feel "down" or "sad." I didn’t just have a case of "the blues." It was so much bigger and stronger than that.

It wasn’t even that I wanted to die. I just wanted everything to stop. I was tired, weak, and embarrassed. I was full of shame and fear. I didn’t want to be found out.

But I also didn’t want to be swept off the edge. I felt trapped. And for the first time, I didn’t feel I could trust myself. So I told my husband not to leave me alone.

My husband called for help. We were new to the community, and the only place we could find was a local crisis center.

So we went. And there, I began my journey toward wholeness.

Within a week I found a decent therapist and good medicine, and slowly that force — the one pulling me to the edge — began to loosen its grip.

Over the next few years, I would find myself at the crisis center a few more times.

But those other times, I wore the other colored sticky name tag — the one of the companion. At times it felt surreal, accompanying students to that same waiting room; students who were struggling on their own cliffs.

Over the past couple decades I’ve sat with those in crisis, those dulled by what I can only call an unspeakable force of despair and weariness.

But I rarely, if ever, shared my story.

I had the misguided notion that if I told my story, no one would trust me with theirs.

I even had well-meaning colleagues warn me against "over sharing," insisting vulnerability on my part would make those under my care feel uneasy.

But here’s the deal. The toxic combination of silence and shame always leads to isolation. Isolation makes us less whole and less human, and more fearful.

And although I’m aware that perhaps sharing my story may be triggering for some, I’m hoping it will be a source of hope and courage for others.

I tell this story with some fear and trembling, but also trust. I trust you with my story. I trust you with my brokenness and journey. I trust you because so many have bravely trusted me. I trust you because I want you to know you are not alone.

After having been both patient and companion — having worn BOTH name-tag-colors in the crisis waiting room — I know this. We are ALL in the same freaking waiting room of humanity, and we need each other.

Regardless of your success, your failure, your standing, your vocation, your training, your position, your faith — you are worthy of seeking help. You are beloved. You are worth fighting for.

— The Rev. Tara Woodard-Lehmann

If you are dealing with depression and/or anxiety or thoughts of suicide, reaching out is the first step to safety.

As another friend wrote in her blog post about her experience with depression: "There are so many effective treatments for depression. There are kind people who are trained to help you. You don’t need to carry any shame — there are SO MANY OF US here right where you are. Things won’t always be this bad. There is lots of hope. You don’t need to suffer so. I’m living proof. I’m so much better these days. When the darkness comes, there is so much more help that I know I can reach for — and there is help for you too. If you are reading this and you are suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts, please tell a loved one and keep telling until someone intervenes to help you."