What If: My Struggle with Depression & Suicide - Author Katie Ashley

September 5, 2014

What If: My Struggle with Depression & Suicide

What if I hadn’t turned the car off?

Then I wouldn’t be here today


As part of the release for the very talented Rebecca Donovan’s novel, “What If”, I was asked to be a part of a group of authors to detail an important “what if” moment in our lives.

We sat down for the taping at Book Bash back in June, and for weeks beforehand, I thought about which one I could share. Would I go for something humorous or serious? Maybe something related to my writing career?

And then it hit me. I needed to portray a true defining moment in my life—one that had I gone through with it, everything would have been different. That moment also goes back to something I have supported and tried to highlight in my writing career: suicide prevention. I think it’s more than a little ironic that this is all releasing in September, which hosts Suicide Prevention Day.

If you know me in real life or from Facebook or Twitter, you know me for my sense of humor and light-hearted attitude. You might pass me in a crowd, see my smile or hear my laugh, and never imagine the agonizing pain I was in. You might see my pictures from book signings and think, “She has such a charmed life.”

Appearances can be so deceiving, and I’m a master artist of deception.

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I’m a survivor of deep depression. Although saying you’re a survivor of depression is like being a recovering drug addict or alcoholic. You’re never truly cured. There’s still medication and therapy…there’s still the fear of finding yourself in the spiraling desolation again.

I am a woman who has contemplated suicide several times. I’m someone who came closer to ending her pain than most people could ever imagine. I’ve sat in a running car enclosed in a garage and refused to turn off the ignition. I’ve driven down the road and come close to careening in front of a transfer truck. I’ve thought about how I would really do it once I got all my affairs in order. Would pills be easier or should I use my late father’s pistol?

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Unburdening myself of this is difficult. There is still such a stigma related to depression and suicide. As we’ve seen in the past few weeks with the death of Robin Williams, people have such animosity towards those who take their lives. They are selfish and weak. “What a waste!” they murmur, while shaking their heads disapprovingly. Until I endured my own private hell, I probably would have said the same thing. Of course, you really shouldn’t have to experience something to have empathy for someone’s suffering. It should be something innately with us to feel sorry for someone who is in pain. But so many people do not understand what true depression is. They think it’s an emotion that you could flip on and off like a switch.

My therapist would tell you that my depression is all loss induced. That if I hadn’t had to endure the deaths of my entire immediate family at such a young age, I would be fine. Once upon a time, I was born the very much desired child to two people who thought they may never have a child of their own. I grew up surrounded by the love of my both sets of grandparents, a great-grandmother, my mother’s sister who was a second mother to me, and my parents. I grew up the entertainer—I loved doing whatever it took to earn a laugh from those around me. The future writer in me was busy telling stories then, rather than writing them.

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As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans.” I learned that at an early age. When I was younger, I expected my life to turn out a certain way. I’d get married fairly young, have three children, teach school, and publish some novels. When they got old, I’d make my parents, who divorced when I was eleven, get along, so that I could take care of them. I teased them that as an only child, I was all they had, so they’d just have to suck it up.

But that sweet little dream world never came to fruition. The bubble burst fairly early along when my dad died of cancer two weeks from my high school graduation. The crippling pangs of loss had already visited me when I younger through the loss of my grandfathers, my grandmother, and great-grandmother. When push came to shove with my father’s death, I was already well-versed in the death rites of picking out caskets, cemetery plots, and headstones.

Regardless of my early experiences with grief, I was never someone who suffered from clinical depression as a child or teenager. Sure, I had some low moments of teenage angst but nothing truly serious. Although I lost my father to cancer when I was seventeen, I didn’t experience crippling depression until I was twenty three, and my mother died of a brain tumor. I was my mother’s entire world, and she was mine. Even though I was in my second year of teaching, I still lived at home. She was my best friend that I could tell anything.

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Her death shattered me into a thousand jagged pieces. I was now an adult orphan—single and childless. When my mother’s sister and my second mother died just five weeks after my mother, I was left to pick up the pieces of shattered life with my grandmother and cousin.

By my late 20’s when the knight-in-shining armor hadn’t come, and I didn’t have the houseful of children I longed for, I went to a very dark place. As someone of extreme faith, I began to wonder what I had ever done to be punished like this—to lose everyone I loved and not have the prayers for a family of my own to be answered. And during that rock bottom moment in my life, I contemplated suicide. This is a piece from graduate school where I wrote about that moment…

She has come to a crossroads. With tears blurring her vision, she is unable to see the way ahead. Sitting in the garage, she entertains the dark thoughts she has so often pushed to the back of her mind. Thoughts that are fleeting when she is stronger, but ones that are morbidly interesting now she is broken down. What would happen if she didn’t turn the car off? How long before the carbon monoxide seeped through, pulling the curtain down on this tragedy that has become her life.

She is exhausted from the weight of keeping up a Jekyll and Hyde persona. Like a Jack o Lantern, she has a smile carved on her face, but emotionally she’s completely hollowed out on the inside.

Black mascara overruns her cheeks like the black cloud of despair that has consumed her life. “I can’t do this anymore!” she cries aloud. She knows nothing but loneliness awaits her in the house. The empty house bought with the blood money of inheritance. The walls lined with pictures of ghosts of the pasts silently mocking the empty life she now leads.

All the years of unanswered prayers, dashed hopes, and unfulfilled dreams converge this one moment. She thinks about her grandmother’s advice to pray. But she’s doubtful she can pray herself out of the quicksand. She has done her time crawling the floors, begging and pleading to be released from the prison of the torment, until the carpet seared the pain into her flesh. With angry fists pummeling the steering wheel she challenges God. “What more do you want from me?”

Suddenly the unseen hand that has been guiding her throughout her life pushes her to turn the car off. She continues to weep, but this time it is not from the pain. It is from the knowledge of how close she came. She will often look back on this moment—the moment she hit rock bottom and started climbing her way back up.

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I’d like to say that was the last time I’ve ever dealt with suicidal thoughts. 2012 was not only the year that I finally had writing success, but it was also the year I didn’t think I would survive. In May, my grandmother, who had become my mother after I lost mine, died very unexpectedly of a heart attack. I was at her house every day, talked her three to four times a day…she was my world. The last symbol of the once happy family I had. Without a husband or children, I felt completely alone. In the midst of having to change schools and deal with estate business, I hit a rock bottom I didn’t even know existed.

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But once again, I crawled out of the abyss. From time to time as I wait for some aspects of my life to start, I deal with the dark thoughts. Sometimes even the strongest of characters have their resolve tested. Steel bends, marble cracks.

That’s when I have to say “But what if it gets better tomorrow?” “What if I meet my soul mate?” And then things look different once again. And I trudge on.

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Katie Ashley is the New York Times, USA Today, and Amazon Best-Selling author of The Proposition Series, Runaway Train Series, as well as several New Adult and Young Adult titles. Her latest series, Vicious Cycle, has been picked up for publication by Penguin Books. She lives outside of Atlanta, Georgia with her two very spoiled dogs.

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