Learning to Hope after 30 Years of Depression and a Suicide Attempt

Written by on December 1, 2021 in All Posts with 21 Comments

Photo by Valentina Dominquez on Unsplash

In May of 2015, I jumped in front of a Metro train in Silver Spring, Maryland. I wanted to die. Somehow, I survived.

I don’t remember my suicide attempt or the initial six weeks of my recovery.  My first memory is when my daughter, Greta, visited me in the hospital.

Just two days earlier, Greta had turned 14, the age the hospital required before children could visit family. My eyes focused on her as she entered the room.  My brave daughter  took small steps toward my bed, by the window. I said, “It’s wonderful to see you, Greta. I love you.”

She replied, “I love you, too, Mom,” and leaned in for a hug. Sunrays streamed in the window behind her. In that simple exchange, love and hope shone, as I began my recovery journey.

I’d been badly injured when the Metro train hit me. Doctors had to amputate the front half of my right foot and the front quarter of my left foot. I spent eight weeks on the medical wing of the hospital before moving to the psychiatric unit.

This was my most serious suicidal episode, but not the first. I felt suicidal for the first time when I was 15 and had difficulty relating to anyone during the school year.

My favorite season of the year was always summer, when I attended camp in Colorado. I made life-long friends and learned to ride horses, hike, and backpack.  But then, in 1984, at the age of 17, I accidentally fell 25 feet while hiking in Navajo Mountain in Roosevelt Forest. I hit my head twice as I fell.

Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash

I’m told that the camp counselor gave me first aid and then ran down the mountain with two campers to call for help, while another camper sat with me on the ledge. Several hours later, a Flight for Life helicopter took me to a Boulder hospital, where I lay comatose for several days before beginning a year of rehabilitation.

I struggled during my college years. My inability to cope with my deficits from my head injury, combined with my family history of mental illness, led to my developing depression and anorexia. I went to graduate school, got married, and had children, but the depression and anorexia never really stopped. Finally, in 2015, I jumped in front of the Metro train.

I was hospitalized in the psychiatric unit for four months, until the end of 2015. From there, I moved to the first of several assisted living facilities. For the next 18 months, I received electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) at a local medical clinic twice a week. 

With each session of ECT, my senses opened to experience more of life. One day, as I watched squirrels scamper across the trails of the local park, I felt joy. Birds called amongst the trees, and their melodic songs beckoned me to join in the wonders of nature.

In 2016, I started working with a recreation therapist named Debbie Marcus, CTRS (short for Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist). I told Debbie I wanted to walk outside as much as possible, because I’d spent so many months in the hospital.

Together, Debbie and I walked for hours in parks in Silver Spring. Walking with no toes gives me a duck-like gait. At first, I walked with a leg brace. After a surgery in 2017, I was able to wear tennis shoes. Debbie and I laughed as I told her I celebrate that I’ll never wear heels again.

With Debbie’s encouragement, I reconnected to activities that I’d once enjoyed, like reading children’s books. I attended training through the literary council to teach adults how to read. I met weekly with an Egyptian woman who wanted to learn to read in English, so she could share children’s books with her grandchildren.

Photo by Serena Repice Lentini on Unsplash

When Debbie learned I swam competitively in high school and college, we went to a local pool. My swimming skills returned quickly. In 2019, I went swimming with my teenage children. My son asked me if I could still swim the butterfly stroke. I nodded and swam butterfly the length of the pool and back. My daughter and son told me they were proud of me. I couldn’t ask for any better affirmation.

Getting Back on the Train

All this time, I met with my psychiatrist regularly and continued taking my anti-depressant medications. In April of 2018, my psychiatrist told me that he thought I was ready to ride the Metro again.  I’d thought riding a train again was impossible. The possibility both scared and excited me.

Recreation therapist Debbie Marcus, CTRS, and Shannon Parkin (right) at the Metro station in April 2018

We agreed that Debbie would ride with me. By coincidence, Debbie and I both wore orange T-shirts that morning. Once we had passed the fare card turnstile, she asked me “Do you want me or you to go up the escalator first?”

From her decades of experience, Debbie knew that allowing me limited choices even in this context enabled me to feel more in control of my emotions.

“I want you to go first,” I told her. 

“Ok, but you are going to follow me, right?” Debbie replied with only a hint of a question in her voice. I nodded, even though the roar of a train entering the station filled me with fear.

I held tightly to the escalator railing with my right hand and focused on the back of Debbie’s bright orange T-shirt. When we reached the platform, I looked at her face, not at the tracks, as the train pulled into the station.

Debbie took my hand, and we boarded the train. We had agreed we would ride only one stop before turning around and returning. We found a seat close to the door, because my partial feet didn’t give me the balance needed to stand on a moving train. 

At the next station, my confidence rocketed when the door opened. As we stepped off the train, I reached my hand back for Debbie.

“Let me just switch my bag to the other shoulder, so I don’t trip you,” she said. 

“Yeah,” I said, “that would not be something you’d want to put on your resume.” 

As we laughed, standing on the platform, I saw a white bird with outstretched wings sail across the blue sky. I still focused on Debbie’s face as I heard the train approach the station, but this time I didn’t have to fight the urge to cover my ears.

Debbie and I rode the Metro together every week for the next month. On our third trip together, as we stood on the platform, I told her about the phone conversation I’d had the previous night with Greta that had ended when I said to my daughter, “I love you very much.”

Greta had replied, “I love you very much, too, Mom.” 

Photo by un-perfekt on Pixabay

As I told Debbie about that conversation, I saw a mother bidding goodbye to her own daughter, a toddler, in a stroller by making a heart-shape with her fingers. By focusing on the paired images of the heart-shaped fingers, and the echo of my own daughter’s words, “I love you very much too, Mom,” I was able to watch the train arrive at the station with a smile on my face, something I hadn’t dreamed possible. 

By using that same imagery on our next trip, I found I could watch the train arrive at the station without fear. Two weeks later, in May of 2018, my psychiatrist gave his full approval for me to ride the Metro independently. I happily shared the news with the congregation of Silver Spring United Methodist Church, where I had been a member since 2008.

Finding Community and Family at Church 

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

My church is located only a half mile from the Metro station where I jumped in front of the train. A fellow church member had been on the train that morning. She went to worship services immediately after getting off the train and offered prayers for the person who had been struck, without knowing it was me.

As pastor of visitation and reconciling ministries, Reverend Michele Johns led the prayers. She also led the prayers three years later, when I told our congregation that I had gained approval from my psychiatrist to ride the Metro independently.  

I was friends with an older couple who joined the church at the same time I did in 2008. Over time, I began calling them Mom and Dad, because I saw them as my church parents.

They visited me every week throughout my 6-month hospital stay, including the four months in the psych unit. This wonderful couple also supported me throughout my five years residing in assisted living facilities, even helping me move when I was transferred from one facility to another. These consistent, caring relationships enabled me to see a hopeful future.

Growing up, I lacked a sense of home. I switched schools, states, and sometimes parents and countries every year from 4th to 12th grade. Both my parents were married three times. I was the only child of both of their middle marriages. My friends have joked with me that my family could best be described through an elaborate flow chart.

In the years after my suicide attempt, the Silver Spring United Methodist Church provided me a caring community and a surrogate family. I was standing in our church chapel on a Sunday in early 2017 when our lead pastor at that time looked me at me directly and said, “Shannon, you will always have a home here.” That sense of home grounds me as I walk forward into the future. 

While I resided in different assisted living facilities, church members drove me to and from worship services and smaller church gatherings. During these rides and at church, I felt validated by my fellow church members. They listened to me and showed they truly cared about me. Once when a woman from a small church group drove me back to the assisted living facility where I lived, she turned to me after she’d pulled into the driveway and said, “Shannon, you were gone, but now you are back.” 

At one church service, when I was walking up to receive communion, my church mom said to me gently, “Your shoe is untied. Would you like me to tie it for you?”

I was so proud to be wearing real tennis shoes instead of the brace up to my knee that I had worn before that week. I’d forgotten that tennis shoes need to be tied to be effective, but my church mom was there to remind me.

The Rev. Michele Johns, of Silver Spring United Methodist Church, and Shannon Parkin (right)

In the spring of 2018, when our church prepared for the Christian Lenten practice of foot washing, Reverend Michele arranged for the two of us to have a private ceremony in the lead pastor’s office, where the two of us would wash each other’s feet.  I took off my shoes and socks, and Reverend Michele didn’t flinch or hesitate when she saw my partial bare feet. She washed my feet, and then I washed hers. It was an extraordinarily meaningful ceremony.  

Two months after I’d begun riding the Metro independently, I learned the church member who had been on the train I jumped in front of would be leading a group from our church to go to a baseball game. The group would be riding together on the Metro. I wanted to go, but I was worried my presence on the train would cause church members to be uncomfortable.

Very tentatively, I asked the leader if I could join the group. Without a moment’s hesitation, she said, “Definitely. I’ve got your back. Always have. Always will.” With those words, and a successful trip to the ballgame, I knew I would never walk alone again.

Learning Gratitude in the Pandemic

When the pandemic began in early 2020, I still resided in assisted living. My life was confined to a small bedroom, a tiny kitchen area, and a bathroom. I was more anxious than ever to move and live independently in my own apartment, but my psychiatrist and therapist had to approve the plan. I resolved to prove to them that I could remain positive even in these difficult circumstances.

Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash

I began keeping a daily gratitude log that I’d learned about through the support groups and the volunteer work I did with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In this gratitude log, I kept track of every phone call and online interaction I had with my children, friends and church members.

During these early months of the pandemic, Reverend Michele called me every week. In one phone conversation, as I described my journal in detail, Reverend Michele appeared unusually quiet. I asked her why. She replied that she didn’t want to interrupt me. 

I told her, “Please don’t worry about interrupting me. You, of all people, should know there is no way you can ‘step on my toes.’” 

We laughed together. This conversation was one of many examples of caring people supporting me as I learned to find humor in my situation. I recall the friend who encouraged me to walk “on my own two feet.”

“How much is one half and three quarters?” I jokingly asked the friend, a math tutor.

My wise friend replied, “One and one quarter, but you need to find your own answer.”

Caring people who talk and laugh with me empower me to realize that one half plus three quarters will always equal infinity, pandemic or not.  

Photo by Shannon Parkin

In October of 2020, after five years of residing in assisted living facilities, I was given approval by my psychiatrist and therapist to move into my own apartment.  Church members helped me move. Reverend Michele gave me a wooden plaque that reads The Best is Yet to Come. I strive to live up to these words each day, envisioning a future of light and laughter. A year after moving into my apartment, I continue to keep my gratitude journal. Initially I started it only to prove I could live on my own. Now, maintaining this log is as much a daily practice for me as taking my anti-depressant medications.

Today, December 1, 2021, I mark Day 600 in my gratitude log. One of the things I am thankful for is this journal itself. It gives me the opportunity to chronicle the gifts I receive, and the lessons I learn as I work through challenges. 

In September of 2021, my church mom passed away from cancer. When I heard the news, I wept and then went for a walk. As I walked, feeling the wind against my face, hearing the nestlings chirping, I saw a bird soaring across the sky. I felt my church mom’s presence with me. I reflected on how she taught me that although I cannot change my past, I can shift the lens I use to look at my previous experiences.

The memory of her words guides me to move beyond guilt and regret and to stride forward celebrating life learning from my past. I know I can best honor her by living fully, allowing love to erase my previous fears, and sharing the hope of the universe. 

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About the Author

Shannon Parkin

Shannon Heath Parkin, M.S., (she/her/hers) is a public speaker and writer who shares her powerful mental health recovery journey while advocating for suicide prevention and mental health care. She first wrote about her experiences in an essay Embracing Hope through 6-Foot Balloons. In October, Shannon gave a presentation, “How Faith Communities Can Welcome and Support Suicide Attempt Survivors,” with Reverend Michele Johns. Shannon volunteers for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Montgomery County, MD. You can email her at shanheathparkin803@icloud.com. You also can follow Shannon on Twitter.

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21 Reader Comments

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  1. Amy Coughenour says:

    As a member of Shannon’s church—Silver Spring United Methodist— I am so grateful for Shannon sharing her journey of deepest pain and enduring hope. Each Sunday I sang with her daughter and saw the joy on her face when her mom walked into the chapel. As Shannon started to heal her body and mind I could also see the struggle of those around her to understand her journey. Yet she persisted, finding faith and grace and sharing her experience of love and acceptance as key to her survival. I am humbled amazed by God’s hand in her life and hope that others can know the incredible power of God’s healing love shown through others. Thank you, Shannon, for your courage in sharing your story.

  2. Shannon Parkin says:

    Thank you James John and Temple Cloud for your kind words. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to share my story. I am grateful to all those who supported me throughout my recovery. I am grateful to Stacey, for posting my story and am so pleased she is now accepting guest posts. I know each one of you who reads this column has your own story, By Speaking of Suicide and sharing our stories, we can reduce stigma, and save lives by providing caring mental health support to all. -Shannon Parkin (author)

  3. James John says:

    Good sharing with us. I really like your post

  4. Temple Cloud says:

    Dear Shannon,

    Thank you for your story, and well done for having the courage to share it, as well as the courage to go on living. I’m glad that you are finding joy and hope in life, and I enjoyed the humour with which you told your story.

  5. Shannon Parkin says:

    I admire your bravery as you pursue your law degree. Your persistence and determination are inspirational. You remind me of another woman I knew, also a lawyer, who was disabled in a wheelchair and rarely left her assisted living facility for more than 15 years. When I close my eyes, I can see her smiling face, shouting for all to hear her favorite saying, “Keep Hope Alive.”
    Shannon Parkin (author)

  6. lee says:

    Thanks, Ben. That is terrific. Unfortunately, I have gone to vocational rehab and services for the visually impaired. because my eye pain stops me from reading or doing any eye work continuously for more then 15 – 20 minutes then the pain takes over and I have to stop sometimes for hours at a time, they both told sorry we can’t help you. I would love to go back to school but there is truly no way to do it. I was on SSD since 1980 (now that I hit 65 they don’t call it ssd anymore just ss). (I do write a column once a month for an online pain never know what to call it a journal I guess. and am able to talk ood to someone in need 2 times a month so that’s better than nothing. It’s wonderful they suggested it to you and you are able to do it. Good luck with it

    • Ben says:

      Lee, there are still options. Don’t give up! In my home state, the Voc Rehab facilities and opportunities for the visually impaired outshine anything available to the non-visually impaired disabled. Colleges have freely available textbook scanners/readers. They also provide free notetakers who then scan your notes into a reader so you can listen to the notes. The amount of services available these days to the visually impaired is nothing short of incredible.

      Yes, you will probably need to switch from visual to auditory media, but is that really such a bad exchange for a desirable education?

      • lee says:

        Thanks ben but my impairment has to do with severe pain from any eye usage . In addition my lids swell for no reason at all (this is called “neuropathic pain” and will also potentially put me down for hours). I am an older person. I have tried every possible facility, rehab, etc that is possible. I don’t say No because I want to, I say no because I have been repeatedly told no this, that the other in your case wont work.
        Thank you for your suggestions

  7. Shannon Parkin says:

    I hear the pain you all express as you share the negative experiences you have had with other faith communities. I am so fortunate to have found a church where all are welcome. In addition to our church website, you can follow Silver Spring United Methodist on Facebook and view services. I also have been supported by the National Alliance On Mental Illness NAMI and encourage you all to reach out to your local NAMI chapter. Both my church and NAMI have taught me that no one is alone.
    Shannon Parkin (author)

    • lee says:

      glad you have them. (I have no psych diagnoses, just live with chronic facial and eye pain that has disabled me for decades so wouldn’t be appropriate for me but I have heard good things about the support they offer.) Unfortunately some people are alone.

      • Ben says:

        SpeakingofSuicide.com is a haven for those with major depression, specifically individuals fighting suicidal ideation. Are you not here for that reason? Are you truly saying you do not suffer from major depression?

        You sound very depressed. If you have never seen a therapist or psychiatrist, perhaps you might consider it. Doors of opportunity might open up for you after proper diagnosis.

        Best wishes to you!

        • lee says:

          no in fact I am not depressed nor have I ever been diagnosed with depression. I appreciate your trying to make your point however I have had 15 brain surgeries against my facial pain (trigeminal neuralguia is not called “the suicide disease” and “worst pain known to man” without good reason. I have been told my neurosurgeon there are no other options against the pain, absent maybe 2 surgeries, both of which have unknown risks and are not recommended) My dx is proper. Thank you. (Let me add I have been told by doctors, more then once and in fact when I left a pain clinic a number if years back, that suicide though they would prefer I didn’t, would be understandable if I did. )

  8. Shannon Parkin says:

    I am so fortunate that Silver Spring United Methodist Church is so welcoming and supportive.
    Anyone is welcome to join us for virtual services at 9am or in person at 11am (EST) on Sunday mornings
    if you have any questions, visit our church website or email me.
    Shannon Parkin (author)
    shanheathparkin803@icloud.com

    • lee says:

      Thank you for sharing your story. As to the church, I am virtually alone in the world, Family which lives close by, abandoned me decades ago and due to a disability that keeps me primarily housebound, I have no friends (absent 2 old ones, one in Fl one in AZ). There is a nephew who went against the family and on his own decided to see if I was the awful malingerer, lazy hypochondriac that they always have said I am. and found out I’m not. We are close but he too lives far away, in Texas.
      I had been a member of 2 churches. the first turned into essentially a cult. If you questioned what the minister did you were thrown out. That happened to not only me but at least one other member of which I am aware. The second church, in walking distance, was a church of cliques. I was there for over 5 years and in choir the whole time. It didn’t matter, I was still not from the really long-timers so people spoke to me and were friendly but it would never go past that. The woman next to me in a choir could not sing on key but for some reason, the director decided it was me (btw this is a choir that requires no auditions just want to sing). He called me on phone one day said you’re singing off-key and you have to leave the choir. I told him then and in person that it wasn’t me but more importantly the choir was all I had. It was my only social time and I needed to be in the chor. The response was sorry, I don’t want you in the choir. I emailed the minister told her what happened, that this was my only social contact but he threw me out anyway. her response: “well that’s your impression” she didn’t care. so I left. 5 years I sat next to these people at least 2 times a week, for rehearsal then service and not one called me to say sorry, or at least goodbye. The “Christian” wasn’t anywhere in sight.
      people always say go to church if you’re alone, they will take you in. unfortunately in my experience that is not true at all.
      I am glad you have one where you do feel you have a family (sorry didn’t intend to make this a treatise)

  9. Rob says:

    Thank you for sharing this, and God bless you.

  10. Ben says:

    Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    As rough as you had it, you also enjoyed some wonderful privileges and helpers: a spouse, kids, friends, a church home, and Church Parents who never gave up on you. What a wonderful experience.

    I am tremendously relieved that you experienced joy after ECT. I know highly intelligent people whose brains, and hence lives, were destroyed by ECT.

    You braved your life and recovery, and succeeded! I am happy for you. Thank you again for sharing.

    Perhaps someone here will choose life after reading your message.

  11. lee says:

    She is very lucky to have been able to find such a caring community to be there for her. Unfortunately, I am not sure her story is applicable to the many as opposed to the few. It was kind of her, and you, to share it with us.

    • Ben says:

      As someone who also suffers with intractable major depression, I tend to agree with you, Lee, yet I hesitate because, if it’s one thing I’ve learned after some four + decades of depression, it’s that life always surprises me.

      Hence, even though my life has been sour, it sometimes takes positive turns – even very positive turns – and it could very well be that my next major downturn could turn very positive, as it did for our writer friend.

      You just never know what will happen.

      Hang in there!

      • lee says:

        Thanks. I am glad you have the positives. (Unfortunately, I am disabled by a chronic pain disorder and have tried all the surgeries (have had 15 if you count removing implants), treatments etc so I am stuck.
        It does help though when someone writes a positive note to tell us there is sometimes a positive that we may not expect.

        • Ben says:

          Lee, I am very sorry to hear about your disabling pain. I can relate to this issue as well. I have been legally disabled on SSDI now for a full twenty years.

          Even so, strange but positive things have occurred. I went to our state Vocational Rehabilitation, a state agency that serves disabled people trying to get back to work. After starts and stops with plans that just didn’t work due to my disorder, I was suddenly offered a JD, a law degree, at a private school. Voc Rehab offered to pay for the degree (tuition, books, fees, computer, etc.) to the tune of about $60,000 per year. Who would have thought that would ever happen, with me legally disabled due to life-long major depression and anxiety disorder AND with suffering a concurrent physical disability?

          So, here I am now, a second-year law student. Seriously. I can only take about 11 units at a time due to my disability, but I’m getting through. And I’m living in a private apartment on campus. My SSDI covers rent and utilities. I have full free Medi/Medi (Medicare plus Medicaid) medical insurance, dental insurance, and about $250 in food stamps every month. Even free high-speed internet. Everything is paid. I am so blessed.

          So, you see, even for those of us who seem to have no more options, no more chances, there are often options and chances out there just waiting to be offered us.

          Please understand I do not mean to minimize your pain and anguish. Your pain is real. I do hope, however, to help you see how sometimes, seemingly against all odds, life can take a serious turn for the positive.

          The really hard part about it all, especially for those of us who suffer from major depression, is that one never knows that the good stuff is coming until it actually arrives. So, the trick is to hang in there and wait for some to knock on the door, so to speak, with your package of good stuff.

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