The Choice to Live Despite the Darkness

by Katrina Howe

for the Sun Star

Katrina Howe is a 28 year-old electrical engineering student and art minor who has lost three friends to suicide and survived and attempt herself. The Sun Star is running an article in two parts by her about engaging in healthy discussions about suicide.

On Nov. 1, I presented my sculpture “In Memory of Friends Gone” in the Great Hall and told the story of my experiences with depression and thoughts of suicide. About 60 people were there, and I’d like to thank everyone who came. For those who couldn’t come, this article will summarize what I had to say.

I think most of us are aware by now that Alaska has the highest rate of suicide per capita in the country. The rate of suicide in Alaska is almost twice the average suicide rate for the rest of the U.S., according to the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics.

Suicide prevention programs are everywhere. People say, “If you’re contemplating suicide, get help,” and then people avoid actually talking about it in general.

When people talk about suicide or depression, the conversation becomes awkward and uncomfortable and the topic is quickly changed.

It’s almost interesting how much of a taboo it is to talk about depression or suicide, when the fact is that all of us are affected to some degree or another by the lack of sun in the winter. In some, it shows up as a desire for a nap in the afternoon, others suffer from deep depression and a desire to die.

We feel like we’re admitting to weakness talking about seasonal depression but it’s not a weakness, it’s part of being a human! Human beings require sunshine, and it’s completely natural to feel low in the winter.

If you suffer from depression and especially if you’ve had thoughts of suicide, you need to know you’re not alone in this! There are people all around you dealing with this same thing.

I deal with depression every winter. I didn’t notice it at first because I was born and raised here and it came on gradually. I didn’t really notice it until the first time I moved away from Fairbanks and then came back.

I first had thoughts of suicide when I was 13 or 14, and actually made an attempt in 2009. A friend of mine stopped me that night, and after getting a good night’s sleep I found that I didn’t actually want to die.

Ever since I’ve gathered strategies for how to fight seasonal depression.

I’ve started taking vitamins (multivitamins and vitamin D3 come in gummies, by the way) and I’ve found that drinking water helps a lot. Fresh fruits and vegetables make a big difference (again, vitamins and water) as does getting enough sleep and exercise.

By exercise, I don’t mean going to the gym. I hate gyms, I avoid them when I can (if gyms work for you, rock on! I can’t handle gyms.) I found that I really enjoy ballroom dance and playing Dance Dance Revolution: they get my heart rate up in a really fun way. Don’t write off exercise if you don’t like gyms.

Depression is in great part a mental battle, and one thing that really helps me is a free game called SuperBetter (https://www.superbetter.com/).

SuperBetter is a game that has “quests” and “power-ups,” things you can do in real life to help you feel just a little bit better.

One of the quests I was given was to go outside and jump up to high-five a tree. It was a simple task to get me outside in the fresh air and do something active briefly. It also made me laugh, and it’s true what they say: laughter is the best medicine.

The game also helps you identify the “bad guys” you face. For me, two of the most dastardly bad guys I face are Staying Up Too Late (my mood sinks when I don’t get enough sleep) and Forgetting to Eat (food is really important to mood, too.) I fight these “bad guys” by making sure to go to bed at a decent time and eat regularly, even if I don’t feel like it.

SuperBetter helps me identify things that I could do to feel better, see progress in my life, and in general direct my thinking more constructively.

I’ve also gotten better at asking my friends for help, and talking things out. While it’s true that I’m the only one who’s responsible for my happiness, I’ve learned that my friends want to help however they can. I know your friends want to help too, if you’ll let them. We can get past the taboo: true friends will let you talk it out and help you come up with your own strategies.

Continued next week

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