Thriving Together Series: Suicide Prevention

A Personal Story: Anxiety, Depression, and Verbal Abuse Pushed Me to Choose Suicide. A Friend, Therapy, and Medication Saved Me.

Pam Shepherd suicide prevention Thriving Together

Pam Shepherd

By: Pam Shepherd, Communications Director, Office of the Provost

“Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’” – Maru Anne Radmacher

I remember the exact moment I decided to kill myself. But I also remember how I found the strength to continue living. As you read my story, let it motivate you to invest in your own well-being and have the courage to seek help whenever you need it.

After more than a decade of living in Washington, D.C. and working in politics, my mental health had deteriorated and spiraled into a dangerous and dark abyss. As I connected my already weak emotional state with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, my father and his twin’s cancer diagnoses, my parents’ divorce, and a faith crisis, I teetered on the brink of anxiety and depression for far too long. A move, a brief stint in therapy, and medication helped me maintain a path of stability for a few years – and then I got a new boss.

From the moment we met, I realized that working with Larry (not his real name) would be dangerous. I noticed that belittling others made him gleeful, and he seemed to derive joy from assigning people demeaning tasks. He would walk into our office whistling, say good morning to everyone, and then bellow at staff, criticizing their work so the entire building could hear. Making life even more difficult was Larry’s mammoth-sized ego, which required constant nurturing, often gained at the expense of others. I initially observed his behavior from the sidelines and watched him pick others apart, growing alarmed as people transformed into collateral damage. Then it was my turn.

From our one-on-one meetings, Larry knew I had professional goals and was quite capable of attaining them while also growing my job position. As a first-time President/CEO, Larry believed that breaking people down and re-shaping them in his image created loyalty. Being a cunning man, Larry was able to pick up on both my stubbornness and my insecurities and then weaponize them. He would say an article that quoted him wasn’t in a big enough outlet, so I’d push harder to get him in a top-tier publication. He required me to supervise contractors outside my department and constantly changed his mind for deliverables without telling me. He made fun of me during staff meetings and encouraged junior staff to insult me, just to provoke a fight. The occasions when I defended myself and my work and told Larry that I needed better leadership from him were met with scorn. I was reprimanded, and told I wasn’t allowed to speak that way to him and that I needed to apologize.

I knew it was personal when Larry started making inappropriate and somewhat impossible demands. He insisted I cover his bald spot in all photographs, commanded me to give him my car for a long drive to visit a board member, demanded an invitation to a White House Rose Garden announcement with our president, and insisted that the president of another country speak at one of our events. Then it got worse. In order to increase his profile, Larry told me it was part of my job to go on a date with a well-known lothario reporter. After weeks of harassment and then threats, I resentfully agreed. On the evening we went out, the reporter got drunk and attempted to assault me. I was furious when I reported this to Larry the next morning, forcibly telling him that I would never do him another “favor.” In his nonchalant way, Larry said I “chose” to go on the date and it was therefore my fault, because agreeing to go out with the reporter led him on. I was both baffled and mortified. After all I had gone through, I began to question my decisions and worth.

In this toxic work environment, I was constantly battling the insults thrown my way while being furious with myself for craving Larry’s approval and praise. I continually tried to demonstrate my value by earning him national press accolades, securing audiences with major government and industry leaders, and increasing attendance at events. But at every turn he undermined me and manipulated me to advance his agenda.

An overloaded work schedule also contributed to my stress. At that time, I was responsible for media relations, social media, photography, the website, editing, layout and design of research projects, the monthly newsletter, writing articles, fundraising and the annual banquet, meeting planning, mailings, publication sales, and interns. I was already overwhelmed when Larry started contracting me out to other organizations for consulting work. He then hired a man who was younger than me, had less experience and less education, and yet made significantly more money. I summoned the courage to ask for a raise. In the doorway of my office where my co-workers could hear, Larry replied that I “wasn’t worth it.”

Planning to Kill Myself

And that was it. Three years of relentless verbal and mental abuse had taken its toll. Despite the accolades I brought to my boss and organization, my fragile mental state didn’t just fizzle, it imploded. I felt like I really was worthless. That was the moment I decided to kill myself.

Suicide had crossed my mind many times over the years, but that was the night I made the decision to end my life because Larry’s message finally got through to me: I was worthless. I calmly got my affairs in order, creating a notebook for my family with account numbers, passwords, insurance information, bank details, retirement funds, and beneficiary names. I then contemplated exactly when and how to kill myself, and chose what I thought to be the most successful and least messy scenario.

Then I fell apart.

I cried so hard that my head buzzed and I could no longer open my eyes. I cried for my family and the experiences we wouldn’t have together. I cried for opportunities I would never have and memories I would never make. I cried because standing up for myself only made my already dire situation worse. I cried because I was alone and scared and didn’t want to tell anyone how I was feeling, because I didn’t want to be judged. I cried because I believed I was worthless.

Although I was distraught, I was still confident that suicide was the answer. I went to bed feeling as though no one would miss me and justified that when I was gone, life would be easier for everyone else.

Finding the Strength to Keep Going

At 6 the next morning, my phone rang and it was the former vice president of my organization – someone who knew all too well what I was going through – with one of her early morning check-in calls. I quickly found myself in tears, telling her that I was going to kill myself in a few days’ time because I couldn’t take it anymore. I will never forget her gentle demeanor while reinforcing that I was not worthless, which she followed up with a stern: “You need to get help TODAY.” She called me every day for the next week, until I was able to see a therapist, to reassure me that I was not alone and that suicide was not the answer.

For months, only my therapist and former colleague were aware of the depths of my self-loathing and the steps I was willing to take to stop my pain, anger, and resentment. While I improved my self-worth and finally learned to harness the power of maintaining self-control, I continued my battle with feelings of suicide until I was able to extract myself from that toxic work environment.

Strengthening Well-Being

I no longer feel worthless. In my well-being journey now, I recognize that I’m a strong person – and I’m constantly becoming even stronger. Now, I’m careful whose opinions I value. I surround myself with people who build me up, both personally and professionally. I pursue activities that make me happy and build my confidence. I have spent many hours in therapy, and I’m still taking medication to regulate my anxiety and depression. There are still days, weeks, and even months when I feel my mental health slipping, and when I struggle to return to a good state of mind. So, I have to remind myself – sometimes daily – that I am a strong woman.

My suicide journey taught me to grow my self-esteem and now I can see how valuable I really am. However, I never want to forget how I nearly killed myself because I owe it to myself and others as a testament to how we can all experience greater well-being.

Information presented in this article may be triggering to some people. If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by simply dialing 988 on your phone, for free, confidential support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911. You can also find help from Mason’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). Contact CAPS on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays or Fridays between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., or on Wednesdays between 12 noon and 4:30 p.m., at (703) 993-2380. For mental health crises after hours, call (703) 993-2380 and select option 1 to connect with a crisis counselor anytime. Find other suicide prevention or mental health resources on the CAPS After-Hours Crisis Support webpage.

Additional Resources

These American Foundation for Suicide Prevention resources can help you find more information on a diverse variety of well-being topics.

The Patriots Thriving Together website presents summaries and links for Mason’s many well-being resources, so you can quickly discover the most helpful resources for you.

These National Institute of Mental Health resources feature information on how to find help for yourself, as well as how to help someone else who is having suicidal thoughts.

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