By James F. Vaughan III
My name is Jim Vaughan, and I am alive. I am alive despite illness, accident and injury. I have run into burning buildings, and still I live. I have faced down angry mobs, and still, I am here. The gunfights in the ghetto I was witness to as a street paramedic were not enough. Despite all the risks I threw myself into in the service of others, I remain alive, now a 61-year-old graduate student in nursing.
Of all the things I have survived, the deadliest foe I would overcome to sit writing on this quiet, sunny day was no fire, no angry man with a gun, no critical illness. It was me. I have survived me.
I was born different. I feel things on a level I can not describe. I am bipolar. My disease first manifested itself in my adolescence but remained undiagnosed until my 30s, from which time I have well come to know all the shame and stigma attached to mental illness in this country. So, I have had to hold my agony largely to myself, for the repercussions of revealing my disease are many. I have been literally hounded out of positions as a registered nurse when my dreadful secret came to light.
My mood disorder is, for me, characterized by frequent episodes of crippling depression, punctuated by the very occasional manic episodes. I rarely become manic, but when I do, the results to my life are devastating. Depression I have lived with like a well-worn pair of shoes. I have learned how to function despite the blackness that so often enshrouds me.
I have chosen to write about my experiences surrounding mental health and suicide because I feel it is now time to share a few things, not for the merely curious but for all of those who need to know — there is a tomorrow. There is hope. If the word hope is perhaps acutely painful to hear right now, I am sorry.
My plan was always to overdose. I have too many times witnessed violent death, and I will not bring that sorrow on others as I make my exit. I have had the means and opportunity, coupled with a fierce craving to die. I well remember performing my duties as an emergency room nurse with the thought intruding again and again, “I want to die.” But something always stayed my hand. Something kept me alive.
Each time what has saved me is a sense of righteous indignation with the very state of the world. At the end, it always dawned on me that I was not alone in my pain. I have felt your despair in my own, and it has made me angry. Yes, I often still wanted to die but not by my own hand. Rather, I made a decision to die fighting, and I stand by that decision to this day.
I fight the darkness that surrounds me in a dark world by bringing light wherever I can. So many days all I can do is be kind to those around me, but on my best days I have made a difference. I have discovered that in helping others, however and wherever I can, that I have brought into my own life light, and with it, hope.
My life is different now because at those critical points I made the decision to live, often in the absence of hope. In my experience, the very re-awakening of hope in a broken heart is a painful one. But a strange thing will happen to you on the other side. One day you will find you do have hope again. You will find the light again after your long dark night of the soul. But you must fight for your own life — not for yourself, but because we need you. The world needs all of those gentle spirits who bear the burden of so much of the world’s pain. I need you. If you but hold on, you will reap a life richer and more joyful than the one you think is gone forever.
Today I am a graduate student at the University of Washington, and I have hope for my future. Some days are hard, sometimes I struggle, but still, I am okay. When the darkness encroaches — and it still does — I swing into battle. My shield and sword against my implacable foe are my care team and my medications. Together with a resolve born in pain and desperation I fight on. My last episode of depression lasted six weeks, not six months to two years. That was a miracle for me. I stopped my own descent into the black, so I know it can be done.
That is my story, and that is the rope I would throw you, but you must get pissed off and climb it. You simply must know that somewhere in the universe somebody must be held to account for our pain. You must stand and fight your own demons. There is simply no other way.
Your first act of defiance is to ask for help, the very thing you dread. The next step is to cry for someone else in this hard world, and then to reach out your hand and help in your own special way, with all the hidden gifts from God that you possess. At first it’s going to hurt. A lot. But you know pain, and you will endure. Then, I promise, things will get better. You can do this. We can do this. We are together, we are not alone.
James Vaughan III is a registered nurse, former paramedic and veteran of the U.S. Navy. In 2018, he became disabled due to his bipolar condition. With a goal to re-able himself as a teacher and nurse leader, he enrolled in the Master of Nursing program at UW Bothell’s School of Nursing & Health Studies. Jim recently got a job in his field ahead of his June 2023 graduation: This month he will join Shoreline Community College as nurse faculty.
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. If you are thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, call or text 988. The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States.