If you’re reading this on your phone, I suggest turning it on its side and reading it that way because it looks better and is much more palatable.
I know I already posted the interview today but I saw this article and had to link to it because I have been seeing a lot of people echo this in regards to their personal experiences and I think we don’t discuss it enough as a society. It seems as if we always have enough energy and time to make simplistic statements about how suicide is a “permanent solution to a temporary problem” and those struggling with suicidal ideation simply need to “get help” as if there is some infallible checklist and, if they just complete it, they won’t commit suicide.
I think about suicide, a lot, and I think the reason people are eager to write it off with a simple fix-all suggestion but don’t have the same attention and interest in taking an honest look at the state of mental health in our society, is the same thing I have realized in a dragged-out, exhaustive few years of trying to help myself and get help for suicidal ideation: suicide is such a complicated thing and trying to understand it requires going down the rabbit hole. There you find yourself caught in an overwhelming, chaotic Wonderland that unsews the fabric of your mind and resews it asymmetrically.
While I do enjoy the concept of Wonderland, I can appreciate why people prefer the simple reasoning of “if a person feels suicidal, then he just has to do this and he won’t be suicidal anymore” to a world that turns all of that reasoning upside down and inside out to the point you can’t form any definitive opinions on it–because there are no set logical rules that govern suicidal ideation. You have to be really comfortable with ambiguity and willing to accept the dissatisfaction of not being able to write out a solution and file it away as a job well done–or you just have to experience suicidal thoughts and what it is like to try to do anything about them.
This article is important and I think you should read it so I won’t go further than my personal experience because I could ramble and turn this over in my mind a hundred times today, which I probably will. But what I will say is that my experience corroborates the questions and argument Sarah Schuster is making. All aspects of my life–in terms of getting an advanced education, being an athlete all through college, exercising, taking medication regularly–fit the description of things people say you can do to ward off mental illness. I did them and enjoyed it–and they didn’t work. They don’t magically ward off depression like some silver bullet because suicide is so much bigger than what my extracurriculars were in high school and college, what is on my resume now, or what I do on the weekends. We sell these easier narrative that mental illness is the fault of the individual–they aren’t self-disciplined enough, they are snowflakes, dramatic, all of things that give society a pass from seeing this really pervasive and severe thing that drastically affects people’s lives. But time and time again we see depression doesn’t discriminate and you can try to avoid it, and some people succeed, but you choose it no more than you’d choose to be born into a violent home. It’s just there and it’s all you’ve ever seen and it gets a bracingly strong grip on you before you get the chance to choose.
I have an extensive history of trauma. I started showing mental health symptoms in college when it just felt like my legs were cut out from under me. Suddenly the way I had metaphorically walked in my life had to be entirely different. The way I experienced the world and my vantage point was entirely different. And the problem was, like most people who experience mental illness, I didn’t have any background in that and had no idea how to fix myself. I kept trying to will myself to be able to do everything like I always had, to be this well-rounded and just very capable and whole person, all while being certain I had never actually been that person. So I would promise people things and take on responsibilities I believed I could manage–because I had been able to do it my entire life and because I so passionately wanted to. And I still haven’t found an answer to that.
I have a really, really strong passion for life and certain things. When I get glimpses of my actual self between episodes of mental illness, I burn with and emit heat, passion, and enthusiasm for the things that are important to me. But it doesn’t matter how much you love the water and how much experience you have boating or how much you want to embrace the blessing of wind and sail–if there is a substantial hole in your schooner, you’re not going to get very far. Depression is my hole. It is the hole in which I hide and this spiritual, mental, and emotional puncture from which all of the effort, energy, will, belief, and passion I want to channel towards things sometimes leaks and other times pours. And I have tried a lot of ways to fix that hole. And sometimes, if I am lucky, I can repair it just long enough to believe the sinking is behind me and to get a taste of what it feels like to sail on a gorgeous, windy day. But my mental illness is acid; give it time and it will erode or eat or find some way to destroy any repair.
So in spite of the fact that I was about to complete my second master’s degree and third degree in the eight years since I had graduated high school, one day when I was on my way to my graduate assistantship, I needed to abruptly find somewhere to pull over on a side street like you do when somebody is about to vomit in your car. I put my head against the steering wheel and felt as if somebody kicked me in the gut and was squeezing my heart so hard I thought I’d burst, ear drums and all. All along, the part of me that doesn’t fit the stereotype of depression was sitting on my shoulder telling me to calm down (because of course it would be so easy from her worldview). I tried to make reason outweigh the physical sensations telling me I was standing in a pit as all of the pillars I had tried to build in my life crashed deafeningly down into a heap of ruin.
I tried to call my ex and he was at work so he didn’t answer. So I called my mom who was with my cousin, five hours away in my hometown. They were having lunch and she answered the phone with a laugh in her voice and said, “hey baby!” which is what she calls me when she’s feeling good because I’m the second and youngest child. Because I feel so much pressure to carry out this facade that I don’t need anything and have it together in a family where it has been common for my brother and cousins to drop out of high school, I wasn’t and still do not tell my family how much I struggle because I don’t want to burden them or wallow in the privilege I have accrued since I went to college, making my problems seem laughable and weak in comparison to their own.
Needless to say, she was not expecting that call. I put my head against the cracked steering wheel of my car and I sobbed and hyperventilated, not being able to determine what my next step should be so I could get back to work and be functional like everybody else. It felt as if there was some bacteria rapidly eating away at my brain. If you asked me to tell you where the epicenter of that bacteria is, I could without hesitation point to the part of my head where I swear I can physically feel it at times. Somehow–and I can’t remember how–I managed to call the campus psychiatrist I had been seeing for months and make an emergency appointment. Surprised to see me in that raw of a state, he told me I needed to skip my evening class, in spite of the fact that I had a group presentation, and go to the emergency room immediately. I agreed to go but said I didn’t want to abandon my group so first I was able to give them my materials for the presentation’s activity and what they needed to be able to do the presentation without me, all with a suffocating heap of regret, guilt, and shame.
Then I went to the hospital where I sat from 5pm to 4am and was seen by a doctor who, clearly, had to stop more immediate problems like actual bleeding, and emptily asked if I had a plan and all of your basic suicide checklist questions. Then a social worker who was equally professional and distant came in and talked to me about how I was doing, if I had calmed down, what was upsetting me and my plans for going home, getting a good night’s rest, accepting where I was and beginning to rebuild from there. By this time, ashamed and feeling as if I should, I gave them the lighter versions of where I was emotionally. I had tried to convey how seriously and painfully this situation was hitting me but when their concern did not seem to match the intensity of my belief that I was better off dead and just needed to actualize the inevitable, I resigned and toned it down to say what I knew needed to be said so they could feel as if they had done everything needed to avoid liability. Two women from this volunteer crisis organization came in and talked to me. They were much more genuine and made me sign a plan that they would call me at the same time every day and if I didn’t answer, they or the social worker would call the police and send them to my apartment for a wellness check. It felt as if I had broken curfew and was grounded and couldn’t be trusted; which, given the potential danger they thought I could pose on myself, was fair. But it also made me feel as worthless and an inappropriate burden as I thought. They gave me materials to think about a daily outpatient 8-5 therapy program to properly address my illness and said we could talk about it the following day.
Nobody ever called me. Ever. Thankfully I lived with my ex who was finishing up his training to be a clinical and mental health counselor. He called the hospital and the numbers we had been provided and they were all dead ends. I just slept for a few days until I could trust my hands to not give in to these strong desires and then, like a coward, I slunk back into my work and my life. I’ve been in the neighborhood of that severe a moment point a few times since. I’ve called and chatted and communicated with the emergency services numbers. A few times they talked to me long enough that I was so distracted by the conversation I relaxed and could sleep off the heightened anxiety. There have been other times I waited so long I gave up and did something like emotionally drag myself out of the house for a walk to avoid what I thought was inevitable if I was alone. Other times I walked away from reaching out feeling just as misunderstood and dismissed as I felt that day at the hospital. (It varies and although it should certainly receive more support in order to do its job, it is a wonderful resource and I encourage you to use it if you need to do so; I might not be here without it. I don’t know).
What I will say is a card or a handout or a phone number, as much as we want to feel comforted by the delusion that is all we need to fix suicidal people, is only part of the answer for most of us and it is so much more daunting than you could know if you haven’t been there (and I mean there as in more than the what-if questions we ask about our lives and worth and suicide at some point in our lives). It’s hard and the hardest part about it, is I feel as if I live in a world that thinks I am weird and broken and of less value because I am this way and as if I am stuck on my pain and not willing or able to move past it like others. In my opinion, that is why people kill themselves. It is because they are trapped on the top floor of a burning building but people walk by on their lunch hour without feeling the oppressive heat from it because, in their world which is supposed to be the grounded world, there is no fire. And when you are trapped in a burning building that is rapidly chasing you to the top and there are no fire crews or emergency services coming to get out, and everybody thinks a pail of water will do for your imaginary spark, you sit there and try to decide between the agony of burning alive or taking your chances and escaping it, even if that means you probably won’t survive.
I clearly had more on my mind than I thought today and it just kind of poured out of me as I tried to write what I anticipated would be a two paragraph plug for this article and its finer points. If you feel this way and to you the world is burning, know that I believe you and I acknowledge how scary and blisteringly, scorchingly painful this moment is for you. And I hope you find a way to delay your fire long enough to put it out. If you need to spit out your own suicidal thoughts manifesto like I just did, I’ll read it if you need to say it to somebody.
A Mighty feature by Sarah Schuster.
Again, if you need help: if you just type suicide in google, the first hit should be your country’s suicide hotline (which is of course incredibly sensible). If you’re in the United States, you can start here.