Content Warning: suicide, self-harm, mental health
Part 1: Suicidality
I can’t even count the number of times I’ve felt suicidal. Not to sound flippant, but it used to seemed to happen at the drop of a hat. What people don’t understand is that it’s not always the product of extreme shame or despair. It’s not always the culmination of weeks, months, or years of pain. Sometimes, it takes one proverbial straw on the camel’s back to make all of life’s experiences seem pointless and empty.
Of course, mental illness is a major contributing factor. It is for me, for sure. Were I not restricted by depression in my ability to feel joy or contentment, the bad days might not seem so bad, and suicide might not enter my brain as a convenient escape hatch. Meanwhile, the Depression Monster is whispering to me that everyone hates me anyway.
That’s why it’s inappropriate and flat-out wrong to call those who commit suicide “selfish.” Often, they believe that (a) the world would be better off without them, or (b) that no one really cares.
I’ll admit that I’ve imagined looking down from the in-between upon my own funeral, wondering if an estranged friend might be there, wondering if my family and partner would even cry or if they’d breathe a sigh of relief for not having to deal with me anymore.
There’s also that pesky Anxiety Demon, muttering away like a conspiracy theorist about the end of the world and we’re all going to die anyway and you don’t belong in those world and oh why not just go kill yourself. The Anxiety Demon speaks like your classroom bully and that scary guy on the subway merged into an obnoxious doomsayer, wearing you down while talking smack about you.
Suicidality seems like an escape that’s both easy and difficult. As an abstract concept, it crosses the mind more than as actual plans. I never knew how to answer that question from mental health professionals who should know better: “Are you having any thoughts of suicide”?
Me: “Yes, all the time.”
Them: “You’re having thoughts of hurting yourself all the time?”
Me: “Oh no, just suicide. I have no plans at the moment, though.”
Them: *throws me in a locked room*
Suicidality is a common symptom of mental illness. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s rarely a grand scheme, it’s rarely an act of defiance of God or anything else. It’s not even, as common wisdom goes, a “cry for help.” It’s akin to the deadlier symptoms of a virus. When someone finally can’t resist it anymore, they succumb.
Part 2: The Loony Bin
Of my countless moments of “suicidal ideation” (the stupid term made up by professionals), only two have resulted in attempts. Both times, the relevant state law kicked in to deprive me of my rights. Make no mistake: the history of institutionalization of and general bigotry toward those with mental illness is still palpable.
I lay in a hospital bed suffering from serotonin syndrome, which is not something I’d wish on my worst enemy. It’s literally hell. You are exhausted but can’t sleep. You are hungry but can’t eat. You want to run and kick and scream but you can’t move. You hallucinate but you feel locked into the earth.
Meanwhile, a nurse watched me like a hawk as though I’d grab some of the cotton balls off the shelf and choke myself with them. An endless stream of MDs, PAs, NPs, LCSWs, and other acronyms marched into my room, seemingly when I’d finally found a moment of sleep, to ask me the same questions. I am fairly certain they coordinated this schedule and their questions to whip me into an alternate reality. It worked. I was so disoriented that by the time I was whisked to a psychiatric hospital 12 hours later, I had told such a strange combination of confessions and lies that I had to start rehearsing my story in preparation to get out.
I was fine, I really was. I’d succumbed briefly to the whispers from the glow at the end of life’s tunnel, sneaking through the dust of mental illness to call to me. But I’d crawled back during my ordeal in the hospital bed and just wanted to go home.
But the law said I had to be locked up for three days. Minimal access to the outside world, eating on a rigid schedule, no entertainment save for a sole TV for all patients, and no escape except for 5-minute supervised excursions into a tiny porch entirely enclosed in chain-link. Charming.
I was one of only two patients who’d attempted an early exit from life. The rest had substance abuse issues. While they too were subject to the 3-day rule, they had a loophole. With good behavior, they’d be dumped back out in the world in a day. I wondered how that made sense, to deprive them of the substance for only a day while suicide cases were made to leave their jobs and families for days with no chance of reprieve for good behavior. I heard from the others that if we didn’t eat, if we didn’t socialize, if we didn’t jump through every hoop, we’d be kept longer, perhaps indefinitely.
I had to get back. I was angry at my Depression Monster for putting me in this situation. Dismayed that I had a virus that apparently couldn’t be cured, and that a moment of weakness had ruined my life. To be held after being treated medically to prevent a re-attempt makes sense to someone who hasn’t experienced suicidality. For me, it seemed like an orchestrated effort to make it near impossible for me to get back. Would I have a job when I got out? A fiancé? A normal life?
Part 3: Tunnel Life
I’m doing much better now. I finally got on an antidepressant that worked, and these “natural treatment” hippies who shame me for it can go to hell. It’s actually saved my life after two decades of struggle. I haven’t had “suicidal ideation” since it took effect.
For the recent cases of high-profile suicide, I’ve bid them a tearful farewell, knowing what they went through. And yet I see the same memes and misinformation about suicide. About it being selfish. About it being weakness. About it being a function of someone being “sad.” About it being preventable if one only reach out. All of those reductive statements are wrong. Suicidality is complicated and messy. Those who complete it deserve our compassion and sorrow as does anyone who succumbs to a deadly virus.
Unfortunately, your being there for someone might not be enough, especially if it seems inauthentic. And to someone with depression, it may seem that way. To stop suicide, the best thing for all of us to do is cultivate a culture of compassion and empowerment. Grow an authentic support network with your friends, family, and colleagues. If you believe a loved one is struggling, approach them with compassion, not panic. Overall — Be excellent to each other.
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If you or a loved one are in trouble, always call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Phone Number (1–800–273–8255) or text HOME to 741741 (https://www.crisistextline.org/). If you encounter someone in a suicidal state, encourage them to engage the hotlines first. Please avoid engaging police or calling an ambulance unless there is a pressing medical reason to do so, e.g. the person has already attempted self-harm or is threatening to harm another— from the moment you engage police or EMTs, an unstoppable series of events is launched from that point that can exacerbate the situation.