Trigger warning for extremely frank discussion of suicide.
There’s this bizarre sort of cultural narrative we seem to have surrounding the topic of suicide. It can be such a taboo subject, spoken about in whispers and metaphors. It can elicit anger from those it leaves behind, branding the person who died from it a selfish immoral soul. It can make people look at those closest to the departed, judging whether or not there could have been something to be done to stop it from happening.
I have a lot of mixed feelings about this topic. And for good reason.
I have been suicidal for as long as I can remember.
Some of my earliest memories are the constant desperation I had to cease to exist. I was a child. I had no words for the despair, the great sadness, the seething rage. I had constant nightmares of large, looming hands reaching for me, and my only escape was a sea of darkness. My first actual suicide attempt, if memory serves correctly, was around the age of 6. I somehow connected the metaphorical sea of darkness to my actual escape: taking a bath. Bath time was where I could wash away the memories, wash away the stains of evil burned into my body against my will, scrub myself clean and watch all my secrets swirl down the drain, never to be spoken or remembered again (or so I thought). I had always wondered what would happen if I just slipped under the water and never came back up. So I decided to give it a try.
How can I even describe such a feeling? How can I possibly convey to you the depth of this sea of darkness in which I’ve been barely treading water for all of my remembered existence? I am swept out to sea, working so hard to stay afloat, while people on the shore shout platitudes and reassurances. Some even throw life preservers, but none of them reach. I can’t reach them.
My psychologist tells me I have PTSD.
He says it stems from my childhood sexual abuse and my assault in college. That trauma helped create the two different kinds of depression I have, have probably always had: persistent depressive disorder, which means I am always in the sea of darkness, and another depressive disorder that I can’t remember. But I know that this disorder means sometimes I just can’t keep swimming. Sometimes I just want to die.
When I was suicidal as a teen, I was constantly told that it was a phase. That I wanted attention. That I was selfish. Bible verses were quoted at me, quoted by me, to try to build a life preserver. Instead, they became weights. As I became an older teen and a young adult, I talked about my depression as if they were right, as if it had been a phase, while I privately begged God to kill me, to take me home.
Now, as a 28-year-old, on my way to and from work every day, there is a set of train tracks I drive over. Particularly on the drive home, the crossing has no safety rail, no siren. How can I explain to you the adrenaline that rushes through my body every time I drive over those tracks? The mix of fear and desperate hope for release? How can I explain to you that this is no phase, that this is my way of life?
I do have an arsenal of tools at my disposal.*
Distractions help sometimes. Things like video games, or makeup, or art. They keep me afloat, help me forget how deep this sea really is, keep me mindlessly entertained and briefly unaware of the ferocity of the waves. Even things like games on my smart phone, YouTube videos, marathons of short comedy shows…just…anything to bring me closer to shore, anything to give me even the slightest foothold so I don’t have to fight so hard.
People do help. Knowing I am loved by my family, my partner, my friends. Their love helps keep me afloat. But sometimes, through no fault of theirs or mine, the darkness is just too deep. No amount of love or support can give me the energy I need to fight the waves. During those times, I make mental lists of all the financial burdens I’d be leaving people with. I can find reasons to live for others, but almost never reasons to live for myself.
And yet people can certainly add to the burden, as well. My abusers. The kids who bullied me as a child. The mentors and peers who tried to help me govern my life, well-intentioned though they were, adding weights that they thought were rafts, killing me with kindness so that I don’t have the heart to blame them. The entire culture at large, both secular and religious, that places so many burdens on everyone through social stigmas and cultural expectations and mass judgment and pressure from all sides.
To my relief, the medications I’m taking seem to have provided a somewhat stable life raft, for now. I can breathe a little more freely, think a little more clearly, exist a little more peacefully. These are little victories, and I try to celebrate them best I can.
And yet I am afraid.
I’m afraid to talk about this, lest the old accusation rise up and tell me how deficient and selfish I am. I’m afraid of hurting those so invested in my life. And yet…I’m not really afraid of death. It seems like such a very old friend, one I long to embrace.
How many metaphors can I think of to explain this to you?
How can I assure you that your love and support are so valuable and needed — and yet just not always enough?
How can I offer love and support to others fighting this sea of darkness alongside me? How can I offer life rafts to others and be utterly unable to create one for myself?
How can I explain to you that sometimes the life rafts and buoys of distractions and friendship and medication and therapy can only work for so long?
How can I help others see those who die from suicide with empathy rather than judgment?
How can I explain to those on shore that sometimes the darkness is just too deep, through no one’s fault?
If you’re suicidal, please be gentle with yourself. Reach out — to friends, to doctors, to the National Suicide Hotline. Sometimes those of us out here in the sea really can support one another until the next life raft arrives.
If you’ve been impacted by someone’s suicide, please be gentle with yourself as well. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.
Please start fighting back against people who think suicide is a joke. Please fight against those who blame people for being unable to stop from drowning when the darkness got too deep. Please fight against the stigma that people who are suicidal need to be ignored or reprimanded.
Please love us. Please love one another.
Sometimes, the darkness is just too deep. But I know that I’ll never forget the people who care enough to really see my situation and help rather than blame.
Let us love and support one another, and let us destigmatize suicide. Let’s help each other stay afloat as long as we can.
This month is National Suicide Prevention Month. If you need help for yourself or for a loved one, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also call 1-800-273-8255. You are not selfish. You are not a waste. You are not a failure. And you are not alone.