September is suicide prevention awareness month. I think one of the most effective ways to get the word out is to be open about my own experiences dealing with suicidal ideation (the term for thinking about suicide, sometimes even when you don’t want to). My experience is personal of course, but even so, I think there’s plenty of common things across people.
Here is the briefest summary:
- It started when I was young.
- It’s hard to talk about, but it’s good to talk about it anyway.
I’ll be talking frankly about my suicidal feelings, so exercise your judgment if you think that might not be something you should read right now. And if you’re experiencing a mental health crisis right now, there is help! Numbers to call and other resources in the link.
It started young
I started to think about suicide when I was 11. I can’t quite remember any particular reason for why it started at that exact time, but there are a lot of reasons that probably contributed, including a widespread family history of mental illness.
I would spend my nights restlessly considering why I felt so awful. Unfortunately, I concluded that feeling bad must mean that I am bad. I would feel better if I were a good enough person.
41.5% of people with mental illness get their first symptom by age 14; by age 25 it is 69.5% (source).
I also ended up thinking about suicide in terms of whether my life was worth living. Dying became an escapist fantasy: it wouldn’t hurt anymore. Especially that infuriating pain in my chest (psychogenic pain is an old term for it).
A couple years ago, a psychologist asked me what protected me; why did I choose to live? I wish I had a beautiful answer, but I think maybe it was spite. I eventually felt that something was actively trying to kill me: god, demons, some broken, shitty part of myself. Well fuck them; I’m not letting them win! Probably not the healthiest way to cope, but it kept me going. As long as I was alive, I had the opportunity to learn better ways.
Talking about suicide is hard, but necessary
So why was it so hard to tell anyone? As a teen, I saw my own problems as “crazy people” problems. Everyone talked about people with mental illnesses like they were a burden. So I kept it to myself until I couldn’t hide it anymore. I started self-injuring, but I also felt like I was crossing a line: it’s okay if I can keep all my hurt inside, but now I was putting it outside, and that’s bad.
Many people living with mental health conditions don’t feel comfortable talking to their friends and family about what they’re dealing with… Even worse, individuals living with mental illness often internalize the stigma that exists in our culture, damaging hopes for recovery. Some don’t seek treatment from a mental health professional.National Alliance on Mental Illness, Stigma Free Me Campaign: https://nami.org/Get-Involved/Pledge-to-Be-StigmaFree/StigmaFree-Me
But there was finally hope, too. For the first time, I considered asking for help. I can’t say I felt good about doing it at the time. It felt like giving up, like admitting a shameful weakness. Those bad feelings about seeking help are what we mean by the stigma of mental illness. Stigma makes it hard to talk about, but we need to.
There’s a misconception that talking about suicidal thoughts and feelings might encourage someone to follow through with it; that the best response is to shut down the conversation (“don’t think like that”). But in my own experience, I was only able to ask for help from an adult when I was 15 because of the support of a friend.
Talking isn’t a cure, but when someone listens to me and they don’t treat me like I’m someone they need to avoid, life seems more bearable. Besides any new treatments, I’m probably always going to deal with suicidal feelings. I have almost 2 decades so far. When I try to think of “the future,” I mostly just feel blank. But if there are people who will be with me and accept that I have these feelings, I can believe maybe there is a future I can part of. My feelings aren’t my destiny.