Suicide Prevention Awareness Month: Sharing a Personal Story

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:

  1. It started when I was young.
  2. 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

WorldwideMeta-analytic distribution of age of onset for any mental disorders.” Many mental illnesses start young. source: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41380-021-01161-7

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

source: https://nami.org/Get-Involved/Pledge-to-Be-StigmaFree/StigmaFree-Me

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.

When feelings don’t work

Perhaps these days there’s somewhat better awareness about mental illness and mental health in general. But there’s still plenty of misconceptions and misunderstanding. I’m not an expert, but I have worked in mental health awareness, and I have a mental illness. Specifically, I’ve been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, but I’d like to talk broadly about mood disorders and what it means to have “disordered” moods or emotions.

Imagine working at a nuclear power plant. Not only do people depend on this plant for pretty much everything involved in modern life, if something goes wrong, it can go very wrong. It is life or death.

The alarms blare. The indicators show the nuclear core is heating up. The core can quickly escalate to meltdown, which would be a disaster. Luckily, there’s a protocol for this. You can follow the protocol and do what you were trained to do. There’s always one thing to keep in mind as you go through the steps: the nuclear core could be heating dangerously, but it’s also possible that the warning indicators are just malfunctioning. Both are problems, but they’re different.

This is an analogy for what my emotions can be like. A real nuclear power plant has protocols that cover both possibilities and ensures maximum safety. But as a person, I wasn’t really taught how to think of my feelings as being “faulty.” Of course, that assumes there is a “correct” kind of feeling. So let’s unpack that, at least a little.

What’s the purpose of feeling angry? Sad? Anxious? Why do we even have feelings? In a functionalist perspective, emotions evolved. This means there was a survival/reproductive benefit to having these responses. The theory suggests that negative emotions focus our attention toward solving critical survival challenges. Fear makes us pay attention to and react to threats quickly (fight or run). Anger can motivate us to be assertive and seek to fulfill a goal. Because we are a social species, a lot of our feelings have to do with social situations and how we relate to others.

But what happens when these “alarms” start when there is nothing to be afraid of or angry with or sad about? No matter the cause (or lack of cause), an emotion is immediate and real because we experience it: if I am sad about nothing, I still feel sad. That sadness affects what I see, what I notice, how I think, and what I want to do even if I know it doesn’t make sense.

In short, thinking of my emotions as faulty indicators is one way I understand myself. Sometimes they’re fine, just like anyone’s typical experience. But sometimes, they’re not about anything, and I know they don’t make sense. It’s a double loss for me: I feel bad AND I feel frustrated for feeling bad. Even when you know an alarm is broken, you can still hear it, right? I know things are going well, but I don’t feel well.

For me, that’s the final tension: balancing what I know against what I feel, and checking if what I feel is “reasonable.” Most of the time, I’ve got it handled. Sometimes, I’m confused and want to throw my hands up in frustration. I use my mind to monitor my feelings, but my mind is the thing that has a problem, so how do I know for sure if I’m doing it right? It’s impossible. And yet life goes on. I manage most days. Many days, I don’t even have to think about it. I’m actually really lucky, if you ask me. I made it this far, after all.