National Suicide Prevention Week: My Experience

Content warning: suicide and suicidal ideation

I have debated for many months about whether to write about this aspect of my mental health. Suicide is such a sensitive topic and requires so much nuance for us to be able to talk about it responsibly, in a way that helps rather than hurts others. That being said, I do not think that we talk about it nearly enough. So, in observance of National Suicide Prevention Week, I am writing about my experience. 

The first time that I understood suicide as a concrete rather than theoretical phenomenon was when I was sixteen. My physics lab partner disappeared from class for a few days. On the third day, a guidance counselor stood in front of the chalkboard and explained to us that he took his own life. I didn't know him well, but we'd gone to the same schools since we were small children. He was a year older than me. He barely ever said anything, despite my attempts to make him smile by cracking bad jokes involving physics puns. We weren't friends. But he was someone who I saw every day, someone I knew as a living, breathing part of my life, and then he wasn't. The realization took my breath away. I burst into tears in the middle of class, which earned me an immediate visit with the guidance counselor. I don't remember what either of us said. I was in shock. I talked to my parents about it at the dinner table that night. I talked to my friends about it at school the next day. Then, eventually, painfully, life went on. I thought about him every time I saw his empty desk. I still think about him sometimes. I think that's important. He is on my mind as I write this.

Not many people know that I was suicidal at one point in my life. I don't talk about it much. I'm already so open about my mental health, and suicide is an even more taboo issue than the others that I write about, such as anxiety and depression. To write about my mental illness without discussing suicide, however, would be a lie of omission. My experience of anxiety and depression has included suicidal ideation, though this was not always the case and is not the case now. My suicidal period, however, occurred more recently than many people might think. I was twenty-three, and it was the spring of 2015. I had moved to DC the summer before, and I had started taking an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) for my mental illness. After a couple years of relatively good mental health, I was back in therapy and seeing a psychiatrist. I was also miserable. I hated my work. After a round of layoffs in December 2014, in which I was laid off and then asked to compete against one of my best friends for my own job, the environment became unbearably toxic. I was questioning the boundaries of my sexuality. I was far away from my support system, and I didn't have one yet in DC. I spent my evenings filling out job applications and my sleepless nights fighting anxiety with episode after episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I didn't love my therapist, but I do credit her with helping me keep myself alive.

The thoughts arrived slowly. I was exhausted all the time from stress, depression, and sleep deprivation. I started thinking that it would be nice to take a break. I imagined leaving my body, flying high over the city, and watching from above as the person who was not me moved through my life. On evening runs, I would see headlights and idly wonder what would happen if I ran towards them. The thoughts were almost reflexive. I remember telling my therapist that I didn't want to die; I just didn't want to exist anymore. I explained myself, unsurprisingly, using a writing metaphor: I wanted to create the story, not live it as the main character. Someone else could do that. I wasn't suicidal, I thought, merely tired. I didn't understand that you don't need to have a plan in order to be suicidal. Passive suicidal ideation, or a passive desire to die, is distinct from actively creating a specific plan with the intent to die. Both passive and active suicidal ideation, however, place individuals at a high risk of suicide. According to a study of treatment-seeking veterans, "individuals with passive suicidal ideation scored similarly to active ideators and significantly higher than nonsuicidal ideators on measures of depression, suicidal behavior, and hopelessness." In other words, passive suicidal ideation is dangerous, and indicative of significant risk of suicidal behavior. My doctors knew this, of course, but I didn't. They checked in at every appointment to make sure I was safe. I always was, in the sense that I was never in any immediate danger. I wasn't close to dying, though I wasn't living either. It was a time of profound numbness.

The thoughts went away even more slowly than they arrived. I kept taking my medication, kept going to therapy, kept checking my pulse to make sure my heart was still beating. My senses and emotions were dulled to the point of nonexistence. There was one morning when I stayed in the mailroom of my apartment building for an hour because I couldn't bring myself to walk out the front door and go to work. Eventually, I put one foot in front of the other. That is how I got better. I slept a little more. I ate when I could. Every day, I repeated to myself Buffy's classic line, "The hardest thing in this world is to live in it." I pretended to live in it, and, little by little, it became true. I landed a new job at an extraordinary organization, the one where I work now, and gave my then-employer a blisteringly honest exit interview. I took a week off before my start date and my mother flew out from California to be with me. We went to the beach. I let the sharp rocks prick my feet and shivered. We went to the boardwalk and paid too much money to go on the haunted house ride. We ate a giant cone of French fries for lunch. As the numbness went away and the feeling crept back into my bones, I cried with relief.

During that same week, one of my best friends moved to the District, and we went to see the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin during the middle of the day. I broke probably several different laws by climbing one of the trees. Tourists snapped photos of me and an older woman complained loudly to her companions. My friend, gentle soul that she is, tolerated my antics. The story is now well-known among my social circle, and they chalk it up to my silliness or rebellious streak. I know better. I was alive for the first time in months, and I would do anything to feel again. I looked out over the water and I did not want to leave my body. I wanted to stay, and I have stayed ever since. I look back on photos from that day and I see the circles under my eyes, the too-sharp angles of my cheekbones, the shadows under my skin. But I'm smiling, and I stayed. 

My view from the cherry blossom tree.

My view from the cherry blossom tree.

If you are struggling, please reach out - to me, to any of the resources below, or to someone in your life. Know that we are here and we want to help you stay, if that is what you want.