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Sep 10 2013

[repost] At The Edge Of The Known World: What It’s Like To Consider Suicide

[Content note: depression and suicide]

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. I wrote this post for it a year ago, and I decided to repost it today because I still think people should read it and I doubt I could write another one that’s better.

Somebody, somewhere in the world, kills themselves every 40 seconds.

Set a timer on your phone or watch for 40 seconds. When it beeps, another precious, beloved life is gone.

Yesterday, September 10, was World Suicide Prevention Day. Although suicide prevention entails important things like improving mental health screening and treatment, increasing access to mental health services, and decreasing the stigma of admitting and treating mental health problems, I think there’s another part that we usually miss when we talk about prevention. And that part is understanding what being suicidal is really like.

Those who kill themselves (or wish to do so) are not selfish.

They are not weak.

They are not simply having a bad day.

All of these tropes about suicide, and many others, are wrong.

I can only speak for myself, not for any of the other millions of people who have struggled with this most ultimate of dilemmas. But for me, at least, here’s how it was.

 

I don’t think I ever wanted to be dead.

I have, however, wanted not to be alive.

Why? Because living sucked, because I hated myself, because everyone else must surely hate me too, because I was a burden, because I was going to be alone forever, because I was like an alien that was accidentally born on the wrong planet, to the wrong species, in the wrong society. Killing myself would be like correcting a cosmic error.

There were many ways I dreamed about it happening. Pills of some sort would’ve been my first choice, although I was absolutely terrified of what would happen to my body if they failed to kill me. (Go figure, I was terrified not of dying, but of failing to die.)

But I wanted to be able to take the pills and lie down somewhere and just curl up until I stopped feeling forever.

Sometimes I also thought about bleeding to death by slashing my wrists or something. But I despise pain above all else, and also, poetic as it would be, the thought of someone I love finding me that way made my guts churn. Also, could I actually do it? Could I actually take a knife and slice open my own skin?

I doubted it.

Jumping off of a building occurred to me a lot, especially at the very beginning of my love affair with suicidal ideation. That was back when I was studying journalism, panicking constantly, and feeling just about ready to do anything to escape. Was the journalism building high enough? If not, what would be?

And then there were the trains. Living in Chicago, you take them a lot. Every time I stood on the El or Metra platform as a train rolled in, I thought about it. Not seriously, as I’d made no plans and written no note, but the thought did occur. The rails screeched, and gust swept into my coat and rattled my bones. How I hated standing on the platform, forced to imagine my own death graphically every time a train rolled in.

Recently, when I was already better, I was waiting on the platform for the Metra. A train was coming. It turned out to be an express train that barreled through the station without stopping. The blur, the clamor, the sudden slap of wind–I was left shaken for several minutes after it passed, imagining what that could’ve done to my body.

Strangely, I never even considered guns, although that is what a character in my abandoned novel chose to use.

I composed many different suicide notes in my mind. Some were lengthy and elaborate, with separate sections for each person I wanted to reckon with before I died. I used to keep secrets and grudges for years, and I wanted everyone to know the truth in the end. (These days, I try to make sure that if I suddenly die today, little will have been left unsaid.)

Other notes were simple. They contained nothing more than a quote or a song lyric. Often they included an apology to my family. I thought about writing it in Russian, not English, as though that would make it any better for them.

I also thought about not leaving a note, but something about that made me very sad. What if they never knew? But might that not be better?

And I could not stop listening to that OK Go song, “Return“:

You were supposed to grow old.

You were supposed to grow old.  

Reckless, unfrightened, and old,

You were supposed to grow old.

I never made a firm plan to kill myself, I never attempted to kill myself, and, obviously, I never did kill myself. The only reason, I think, was because I cared more about my family’s wants and needs than I did about my own. As much as I thought I needed to stop living, they needed me to continue living, and so I did.

Is this “normal”? Do others talk themselves out of suicide this way? I have no idea. This isn’t really something I talk about over beers with friends.

I was lucky, when it comes down to it. Lucky to have a family I love so fiercely that that love overpowered my hatred for life.

Death and I, we have an awkward but strangely comfortable relationship now. If I don’t bother with her, she doesn’t bother with me. I don’t fear death itself very much, although the idea of just not existing terrifies and baffles me, just like the idea of time travel or parallel universes or the butterfly effect.

Sometimes I feel as though I’ve traveled to the edge of the known world, teetered on that edge, and then shrugged my shoulders and returned. I can’t really tell you exactly what I saw there, but I will say that there is a thick glass wall now between me and those who haven’t made that journey.

I say to a dear friend as I write this, “I’m thoroughly desensitized to the thought of myself dying.”

“I’m not,” she says. “You should stay here and grow crotchety and gray. Perhaps even collect spiderwebs.”

“I love you,” I say.

“I love you, too.”

For better or worse, I will live with what I saw at the edge of the known world until I die what I hope will be a natural death.

11 comments

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  1. 1
    Jen K

    I saw this quote by David Foster Wallace recently and it really spoke to me:

    “The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

    Thanks for this post, Miri. It’s a hard topic to tackle and a hard thing to admit you feel. I’ve danced with this demon on and off many times and I can’t say what brings me back each time. Hopefully the flames will never get any closer than they have.

    1. 1.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Wow, that quote is basically exactly what I’m trying to say. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. 2
    Sam N

    I understand the way you speak of it. More-so than that David Foster Wallace quote, so I hope it wasn’t ‘exactly’ what you were trying to stay.

    I’ve been there. I no longer actively dream of suicide, but I still often feel apathetic about being alive. And the process of dying remains rather frightening. I used to test myself, see if I could even give my arm a cut–never could, so I figured I wasn’t capable of a more drastic measure. But sometimes it sure felt like maybe I could. In a lot of ways I’ve moved on with my life, but not as far or as much as I’d like.

  3. 3
    keelychaisson

    I have also stuck around largely because I don’t want to hurt other people. And not just the people who love me, though they are the biggest factor. The person or people who would find my body, even if they were a complete stranger. Any medical personnel that would treat me, if I didn’t manage to finish the job. The people who would read two lines about it accidentally in the news or on their facebook feed, and feel punched in the gut, or worse, inspired to follow my example.

    For better or for worse, I’ve never considered ending my pain worth creating unnecessary pain for other people.

  4. 4
    RobinF

    I’ve dealt with severe depression that made me actively suicidal, to the point where I was occasionally held against my will in a mental institution until the worst of the wave passed. It’s been a long time now since I was last severely depressed; we found my wonder medication and it’s worked for almost thirteen years now. But I well remember what it was like.

    Part of the problem for me was that my self-hatred was so intense, I felt that my family would be better off without me. I was a drain on their energy, an unlovable and horrible waste of oxygen. *Continuing* to live was selfishly placing my existence above what they deserved (which was to be free of me). So I lacked the built-in safety guard that you had (knowing you needed to live for them); in my case, not killing myself was just one more thing to feel guilty about. If I REALLY loved them, I’d do the right thing and kill myself. What kind of a selfish bitch am I, forcing them to endure me?

    Depression is so, so awful. Unless someone has experienced it, I don’t know if they can really understand just how profoundly it warps your perceptions and self-worth. It can make you believe killing yourself is a loving and necessary act. It can make you believe that not only should you hate yourself, everyone else secretly hates you as well (or they would hate you if they knew the REAL you). It can make you believe that things will never get better and you will be suffering forever.

    To anyone reading this who is struggling with depression: I dealt with severe depression, panic disorder, and symptoms of PTSD for a decade. I self-injured (burning myself or cutting myself) nearly every day for more than five years. I hated myself to the point where my suicide plan was to disembowel myself, because I believed I deserved that kind of suffering. It took several years of trying one psychiatric drug after the next, dealing with withdrawal and side effects for more than a dozen different drugs, before we finally found the drug that worked for me.

    And here I am, thirteen years later. I haven’t burned or cut myself in thirteen years. I’ve gotten married and had a family, attended school, and had successes in my life. I’m generally happy and I know I’m deserving of love. I still deal with mild cyclical depression, but it doesn’t interfere with my life. I know what it is and how to manage it.

    I tested at the “far edge of severely depressed” during my bad years, as a psychologist put it at the time. But with finding the right help, I’ve gone on to recover and live a good life. There IS hope. Things CAN change. Just because you’re suffering now does NOT mean you’ll be suffering forever.

    My love to all my fellow sufferers.

  5. 5
    Stevarious, Public Health Problem

    I have suffered from mild to severe depression my entire life, and have spent a great many nights lying awake contemplating this very subject. Ironically, the only attempt I ever actually made involved no planning or forethought whatsoever, though it was at a time that I was at my lowest and spent the most time thinking about it. When I was twelve, as I awaited the city bus to pick me up from some after-school function, it occurred to me that if I timed it just right, it would squish me like a bug. As it turned out, my timing was off, and the bus had time to swerve out of the way.

    Oddly enough, my failure evoked no emotional response at all. I got on the bus, paid the toll, and sat down. The driver stared at me and after a moment, asked me incredulously, “Are you trying to kill yourself, kid?” I shrugged. I didn’t care.

    I’m doing much better nowadays.

  6. 6
    Ara

    I straight-up tried to kill myself when I was 17. My mum must have seen some sign though, so she (I can now say, with great feeling, thankfully) caught me practically as soon as I sliced my arms open with a shard of glass. She bandaged me up, had me walk a straight line to make sure I hadn’t lost too much blood or something, then proceeded to guilt-trip the hell out of me. Mostly, “I can’t believe you would try and do that to me.” I can now look back with a little more clarity, and I bet she was scared to death. She’d had a husband who had committed suicide, so I can’t even imagine how she felt knowing a few more minutes and she might have lost her only daughter.

    She did a damn good job keeping me alive after that though, sometimes calling me in sick to school when my depression and anxiety got really bad. Annnnd I’m still here! I still struggle with depression, but I’ve learned my signs, and I have a wonderful husband who will bring home chocolate and do the housework for me if I need it.

  7. 7
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    This is, as always from you, outstanding writing, Miri. I’m personally fortunate that I never get actively suicidal, but I’ve definitely eyed the oncoming bus more than once, thinking “Well, if it went out of control and hit me, I wouldn’t jump out of the way.” What I always thought of as “passively suicidal”. If something came along that threatened to kill me, I would let it, but I wouldn’t do anything to make it happen myself.

    I don’t know why I never did. After I transitioned, I was living in a new city where I knew no-one, my family had cut me off from all contact when i told them to call me Cait (they stayed that way for twelve years, until my mother got scared she might be dying when she was hospitalized for a gut ailment; in the letter she’d sent to say I shouldn’t call or write them, she told me it would have been much easier for her if I’d simply died – thanks, Mum).

    I had no supports, no-one to be aware or upset that I was dead, no-one to tell me I was being selfish. I honestly don’t know why I made it through, save perhaps a general stubborn ornery insistence on not doing what people would expect.

    Thanks for sharing the stories in comments, too, folks, it really does help to know others who’ve been there. My sympathy, empathy, and hope to you each.

  8. 8
    RainbowSlushie^.^

    I’ve suffered from active and passive suicidality off and on going back to early childhood when my father beat me viciously and on purpose for being trans apparent; I stated to correct mother at one point iirc I was a girl and that’s when he began viciously beating me until I bled from nose, saw stars, lost inner ear proper feeling, etc. He did this hundreds of times and I was frequently actively as well as passively suicidal throughout early childhood (3-5 years old). When I was in gradeschool I also encountered more active and passive suicidal thinking but I was too scared at the time to tell anyone out of shame for the constant bullying (I didn’t figure out how to effectively hide I was trans until years later). Ever since I was 16 years old (15 years ago) I’ve been constantly passively suicidal; not a single day where I wasn’t, I had a suicide attempt when I was 18 as well. I have had thousands upon thousands of actively suicidal thought processes both as a very young child, in elementary, and then later as a teenager and on into my adulthood. Indeed, by the time I had turned five years old (I grew up in Port Allen, LA a couple hundred feet from the levee) I had had a reoccuring dream of me jumping off the Mississippi bridge at least 20 times. I’ve had thousands upon thousands of intensely active suicidal thought patterns, several to very many times a day from 16 to my current age (31 and 1/2). Most of these actively suicidal thought processes centered around anxiety attacks where I felt that, if I didn’t kill myself to stop the anxiety attack, the anxiety attack would kill me outright through anaphylactic shock, on it’s own terms. I typically have about 1-2 anxiety attacks (at least) per day, often 2-3, and I inhabit extreme isolation. Typically actively suicidal thought patterns will come in sets of tens and accompany each anxiety attack to some degree or another, as well as active thoughts of self dismemberment of various body parts (usually the calf down with a scythe or metal garrot, sometimes one of my hands). I lost my family 7 years ago due to getting out of a cult, and then disowned again after it took them years to find me, due to transphobia, and haven’t seen or heard from them, at all, in a year and a half.

    I stay alive because I believe, despite all the hatred and evil that have accrued inside of me, that I will keep loving people somehow, stubbornly, until they see I love them innocently and sweetly and just love me back. I figure if I’ve been hated so much and abandoned by both my immediate and extended family, neither of whom except for my dad (and him once in a 24 hour period) i’ve seen or heard from in 7 years, I have nothing left to live for except to share my love and humor with other human beings who sometimes I actually really hate for using and abusing me. I must love them anyway somehow, I must love and give my light to others, that is why I love: so that I can help people to work hard for a better world, to feel loved and cared for. Easier said than done since I’ve been disabled for ten years now, but I can try to help them. The more people hate me, even given I want to hate them back sometimes, I realized, the more I have to love them no matter what. I fight my suicidal nature by loving people, even ones who don’t deserve it, in order to help them see someday I am human too and they can love me without abusing me.

    Some people would call me naive, but I found that loving others, even my enemies, has kept me alive and given me a reason to live: because there is some grouch somewhere, maybe even a grouchy bigot, and they need love too in order to come around eventually and see me as human. Maybe glorified Stockholm Syndrome, I don’t know, but I try to love people to stay alive. I go through phases where I am very angry and hateful at people, but I still need to love people, even those who hate me, to show them that love and joy is what is important in life, not hatred and always being right.

  9. 9
    almulhida

    My roadblock to suicide was always the fear of botching it. I wasn’t keen on going out in a terrifying or painful way, but there always seemed to be a trade-off between painless, peaceful and low chance of success that I never quite navigated. I think in the end I waffled between shotgun to the head and carbon monoxide poisoning.

    I don’t think I’d have gotten that far if I didn’t hate the people who loved me. I’m pretty indifferent to my family’s suffering, it can’t be worse than what they inflicted on me to drive me to that point to begin with

  10. 10
    Chronos

    I’ve had two periods in my life when I was suicidal.

    The first was the period from age 10 to age 13 or so. In retrospect I can see that it was a mishmash of stressing over my parents’ messy divorce, my dad’s passive-aggressive vindictiveness toward my mom using us kids as go-betweens, putting up with bullying and verbal abuse from my new stepdad, school bullying for being a fat nerd, and slowly figuring out I was gay and then worrying others would find out (in that order). Took me years to discombobulate all that. At the time if you’d asked me what was wrong I’d've shaken my head in confusion, punched through a wall, and broken into sobs (in that order).

    My thoughts from back then are too disorganized to recall in detail, but I vaguely remember being passively suicidal for pretty much all of 7th grade (in the “I don’t want to kill myself, I just wish I could erase myself from existence” sense). Well, passive except for the one time when I tried to slit my wrists (after my sister cheated me at chess, of all things). It was the sort of act that people who’ve never been suicidal dismiss as “oh, xe’s acting out for attention and doesn’t really mean it”. But, yeah, I really did mean it. I felt like the entire world was forever stacked against me — like this one instance of cheating was merely a final, undeniable symbol of the fact that nothing would ever go my way — and I figured I’d rather die than live that life. I stormed to the kitchen and grabbed a sharp knife and put it to my wrist, threatening to slice myself open right there in front of my sister if she couldn’t tell me why my life was worth living. I can’t remember exactly how the conversation went after that, but my sister begged me to promise not to commit suicide, and I made that promise.

    The second suicidal period of my life was in college, ages 18 to 20. I hadn’t wanted to go straight to college after high school. I hadn’t wanted to do anything at all, really. My stepdad, the same one who had bullied and verbally abused me, had begun grooming me as a victim at 14 and raped me by coercion from ages 16 to 18. (In his own mind, the fact that I was a gay male meant I was implicitly willing and desperate for anything. I actually went along with it only because I was terrified of his violent mood swings when he didn’t get his way, and because his manipulation had instilled what psychology literature calls “learned helplessness”.) When I left the house and went to college, I wasn’t even slightly ready to work through it — or to deal with life.

    As college went on, I became more and more convinced that I was permanently and fundamentally broken — a failed human being who was wasting space and resources that were better spent on someone more worthy. Near my college there was a lake with a dry emergency spillway where I liked to spend time alone. I had two suicide scenarios that I meticulously planned out: one was simply to plunge off that spillway head-first onto the concrete below, and the other was to perform seppuku (which I’d latched onto after reading James Clavell’s Shogun as a teen) seated on the cliff overlooking the spillway from the side. I was leaning more toward seppuku, specifically because it would be incredibly painful; at the time I felt I deserved the pain as punishment for being such a failure. But two things stopped me from carrying out either plan. One, consideration for the workers who would have to clean up my mess (the seppuku plan included a plastic tarp for easier cleanup, but this seemed inadequate). Two, my promise to my sister. I take my promises seriously: I don’t make them lightly, but I don’t break them lightly either. I considered calling up my sister and asking her to release me from the promise I made when I was 13, but when I rehearsed the conversation in my head I never found a line of argument that I thought my sister would accept. I felt like my word of honor was the one thing I had that wasn’t broken and worthless. Mostly because of that promise, I never went any farther than planning.

    In the end I dropped out of college after two years, couch-surfed with relatives for three years, took Paxil, quit Paxil cold turkey due to $$$, did some cognitive-behavioral therapy for not-unrelated social anxiety, got a crappy job that nonetheless paid the bills, finally started feeling a sense of self-worth, spent the next two or three years processing the shit I went through as a teen, and emerged out the other side as a reasonably functioning human being. I mean, shit, there are some leftover parts after I put myself back together, but I’m ticking again.

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