10 years ago, I attempted suicide. On a summer night in 2008, my parents drove me from the house where I was raised to the emergency room in an effort to save the life of their 21-year-old son. My action was built on several years of mental turmoil and anguish, of unchecked thoughts and words and movement. For me, for my parents, for my family and close friends, it was—with all the messiness and confusion that comes with the concept—traumatic.
In the decade since I have thought long on the years leading up to that night, the weeks, months, and years that followed my hospitalization and the ways I have succeeded and failed in navigating life with a chronic mental illness. Needless to say, today would look much different for those who survived me had I not survived. There are no words for the hurt I caused and the hurt I felt. There is not a way to return and redo. If there was, I would be denied the very person I am today. You would be denied that person, too.
This is some of what I have learned in the last 10 years.
- We don’t talk about mental health issues enough.
Put another way—we don’t talk about our lives enough. At least I don’t. Not with my family, not with my friends, not with mental health professionals. Not with anyone. When you’re not doing well, it’s much easier to say you’re fine and move on. It takes courage to talk about mental health issues and mental illnesses drain courage. These conversations can and should be initiated when things are going well.
- No one wakes up one day and, having never entertained the option, decides they’re going to commit suicide. People who commit suicide have been mulling that decision over for a long, long time. My death obsession first began at 17 years old. I began seriously entertaining the thought of killing myself when I was 18. From age 18 to 21, I gestured and put myself in very realistic near-death situations (i.e. all but pulling the trigger or kicking out the chair) several times before I made the attempt that landed me in the hospital. When you hear about someone who’s committed or attempted suicide you can bet they’ve been fighting that internal battle for a while. Even when they tell you they are not having suicidal thoughts.
- Healthcare systems make me sick (they arguably also keep me alive). I don’t even understand just exactly why it still irks me so I won’t go on criticising what I can’t understand. For a decade, not counting therapy and doctor visits prior to my hospitalization and final diagnosis, I have been a part of the system, spending countless frustrating hours and hard-earned dollars to manage my illness, the majority of the time feeling like a number, a consumer, a name in a stack of names. What still gets to me is the baggage that comes along with taking medication day in and day out, something that took many years to convince my ego was a necessity for survival. Now I try to approach the medical element like I do filing taxes: it is stressful, unavoidable, and necessary. I trust in the hope that at some point in my life it will be easier to navigate and manage and that will stem from advances in the field. I empathize with any patient who has an ongoing relationship with healthcare systems.
- Reflecting on your past suicide attempt and thinking about killing yourself (active suicidal ideation) are two separate things. I have spent a lot of time reading, writing, and thinking about suicide and the years when I was experiencing unchecked mania and depression. I spent the majority of those years fixated on death and dying. By the time I steeled my nerves to act on the thoughts, I had meticulously worked out what at the time seemed like a logical justification to exert my own free will to end my life. My ability to fixate on an idea for so long and with such intensity while resisting the external stimuli and other supports meant to snap me out of that monolithic trance, coupled with the fact that as human beings we can exert freewill to end our lives, is the still the most difficult part to all this. Suicide is evolutionarily counterproductive, which makes it taboo, criminal, sinful, what have you, but it is possible. It is an option. So many more people than you can imagine who will ever do it will think about it, and so many people have tried and failed and go on living, looking in the mirror every morning confronted by the face of both the one who tried to destroy them and the one who, by getting up each morning, is trying to save them.
- We cannot prevent every suicide. But we should be emotionally impacted and moved to action with the news of each one. Start a conversation with someone you know has thought about or attempted suicide, someone who has survived someone who has committed suicide, or someone you think might be suffering under the burden of those thoughts.
- You lose many things when you survive a suicide attempt, but one of the most significant is trust. You lose trust from people who love you. You lose the trust of yourself. Where you find yourself is in the process of rebuilding. Related is the struggle of filling people in on your past. I have gone years believing if you want people to doubt you, keep their distance from you, or not want to get too close, you tell them you attempted suicide and live with a chronic mental illness. I have also learned not to be so quick to judge people. We are more alike than we are different.
- You can choose to commit suicide all at once, or you can stretch it out over years of mismanaged living. Either way, there will be a breaking point. If you are fortunate, it comes as a wake-up call and you make the choice to live. Sobriety, which I have opted into before, can feel like a self-made prison. So can addiction. It is not always about being strong or weak. It is about perseverance, making and finding meaning in the life you were given and the lives of those around you. One of my greatest struggles has been comparing myself with others, envying what I perceived as stable lives, and being good enough at faking stability in order to mask the chaos of my perception of reality. Sobriety is scary, especially when self-medication is the root of your addiction.
- Natural living does not come naturally. Our world is filled with these nasty contradictions. I have learned that, until recently, as soon as I irradicate one unhealthy element from my life, another one steps in to take its place. It is easy to fall into habits we have used to make us feel better or think less on the roots of our unhappiness. Bipolar disorder—manic and depressive episodes—is linked to other disorders, symptoms, and behaviors, many of which I have lived with: alcoholism, drug use, bulimia, panic attacks, self-mutilation, and more. At the root of these is the unhealthy, untreated, unbalanced mind. No matter how well you think you appear to function with all that cluttering your life, no matter how many years pass functioning without yourself or those in your support system understanding the destructive realities of your lifestyle, you are not living.
- People will not go out of their way to make sure you are doing alright. Even those who know you the best are not going to directly address the fact that you were, at one point in your life, serious about killing yourself to the point you tried to and now, years later, you still live with a chronic mental illness and the trauma of all the years you waged daily battles in your head about whether or not you should continue living because of how you interpreted freewill. People aren’t going to get that deep with you. It’s not their job. You cannot make it your expectation. They are not going to get as deep as you should get when you check in on yourself and your moods to gauge how you are today with how you were at your lowest or how you were at your best. The less you talk about your illness and the more you live in your head, the less they will broach the topic. You will have to speak up. You will have to initiate those conversations. You will know who those people are that will listen, even when they do not understand, and you will need to place trust in them, especially when you cannot trust your mind or when you know they might not fully trust it either. You will have to seek them out, and when you find them, let them know you are better off because of them.
- You must remind yourself you are better off being alive. A day without a reminder of your illness and how it has impacted your life and the lives of those you love might sound like a pleasant reprieve, but the best kind of bliss is the kind achieved without the aid of ignorance. Face your reality. Use your failures to define your successes and vice versa. Seek beauty, in the calm and in the chaos.