It was junior high when I first started thinking about how I’d really prefer not to be alive. I don’t think I got to the point of actually thinking about how I could bring that about—it was just a desperate unhappiness. But by high school I was starting to think more actively in that direction. I read all the books I could find about suicide, looking for information about methods, but also, I think, hoping to find something that would somehow help, even if I couldn’t articulate what that help would look like. If nothing else, learning more about it made me feel less alone with my demons.
I’ve struggled with chronic suicidality for the last 25 years. But it’s hard to talk about. I’m pretty open these days about my diagnosis of bipolar disorder. And most people are aware, I think, that it’s not uncommon for suicidal ideation to accompany depression. But I still find myself hesitant to say much about this. I think it will scare people.
After years and years of this, I’m familiar with the standard advice. If you’re in trouble, talk to someone. Call a friend. Call a hotline. If necessary, go to the ER. I absolutely endorse all of that. But honestly, it’s tricky when suicidality is something chronic for you, if you think about doing it more days than not. You have to learn when you’ve just having the usual thoughts, and when you’re hit a point where you need outside help. And that’s not as clear as one might think, when your thinking is already clouded by depression and overwhelming emotional pain.
I’ve been hospitalized nine times for being at a point where I couldn’t guarantee that I would keep myself safe. But I’ve never actually attempted anything. To at least some extent, I credit that to having some really good therapists who’ve taken me seriously when I was in trouble, ones who’ve known me well enough to know when I needed more help. It’s been immensely helpful to have those outside voices when my own thinking is shaky. I’ve needed people whose judgment I could trust, especially because I’m enough of a treatment veteran to know what answers to give to generic mental health professionals to get myself hospitalized—or sent home.
There are certain platitudes about this subject that make me want to tear my hair out. Such as, “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Actually, when you’ve dealt with mental illness as long as I have, it doesn’t feel particularly temporary. And when people glibly tell me that this will pass, that things will get better, I want to shake them, and say, you have no way of knowing that. It’s quite possible that they won’t, that they’ll even get worse. When I’m in a bad place, what I desperately want is to have my feelings of despair heard and acknowledged—not minimized or glossed over.
I’ve known people who’ve never seriously thought about suicide. That’s maybe even more normal than not. But I find it kind of amazing. I can’t even imagine it. What’s really hard to explain to people who haven’t been there is that suicide at times feels like a realistic answer, that there’s even a kind of hope in thinking about it and feeling reassured that the madness of living doesn’t have to go on forever. When I am deep in suicidal ideation, all I want is a way out.
What about religious beliefs? The fear of hell has never felt like a serious deterrent to me; if you already feel like you’re living in hell, you find yourself willing to take that gamble. On a mental health discussion board I was on years ago, an oft-discussed question among the Christians was whether suicide was a sin. I don’t think it’s helpful to frame it that way; my observation is that it just adds guilt to those who are already feeling overwhelmed. I appreciate that the LDS church’s current position is that only God can judge. At the same time, LDS theology has at times added to my despair, because in an LDS worldview there is no hope for annihilation. You exist, eternally, inevitably. To a tormented mind, could there be a worse fate?
I recently read an interesting Scientific American blog about the experience of being suicidal. He notes things like temporal narrowing, with a focus on the present—you “cognitively withdraw from thinking about past failures and the anxiety of an intolerable, hopeless future.” When I’m seriously suicidal, there is no future. I can’t quite conceive of such a thing. One of the other fascinating things he mentions is that your perception of time changes. It slows down. In my own life, I associate depression with boredom. I’m not interested in anything, and the agonizingly long minutes are painfully empty.
In The Noonday Demon, one of my favorite books on depression, Andrew Solomon observes that we think people survive this kind of thing because they’re somehow virtuous. But sometimes it’s actually people’s vices that keep them alive. I was struck by that because, in addition to the most pressing reason to not kill myself—it would hurt people I love—I credit my tendency to procrastinate, to live in the world of thought rather than action, to keeping me alive.
I want to end on a hopeful note, but it has been a hard year, and I would be lying if I said I were enthusiastic about being alive. But I am alive, still, after all these years. Depression messes with your memory and makes you think you’ve always been depressed—but I know that’s not the case, that there are periods that have been better. That’s something.