Choking on Life

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.


  1. Wow, thanks for sharing this, Lynnette. Suicidal thinking hasn’t been as severe for me, but it’s definitely something I’ve struggled with in my worst times of depression. Your points are so spot on. For example, this:

    “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?”

    is exactly how I’ve felt before. I didn’t want to die and go to some next life. I wanted to not exist, but it seemed like that wasn’t an option. Somewhat related: I was also angry at teaching that suicide was wrong, even if perhaps not technically a sin per se. It just felt so harsh for people in authority to tell me that no, you can’t exit early from this awful existence, no matter how awful it is.

    I hope the future brings better things for you, and that perhaps suicidal ideation can even at some point become something that you look back and remember rather than something that’s often with you.

  2. I’m going to use the wrong words, and I’m very sorry for any offense. I don’t know the right words. I welcome suggestions on better phrasing.

    I don’t consider myself currently to have mental health issues. I’ve had some tough times and seen counselors for 2-3 month stretches about three times in the past ten years, after big life changes that didn’t go as planned. I’ve never been medicated for mental health issues, or even offered medication. Anyway, that’s where I’ve come from.

    I don’t understand NOT thinking about suicide sporadically. I don’t think about taking pills or shooting myself, but some rough times lead to thoughts of semi-accidently tripping in front of a bus or veering off the side of the road on a hill where there is no shoulder. When life is bad and out of control, sometimes making the choice NOT to harm myself can help me feel more autonomy and help me improve my outlook.

    I can very much relate to the “LDS theology has at times added to my despair, because in an LDS worldview there is no hope for annihilation. You exist, eternally, inevitably.” That was actually the source of my faith crisis. I would love to have a set up where you die, go to a nice, relaxing, non-denominational heaven for a while, and then dissolve into the ether. Everything that I love and enjoy, I love and enjoy because I know they are temporary. I don’t want a gorgeous medium-rare steak forever. I don’t want to teach my five year old to read forever. I don’t want to snuggle a newborn forever. I don’t want to have sex forever. Too much leaves me some combination of bored, tired, anxious, sick, etc… I want to live a good life and then let go.

    Thank you for this post.

  3. Thanks, Jason. It’s a really scary thing to be talking about publicly–and I’m even someone who’s used to talking about it.

    Ziff, exactly! When things are bad, it’s incredibly frustrating to feel like there’s ultimately no escape. And as you say, it seems harsh to say that wanting that is wrong. That actually raises something I’ve really struggled with in talking to other people who’ve been in the same place–which has happened a lot over the years, in the circles I run in. On the one hand, I think it’s not helpful to use the language of sin or condemnation. On the other, I don’t want to convey that I think it’s okay, either (if you know what I mean). Though I’ve found that lots of listening and encouraging people to get help, and suspending judgment, seems the best way to go.

    HokieKate, thanks so much for sharing. No offense at all. I’m fascinated that you find eternal existence to be so unappealing. As I’ve said, I often do myself–but I also have times when I like the idea that some things can endure. But I think your point about the value of the temporary is an intriguing one. When I’m hopeful, I hope that heaven has a way to let go. Best to you.

  4. “Actually, when you’ve dealt with mental illness as long as I have, it doesn’t feel particularly temporary.” This is the worst part, I think. I remember watching the movie “A Beautiful Mind.” At the end Russell Crowe’s character is an old man. Upon meeting someone, he turns to the person nearby and says something like, “Can you see her? I always have to make sure.” The idea that he had to continue his checks and balances all those decades shook me. Having a mental illness is hard, but *knowing* you will have to live with it every day for the rest of your life makes the bad times even more overwhelming. Knowing I would inevitably cycle out of the bad times helped me grit my teeth in the moment, but knowing I would inevitably cycle back in is what took away hope that things would ever change longterm.

  5. Mary Ann, yes! It’s not easy to accept that something chronic. I don’t do well at it myself; when I’m not depressed, I try to convince myself that finally, finally I’m done with depression. (I had a really crazy moment when I was very manic at the age of 25, and I had a “revelation” that the hardest parts of my life were over. If only!) But my therapist always remains me that it’s vital to see this as something ongoing, something I’m at least always going to be vulnerable to, so that I can do the necessary self-care to manage it.

    Lily, thanks so much for hearing me.

  6. Thank you, Lynette, for letting us know you better. That’s something that I value very much. Internet hugs and love to you.

  7. When I am in it, it feels like I will always be in it, and I don’t know how I will get out. And when I’m out, I look back, and I’m amazed at how I was able to function at all, given how sick I was. I’m in it now. I am always in it after an election, no matter what the outcome, but it’s worse after a loss. I don’t know how I will get out. I go to bed at night knowing that I will wake up tomorrow and that there’s nothing I can do about that. I don’t want to DO anything. I just want it to be over.

  8. Thanks, Rosalynde. This is actually a big part of me, though I don’t talk about it a lot.

    Ann, I hear you. When you’re in it, the world collapses in on itself and nothing else seems real. I also look back when things are better and think, wow, I can’t believe how bad it was. I’m so sorry things are hard for you right now. Take care.

  9. Thank you for helping me to have a peek into something that I’ve not personally experienced. I’m sixty-eight. Years ago, when a couple of my more or less grown children started suffering in ways that I couldn’t understand, I purchased and read Solomon’s *The Noonday Demon.* I read from it daily to remind me what I so little understand yet need to always remember. May we all understand better. Thank you and I wish you and others who so suffer the very best.

  10. The point about afterlife theology making suicidality even worse resonates so hard. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced suicidal ideation as it’s clinically defined, but I definitely know the desperate feeling of wanting to cease existing. When I’m badly depressed, I wake up everyday overwhelmed by the feeling that I’ve already failed at everything, I will never dig myself out, my life is a sham and I am a fraud, incapable of doing anything meaningful, a pox on everyone around me. The thought of an afterlife in which God will continue (as I imagine him while I’m depressed) to watch in alienated irritation as I continue to screw up everything and be constitutionally worthless just seems cruel, a refusal to let a torture victim just go even while there’s nothing to be learned or gained from extending the torture.

    Here’s hoping 2017 will be an improvement, if not geopolitically, then at least personally. Lots of love.

  11. wreddyornot, thank you. That’s awesome that you read The Noonday Demon to better understand what your kids were dealing with. That’s one of my favorite books on the subject. Thanks so much for the good wishes.

    Melyngoch, yes, you describe that experience so well. Belief in an afterlife is not necessarily of comfort to the depressed! Lots of love to you, too.


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