One Day I Will Rule the World

World Domination, Babies and Middle Eastern Dance

October 19, 2010

Let’s talk about feeling suicidal

Let me just say that I haven’t gone looking to read anything on the teen gay suicide stories, because I’m not anxious to spend every evening crying. I’ve only read the things that came to me because someone on twitter posted a link or something came up in my facebook feed. Though I do follow a number of caring, activist types, so plenty comes across my screen.

Last night, while Ian was out at the park with the kids, someone tweeted the link to Joel Burns’ It Gets Better speech. I watched it alone in the house and I cried my face off all the way through.

And then after the kids were in bed, I made Ian watch it, while I very slowly knitted and tried not to cry more over the bits I could overhear. And I may make my kids watch it, so I can explain to them, “this is why you don’t ever call someone at school queer or gay or any of those words. And this is why, if someone calls you one of those words, you do not slink away telling yourself ‘I better be quiet or they’ll think I really am’, instead you take the path of righteous indignation. And if you don’t have the courage to tear a strip off them for it, or you can’t say, “nobody cares if I am,” at least laugh in their face and call them a fucking bigot.

However, it’s not really homosexuality that I want to address, but suicide. Watching Joel Burns struggle with, and choose not to tell the part where he, presumably, contemplated killing himself was so wrenching. And I realize that a lot of that comes from his not having ever spoken of it – and the great amount of pain that gets bottled up with memories like that and also the vulnerability of speaking publicly about it. But also, as far as Joel went to help normalize being a gay teenager by telling his story and explaining how far he’d come since, I think we need to do the same for being suicidal. So here, summarized, is everything I have learned about suicidal feelings ever in my life; this is what I would like all teenagers or older depressed people, gay or otherwise to know:

Being suicidal is not something you should be ashamed of. You should not be too embarrassed to talk about it. Being suicidal is just what happens when the pain you are in outweighs your resources for coping. There isn’t any weakness in that. There is no formula or rule laid out in your manual at birth that states how much stress and pain you are expected to stand up to in order to not be labeled as defective. Contemplating suicide doesn’t signify weakness – but believing it does will stop you from asking for help. And silence diminishes your chances of survival. Even when you survive without help, you will do so with more scars than if you find support – because, again, it’s all about resources. And one giant coping skill that the depressed frequently lack is the ability to find additional support when their own resources are failing.

You don’t have to feel conflicted about being suicidal but also not wanting to die. Of course you want to live – you just also need life to not hurt so much. Nobody chooses to hurt so badly that life feels unlivable. If you’ve ever said, “I don’t want to live,” and somebody said, “yes you do,” for whatever reason – whether they saw that you were also scared to die, or whether they saw that you were also capable of happiness sometimes or whatever – it becomes easy to think that you have to suppress the part of you that wants to live if anyone is ever going to take you seriously about how bad it is. But you are absolutely right to say both, “I don’t want to live,” and “I don’t want to die.” Those are natural things to feel at the same time. And when someone says, “You don’t actually want to die,” or, “you don’t mean that,” maybe if you understand how valid this is, you don’t have to feel like your options are “either really, really want to die. Or they win this argument and you have to shut up.” If you can’t say it to them, you can reassure yourself: “Obviously I don’t want to die. But if life is unbearable, it’s the only alternative. That’s why I’m asking for help to make my life more bearable.”

If someone fails to help you, that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve help. It’s not fair when you’re the one hurting so badly, that just telling someone else can make them so defensive that they will do or say anything to get you to shut up about it. It’s absolutely not fair. But that will sometimes be the situation. It’s a dreadful thing, since it is so hard to work up the courage to talk about it in the first place. It comes back to resources – it takes resources and courage to ask. And it adds pain to be rejected, but before you tell yourself something hasty about what that rejection says about you, remember that their denial comes from their issues, not your worth. Remember that you are still working on your ability to find more resources. And remember that the ability to vocalize what you are going through is the single biggest, bravest thing you can do to make this better. You just have to find the right person to say it to. (As an aside to the process of figuring out where to turn for help – a conversation with a professional, like your doctor, or a helpline operator will be less fraught with the other person’s psychological issues and can help you strategize first about how to talk to a family member).

Being suicidal doesn’t say anything about who you are, the causes of your suicidal feelings are outside of you, and you have every right to fight them for your survival. If it’s caused by circumstances – your circumstances are not who you are. If it’s because someone is bullying you (about homosexuality or any other thing about you) – the problem is not you, it’s the bullying. And if it’s chronic depression – even then, the problem isn’t you, it’s chemical. Even if it’s affecting your brain – it isn’t you. This is a force outside yourself that’s threatening your survival. If that bully physically attacked you, you would be right to fight back for your survival. If the circumstances that are whittling away your coping resources came to a head and caused a crisis situation, you would fight to survive it. If you were told you had a disease that might kill you, you would learn everything you could, find treatments and make whatever lifestyle changes you could to beat that disease. You can do the same with suicidal feelings because being suicidal isn’t about who you are. You are worth the same in a fight against suicidal urges as you would be in a fight against cancer.

If there is a change in your life that would make the difference but you feel is impossible, consider making that change before you end your life. Make any change before you end your life. If the alternative is death, you have nothing to lose. No matter how badly you are worried that those changes will ruin everything, no matter what the obstacles are, no matter what the odds are that it won’t work, you have nothing to lose. So whether it’s coming out to your family, quitting your job, leaving your spouse or just selling everything and running away – what if it makes life tolerable? What if it gives you just enough breathing room for things to start coming together, for you to start living the happy moments that Joel Burns described? In fact, if the alternative is death, why not completely remake your life? Who are you going to be? What are you going to value? What city are you going to live in? Change anything.

And lastly, even once you have decided to live, it is imperative that you be gentle with yourself. It will take a long time for you to trust yourself again. I believe that after feeling suicidal, people frequently suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. If you consider what we discussed, that you don’t really want to die, that this is a force outside yourself that is threatening your life, it is perfectly natural for you to spend some time feeling terrified for your continued survival. And it’s perfectly natural for the part of you that needs to survive to be angry with yourself for threatening death. It takes time to stop being scared, but it will come.

I considered leaving this post at that, but after what I was saying about how we need to be able to talk about these things without shame, it seemed hypocritical of me to just write in generalities as if to pretend I didn’t have a story. I’m not ashamed of my past brushes with suicidal feelings, but not talking about it on the excuse that “I don’t have any shame to work through,” doesn’t do any favours to those who need to see that it isn’t shameful, or that it’s possible to come out the other side of it.

There are two times in  my life that I came very close to suicide, but the first, was as a teenager, and fresh out of an abusive relationship. I was in a new relationship, but it wasn’t going well because the abuse in the prior relationship had caused a number of lingering issues. Additionally, I was still sharing a house with the abusive ex-boyfriend, who made a sport of causing me panic attacks by cornering me on the stairs and poking and grabbing at me, pretending at starting tickle fights so he could sneer at me for overreacting when I burst into tears. As stories of confronting suicidal urges go, that time doesn’t have one. In my memory it is just a mess of hysterical crying fits and self-injury. I came very close to attempting suicide a number of times, but mostly I opted instead for self-injury. What is, I think, tremendously important about it is that the suicide attempts and frequent self-injury left me with a number of physical scars that, over the years, I have had to explain to doctors. I’ve gone through every (not remotely believable) lie, and some doctors who accepted them and some who pushed until I had to admit they were self-inflicted. Though the conversation never goes any further than that.

However, at my most recent trip to the ER (that time when I wasn’t having a stroke), the doctor examining me spotted my worst set of scars and he ran a thumb across them and said, “what are these from?” And I surprised myself by saying without any shame or even defiance, “just self-inflicted.” Afterward, I realized that I’m done being embarrassed by everything that I went through. There’s pain that people understand, and then there’s pain so big that the only way to get through it is with desperate coping mechanisms that don’t look healthy from the outside. I survived my teen years, and that was no small feat. If cutting myself got me through that, I realize it’s going to freak a number of people out, I realize it’s something I can’t remotely explain to a lot of people, but those are people who haven’t survived a lot of the things I have. If I had opted to only cope in ways that were understandable to other people, I might not still be here. So I’m going to stick with being amazed at how good I was at surviving and not ashamed for the people who don’t understand.

Back before I decided to admire my own strength and stop being ashamed, however, was the period of time when I seriously came the closest to suicide. It was 2006, I had a seven year old and a four year old. Ian had just moved in with me. And I had a job that was draining absolutely everything I had. I don’t know if I could even explain how it got so bad. And obviously a big part of what was going on with my relationship with the job was some displacement of issues surrounding how I related to my family and my people-pleasing and what I thought I was worth. But the end result was that I was running myself into the ground trying to fulfill about five job descriptions at work, and the company was small and sometimes struggling and only too happy to have someone work so hard to fill so many gaps. My relationship with my bosses had  become increasingly dysfunctional as I got more involved in the management of the company and spotted more and more times that I knew I was being lied to or manipulated into more work, and yet I felt powerless to do anything other than what was dropped on me. I was taking antacid every morning in order to be able to go into work and I was crying for the car ride from work to pick up the kids every night. Once the kids were in bed, Ian and I would sit in bed and I would sob hysterically until finally, one night I told him that I was suicidal.

It didn’t end there though, because we didn’t have any solutions for the situation. He was freelancing and didn’t have much money, I was the primary earner, we had a mortgage payment and two kids. He didn’t know what to do and so, although we would have the same conversation over and over, mostly all he could do was look helpless and ask me to hang in there.

And I couldn’t.

I agreed that the responsible thing was to take all the steps I could to improve the situation before I went through with anything. So I went off depo-provera (known to adversely affect mood). I made an appointment with my doctor to get on antidepressants. And I started seeing my therapist again.

Still, I was wishing hard for a terminal illness so I could die in a way that would allow me to say goodbye to my kids and so they wouldn’t hate me for leaving them. And I began planning how I was going to do it.

At work, my boss acted sympathetic when I pointed out that I was never supposed to take over sales work from him, but he got snarky with our receptionist about how obviously those calls went to me, when she tried to put them through to him. He came in late every day, dumped more and more work on me, spent his days doing networking setup for a friend or working on a hobby website and left early.

I was going into work on weekends, getting Ian to pick up the kids so I could stay evenings. My therapist was telling me that I was going to have to have a conversation with my bosses about my workload, but I couldn’t imagine that it would end well.

One night, after working late, I opted to walk home. I walked home with the sun slanted so low and golden, I imagined that evening as a single gold thread woven in what had become a very dark tapestry. I had about hit rock bottom with the suicide planning and I began to think about ways to get out of my job. If disappointing my bosses, losing my job and losing my house was the big thing I was so terrified of, that was understandable. But really, I wondered, if being destitute would take enough of the edge off that I could live, maybe not a thrilling life, but just live long enough to not orphan and traumatize my children, wouldn’t they probably take that trade?

When I got home, I said to Ian, “if I lost my job or if I can’t take it anymore and I quit, we could sell the house. We can move into a tiny apartment or we could buy a super-cheap house in a small town. We’d probably have enough to live on for six months to a year. Long enough to find a new job or start a business, long enough to start feeling better about life. And if it doesn’t work, if I still feel suicidal, at least we’ll have put it off a while.” And he agreed. I think he was probably pretty relieved to have me finally making plans for the future.

Having that plan in mind, gave me the courage to finally talk to my bosses. And things didn’t get immediately better. My direct boss put all the blame on other people for the work that was getting passed to me. He tried to guilt me about the integral role he saw me playing in the company, and when I stuck to my guns and said I didn’t want that, I wanted a fair workload, he found a reason to move me out of my office and into a shared office not long after. Having got to the point of completely writing off my life, I had pretty much ceased to care whether he liked me or whether I was getting sneakily demoted to ‘just a programmer’.

I’ll be honest. It was a long time after that before life was great. But it got almost immediately tolerable. It was probably a couple of years that I kind of secretly always thought of myself as walking dead, as living life on probation, but as that eased, I took out a second mortgage, quit my job, spent a couple months at home, took a new job, bought a new house, had a new baby. My life is easier now. In addition to some pretty dramatically changed circumstances – all that stuff I said about learning coping skills is true. I gained them in spades that year. I got to the point where I was ready to die rather than disappoint people. And then? Then I got to the point where I valued myself more than the self-serving opinions of people who didn’t value me. And I’ve never trusted myself more than I do since that time.

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