With all of the suicides of notable people in the last couple of weeks, it has stirred up my own battles with depression and suicidal thoughts. Not to worry- nothing ‘serious’ has gone on for years. When the physical pain becomes more harsh than usual, or there are more health scares, I do think about the ‘what ifs’ of a longterm and debilitating illness, but I’m nowhere near that.
“Flaws” were never discussed in my home, even after I’d talked briefly with our pastor about suicide when I was in 8th grade. There were some hard times in high school. An English teacher that I did not have as a teacher reached out to me, and did an old, quick depression assessment. I didn’t do well, and she told my guidance counselor who’d known me since I was two years old. He talked to my dad, who was furious that I’d made some “not perfect life” comment to those outside of our house. I was given strict instructions to never tell anybody that anything was wrong. Verbatim: “If someone asks you how you are, you say “fine”. I don’t care if you have an arm dangling by a thread. You are FINE.” When I worked in psych and alcohol/drug rehab, “FINE” translated to ‘f-ed up, insecure, neurotic, and emotionally disturbed. I guess I have been ‘fine’ a few times in my life 😉
Back to the suicidal stuff. In my early teens, it wasn’t something I considered seriously (mostly because I was terrified I’d get in trouble, assuming I’d mess things up and survive). And I didn’t really want to DIE. I just wanted to feel less confusion, fear, and emotional pain. I felt a lot of pressure being the principal’s kid (some self-imposed, some overt instructions from my folks). Then I went to the University of Illinois after a summer of becoming anorexic. I was a mess. That was the fall semester in 1981. By the first couple of weeks after Christmas break in late January 1982, I was still a mess, with the anorexia getting worse, and being alive felt like torture. With my brain starving, my thoughts were not ‘normal’, and dying seemed like the only way to make the eating disorder end.
By the first week of February 1982, I had a plan, a private dorm room, and the whole thing figured out- except I didn’t really want to die. Plan: I would overdose on the tranquilizers I’d gotten to (presumably) make me less anxious about eating, involve some sort of booze, and go into my lockable dorm closet, lock it from the inside, and also make sure my dorm room was locked. I had been mandated to see a university student health center counselor my first semester there, and I finally fessed up to her. She had the university fire department take me to McKinley Health Center, where they ‘babysat’ me until an adult friend (for a long time, from church) could come and get me- I did NOT want to face my parents. I was SO ashamed for not being ‘perfect’ enough. There was a blizzard that made most of IL a skating rink that February, so it took a few days for everything to happen to get me to the hospital near Chicago. Where my parents were waiting in the lobby (I hadn’t considered them needing to be there to sign me in, since I was on dad’s insurance). They were allowed to see me, then ‘banned’ from any contact for a month until my assigned psychiatrist tried to sort out the family dynamics.
I wasn’t a teenage drinker. I’d tried a few things here and there, but I hated the whole going across state lines thing on Friday nights, where the drinking age was 18 at the time. But that fall semester of 1982, when I finally got to return to school, I was not coping well with feeling like the designated nut job. I tried SO hard to make it look like all was well, but it wasn’t. I started going to bars and drinking 4-5 drinks in less than 2 hours, then stagger back to the dorm. On September 2, 1982, I got back from the bars, and was SO tired, but couldn’t fall asleep. I remember taking the prescription sleeping pills (from shrink I was assigned to at the hospital near Chicago). I just kept taking them (there were 10 Dalmane 30mg capsules left, and I took them all), like some sort of automated prescription Pez dispenser was dropping capsules into my hand, that went to my mouth seemingly of its own accord. I didn’t think about dying, but after taking the sleeping pills, I was told (and stomach contents confirmed) that I then went on to take 50 imipramine tablets. No matter what was going on in my head, my body went into a 3 day coma. My roommate didn’t notice anything alarming enough to call an ambulance until the day after I’d taken the meds on top of the alcohol. I told her I was just tired until I couldn’t talk anymore. I was told more than once that I physiologically shouldn’t have survived the type and quantity of medications along with the booze, and the length of time before my stomach was pumped.
I didn’t want to die. I wanted the expectations to FEEL less intense (they weren’t imposed by anybody but myself at that point). I’ve been in therapy for various things, starting with the fall of 1981. I was stunned to wake up in the ICU at the same hospital where I’d been born prior to being placed for adoption. The first thing I remember was someone putting an oxygen mask on me (then I fell asleep again), and a syringe going towards my crotch (at the time, I didn’t know that a syringe removed the water from the balloon of a catheter that keeps it from falling out. I didn’t know I HAD a catheter… so that was awkwardly confusing). I also remember not being able to follow the Saturday morning cartoons they’d put on the TV.
One therapist would ask me about suicidal thoughts, and told me she would NEVER ask me to give them up, since having that option helped keep people from feeling backed into an inescapable corner. She would ask me to hang on just until she called me at whatever pre-determined day/time she came up with. And that was helpful. She never shamed me for essentially just looking for ways to not feel emotional pain. I never liked “contracts” because I didn’t want to sign something I might not be able to uphold- but the simple verbal request to hang on was enough (everybody is different, and some folks need more supervision, so more formal contracts or even interventions and required hospitalization might be the first step some folks need). At the very least, I knew that someone cared enough to take 5 minutes to call and see if I was OK the next day. Sometimes, when things were chaotic in my head, that external reminder that I wasn’t alone was sufficient.
I hope someone reads this who is a survivor of someone who completed a suicide attempt, not surviving it. You need to know that it isn’t about not loving family/friends enough to stay (or reach out). In that state of mind, people truly do believe that the world (meaning their family and friends) would be better off without them. It’s about not being able to imagine things ever getting better. It’s a desperate, last-ditch attempt to find some peace. But it’s not generally about not wanting to live. It’s about not wanting to have to endure emotional pain that feels like endless torment.
Don’t be afraid to be blunt if you are concerned about someone. Asking about suicide will not make someone suicidal !! The best thing someone can do, especially if they don’t know what to do, or don’t have training in crisis negotiations, is just to listen. Don’t judge. No empty “it’s going to be fine”. And NEVER “oh, it’s not that bad”- that just says “you don’t care enough to try and understand me”. Let the person know that you realize that they are doing the best they can. Let them know that you understand that their pain is overwhelming. NEVER “I know how you feel”…. unless you are in a person’s head, and have had identical experiences and reactions to things, you have no clue. Empty platitudes are not helpful. Saying something like “how can I best help you?” is very helpful. Letting someone know that you don’t have the answers, but will do what you can to help is SO much more helpful than someone who is clueless trying to help someone when they don’t take the time to really understand the situation, and can’t admit that they don’t know what they are doing. If you feel like you are in over your head with someone who is suicidal, call 9-1-1. If the person gets mad, they’ll either get over it or not- but don’t put yourself in a position to have unimaginable regrets if the person can’t hang on.