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 wanting to end things because of the medical issues that have me housebound. But in my past, I’ve had some pretty dark times. They also followed eating disorders- either initially or relapses. My parents never asked my why I attempted suicide. It was never discussed. It. Was. Never. Addressed. That. I. Was. In. A. Coma. For. Three. Days. So I felt it was ‘bad’ to acknowledge that I’d been in serious trouble emotionally. I choose not to deny my past any longer. I’m not proud of it, but it’s still part of the story of my life. And I know that there are millions who are afraid to speak out. It’s OK to talk about emotional health. It’s OK to talk about suicidal thoughts. And most important, it’s OK to need and ask for help.
“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 (murders of skating coach’s kids by her husband, grandma I stayed with a lot died after 9 months of hell from cancer, dealing with what I now think was a math learning issue- and getting reamed for not “getting it” when report cards came out, etc). An English teacher who was on her assigned hall monitoring, that I did not have as a teacher, reached out to me after noticing I was struggling (had 8 classes, and no lunch when I was taking driver’s ed), 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 (the principal of said high school) , who was furious that I’d made some “not perfect life” comment to those outside of our house. I was given strict instructions loudly 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 😉 My parents never told their respective families where I was (except for one)- just not being enrolled at the U of IL was somehow not questioned. I’d essentially disappeared, and except for one of mom’s brothers who came to the hospital with my flute and Oreos (which terrified me at the time), I never saw anybody except my folks when they were allowed to come and see me. My mom’s mom later told me that she wasn’t told where I was.
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. It was never about death. 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. I’d been born there, and given up for adoption; I wondered if every 35 year old woman I saw was my birth mother, not knowing where she actually lived at that time. That was the fall semester in 1981. I was fully entrenched in anorexia, with the malnutrition impacting my thought processes, and adding to the development of clinical depression. I was never suicidal without that malnutrition and internal war over food.
I’d been told I had to see a university therapist to stay enrolled in school, after being shipped to the hospital the first week of classes. My resident advisor decided that someone wearing six pairs of socks and a winter coat in my room, still shivering- in late August in Central IL- wasn’t right. I struggled a lot just to get to and from classes, and there were multiple ambulance trips after passing out. I’d made arrangements not to go to Florida with my parents for Christmas break, which lead to an irate father telling me I would be going to Florida, so get over it. It was a miserable time, though I was able to ‘escape’ and work at a Christian conference in Urbana, ironically working as a food service forewoman for the local kids who were also working there; I was barely 18. By the first couple of weeks after Christmas break in late January 1982 I was at home. I was an emotional disaster, with the anorexia getting worse, and being alive felt like torture. Dodging meals was worse. Laxatives were my reprieve. With my brain starving, my thoughts were not ‘normal’, and dying seemed like the only way to make the eating disorder end. It was about ending pain, not ending my life- but my thought processes saw no other options. But I couldn’t do anything at home.
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, locked from the inside, and also make sure my dorm room was locked. I finally fessed up to the university student health center counselor I’d seen my first semester there, and was still seeing (I don’t think the woman knew I could say anything but “I don’t know” until I told her I had a plan). She had the university fire department (overkill much, so to speak?) 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 briefly, then ‘banned’ from any contact for a month until my assigned psychiatrist tried to sort out the family dynamics. I was there from February through most of April.
I returned to the U of I the following fall semester. 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. 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 still remember taking the prescription sleeping pills (from the 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 about 50 imipramine tablets- I remember none of that. 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 speak 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. At best, I should have had brain damage. I was sent back to the same hospital, and was there from September 5th through the first half of January, 1983. I was inpatient for essentially 8 months of 1982 through a bit of 1983. It was never discussed after I got back home– I was sent off to the community college to keep me busy with nursing school required classes (nutrition, sociology, chemistry, English, and anatomy & physiology). And I worked at a local gift shop/dollhouse shop. I was driven into Chicago 1-2 times a week for months to see the psychiatrist I’d had at the hospital.
I didn’t want to die. I wanted the expectations and pain to FEEL less intense (they weren’t imposed by anybody but myself at that point, though the fear of facing my folks for not being ‘intact’ was still present ). I wanted the emotional torment of anorexia to end. 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 later, 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 remember the results of activated charcoal exiting my back door with intense urgency (I’d unhook the monitor leads to hurry to the bathroom, and end up with a bunch of people thinking my heart had stopped; they asked me to call for help to avoid thinking I’d croaked- my heart had taken a bit of a beating with the overdose). I had pain in my throat where a tube had been, as well as a deep bruised feeling on my breast bone, where they likely took their knuckles to try and wake me up. For those who know the Glasgow Coma Scale, I was a 3. It doesn’t go lower. I also remember not being able to follow the Saturday morning cartoons they’d put on TV, after sort of propping me up in a chair. Bugs Bunny was confusing.
One therapist I saw years later would ask me about suicidal thoughts, and told me she would NEVER ask me to give them up, since having that option to think about 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. Someone knew I hurt, and having the feelings was fine. Just not acting on them (though she never put it that way). 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 for a phone call 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 existed, and it was OK. Even being a mess, I wasn’t disposable. It was OK not to be perfect. And to acknowledge it. I never thought I was perfect- I felt like a defect. But I felt that being perfect was the only acceptable goal.
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). It’s not about wanting to die. 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 generally NOT about wanting to die. It’s about not wanting to have to endure emotional pain that feels like endless torment that steals every other part of life. It can also be physically painful to be that far down emotionally.
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. If they can’t speak, just sit with them. 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”…. you have no clue if you’re not in their head, even if you’ve experienced the same traumas, or identical upbringing. People respond differently. Depression is often biochemical. It’s not a “get over it” kind of thing. There are different types of depression- some are expected to some degree (like with grief), others are chemical imbalances in the brain- just like someone with a physical illness caused by a deficiency of some sort.
Empty platitudes are not helpful. Saying something like “how can I help you?” can be helpful, but at some point, the person may have NO clue about what could be helpful- or that they’re worth helping. Thoughts get stuck. Attention spans dwindle. It’s all the person can do to simply keep sucking air, and moving in baby steps. Letting them 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. Look for a sudden change in mood that looks like the person is doing a lot better, when the days before that were grim. Watch to see if the person starts giving away meaningful possessions. Those can signal that the person is at peace with the decision to exit life. If going to a treatment center is discussed, emphasize that the person can rest, and not fight alone. Tell him/her that it’s OK, and nobody is disappointed or ashamed of the person’s illness that they can not get out of on their own.
Everybody needs support at some time in their life, and treatment centers/hospitals are a safe place to tell staff counselors how bad things feel. I know that in other times that I checked into facilities for eating disorder relapses or PTSD from a violent six hour rape, it was a relief that someone else thought I was worth helping, and recognized that I was drowning on dry land. Some people will fight the idea, and if given an ultimatum where they finally accept inpatient help, expect calls the first week or so that sound like the person has ended up in an inept circus- it’s a lot to cope with being in unfamiliar surroundings with people that are strangers along with the depression that got them there… but when I worked as a nurse in adolescent psych or chemical dependency/detox facilities (adults and adolescents), the first week was hell, the second week was tolerable, the third week was pretty good, and by the 28th day, they didn’t want to leave- they had people who understood them in treatment, and felt safe.
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. It’s better to lose the relationship than that person’s life.
To those who are struggling now- you are worth helping. You have value, even though you feel unable to do anything through the dark clouds. You may have tried a lot of different things, or you might be terrified of what inpatient help is like. It might help to talk to someone anonymously at first… please reach out. There are options, and things can get better in time with the right treatment. I do not regret surviving. I’m glad I lived. And I’m not defective for having gone through some really hard times, or for overdosing. I understand when pain feels like it will never end. It can ❤
Call these guys:
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255