A quick content note: the following contains frank discussions of trauma, mental illness, and suicidal ideation.
During suicide prevention month, especially in the wake of some very high profile suicides, my social media feeds are littered with articles about suicidality, copy and paste posts that are meant to raise awareness, or just big, bold posts with the Suicide Prevention Hotline number on them. They are very clearly coming from a place of good intention but often miss the mark entirely for folks who are dealing with suicidal ideation right now. Folks like me.
Before moving on, I do feel the need to state a few things: I am not a danger to myself or others, and both my therapist and my primary care physician check in with me to see if I am experiencing any kind of escalation in my suicidal ideation. This is not a cry for help or an attempt at attention-seeking: it is a legitimate struggle that I am sure others share and I want to create opportunities to discuss this issue without judgment. In order to do that, someone has to start the conversation, and that someone might as well be me. An essay seems like a more effective choice than a knock-knock joke. I would also like to include a personal note to my mother: This stuff is not the result of anything you did. The special brand of fuckery knocking around my brain is not a failing on your part.
What I experience is passive suicidal ideation. I don’t have a plan. I don’t even really want to commit suicide, I just kind of want to just not exist anymore. Basically, my mind is constantly carrying on with this whole It’s a Wonderful Life-style interrogation of what the world would be like if I were not here, but my brain comes to a very different conclusion than George Bailey does.
The first time I remember wanting to not be alive anymore, I was eight years old. My younger sister had been living with (in spite of) leukemia for two and a half years. I was active in a church—my new-found involvement was largely a product of the fact that they let me sing in the choir but apparently some more insidious stuff sneaked into my brain. Having a very fundamentalist extended family, I had somehow latched onto the idea of self-sacrifice. My poor little eight-year-old brain somehow decided that if I sacrificed myself, then God would spare my sister; that she would get to live and not be in pain. I knew I was no savior, but I wasn’t trying to sacrifice myself to save humanity, just my sister.
Two years later, my sister died. I was numb for a very long time. To protect myself emotionally, I shut down. In fact, nearly twenty-five years later, I am still working at pushing through that barrier. When the feelings began to creep back in, though, one of the first things I felt was this deep conviction that my sister was the one who was supposed to survive. That I shouldn’t be here. She was a better person than I would ever be—even though she could be a real brat sometimes. She was a better big sister to our baby sister than I was, and she had already had such an enormous positive impact on the people around her. She deserved to still be here.
By the time those thoughts started knocking around my brain pan, I was in my early teens. I had a step-parent at the time who was emotionally abusive toward my mom, me, and, later, toward my baby sister. This experience ended up reinforcing that gut feeling I had. Passive suicidal ideation in adults is often the result of having had repeated experiences of feeling suicidal during those childhood and/or teen years that are crucial in your psychological development. Thanks to a lot of circumstances that no one could prevent or mitigate, I found myself in a perfect storm of emotional fuckery at just the right developmental age.
That storm left me with this constant brain process that goes, “Ummm… why even are you still here?” Most of the time, it runs quietly in the background like anti-virus software. I’m aware that it’s in there, doing its thing, but it’s not super intrusive. Usually. Also like anti-virus software, if my brain visits the wrong emotional site and gets bombarded with malicious feels (look at me and my extended metaphor!), it gets super intrusive. Like, “seriously considering the idea of completely disregarding traffic on my walk home from work and letting whatever happens happen” kind of intrusive. Even at its most intrusive, there’s still no plan or even any active drive to make it happen. It’s less “I want to die and I will find a way to do it” and more “living sucks, so I’m not going to take any special measures to not die.” Still not healthy, I know. And that’s why I am on medication and going to therapy. But it’s not an “Oh, shit! Hide all of the sharp things” kind of emergent situation either.
I don’t have any grand advice, words of wisdom, or some upbeat spiel about how everything gets better. I want to tell you that, if you just get through this part, it will all turn to rainbows, unicorns, and sparkly butterfly farts. Hell, I’d like to tell myself that. But that would require me to be on the “other side” of this thing and I’m not. I’m just fighting it. There are plenty of days when all this shit is in the background and—except for my overall weirdness—I almost pass for a “normal” (whatever that is) human being. On those days, I laugh and dance and write and art and work on our DIY house remodel. But there are days when I’m more aware of the hum and on those days, I spend a lot of time arguing with myself. If you didn’t know, it’s painful to try to motivate yourself to do anything when you feel like everything is pointless. And then, thankfully less frequently, there are those days when the thoughts are very intrusive. On those days, I’m surviving on habit and spite. I trudge through what must be done out of habit, and I keep trudging, angrily, just to spite myself and anyone else who has tried to convince me that I’m not worth the trudge. Spite and anger are probably not super healthy reasons to stay alive, but they have helped keep me alive when hope has long since failed me.
Even though I can’t tell you that it will all be better if you just stick it out, I can tell you that there is life to live and lessons to learn and people to love and ways to help, even if you’re just trudging along out of spite. Even with all of this bullshit running in the background all the time, I still have a pretty full life: I have a family that I love and who loves me, I have a husband who keeps me laughing and makes my heart poop its pants, I am becoming increasingly active in my community, I participate in activist work when I can. I write. I paint. I dream. And having had all these darker experiences helps me to relate to others who have them too: I see you. You are not alone. Life might be a steaming pile of shit, but I’m here in the muck with you and, together, we can pull each other through darkness and celebrate the moments of joy that break through.
“What do we say to the god of [suicidal ideation]?”