It has been 16 years since I tried to kill myself, but I am now filled with more passion and purpose than ever before. It has been a long, hard road out of hell, though.
Up until a few years ago, I told myself, family, my friends, and my doctors that I was not suicidal. That was a lie. I convinced myself that despite cutting myself in increasingly dangerous places like the neck and wrists, and despite the cuts being deeper every time, I did not want to die — but I did. It took me literally half of my life to admit it because I was too concerned about appearing strong to everyone I knew, particularly for my fatherless family.
My father died in a car accident when I was only 16 years old. I was the last person in my family to see him alive. He dropped me off at school that morning. As I stepped out of the car, he told me to “make it a great day” with his trademark enthusiasm and optimism. All these years later, I finally see the power behind the very last words I would ever hear my father say.
The quality of our days is ultimately up to us, not the people or the circumstances in them, so why sabotage ourselves with passive language and words like “have” when we can be using empowering words like “make”? If we are the creators who choose the quality of our days, then why settle for “nice” when we can have “great”? We assign meaning to every single thing that happens to us. It’s not something we can turn off, but once we are aware of it, we can make it work for us. Regardless of whether or not these statements are resonating with you, they are mere platitudes unless you use this awareness to choose new meanings for everything in your life.
When my dad died, I thought that it meant that I didn’t deserve love, and God was punishing me by taking my dad away from me. As I got older, and less spiritual, I thought it meant nothing — that it was an accident and that’s all it was, with no meaning whatsoever — which in retrospect, was almost as demoralizing as thinking I was being personally punished by God. Now that I know that I made all of that up, I can shed those beliefs and replace them with beliefs that empower me. I think that if there is a God, and he presented my father with the choice of continuing to live his life with us on earth or dying so that the tragedy would eventually inspire his oldest son to create a nonprofit organization that would go on to save lives and change the world — I think he would choose the latter without hesitating. I am choosing to believe that.
Though I do believe in the power of positively framing your life circumstances, I also believe in being vulnerable and allowing it to show. When I am in agony, pretending that I’m not does not serve anyone. I want to pretend that I am doing great, but the benefit of looking good is not in line with the power of vulnerability that I promote with The You Rock Foundation. It’s okay that I am suffering. It’s okay if you are suffering. And it’s okay that we admit that and share it.
We tend just to see people’s highlight reels here on Facebook and other social media, and that creates the illusion that everyone is doing better than you are. I assure you that is not true. It’s so much easier to share about everything that is good in your life. The praise and admiration is addictive. It’s so easy to talk about everything that is going great. It’s much more difficult to talk about what we’re struggling with.
But people with depression, people like me, are afraid. We are afraid of looking like we want attention. We are afraid of being judged. But most of all, we are afraid of appearing weak. There is nothing weak about wanting to be seen, heard, and loved. There is nothing weak about asking for support when you feel like you cannot stand on your own. When we ask someone for help, we often feel like we are occurring to them as a burden. Instead, please consider that you are honoring them by inviting them into the most intimate parts of your life.
You don’t need to make a public post on social media to create a community that will empower you and lift you up when you are down. Start with someone you trust. If you don’t have anyone like that in your life, there are plenty of strangers out there at organizations like Crisis Text Line who are willing to listen and give guidance.
Healing begins when we share our stories. Our stories inspire others to speak. We are stronger together. Together we can empower those who feel powerless, spread awareness about their existence, and educate the world about what it’s like to live with mental illness.
There is now no doubt that there is a war being fought. A war that is worth fighting. A war that needs to be won. We need to stop the ignorance, stop the intolerance, and stop the silence. The more we share our stories, the more we shatter the stigma. We need to take away the taboos, take a look at the truth, and start talking — because the only way we’re going to win this war that people are battling alone is by standing strong together.
If you ever feel that alone, please reach out. Reach out to a family member. Reach out to a friend. Reach out to a stranger. You never know who else is suffering with you. Chances are that person needs you as much as you need them.
Be a part of the solution. Let’s stop this pandemic in its tracks. Don’t ignore the chance to get help for yourself or someone else you know who may be in crisis.
To speak to someone who will understand and help you find the hope you deserve, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or text 741741 to Crisis Text Line. These services are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
1-800-273-TALK (8255) | suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Crisis Text Line | crisistextline.org
Many people do not seek treatment in the early stages of mental illness because they do not recognize the symptoms. Screening can help.
Screening is an anonymous, free, and private way to learn about your mental health and if you are showing warning signs of a mental illness. Don’t wait to get help, take a free screening, and act Before Stage 4.
Mental Health America | mentalhealthamerica.net
Joseph Penola is the founder and executive director of The You Rock Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to spreading awareness about mental health by using interviews with popular musicians as catalysts for conversation. Joseph is a suicide attempt survivor who created You Rock as a result of his personal battle with depression. Despite being surrounded by supportive family and friends, Joseph could not confide in anyone. He felt like music was able to speak for him, and it eventually allowed him to find his own voice, talk about his illness, and get the treatment he needed. You Rock’s video interviews with bands like Slipknot, Korn, Lamb of God, and Killswitch Engage have given music fans the same kind of inspiration that was instrumental to Joseph’s healing. In addition to the work he does for You Rock, he has previously organized a mental health support group at the School of Rock, volunteered as a counselor for Crisis Text Line. He also currently speaks at public schools, conferences, and other events.