By Charlotte Hollingsworth
A lot of people are writing about suicide right now, and I don’t honestly know that I have anything new, insightful, or important to add. I feel it’s important, always, to leave room open for those in the struggle to speak for themselves, to lift up voices of experience over perceived understanding. But in this case, I am that voice. I have that experience. Depression, anxiety, and suicide have deeply affected me and those I love. I’ve struggled with thoughts of suicide. I have been saved by friends, lovers, phone calls, my cat, and even once by the stubborn resignation that I needed to see how my favorite author was going to wrap up a trilogy. Whatever it takes, you know?
But that’s the problem. You don’t know. Even if you, too, have fought the fight, you don’t know exactly what another person needs. There is a lot of talk in the social media-sphere about how the recent swath of high profile suicides of successful beloved people somehow means that we cannot possibly fathom what others are living with.
"Goes to show you that you really can never know someone’s struggle or pain.”
I would argue, loudly if you follow me on Twitter, that this is dangerously untrue. First of all, that statement is an ideal standing ground for depression to tell you that you cannot be understood or helped. Second of all, it is provably false. How can you possibly know someone else’s pain? Ask them. And then listen.
In an episode of his podcast, “The Anthropocene Reviewed,” author John Green discusses the lack of language for the description of pain. Particularly chronic, unending physical pain, but also emotional. Saying that something hurts doesn’t fully express the consumption of your entire personality into the experience of a single sensation. In emotional pain I find the same lack of language, but I also see a community of writers and speakers and online opinion-havers striving to build one. By actively engaging with someone’s story of pain and working to build empathy for a sensation impossible to describe, it can be entirely possible to grasp that someone else is struggling to see a reason to stick around.
So now we’ve come to story time. I’m going to attempt to find words for what I am feeling right now, and what I’ve felt in the past, to somehow add to the growing narrative around mental illness and suicidal ideation in a hope that somehow, I can fill the pool from which those in mental health can draw understanding and empathy for those in mental distress.
The first time I thought about killing myself was in middle school. I was 11 and I have no recollection of what caused the impulse. What I do remember is coming home from school (I was a latchkey kid and an only child so I was often home alone), going to the kitchen and, sobbing, holding a butcher knife to my stomach and willing myself to have the strength to push in. When my hands shook too hard to hold the knife, I put it away and went to the bathroom. I decided to bring my teddy bear, a decrepit Winnie The Pooh I’ve had since birth, with me to say goodbye or something. I opened a bottle of aspirin (I was 11 and I thought any pill would kill you) and took four. Then I looked at my Pooh Bear, at his dryer melted eyes and patchy yellow fur, and thought “I’m just a kid. I’m just only a kid.” I put the pills away and called my mom. I told her I wanted to kill myself. She told me she would be home as soon as possible and instructed me to call my best friend and chat. She also told me to redress all of my Barbie’s, an attempt I suppose to give me a distracting task. It worked. She came home, and then we never spoke about it again.
We still haven’t. I wonder a lot if some of the pain of my later years, particularly after my dad succumbed to his mental illness and killed himself, might have been avoided if we’d nipped this in the bud. But I am also keenly aware of the rich history of mental illness, particularly depression and bipolar disorder, that runs in my family and that perhaps this was always going to be my birthright.
The second story I want to share is about suicide hotlines. After many, many years of continued struggle with undiagnosed depression, anxiety, and self-injury, I found myself in the position of being drunk and upset in an apartment in San Jose having a huge fight with my then boyfriend and locking myself in a bathroom with a knife. I’m not proud of this action, and I could certainly spend a lot of time being mean to myself about it, but it’s not going to help anyone. I did not want to die that night, I had no intention of taking my life, but I did want to hurt myself. I wanted to feel anything besides the mental anguish that never, ever stopped. Imagine hitting your elbow on a sharp table corner. That feeling of being consumed wholly by attention on that pain. What was happening in my brain was that, but there was no physical pain to focus on. Just tormented myopic thought circles that never left me alone. I wanted to do what I had done before, create a physical pain to focus on so that I could break the cycle of mental pain. It’s not smart, it’s not a good coping mechanism, but it’s all I could think of.
My boyfriend, who had absolutely no idea how to handle this because we don’t teach people how to handle this, got me to get out of the bathroom by threatening to call a hotline. When I came out of the bathroom, he angrily checked my wrists and handed me his phone. He sat me on the couch and stood over watching while I hit “call” after he dialed 1-800-SUICIDE and told the kind man who answered that I didn’t want to die I just didn’t want to feel bad. I lied about how old I was and about how long I had gone without cutting. I made the man tell my boyfriend that just because I might have an urge for self-harm it didn’t mean I wanted to kill myself. The man was very nice, and asked me a lot about if I did ever want to kill myself, and how that was ok but that I shouldn’t do it. I knew this. Him telling me it was ok to think about was not the greatest choice, but I can’t fault him. I don’t think he saved my life, but I do think it’s important to note that the only time I have ever called for help it was because someone else dialed the number. I don’t think anyone was doing the best they could in that situation, but I also think that it showed me exactly how little anyone in my life, including me, knew about handling my brain.
I hated myself for a long time after that. Before that too, but that moment stuck out like a neon sign pointing to me as a broken and worthlessly lost person. It wasn’t until I had a panic attack so bad that I had to leave work because I couldn’t breathe that I finally got to a doctor and got on medication. If it weren’t for my friends being incredibly supportive of my going on Lexapro, there is absolutely no way I would be doing alright today.
We can’t rely on those with depression to always be able to get the help they need, and the same help doesn’t work for everyone. I know it’s so hard, we want so badly for there to be a right and wrong answer here, but there just isn’t enough research, we don’t understand all the causes and treatments for depression. It’s an illness so elusive we don’t even have consensus among the people that it is a real disease. But it is, it’s like any other chronic disease, and we have to start treating it like that.
Suicide is what you die from, but depression is what kills you. You don’t commit suicide, you die of depression. At least, that’s what I will live in fear of for the rest of my life. I’m medicated now, able to feel extreme high’s and low’s without losing control, and extremely hopeful for my future. But every time someone in the news calls into question the seriousness of depression, or when someone I dearly admired loses the fight, the cloudy demons inside my mind will blur the edge of my vision to make sure I know that, while I have them under control now, they are not ever really gone.
It’s hard out there, it really is. Life is a complicated, hilarious, beautiful, and wholly overwhelming task. We’re a bunch of circuit boards slamming against each other trying to make sense of a world that may in fact hold absolutely no meaning. But, to go back to John Green, whose words have given me so much solace, “the world may be broken, but hope is not crazy.” Hope is the greatest possible reaction to the fact of human consciousness, and depression is the thief of hope. If you can create hope, feel it and share it, or even have hope and carry it alongside someone who cannot, I think all good things will come from that.
There’s so much left to do, and we need all hands in.