Warning: This post discusses suicide in ways that may be triggering to those who struggle with self-harm.
I looked down at my blush-pink loafers as I drove, squeezing the steering wheel, willing myself to accidentally collide with the car in front of me. That would be an end. I'd have an out. Behind my sunglasses, mascara stung my eyes. Here's something depression teaches you: makeup makes the tears burn worse. Hiding or masking sadness only gives it superpowers and fangs.
I was in the car heading to my job, where in 40 minutes I was supposed to teach college freshmen about writing, but I couldn't even catch my breath. I watched as orange caution cones cordoning off the right lane on the interstate passed me by; police were swarming around the construction. I was panting, and couldn't stop feeling and feeling and feeling, everything and nothing, a beating pulse somehow both muffled and bleating in my ears. I hated that I couldn't stop panicking, that I was weeping like an angsty teenager, weighing whether or not I should end my life: these were old, tired habits. As soon as I'd passed the last squad car and the red strobing lights were behind me, I reached for my phone.
"Siri, Google suicide hotline," I said. My voice sounded crushed, pathetic, the only sound in the car.
"Searching Google for suicide hotline," she answered brightly.
Breathe, breathe, breathe, I told myself. I couldn't; instead, I swallowed and dialed.
In That Thing You Do With Your Mouth, actress Samantha Matthews recounts her sexual autobiography to her cousin-once-removed, author David Shields. The book, which takes the form of a monologue, explores how Matthews is shaped by her sexuality and, namely, her experiences with sexual abuse.
"Somehow, the trauma taints everything one way or another," Matthews acknowledges.
Although my experiences with trauma manifest in different ways, her words resonated with me. Twelve years ago, I tried to kill myself on two different occasions. Suicide — by handfuls of aspirin — seemed like a viable option, a way out, a grown-up solution to dealing with a snake's nest of problems.
The first attempt landed me in a psych ward for five days, which I recall as pointless hours of cutting-and-pasting pictures from issues of National Geographic among people who were schizophrenic, borderline, catatonic — in my estimation, people who were sicker than me.
Suicide always feels like a choice as available as any of the dresses that hang in my closet.
But were they? I was the one who, only three months after having been discharged from one hospital for the first attempt, wound up in another one a few miles from my college's rural campus, after having tried to kill myself for a second time. And even though I didn't hurt myself while I was driving over the bridge last month, I thought about it, the same way I've thought about killing myself nearly every day since my two overdoses in 2003. After attempting suicide, my life can never be the same: that I've been so close to death has colored the way I live my life every day since.
Contrary to those slogans adopted by suicide prevention campaigns that tell you that ending your own life doesn't have to be an option, suicide always feels like a choice as available as any of the dresses that hang in my closet. If I'm stressed about pretty much anything in life — a difficult spin class, a slow-responding emailer, an amorphous feeling of failure, blanket sadness that I don't want enveloping me, the afternoon snack I shouldn't have eaten, the shoes I shouldn't have bought — my mind goes to orchestrating my own death. I could get out of this mess, I think. Everyone would be better off. I could hang myself from that beam. I could take all the ibuprofen in the medicine cabinet."
Except these days, I know that my mind is wrong.
When I first tried to kill myself, I was 18 and terribly sad. To say that seems like an understatement, but looking back I see how true that was: my eating disorder had been raging for five years, my first boyfriend had broken up with me, I had gone off antidepressants, and I was superficially cutting myself daily. In hindsight, I can see too how the purging and cutting were all symptoms of a bigger problem: I felt invisible and repulsive and unworthy to myself, and so all my energy was directed toward first proving that I did exist, and then attempting to annihilate that very existence.
It seems incongruous to acknowledge that I'm happy these days when I also acknowledge that sometimes I want to end my life.
It seems incongruous to acknowledge that I'm happy these days when I also acknowledge that sometimes I want to end my life. But it's true: I am a happy person who often thinks about killing herself, a happy person who feels overwhelmed with and frustrated by herself — but who's stronger than her struggles. As a happy person, I can see the differences between then and now; I'm able to reflect on my past emotional state and learn from what I almost did, and that is a privilege. I'm fortunate, I find myself thinking from time to time, that I didn't succeed in ending my life.
What happened as I was driving a month ago has happened before and it will happen again. I talked to the friendly suicide hotline operator who fielded my call. We discussed my work-life balance, my marriage, my body image, my feelings of isolation and panic, my fear of death. We discussed how I was thinking about suicide but I wasn't going to act on it. As I talked, my breathing steadied and my voice calmed. And then I was the one who had to go. I'd pulled into my parking spot on campus, fixed up my makeup, and it was time to teach.
If you are feeling suicidal or just need to talk to someone, call the free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Image: JoAnna Novak; Susie Martinez/flickr