I am bad at killing myself. When you are unsuccessful at suicide some people say you really just want attention or that it’s a cry for help. But really, sometimes you just suck at it. Sometimes, you are naive and don’t research your methods. Other people say that if you survive a suicide attempt that someone was watching over you, that it’s not your time, or that God has a plan for you. Sometimes you want to die, but you are inept. Sometimes you get sick of trying and failing and so you give up.
There is no right way to talk about suicide. It’s a topic tangled up in strong emotions, memories, and subjective morality. When someone says suicide is selfish or immoral what they are really saying is that our lives don’t belong to us alone. That a life is inherently subject to communal ownership. Perhaps this is true, at least in the same sense that art, once released to the public, is open to individual opinion and interpretation. But human existence does not have the luxury of art, since the artist makes the choice to release their work. We are released to other human beings as soon as we are born. Our lives are our parents’ as much as theirs are ours. The longer we live the further our lives are spread among one another, from family to friends and so many others, because there is no measure for how simple interactions can impact another person.
There are wrong ways to talk about suicide. Anger, even when justified as an instant emotional reaction, is a disservice to others who loved the individual who has taken their life. If a human life is communal then so is grief, which means we must make room for the emotions of others, the community touched by the loss. Anger is also a disservice to the memory of the deceased. While we are entitled to our personal anger and hurt, we cannot create a dialogue if we allow public anger to supersede the cause or motivation of suicide.
“I didn’t ask to be born,” is a common phrase when suicide is being dramatized. Of course this is true. None of us asked to be born, just as none of us ask for numerous things that occur in life. I didn’t ask for bipolar disorder or to be completely colorblind or for my giant nose for that matter. There is very little in my life that I asked for, so to argue that I didn’t ask to be born would be a ridiculous waste of time. It is a narrative shortcut, a lazy way to circumvent any attempt at sincerity or understanding.
I have thought about suicide nearly every day of my life since I was nine years old. At that age I didn’t fully understand why I felt so deeply, only that I was in agony. Everything I wanted but couldn’t have, from being better looking to being smarter to more baseball cards, was exaggerated, heightened until I felt overwhelmed. I even felt ridiculous for having emotions at all, which created a cycle of shame that I accepted into my core being, infesting myself with an internal voice that kept me from talking about my pain.
It is difficult to be in pain every day, but many of us are in one way or another. It is a shared human experience and the fact that so many of us survive in the face of that is a miracle. This is why death is a vision of release. If you think suicide is cowardly it is likely you will never understand someone who contemplates suicide. It is not cowardly to feel incapable of enduring pain. It takes strength to survive any day as a human, let alone one where things are so dire that you are searching for an escape. It takes strength to persist. And even the strongest of materials has a breaking point.
If you buy a chain that says it can hold up to five hundred pounds would you complain to the manufacturer if it broke when you put a thousand pounds of pressure on it? If you did the company certainly wouldn’t apologize. Every human’s threshold for what they can endure is different, so how is it fair to judge someone else’s breaking point?
A part of me believes my life is my own and I should be allowed to choose when it ends. Just as a I choose not to work out or to eat french fries rather than a salad. Another part of me understands that I share my life with others. Maybe it sounds callous, but I don’t worry about the adults in my life and how they might handle my death. I know it would impact family and friends, but I believe in their ability to grieve and recover. My children are a different matter. In that sense, I belong to them. My life is theirs in a way neither of us control. It is their existence that assures me that I have to make it through even the hardest of days.
During winter break of my sophomore year of college a friend of mine named Moss killed himself. This was just a month after an attempt of my own. I don’t remember the ‘how,’ but I remember that I was sitting in my parents’ living room when another friend called to tell me. Moss and I had lived next door to one another in the dorms our freshman year. He was a quirky, half-Italian long-distance runner. Lanky with short curly blonde hair, he loved playing video games (especially GoldenEye 007 on N64) and had a crush on the pink Power Ranger.
Moss was diagnosed as bipolar before I was, but we spoke openly about depression and thoughts of suicide. He would stay in bed for days sleeping through classes, meals, everything. His grades suffered and he was always on edge, worried he would flunk out or that his father would force him to come home, go to school elsewhere. He asked me once how I managed to get out of bed, how I kept going in the face of my depression. I told him that I didn’t know. That all I could see were two options: give in or fight through it, even if it meant dragging myself through life one step at a time (though my dam of hopelessness ended up breaking before his, I survived only by chance).
He told me he couldn’t do that and I understood what he meant. Our thresholds were not the same. All I could do was continue to be an ear for him.
Of course, at the time I was using alcohol and drugs to help me cope. Moss did neither. And while I wouldn’t recommend self-medicating, I know that the ability to escape my own head was sometimes useful, which is why it becomes such a problem. The classic double-edged sword.
Moss went to therapy and ran for hours on days when he made it out of bed. He loved music and always had his earbuds in if he was by himself. We played intramural basketball together and we persuaded him to shave his legs with the rest of us on the team. It was the only time in two years that I saw him wear pants instead of shorts.
I was not surprised when I found out about Moss’ death. I was not so removed from my own desire to be taken away. I sat in my parents’ living room and wrote a song. I recorded it on a cassette tape that I may actually still have in a box somewhere. I don’t remember the name of the song, only that when I played back the recording my voice sounded different than it did on any other song I had recorded, there was a haunting Lou Reed-esque quality that felt like it wasn’t fully me on the tape.
Moss and I weren’t close friends in the sense that we only hung out circumstantially, we didn’t exchange emails during school breaks or talk on the phone. Social media didn’t exist, but his dorm, even during our sophomore year, was not a far walk from mine. We didn’t need the internet. Still, we were close in terms of our shared experiences, our openness with one another. At that point in my life he was one of the few people I talked to about my depression, and I got the feeling that was the case for him as well.
It’s been over a decade and I continue to think about Moss often, because I still don’t know how I get out of bed every day. I wish I’d had better answers for him, but I was still years from having any semblance of understanding of my own brain. Grief is fueled by moments, compilations of memories big and small. Though our friendship was casual and a fraction of time in either of our lives, Moss became a part of my own struggle with mental illness. His memory is a reminder of how much I have left to understand and how the struggle will always be a part of my life.
I was sixteen the first time I tried to kill myself. My parents went camping for the weekend and I had the house to myself. I hated camping, so as soon as my parents allowed me to I started staying home. I was not the kind of teenager who threw parties. I spent my time reading, listening to music, watching movies, and playing Playstation.
The attempt was not planned. It wasn’t premeditated or opportunistic because my parents were out of town. I was always depressed, always struggling to cope. The realization that it was a “good” time to kill myself dawned on me in the moment. I had no access to drugs, alcohol, or firearms. I couldn’t bring myself to slit my wrists because the sight of blood makes me woozy and I was afraid I would pass out before I could finish the job. In a weird sort of irony, I was also scared of how much it would hurt. Hanging myself didn’t even occur to me. So, I gathered all the household cleaning products we had and mixed them together in a bottle of Windex.
It was disgusting. But I figured I could handle a disgusting taste better than the pain of cutting myself. Windex bottles are thirty-two ounces and I filled it all the way to the top and drank nearly every drop.
Next thing I knew I was waking up, face plastered to the bathroom floor, surrounded by vomit. I sat in the mess and cried. I mourned my failure and the pain that brought me to that point. I felt a deep embarrassment and filed it away with all the other embarrassment and shame I harbored. Simply for being sad, for being mentally ill, even though I didn’t know, intellectually, at the time that I was mentally ill.
I cleaned the bathroom floor, did a load of laundry, and took a shower. I brushed my teeth again and again, the taste stuck in my mouth. I made myself dinner and still tasted nothing but Windex and Pine-Sol and Clorox. I listened to R.E.M.’s “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” a song I would often listen to on repeat for hours, and cried more. My attempt to escape had failed and I didn’t know what to do with myself.
It would be years before my second attempt to take my own life. Not because I regretted the first or because I felt relief at surviving. I didn’t. It was the fear of failure, the fear of embarrassment, that fought against every fantasy. Until this moment I’d only ever told a handful of people about this and half of those were mental health professionals. Even after being open (sometimes too much) about my later attempt, this one was private. I lived with it locked inside myself, more ashamed of how I had tried and failed than of trying in the first place.
Suicide is preventable, sure, but it is also untreatable. The only way we know how to treat any condition, psychological or otherwise, is reactively. We aren’t put on medications until we exhibit symptoms. Band-aids don’t go on flawless skin. And just as often as there are warning signs there are none. How can we make someone want to live? How can we alleviate invisible pain? The fact that there are no true answers to these questions is why we, as a society, don’t know how to have conversations about suicide.
We are designed to want to fix things. If there is a problem we want to offer solutions. If there is a puzzle we want to solve it. If something is broken we want to repair it. When faced with issues that can’t be fixed, solved, or repaired, we are at a loss for how to approach the problem.
If there is a preemptive treatment for suicide, or mental illness at large, it begins with creating space for openness and honesty. It begins with listening. If people burn with embarrassment or shame they will not open themselves up. As long as people worry about the anger of others or being judged for weakness, cowardice, or selfishness, they will internalize their struggles and we will continue to lose them.
I am no longer ashamed of having attempted suicide. I am not embarrassed. I can’t be if I want live with myself and have any chance at understanding the struggles of those around me. Is suicide an awkward topic? Of course it is, but only because we have allowed it to be. We have given it the power to make us uncomfortable. Grief is a very personal emotion, it begins as a reaction and grows until it becomes a layer of skin that we never shed. It’s not puzzling why reactions to suicide are so strong, we are angry and sad and confused all at once. It’s like our brains explode and our hearts are torn by the shrapnel in an instant. Yet we all handle grief in our own way in our own time. Trying to impose our coping methods and timelines on others only separates us.
As long as there are humans we will have sadness to contend with. It’s up to us to learn how to face it, to share it with some hope of lessening the burden of the individual. There is a stronger humanity waiting to be uncovered when we get there.