It has been twenty years since my last suicide attempt.
I was barely eighteen years old, and had already spent the last four years, my entire adolescence, really, in and out of the mental health system. As a girl, I had attempted suicide many times, which was the primary reason for my many forced institutionalizations. I had loads of unresolved trauma, and many very understandable reasons for how I felt. But none of these were ever constructively addressed in the various mental health settings I found myself in. On that day, twenty years ago, I left the hospital with nothing but a prescription for yet another drug in my hand, sent back to the decrepit group home where I began my adult life.
In the aftermath of those terrible days, the horror of waking up alive yet again, what I craved was a hug, a reassuring touch on the arm, a smile, or a compassionate word, but these were never forthcoming. Instead, I was treated like a criminal.
Twenty years later, I still remember the shame I felt. A burden of shame so heavy, my body and soul buckled under its weight. As I write this, my eyes fill with tears of compassion for the girl I was then. I cry for every person who has been in so much pain that they attempted to take their lives, and were met with apathy, unwanted “treatments,” a sea of diagnoses, and punitive attitudes.
After that last attempt, I was handled roughly, almost shoved from a gurney onto a hospital bed by a large, imposing man. I remember what it felt like to have the hospital worker not even look at me as he did this; as if I was a being so disgusting, so unworthy of care that I did not even deserve eye contact. The “saving” that I endured was almost more painful than the attempt itself – tubes shoved roughly into my nose while they pumped my stomach, cold hands, blinding lights. No explanation of what was happening to me.
I remember cold, detached voices, talking about my “borderline personality disorder” and my “attention seeking behavior.” Attempts were categorized as “mild” or “serious.” Professionals talked about me like I wasn’t there. Did they even know, or care, if I heard? I was a mechanical thing, a body to be saved, a liability to avoid.
Sitting on the group home couch that day, my stomach growled, but I had just a few dollars to my name, as my entire disability check went to this group home. I deliberated as to whether my remaining money should go to cigarettes or food, since the food they served at the group home was inedible slop. I couldn’t decide. I sat down on the ratty old couch in the dark, sour-smelling room, drew my knees up to my chest, and rocked, trying desperately to comfort myself.
This time, something, the dawning of a new realization, clicked inside my head. I finally understood. The people who were supposed to be helping me truly had no idea whatsoever what they were doing. They were just going to switch me around from drug to drug, hospital to hospital, placement to placement, forever. For the longest time, I had believed them — that I was too broken to be fixed. Now I was slowly beginning to understand that the system was probably more broken than I was. But I had no idea what to do about it.
In what I can only call a “moment of grace,” it occurred to me that I would have to drastically alter the way I viewed myself and the world. I would no longer define myself as a mental patient. From here on in, I would reject the diagnoses and prognoses of the mental health system and view myself as just a person again. A person with dreams and abilities– not just a cluster of symptoms or a suicidal history. I would concentrate on a new future, which would not include a revolving-door flurry of attempts and hospitalizations. Never again would I be locked up, and never again would I swallow what they dished out. I was an adult now. I would take control of my destiny.
It was not an easy road; it was filled with lingering fears that I wouldn’t be able to hack it in the real world, missteps, stumbling, and getting back up. At the time, I had no idea about the movement of my “peers,” people who had lived through similar experiences, had come out the other side, and had dedicated themselves to supporting others. But there were also many triumphs. Each time I proved the doctors wrong, and moved in the direction of my dreams, the suicidal burden, the burden of shame and brokenness, lightened a bit. And seven years later, when I discovered my tribe of other “mad visionaries,” “psychiatric survivors,” and human rights activists, I knew I had come home.
Will Hall, Laura Delano, Sean Donovan, Janice Sorensen, David Webb, and many others have talked about how we need to completely reframe the way we understand and respond to suicidal feelings. We need to see the “desire to die” as a desperate desire for life, a deeply dreamed-of life which is being torturously thwarted somehow. “Preventing” suicide is not enough; we have to give each other reasons to live and keep on living. The traditional public health approach to suicide prevention cannot do this with its spreadsheets, its pie charts, and its demographic analyses. We need a community-based approach to suicide based on compassion and true understanding. We need to stop the hysteria and misinformation circling around about suicide.
One way to do that is for people who have been suicidal to speak out. We have been among the most marginalized and silenced of all people, largely depicted only in gratuitous and sensationalist ways in the media and public discourse, or analyzed as clinical case studies by the suicide prevention field. But a new movement is coalescing, of suicide attempt survivors who are willing to tell the truth of what they have known and experienced, in their own voices, and to demand change in the way we as a society treat people who struggle with suicidal thoughts and feelings. The more of us who speak out, the better, because our stories may just give that next person the ability to put down their burden of shame for a moment and to find a safe space to talk about whatever is driving their desire to die. Silent suffering, born of shame and fear, is the true killer.
Suicide attempt survivors articulate a need to develop a whole new paradigm for crisis care. People need havens, not cold, unfeeling institutions. If people want to go somewhere if they are feeling suicidal, it should be non-coercive, non-authoritarian, and located in the setting of the person’s choice. If they wish for the comfort of the familiar and to receive support in their homes, or at a friend or family member’s house, that should be respected. If they wish to leave their current environment for a while, people could ideally spend some time getting round-the-clock support from others who have been there, in a beautiful and home-like setting, like Afiya or other peer crisis respites. There should be places of refuge and healing like these in every community in our country; yet only a handful currently exist.
In the emergency room and ever after, survivors of suicide attempts should receive the following sorts of messages: “I am so sorry you’re hurting so badly. Is there anyone you want to talk to? What do you need right now? What support do you need that you’re not getting? If you wish, when you’re ready, we can sit down together to find some ways to move through this enormous pain that you are feeling.” If people choose to or have to go to ERs, they should be met by attempt survivors who can hold their hand or offer a kind, non-judgmental presence. One should never walk out of an ER feeling like they have just been punished for being “bad.”
Ultimately, what we need most is community, a place where we can be ourselves and be accepted just as we are. In my experience, suicide is an act born out of a sense of intense disconnection and isolation. The shame following an attempt forces many of us to retreat even further into ourselves, into our stories of “what bad people we are.” True community satisfies our basic human need to belong.
I remember feeling so incredibly alienated as a young woman, misunderstood and ostracized by my family and by most of my peers. The only kids I felt comfortable with were the other freaks and outcasts at school, but we coped collectively by glorifying drugs and death. What I could have used was some truly supportive community that saw my strengths and held them up to me, that reminded me of all the gifts I had lost to a psychiatrized adolescence, such as my love of art, writing, and nature. The title of an Icarus Project publication on mutual support resonates with me so deeply: “Friends Make the Best Medicine.” The communities of which I am thankful to be a part of today remind me to call myself Beloved, to feel myself Beloved upon the earth.
I am very inspired by the Alternatives to Suicide groups happening in Western Massachusetts and elsewhere. In these groups, which are run by and for attempt survivors or people who struggle with the desire to die, folks can talk honestly about suicide, without fear of having the cops called on them, scorn, or judgment. We need spaces like this everywhere to remind us that we are not alone, and that collectively we can make meaning of life, we can collect the shards of our dreams, we can find something to live for, and something to fight for.
Today, twenty years later, I can say that I have truly gone from longing for death to revering life. Now I am a mother, having grown life within me and given birth to life, and I have sworn to myself that suicide is not an option. Sometimes I do feel that old familiar “tsunami” wash over me, that urge to die. I see the tsunami for what it is, an unmet longing within me. Today I know that all I need to do is notice the suicidal thoughts with compassion, and take some small step in the direction of what I like to call my “larger longings.” Longings to create, to love and be loved, to talk, to cry, to laugh, to be touched, to rest; or to be alone, to write, to walk in the forest, surrounded by trees, listening to the sound of my feet crunching over the leaves. When I listen to and nurture these larger longings, the tsunami retreats silently and becomes one with the ocean again.
There is a part of me that dreads the day when my son will catch a glimpse of my self-inflicted scars and ask, “what are these, Mommy?” But I will swallow hard and tell him the truth, as I have come to see it. This criss-cross of scars form the tracks where angels skated across my wrists. The cigarette burn scars on my arms are where the fairies touched me with their magic wands. They are reminders of a life I once lived. I’m glad I survived. And I will tell him that inside, too, there are some wounds that may never heal completely, but the scars do fade, with the application of love and the light of community.
Of further interest: