“Have you been telling people online you want to die?”
I just stood there, looking at the police officer on my doorstep like a deer in the headlights. It’s true; I’d been in a Christian chatroom telling people that I didn’t want to live because it felt like God had abandoned me. I’d been venting my emotions through online interactions for weeks, but I’d never really thought much about it. Now, I found myself trying to explain to the cop about behavior that could potentially land me in protective custody.
The thing was, I hadn’t called the police. I would later find out that a moderator in the chatroom had looked up my IP address, called my Internet Service Provider, and told them that someone was trying to commit suicide in a chat room. My provider proceeded to figure out which account had been using that IP address and sent the police to the billing address on my account. All of this had taken about an hour (technology then wasn’t what it is now, so it took a while to find me), so I was quite surprised when there was a knock on my door.
“I’m fine.” It was all I could think of to tell the cop. I wasn’t fine, but I knew that, in that moment, he wanted to hear that I had no intention of harming myself.
“Why don’t you come with me? We can go and get you some help,” the officer replied.
The idea of going to a psychiatric hospital, frankly, frightened me. My religious beliefs had gone so far as to tell me that mental health issues were demons, so allowing myself to be taken away by this police officer would mean admitting to the world that I was being controlled by sinful forces.
“No, really, I’m okay.” I didn’t want to go and, if he took me, it wasn’t going to be voluntarily. Of course, I didn’t realize that I could be taken into custody without my consent.
We went back and forth like this for maybe fifteen minutes as I practiced the broken-record technique. Whatever the cop told me, I just kept on telling him I was all right, not willing to let him wear me down and take me away. A lot had gone wrong in my life in recent years, but it felt like someone wanted to remove what little self-determination I still had left.
Eventually, the cop threw up his arms in defeat. I don’t know why he didn’t take me into involuntary custody that night, but to this day, I’m glad he didn’t. It’s not that I don’t believe that I didn’t have things I needed to work through, but at that point in my life, I don’t think hospitalization was what I needed.
What I did learn was that talking about my feelings of wanting to die wasn’t safe. That I felt things that were so dangerous, there was no one at all with whom I could talk about them, and nowhere –not even online—was a safe place to talk about my deep feeling of not wanting to exist anymore. As a result, I spent the better part of the next decade not telling anyone when I was suicidal.
In my teens, it felt like my life was falling apart. Growing up in the 1990s was tough for a queer kid who didn’t want to be queer, and I was trying all I could to change who I was. The evangelical church convinced me that I was a sinner, that I was a horrible person, and that, if I couldn’t figure out how to change, I’d end up in Hell with other people like me. As my efforts to change my sexuality failed repeatedly, I started to wonder whether maybe I deserved the eternal damnation that was being promised me.
The turmoil I felt over my sexuality and gender identity was just the latest in a series of upheavals in my life. Emotional abuse was normal growing up: from my father, from my peers, from my minister and people at church, and even from teachers. They constantly reiterated that I could not trust my emotions. What I learned was that the person I knew myself to be wasn’t okay, that other people knew me better than I knew myself, and that there was something deeply wrong with me. In retrospect, there were signs that depression was creeping into my life as early as fourth grade, with my emotions coming out in uncontrolled fits of anger.
I had never been suicidal, though. Not until I discovered and expressed my sexuality, mourning over unrequited love with a male friend who was never into me in the same way I was into him. I didn’t want to be queer. I wanted to be “normal,” whatever that was supposed to mean, and I was desperate to find a way to be the straight man that society told me I was destined to be. In my mind, if I didn’t grow up, marry a woman, have children, and a house in the suburbs with white picket fences and a dog in the yard, I had failed.
Added to that, all the years of abuse had left me feeling I shouldn’t defend myself, thinking that other people knew what I needed better than me. So, when I got my first job at a local fast-food restaurant, I didn’t question when my boss started asking me to work later and later, eventually sometimes until 2:00 a.m. on school nights. With less and less time to do homework and study, by my junior year I’d stopped even showing up for school most days.
All my life, the one thing I’d always been praised for was my performance in school. It was the sole thing I always felt I did right, and I got what little self-esteem I had from being a “good” student. Between my emerging sexuality, emotional abuse in virtually every area of my life, toxic religious beliefs, and the loss of my identity as a student, I had lost any hope I had of my life going the way I thought it was supposed to.
Because I had never been taught that there were other ways of imagining my future, I had no resilience to be able to withstand the loss of my vision of how I thought life should be.
When I was 16, I was introduced to the burgeoning World Wide Web through public computers at the library. The internet was a new thing for most of us: It had previously been restricted to rich people and niche hobbyists. Now, though, I could just drive down to the local library and find a world of information at my fingertips.
Eventually, I acquired a hand-me-down i486 computer. Combined with a low-cost dial-up connection, I now had the ability to access the internet from the privacy of my home. On one hand, I was now able to privately access gay erotica, and it was becoming more and more apparent that my worst fears about myself were true. On the other, I discovered the world of chat rooms, where I could talk with strangers about anything instantly.
I found myself spending more and more time in evangelical Christian chat rooms, where I would spend hours and hours talking about things I did not feel comfortable bringing up with my pastor or fellow church members. Instinctually, I felt I needed someone to talk with, someone who could understand me and maybe even provide a little guidance. I didn’t have anyone in my life that I felt comfortable talking to, but strangers were much more neutral, and I didn’t have to worry about their judgments affecting the course of my offline life.
I got a lot of bad advice in those days and a lot of insisting that, if I just trusted God enough, I’d be able to change my sexual orientation and gender expression. The problem, I was told, wasn’t beliefs that were gaslighting me into believing I was irreparably flawed. No, the problem was I just didn’t have enough faith, and it was up to me to change to fit a way of life that was becoming increasingly impossible for me.
This did not help my mental health and, since I felt completely comfortable telling the strangers in the chat rooms how I was feeling, I didn’t hold back in telling them I didn’t want to be alive any longer. In a strange way, it was cathartic, being able to get these emotions out, expressing the despair I felt, and having someone listen. I didn’t have a plan and I don’t even know how I would have killed myself; I just felt so low that a part of me wished I had never been born. Of course, I know I wasn’t truly being heard; the people in the room spent most of the time trying to talk me out of actions I didn’t intend to take.
I was naïve enough to believe that, since these people didn’t know me, there wouldn’t be any consequences for venting in these rooms. That was until that night a moderator figured out how to find me and sent police to my house to prevent me from killing myself.
The funny thing is, in retrospect, I don’t blame the person who called the police on me. Our society so misunderstands suicidal ideation that merely uttering any hint that they might want to die leads to feelings of fear and urgency in others. We are taught that such thoughts mean that a suicide attempt is imminent and that the person must be stopped immediately from hurting themselves.
Suicide is the ultimate expression of the brokenness of our system and our world. If we fail in stopping a person from committing suicide, our culture sends us messages that their death is somehow our failure. I have known people who harbored guilt for decades after because they didn’t recognize that their loved one had slid so far into despair. The result is that we become ultra-vigilant towards any hint that suicide is possible. Suicidal ideation is considered an early warning sign that it is possible our loved one could kill themselves.
While it’s true that ideation is a risk factor for suicide attempts, most people who think about killing themselves, even chronically, never actually attempt suicide. This is not surprising considering how common suicidal thoughts are. One 2008 study estimated that 8.3 million U.S. adults aged 18 and over, or 3.7% of the population, had suicidal thoughts in the previous year. This data points to the reality that, while suicidal ideation shouldn’t be written off, it is a sign of a deeper malaise that doesn’t always lead to death.
It also confirms an uncomfortable reality: suicidal ideation is relatively common, and there are probably people in all of our lives that have thought about killing themselves. If we institutionalized every person who’s recently felt like they wanted to kill themselves, we would need to build many more psychiatric hospitals.
The truth is that suicidal ideation is so often a cry for help. I know mine was. People who are at the point of taking their own lives typically do not try to reach out in the ways I was. I was still looking for hope that the state of my life was not permanent. Instead, I was met with such fear that I learned I could not trust how I was feeling, that my feelings were to blame for my misery rather than the state of my life.
When we fail to learn strategies to address suicidal ideation, we send a message that what’s wrong is the person who feels that they want to die, not the system that has left them feeling such despair that there doesn’t seem to be a point to living.
In retrospect, I think that my life felt so out of control that I didn’t see a point in going on. I really believed that even God hated my life and, if that was the case, why should I even keep trying? Visiting chat rooms was my way of trying to get someone to convince me that I was worth fighting for, that my life could be changed, and that I wasn’t destined to live a miserable existence that would end in eternal torment.
As an educator, I now train people to recognize that what people are seeking in these moments is connection, and that’s definitely what I was seeking. I wanted someone to listen to me and tell me that a reasonable person would feel despair after having as many things thrown at them as I had. I wanted someone to tell me that my mental state wasn’t the result of demons but because I had lived a hard life to that point.
Instead, I was met with people who, through no fault of their own, didn’t know how to relate to me. They just wanted me to stop being suicidal. I’m not sure it ever occurred to any of them that maybe feeling like my life was pointless was normal in the social conditions I was living in and after the trauma I had experienced throughout my life.
Would things have been different if they had told me that my feelings, while maybe seeming abnormal, were completely understandable?
Recovery has been a long, hard road for me, a process of learning to reshape my beliefs, going back to school, and finding new ways of living. Today, in my role as a Unitarian Universalist minister, one of my most precious duties is to hold close the emotions of the people I serve, to connect with them, and to help them feel that there is a road forward. As an Emotional CPR educator, I hope that one day we’ll all have the tools we need to know how to respond to people who are in the midst of emotional crisis.
The truth is, though, that I occasionally experience suicidal ideation even today. After all, recovery is not linear; there are lots of twists and turns, and the things that happen in my life can bring up old hurts that I thought were long ago healed. The difference today is that I have a support system of people who help me through the difficult times. Though I occasionally feel despair, these periods have become shorter and shorter as I’ve come to feel that there are more roads forward than I ever could have imagined.
I’ve never forgotten what I learned when the police came to my door. It still takes a lot of trust for me to talk about those feelings when they happen because, frankly, I don’t know who the next person will be who calls the police because they heard me say I was feeling suicidal. I learned that I can’t trust people, and, to some degree, I still think I have to be really cautious in whom I decide to show my feelings. There are still colleagues, family, and friends with whom I would never talk about my feelings because I don’t trust that they could handle them, much less strangers and acquaintances who don’t know me well enough to judge whether my thoughts are a sign that I’m in imminent danger. I have even questioned whether therapists and psychologists I saw in subsequent years would have understood or if, like that chat room moderator, they would have called the police and reported that I was a danger to myself.
When I don’t feel like anyone understands me and that my emotions are too heavy to be expressed, the result is that I just bottle them up until they explode. This can lead to much more tragic consequences, including alienation and even pushing me further toward suicide, than if I were simply given space to feel like someone is truly listening to me without an agenda.
I am involved in the radical mental health movement because I want this situation to change. When we push people aside, make them feel their thoughts are so dangerous they can’t be expressed without their volition being stripped from them, we do a great disservice to everyone involved. The result will not be healthier people, but people who feel disconnected from others because their emotions cause such distress they can’t be trusted not to harm us when we express them.
The result of this situation is a loss for everyone: people become disconnected from one another and we all learn to be silent and to suppress our emotions, especially when others don’t trust us to find our own way forward. This means that people for whom suicidal thoughts may lead to a plan or even an attempt to kill themselves will keep those thoughts private as well. After all, when seeking health care could lead to disempowerment and disconnection, why even bother to try to find any other way through the pain we’re feeling?
We each need ways of responding to others’ emotional crises that will nurture connection in the midst of their trauma. The result of not doing this is that we will continue to teach youth that they are “too much” and that it’s safer to just keep their mouths shut and try to push through without the support and connection they yearn for so deeply. This requires a profound paradigm shift, one that would ask us to stop viewing psychiatric treatment as the sole option for suicidal ideation and recognize that, when people feel connected to others and to life, they will realize that deep within them are limitless resources to navigate their challenges and a support system to hold them when they feel overwhelmed.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.