When I was 15 I attempted to kill myself. In a very typical story I was ground down by school, home and in an abusive relationship with an older man. There seemed to be no end, no escape that I could fathom and all I knew was I wanted the hurting to end. I walked to the park across the road from my house and sat under my favourite tree. I put in my headphones, played them loud, and started to put the painkillers that I’d brought with me one by one into my mouth. I had a prescription for high strength ibuprofen to help with my pain condition so I had no idea how many it would take. TV shows I’d seen seemed to suggest I’d need to take a few boxes worth of regular strength, the bottle should do it but I wasn’t sure. One at a time, slowly but surely, I was going to make my body shut down.
After the sixth pill I began to slow. I wasn’t conscious of anything in my head, I just stopped with the pace I’d been keeping up. I started to promise myself that I’d take another one at the end of each song. Then two songs. Then I started to delay further. I walked around, forcing myself to stop and take another pill at random intervals. But I felt the deep-seated fear of losing myself, walking alone into the darkness. Eventually, I stopped trying and walked home. I knew I couldn’t kill myself. At the time, this was not a victory, rather a simple fact. It hurt that I didn’t have the courage, that I couldn’t leave what was (to me) an existence that was torment. It meant I had to go back and keep enduring it all, knowing that I couldn’t make it stop.
Around We Go Again
My second experience with suicidal thoughts was a lot more frightening than the first. I fell into a deep depression upon the death of my grandmother when I was 24. I’d also broken up with my long term boyfriend and was desperately clinging onto the hope that we’d get back together. In addition, I’d recently been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder (though high functioning) so a great deal of things were going on in my life. These “upswings” I’d experienced my whole life were suddenly explained, as were the vicious “downswings” where I either became inconsolable or a furious, spitting creature.
During this period my lows sunk to a point that was just staggering. I’d fall to my knees, overwhelmed by negative emotions, my mouth slack as tears poured down my face without me even noticing. I’d howl, gasp and chug on my feelings, as though I were in a bubble that reality could not penetrate. These episodes could occur over tiny mistakes and problems, ramping up to the equivalent emotion of initial mourning. Sometimes I wonder if this was me attempting to process the grieving I needed to do for my grandmother but I also consider to have been a hormone imbalance in my brain, which is the reality of many mental health conditions. It is not normal to start screaming because you can’t bring yourself to make a phone call to cancel your credit card. It’s not normal for reading a film synopsis to cause you to faint from distress.
It’s so hard to write adequately about the strength of these emotions that were not based in any experience or perception. It was as though they came out of the ether and pinned me down to experience them. I vividly remember sitting on my bed, my body unable to convey the absolute hysteria I was experiencing, and thinking “this is what it feels like to go mad”. There was nothing beyond me, nothing that could stop the rage of this experience; this freight train of forceful emotion. It had to end and I didn’t care how. I had to kill myself.
There’s an important distinction to me when it comes to how I experienced suicidal thoughts at 15 and 24. When I was a teen suicide was a desirable option, when I was 20 death was literally my only option. At least, that was my perception.
Again, it’s so hard to explain the sheer force of these experiences. I was being harmed, endlessly, so I hoped for death just like many normal people would in that situation. My brain was electrifying my body with every physical response to distress it could. I was sweating, vomiting, chest pounding and physically over-sensitive to ridiculous extremes. My nerves were alight with it all and I’d been experiencing it for months. All my strength was poured into the facade of appearing normal and when I was alone I crashed so hard that it was a very physical method of torture.
At times I would cut myself in an attempt to ground myself to a real, physical response. As though I was trying to familiarise myself with what that felt like. Whatever my body was doing, real pain seemed to centre me and focus me on the new, more manageable problem at hand. It was something I could see rather than an experience I had no possible way of translating. The cuts and scratches helped to hold off the panic attacks, ground me back in my body but they caused so much shame they made the lows lower than ever. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I was going to kill myself soon as a means of escape. Looking back, there is only one thing that saved my life and that is that fact that I was bipolar.
I have never wanted to live as much as when I was frightened I would kill myself.
Along with the downswings came the occasional, frantic upswings. My welcome highs caused me to raid my bank accounts and mount up some credit card debt but they also convinced me that nothing bad could ever happen to me. The world was a beautiful system that wanted the personal satisfaction of everyone and I could see that pattern during my highs. It was a lovely, manic time. And sandwiched between these two extremes were fits and starts of “normal”, base line emotion.
It was in these moments that I felt a genuine fear that I was going to kill myself soon. It was in these moments that I walked into my GP’s office and told him, in tears, that I was going to be dead soon if he didn’t give me something. It was in these moments that I went to my parents house when they were on holiday and waited patiently for them to return, crying when they did and begging for me to be allowed to move back in.
I needed barriers, any I could think of. I threw away my razors, I flushed away my painkillers, anything sharp disappeared. It was as though I had become a carer for myself because I had no way of remembering these desires for life when I was in the throes of a low swing. These three different states of being were utterly disconnected for me, with none of them being able to really learn lessons from each other.
I Was Lucky
I was so lucky because I had these swings and that’s why I want to translate my experiences to those with less experience of depression. The idea that many people suffer through the unrelenting experiences of my low swings – with nothing to break them up – terrifies me.
There’s a common ideology that if you stop a person from killing themselves, they’ll just keep trying so why bother? This idea that people want to kill themselves, so why stop them? Well, a person being giving constant low level electrocution for days may take a suicide pill, they may even take it with a smile on their face, but it’s not the same resolution as taking them away from what was electrocuting them. Being suicidally depressed means that you opt for suicide as your final means of escape. By definition, there is no other option that they can see. And if you put obstacles in that path, give them a moment to really think and be reminded that no life is worth losing, you truly do see differences.
In the 1950’s through to the 1970’s we, in the UK, switched from toxic goal gas to the gas supplies we all have today. This ended the practise of killing oneself via putting your head in an oven until monoxide poisoning set it. It was an easy and instantly accessible way to kill yourself that was inside every household. Understandably, instances of suicide by monoxide poisoning fell dramatically, lowing to almost zero by 1974 (down from 12% of all suicides). This was the most common way to kill yourself in the UK at the time, so what did these people do? Completely counter-intuitively and against what we all assume, suicide for both genders dropped by almost the same amount. These people, once denied the simplest way to commit suicide seemed to just keep on living.
This reflects my personal experience with thoughts of suicide, where if I’d been given an easy option I might have taken it in my low swings into hysteria. The easier you make suicide, the more people who take it up in their darkest moments when they can’t get proper perspective. These are not people to give up on, not when you consider just changing gas types dropped our suicide rates as a nation, permanently by 10%. Also consider that the US has a very high suicide rate, particularly through the use of firearms. Death by gunshot is one of the easiest methods of suicide, if you already have a gun (as many households in America do) then it gets even simpler. It’s also almost certainly fatal, so if you’re as desperate as I was it’s entirely possible for that quick means of escape to look tempting.
We’re only a few decades from the invention of the first instruments that allow us to accurately observe a functioning brain in action. Consider where the telescope was a few decades after it was first invented and where we are now when looking at the stars. Our brains are the most complex and delicate instruments we know of but it’s unlikely that we won’t continue to learn about how they work. This will lead to a better understanding of neurological issues of all kinds. Currently our understanding of mental conditions is (at times) vague and cause/effect isn’t well understood in some treatments. We are still understanding how to categorise many mental disorders and we’re within a century of sterilisation being offered as a treatment to ensure people with mental illness didn’t breed, as though the conditions were due to “bad eggs” that were poisoning the gene pool. To say that mental health problems are “in the head” or “for attention” is a dangerous and arrogant thing to say, though I understand the comfort it must offer. These are conditions that will be understood one day with the exactness that we treat physical illnesses, I guarantee it.
What Can Be Done About Suicidal Thoughts?
If I wanted people to take anything away from my experiences it would be that someone who is depressed can be turned from this path with the consideration, kindness and perspective. Documentaries like Finding Mike show that desperate people with suicide on their mind aren’t people to give up on. They are just desperate people, just like legions of other desperate people around this globe.
I would also like to increase awareness for a situation that seems like a juxtaposition: someone with suicidal thoughts who desperately wanted to live. I know many people who have genuine struggles and can genuinely feel as though there is no way their lives can improve but I was not one of them. I had an okay life, a group of friends and a family that loved me but my brain chemistry was so skewed that it took medication for me to stop wanting to die. I wanted to commit suicide just to make the overwhelming experience of being depressed come to a close.
If you know someone experiencing suicidal thoughts then there is help out there for them. And if you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts then go to your GP immediately. If they don’t take you seriously then go to another. There is nothing more important than you continuing to live, it is literally the only way things can ever get better. The world is not better without you and no human being worth a moments thought will be happy or relieved upon your death.
Suicide is currently the most frequent cause of death amongst young men in the UK, this post gives examples of tailored approaches to help men who are considering taking their life.