My Suicidal Ideation
Trigger warning: pretty dark sh*t incoming.
To go ahead and dive right in, suicide has been a large part of most of my life. Self-loathing started when I was about 13 years old and only grew from that point, and having thoughts of wanting to die or being better off dead were common by 15. From there the thought of taking my own life came in natural succession.
But I never did, obviously. The primary reason for this was religious: I was taught that my life was not mine to take. And even as much of the religiosity fell away from my belief system, that bit remained, even if subconsciously.
And yet, of course, it remained hidden. Even those to whom I divulged my battles with depression never really saw the depths of how much I yearned for death. How much I thought I deserved it.
By the time I started seeing an actual therapist for my depression and self-loathing, it had become second nature to downplay just how much I thought about suicide. Especially because an emotionally traumatic event was what drove me to begin therapy in the first place, and at that time I had no hope whatsoever for the future. I thought, if I’m really committed to killing myself, why would I tell you so that you could stop me?
Not a healthy stance to take, I’m well aware. What I wasn’t aware of is just how unhealthy it was. From when I started therapy at 21 to going to a treatment center at 25, I kind of kept suicide in the back of my mind as a sort of back up plan. I was -for the most part- truly interested in seeing if any progress could be made, but I also believed that I would need an escape route for when it ultimately failed.
Then one day, everything changed
Eventually, this duality of trying for life but holding onto death would inevitably clash. One day in therapy, which for me was much like any other, I mentioned to my therapist that one night the previous week, I had been suicidal (or, for me, more actively suicidal) even entering the planning phase. I mentioned this in a list of 5 things from the prior week; it was number 3. That’s how important I thought it was.
My therapist, being the trained professional that she is, subtly honed in on #3 and the next thing I knew, I was going into the depths of everything that I’d been hiding from everyone -even, to an extent, myself. But it still didn’t phase me; I didn’t see it as that big of a deal. Towards the end of the session, I was given some time to think about whether or not I believed I should be checked in to a psychiatric center. And the answer still was not obvious to me.
What finally brought the whole thing to the surface was a quiz that my therapist gave me to help me assess (for her mind was already made up, I’d learn later) my true state. As I sat there, running down the questions, filling in the “Very Severe” and “Almost all the time” bubbles to numerous questions without even a moment’s hesitation, the tears just started to flow. I give credit to my therapist for so gently guiding me through that session, from it feeling like a normal week to rating myself on suicidal ideation; it made putting a scale to these things -often without even having to think about them, as though they were instinct- hit me hard with this feeling of…..well, I guess I’d eventually come to call it self-compassion.
This was before I ever started anything related to inner child work, but looking back, sitting there filling out that questionnaire felt like watching my 16-year-old self filling it out, being asked the questions he was never asked. The ones he desperately needed to be asked. It was like that 16-year-old was feeling how it would have felt to be asked those questions, after 10 long years of waiting in suspended animation. So yeah, I broke down and bawled. Long and hard.
Getting to the heart of it
When I first got into the treatment center, I was eager to talk to my 1-on-1 therapist. I had no idea how it would go, but I felt like after finally breaking through the barrier of talking about suicidal ideation, it could go just about any way. Which may mean down, but there was a chance of up.
My therapist, being a very wise but blunt woman, hit me with two very hard and deep questions, the first of which being not even 10 minutes into the session. First, she said “You’re telling me ‘I want to kill myself.’ Ok. So go do it.” Of all the things I was anticipating, that was not one of them. I was speechless. Of course that was just the opening; her reason for saying that so directly -the punchline, you might say- was “What do you want to hear when you say ‘I want to kill myself’?” The second question was much more straightforward: “Ok, so let’s say suicide is not an option. Now what?”
What shocked me more than anything -even more than how absolutely direct she was with a topic that I’d only recently exposed to the outer world- was how I had absolutely no answer to either question. I had experienced suicidal ideation for over a decade, at times desperately wanting someone to come in and shine some light and lend an ear, but I never thought about what I actually wanted to hear. And the latter question was just made more potent by the fact that I was in a treatment center, the absolute maximum level of care aside from a room with padded walls. I’d made it here. Suicide’s not an option. Adapt.
Shame in the Present Day
Today I was laying in my spare room on the floor under a blanket, cuddling a chair. Yes, a chair. I was feeling absolutely wretched and while my body refused to let me sleep, it also refused to let me do anything except lay there feeling wretched. Immobilized, weak, unmotivated. But, thanks to the books I’ve once again been picking up and reading, this time I tried leaning into the discomfort. Instead of “diving into” the depression in the form of trying to sleep to get away, I instead stopped fighting to stay awake. The difference can be summed up in the subtitle of the book that gave me the reminder: “Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are .”
In that moment I wasn’t thinking about how much I wanted to be doing things other than lying on the floor half dozing, I was thinking about what I should be doing instead. Self-imposed standards, even something as pitiful as wishing to watch more Game of Thrones so that at least I can say that I’ve watched Game of Thrones! Anything and everything to keep me from being even mildly ok with what was happening with the present moment.
So I let it go. I felt the fear of “but what if my time is wasted? what if everyone else is leaving me behind while I lie here?” rush through me, and then they settled (after an intense tantrum). And then, while I lay there, just as physically and emotionally miserable as before, something felt lighter. I wasn’t judging myself for being myself anymore; in particular, for being myself and needing to lie there on the floor at that moment in time.
That’s all pretty standard stuff for me though, if I can ever get to practicing mindfulness. I suppose it’s a good sign that I was able to get there in spite of just how wretched I felt, but what came next was really the true epiphany: I realized that the probable cause of feeling so poor came from the fact that I had forgotten to take my medicine this morning. In the words of the poet Homer: “Doh!”
But what was interesting was watching, mindfully with awareness, just where my mind went after remembering the medicine. My body, still wretched, fought to keep me on the ground. But the parts of me that sought to get me up to take my meds, they weren’t doing it because they wanted me to feel better. No, the motivations were to not let down my therapist, my parents, and even my girlfriend. I didn’t want to take it to make me feel better, I was afraid of not taking it because those people might know that I had failed. Basically, I was whipping myself with shame to try to get the task done, because that’s what I’ve become accustomed to.
And while the realization was truly interesting (to me at least, we’ll see what the therapist thinks), how I reacted to it was, to me, the best thing. I did the same thing that I said a few paragraphs up: I let it go. I let go of all of those things trying to whip me to greatness. And of course they didn’t let go easily: “If you let us go, you’ll never get up. There’s no way.” That was a very, very real fear.
But I trusted in myself. Well, not even that. I guess you’d call it….faith, in myself. I didn’t know if I had it in me to get up off that floor without the shame pushing me. I didn’t even know what else could push me. But I lay there for a few minutes, which felt much longer, determined to wait for something, anything that wasn’t rooted in shame, to will my muscles into motion. And then just hope that it was strong enough to overcome the immobilization. And to somehow be ok with it if it wasn’t.
Lo and behold, it happened; not entirely sure what at this point; my limbs just started moving without prompting. It’s almost as if my body, mind, and spirit want to be healthy even without having to be beaten to it by shame. Imagine that!
What comes next
Though this post might seem long and rambling, there is a point I’m getting towards.
One of the main topics of discussion with my therapist as of late is my inability to take credit and feel the acknowledgment of good things in my life, and specifically that I played a part in bringing them about. Housing, job, romantic relationship- none of it feels as though I’ve accomplished anything. Even therapy; I told my therapist, the past 5 years of therapy feels like I’ve been working on a paper for a college class, but this entire time I’ve just been dicking around messing with margins, selecting a font, redoing the title page; but when it comes to the actual content of the paper itself, I feel like I’ve made literally no progress.
And I didn’t understand why. What changed between the me that came out of the treatment center with lists and plans and such, and the me 6 months later that feels more like the 16-year-old me. I had some knowledge of myself, something that drove me forward, and I don’t know if I even ever understood fully what it was.
Today I think I realized that what’s holding me back and the suicidal ideation are linked by a common thread: living for other people. When first starting my first therapist, the place I was in was so dark that I 100% trudged on only because of his words. I lived and did actions to better my life because he believed they would help, and all I could do at the time was believe that at least he had more conviction than me. So if I could use the metaphor of a mullet, I was “therapy client up front, suicidal ideation out back.” I took steps because my therapist told me to, not because I wanted to. And mind you, I believe that at the time, that’s all I was capable of. It’s that now, several years later, several therapists and life events later, I think I’m finally getting to the point that I recognize that what I want is to live life because I want to live life.
As simple as it sounds, it has massive ramifications. It involves giving up a large percentage of self-value based on what other people think of me. It involves taking the risk of tossing aside the stick and hoping that the carrot is good enough to keep moving on. And most of all, it involves relying on the hope, the faith, that deep down inside there is actually a part of me that is capable of moving beyond a shame-based life.
6 months ago, I was confident that I could do it, that it was within me. And while I don’t pretend to presume that this rather minor revelation will show me the way to a full recovery (whatever that means), I’m encouraged for moments like this. Moments that don’t just speak of different ways of existence, but that show them. Moments that show just how large of challenges I have before me -like trying to detach from that which is familiar but also makes me miserable and keeps me in orbit around suicidal ideation- but also that the same thing these monsters are guarding is the same thing which will set me free: myself. Self-compassion, self-knowledge, self-fulfillment.
And compared to the proverbial dirty, tarnished, scantily given medals of other people’s approval, those treasures listed above are much more worthy of being fought for. They make me want to live because a life with them creates a zest for experiencing more of them; a life lived to live more life. And with that, I would hope, the horrid backup, stagnating notion of suicidal ideation will no longer be needed nor tolerated.