A road map of how it happens, from one who’s been there.
A couple of disclaimers before we start.
- This is not graphic in any way. It is about the mental state that leads up to suicide and the mental processes behind it. There is no discussion of methods or anything remotely like that.
- This is not reflective of my current state. I have suffered, on and off, from suicidal ideation. I have attempted suicide before. But I’m not in that place right now. I am in a living situation now where I can get help where I am in that place — which wasn’t always the case. But it is now. I am fine. I am surrounded by people who care and who notice. This is me trying to put something ephemeral into words that other people can understand.
- This is my experience. It may not be universal, but as someone who grew up in the dark corners of the internet that functioned as a hideaway and an ersatz group therapy, I think there are at least some elements that are similar from person to person.
From the outside, suicide looks sudden. Unexpected.
Sometimes, you can see the signs in retrospect, but sometimes you can’t. But it’s always there. The urge, the thought. I want to die, I want to die, I want to die.
The thought — the idea, the concept — becomes your conjoined twin. You can see it wherever you go, and it always opens its mouth at the worst possible time.
You’re sitting at home on the computer. You’re scrolling through social media or whatever. You’re there, but you’re not present. Your mind’s not engaged. And the thought floats up: I don’t really want to be alive.
You’re in the car, on the way to work. You’re not looking forward to it. It’s going to be a long shift, and your clients are the worst. Your coworkers are unreliable. And you’re making so little money that it’s not even worth the trouble. You’re scheduled for seven shifts this week. And next week. And the week after.
You’re looking down the long barrel of weeks and weeks and months and months that are exactly the same. You’re crossing the I-80 overpass, driving from Reno into Sparks, and you think One solid jerk of this steering wheel, and I’ll be over the sidewalk, through the fence, and landing on the freeway, hopefully in front of a semi. You make yourself hold the steering wheel very, very straight, and you drive on to work.
You’re listening to a slam poetry recital on YouTube, and you’re thinking about finding one nearby. You have some poems you want to try out. It’s been hard, but you’ve been making yourself write. You need something to do. But the entry fee is more than you can afford, and it’s not like you have time for anything other than work and bed, anyway. You think: why am I even alive if I can’t do the things I want?
Someday, you tell yourself. Always someday.
It’s like an earthquake.
The tectonic plates are under a great deal of stress, and the stress continues to build up. It’s constant — it’s never not happening, but it’s gradual — so gradual that you don’t really notice that it’s happening.
Depending on how good a person is at hiding their signs, you’ll never notice it. Some people might have a predisposition for it, some people might be living in situations that would make anyone depressed. You can look at circumstantial evidence.
Just as seismologists can look at the Pacific Northwest and say that there’s a good change that Seattle will be Jesus’ big Etch-a-Sketch; a psychologist or therapist can look at someone and see some signs that they’re about to erupt. But neither of them really knows until it happens.
This is the moment that the fault slips; the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
This is the moment where you can no longer repress your conjoined twin. This is the moment where it all breaks of you, a storm pushing through a crack in your bell jar.
There are so many metaphors for this, so much figurative language to try to make this concept real to other people. I don’t know that mentally healthy people can ever truly understand it. Even if you have all of the empathy in the world, I can’t make you feel this.
Most healthy people, I imagine, have an inside voice that comforts them when things go wrong. That tells them things are not as bad as it seems. For me, it seems the opposite: I have an inner self that points out all of my problems, all of my flaws, all of the things that have gone wrong, are going wrong, and will go wrong. Daily life becomes an endeavor, a struggle, to prove it wrong.
And then the trigger comes like a lightning bolt. It makes you realize that, all along, you’ve been lying to yourself. Your inner voice is right. The world would be better off without you. Things are never going to get any better. It’s not worth it. It’s never going to change.
Every depressing thought, every bad impulse that you have tried to sweep away, that you have tried to push down inside of you, is wrong.
And what, exactly, is the trigger? It could be any little thing.
Seeing a group of your friends together, hanging out with you used to be a big one for me. Other people getting good news is a big one for me. More than one time, it’s been some comment from a family member about how terrible/boring/fat/much of a failure I am.
It’s another little jealousy, another little hurt, another little bit of stress along the fault line, so to speak. But it’s the one that breaks everything open.
If you were to actually see someone at this moment. It’s likely that you’d just see someone in the corner crying. But that wouldn’t show you the storm that’s going on inside of them, as every bad or negative or futile thought they’ve ever had about themselves comes back up.
How could I have been so wrong about myself? Everything the twin said was right, in that moment. Every negative thought your inner self has ever declared about you is proven right. It all makes sense.
Every time you’ve tried to pull yourself together, every time you’ve tried to sweep your negative self-thoughts under the rug becomes a lie. It’s there. It’s plain. It’s obvious that every bit of hope and optimism has been a lie.
You’ve been trying to cover up the evidence. You’ve been trying to delude yourself into staying around, even though your inner self obviously knows better; knew better the whole damn time.
You are sitting in the middle of a tornado of every bad thought that you’ve ever had about yourself. You can’t brush it away. You can’t ignore it anymore. It’s all there, and it’s all absolutely right.
It ends, one of two ways.
You patch the hole and hunker down.
The second that thing cracks, you try to get a patch on the hole. It’s not perfect, it doesn’t always hold well, but it’s enough, for the moment. With enough time, the wound will scab over, and you’ll be able to go on, to repeat the cycle again.
Outside of the metaphor, this usually looks a lot like curling up in the fetal position and crying. You weep. You listen to all of the thoughts that you’ve had about yourself break over you.
If you have a mantra, this is when it comes out. A word, a phrase, anything that grounds you. Anything that holds you down to the earth when the hurricane is trying to blow you away. In my late teens, I found the mantra that would come to save my life, borrowed from a song written by Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk.
The Earth keeps turning,
The light keeps shifting,
and I keep holding on.
Those words, over and over again. You fall asleep. And, maybe, it’s a little bit better in the morning. Not all better, not okay. But enough that you can pull yourself together and move on and start back at the beginning. A reprieve. The cycle starts again.
You get blown away.
You get overwhelmed. You can’t keep it down. You can’t keep it together. You act on the impulse.
Sometimes you manage to write a note — or do more. That was one of the reasons that I, growing up, admired Hannah Baker in Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why. (Jay Asher is a horrible man; there are much better books out there that deal with this — that wasn’t the case in 2005. I recommend Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places, perhaps my favorite book of all time.)
Hannah managed to walk through the storm long enough to hurt back the people that hurt her, before going on to her peace. There is a part of me, rather small now, but still there, that admires that. It’s a badass move; one that I was never strong enough to pull off.
But, anyway: You get blown away.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Sometimes, other people notice, and they care. You get help.
Sometimes, they don’t, and you don’t. It starts all over again.
It’s hard to explain this.
It’s hard to put all of this into words that other people might understand. I don’t know that I’ve done all that great a job of it.
If there’s one thing that I wanted to hammer home in the metaphors I’ve used, it’s the sense of powerlessness for the person involved. So much of the discourse around suicide in our culture revolves around the idea of a choice. The person made the choice to kill themselves.
I’ve never felt an element of choice in any of it. Most of the people I’ve been lucky to know, both the survivors and the blessed resting, don’t see it that way.
Framing it as a choice allows for blame. It takes an endlessly complex series of interactions, thoughts, impulses, and events, and boils it down to a simple vector. They were weak. They made this choice.
As John Green says, “Truth resists simplicity.”
So does suicide.
Be vigilant. Check in on the people you love. Try not to judge them too harshly.
Depression kills, and there is no shame in asking for help. For immediate assistance call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1–800–273-TALK or visit their website at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org. For more information on warning signs, risk factors, and other vital information, visit http://www.bethe1to.com/resources.