Left on Read: My Time as a Failed Suicide Helpline

c. sargent
Jun 25 · 9 min read

Trigger Warning: This story contains content about suicide, suicidal ideation, self-harm, and sexual assault. Please read with discretion and care.

I recently experienced a surreal and strange moment, so utterly 21st century that I have no choice but to ruminate on the heartbreak it has left me with. This is not a happy story. I hope it isn’t over.


Last night, while on an evening flight from New Orleans to New York, I was mindlessly browsing Instagram as one does when they have free WiFi on a plane. I scrolled past a post from a popular meme account I follow, thought it was a meme, quickly realized it wasn’t, and scrolled back. The post was a suicide note. A baby picture of one of the account admins with some hastily written text pasted on top of it. The caption underneath mentioned “not making it until the morning”. The content was triggering, vague, and painful. The same post was shared to the account’s public story.

This account has 40K followers and it is run by a team of people. But the note was signed singularly by the original and most active admin. I stared at the post for a solid minute: hoping it would be instantaneously deleted, assuming it was a joke — and slowly realized it probably wasn’t. I ran through all the scenarios in my mind where it was fine if I continued scrolling. None of them felt right. I figured that, even if the post was a joke, I could at least report the account to Instagram by grabbing a screenshot of the picture and saving it while the post was up. I was overwhelmed by its directness and anonymity. I considered my options. Unfortunately, the first move I made was a mistake: I sent my SO a screenshot of the post and sought their advice on what to do*.

*a note: It is not okay to involve anyone unsuspecting into a conversation about suicide or suicidal ideation without warning and without their consent. I failed to be properly compassionate to someone close to me last night out of my own panic and shock, and I regret it immensely.

After taking a screenshot, I sent the account a direct message inquiring about the post and the safety of the person who had authored it, but got no response. I opened the comment section under the picture, and watched notes pour in: a lot of pleading, a lot of confusion, and a lot of anger from its audience at the language the post contained. This Instagram account is a left-leaning, social commentary and mental health meme account, and I imagine its followers are of very similar ilk. I am of similar ilk.

On the account’s main page, I saw a “Contact” button, which I assumed would bring up the account’s email address. Under “Contact”, I was surprised to see a phone number listed. I thought to myself: fuck it, worth a shot. Without thinking, I texted the phone number.

Hi, if this is someone from the X instagram account —

The last message posted is scary and I am trying to reach someone to help whoever A is

Almost immediately, I got a response.

Wtf I forgot I put my number up there

Wait

Is this A?

Yep


I am at a crossroads here. And it is a painful one. I know nothing about this person: who they are, what they have been through, let alone where they live, or what I could actually do to help. Also, I am pro-suicide. To be more empathetic, I am pro-choice: for the entirety of a human’s life, for all of the decisions involved. I believe someone is allowed full autonomy over their body. I don’t claim to understand the complexities of the lives around me, but I do understand the burning building metaphor. If someone is ready to be finished with their earthly life, I don’t believe they can or should be stopped. Staying alive solely for the benefit of other people is not a life worth living — and sometimes death really is the less painful route. I ache for the people who’s truth that is, but I refuse to tell them it’s not their Truth.

But.

I do not believe that A was ready to die. They posted a fluttery, public suicide note to a popular meme account they run with a team of people with tens of thousands of followers. They answered the bizarre text of a stranger. There was an intentionality around their actions that I believe they wanted interpreted as such. They were crying out for help. I happened upon the cry. I did my best to lean into it.


A and I texted back and forth for the entire three hour flight to JFK. He shared, lightly, some of what he was going through: depression, bad parents, sexual assault, an abusive ex, self-harm. A feeling of despondency — the peaks and valleys of which were too much for him to navigate through alone anymore. Specifically, a mother that didn’t accept him. Specifically, a person he loved who didn’t love him back. I shared my name with him, shared some of my own experiences with self-harm and depression and assault and heartbreak. I told him, honestly, that life never really gets any better. That as adults we just learn to compartmentalize. The conversation floated in and out of my sputtering WiFi connection. He told me he liked my name and that he was 18 and that this wasn’t the first time he had attempted to end his life. When he got quiet, I asked if he was still there.

I’m here, but idk for much longer

By this time, one of the other admins on the account had caught wind of what was happening. They had taken down A’s suicide note post and sent out a message of apology and a call for support from their thousands of followers. They shared a public message of regret that they hadn’t seen what was happening faster. Many of account’s followers left comments on the new post that echoed the compassion and fear left under the original. Most were worried about A. Some were (rightfully) mad. They felt undeniably triggered and upset by what they had read, what they had seen.

I finally connected with one of the other account admins, who said they had been in some contact with A, but that he wasn’t really answering them. I told them we were talking via text. They asked me to tell him that everyone was worried about him, that they wanted him to know they loved him. I passed along the messages. I wondered why he was answering me instead of them. I learned that none of the other admins even knew A’s last name, or where he lived. They didn’t know anything about him at all. I felt like the chosen one. I was sickened, scared, and prideful.

By the time the captain of the plane announced our final descent, the messages from A dabbled darker and darker. He asked me questions of dosage: direct inquiries into what to take and how much. I pivoted as gracefully as I could, sent the number of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1.800.273.8255), asked him to wait. He told me he lived in Florida, but ignored my follow-up inquiry of which city.

I suspected he was logging into Instagram and reading the messages between myself and the other admin. I was furiously trying to make any real connection to who A really was — a name, a location, a friend. I was correct in my assumption — he quizzed me on the messages I was sending to the account.

Why would you want my last name

Because I want to find someone close to you

A isn’t my legal first name so my last name wouldn’t help you much

I figured it was worth a shot

I don’t think you are ready to die

No one else know A’s location. His real name. Any of his friends. No one knew how to reach him besides calling or texting. He wasn’t picking up. The admins he shared the account with were perfect strangers, and so was I. There was nothing we could do.

The last message he sent me referenced self-harm. It was egregious and sad.

My record is 72 [cuts]

Gonna try to break it


By the time I landed in New York, A had stopped answering.

Earlier in the evening, when I texted and A wouldn’t respond, he would leave the message “on read”. Read at 9:22PM. Read at 10:43PM. This meant he’d at least he’d seen what I had written. But that stopped. The more recent messages simply said “Delivered”. Either A wasn’t reading them anymore, or he was reading them from his phone’s lock screen without entering the text, or something had happened. Or. The or. It ate me alive.

I cried in the taxi from the airport all the way to my empty, vacuous hotel room. At midnight, I sent one last message to A.

My friend — this whole thing makes me really sad. I hope you are alive and stay alive for as long as you can. You’re a stranger but you’re not. Good luck.

I slept fitfully. I woke up alive.

No response.


Was it wrong of me to attempt to intervene with another person’s suicide? Especially after claiming to believe that a human being is allowed to make their own life and death decisions? Was it wrong of me to try and change A’s mind? Did he change his mind? Is he begrudgingly breathing, sleeping off a pumped stomach? Was it all a joke? Is he gone?

Is he gone?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. I am posing them because the echo chamber of the unknown feels healing to speak into. I am posing them because I don’t have anyone to share this story with. Instead of punishing my close friends, I’d rather harness the miserable power of the expansive, ephemeral, depressing internet. I’d rather grasp for meaning with strangers because he was one, because I am one. I didn’t think writing this would make me feel better — and it hasn’t. But I don’t think I can feel any worse.


Online, we are all bystanders. We have anonymity and distance. We have big data and big stigma and fear and memes. Inequality and FaceTune. Ballsy, experimental angles. A lot of depression. We connect with each other through shared, laughable miseries. We answer story replies faster than phone calls. We ache for meaning and thrive in the meaningless. We are disillusioned, fearful, distant. We post suicide notes on Instagram.

We are a generation in crisis.

I worry for my peers. I worry for myself. I worry for the ones here after us. We exist small — digitally and otherwise — as vicious, lonely strangers. Who is it that said, “the only way out is through?” Is that true? Are we going through something?

I don’t have a life lesson to wrap this story up with, besides a small one for meme account admins: get to know your people. Even a last name or a known location might be valuable in crisis. But I don’t blame any of A’s peers for this. They are all kids, going through their own shit, trying their best to make people laugh on social media. How are they supposed to handle a life or death situation properly? How are any of us?

So, no. I don’t have any real advice or real answers about this strange three hour human that walked in and out of my life. I don’t have any words of wisdom or takeaways to share. I just have a feeling of hopelessness, like a fat cherry pit, nestled into the bottom of my stomach. Pain pushing on my organs, splitting my heart. It’ll fade. Bad things always do. Time heals, time heals, time heals. And the only way out is through.


A, if you ever read this, I hope you don’t regret being able to.

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