I’m Still Here After 20 Years Of Suicidal Thoughts: How Did That Happen?
by Gail Dottin
My brain kept a ledger of how I’d failed those same people who’d mourn my death. Being reminded that they’d miss me layered on guilty pressure.
Content warning: Suicide, self-harm
I tried to throw myself in front of a train on my 30th birthday. It was the 1 train at 28th St. in New York, just a couple blocks from GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) where I was an assistant. That was two decades ago. I came close to attempting it twice more — once in 2014 and again in 2016. I planned it for weeks, edging closer as I waited for the train to work. Felt the calm.
On jump day, I’d back up when I felt the rumble, get a running start — then stop short. I spent an hour, two — time was gauzy — trying to get myself airborne. A chain kept pulling me up short, the kind that allows backyard dogs just so close to the fence. At the time I thought it was God. Maybe I was more afraid than I’d thought. Whatever.
It pissed me off. I felt like even more of a failure — I couldn’t even end myself right. I wanted to take every pill in my house, but I couldn’t do it. I was too afraid I’d end up profoundly disabled, but still here. So I punked out. That’s what I told myself. I’d landed in my own purgatory; I‘d found a way to end my pain, but lacked the confidence to follow through.
More research was needed to assure my success.
Reasons to jump in front of a NYC subway on your 30th birthday:
• Being ostracized by your family after coming out
• Self-loathing for not becoming the Someone you were expected to be, what your Ivy League/Fulbright path foretold
Reasons to nearly take every pill over a decade later:
• Living with still unaccepting parents as my 50th birthday careens towards me
• Realizing that, desperate to restore the family friendship I lost, I sabotaged my success just to stay in that house
Foundational reason for either method:
• Taken down by an undertow of shame
Stigma is a silencing bully. World Mental Health Awareness Week (October 7th — 13th) aims to lift the stain suicide casts. Kate Spade. Anthony Bourdain. These are public deaths that have focused collective attention on depression’s brutality. Finally. More of us are sharing experiences, confronting myths. Hopefully, we’ll be heard, felt, understood. I was hospitalized after my near attempts. I’m stabler than I’ve been in two years, even if I’m not quite happy. Yet.
Here’s What helped // And Other Things to Try with Your Depressed Person
When others understood that being suicidal didn’t mean I wanted to die.
Sounds completely illogical, I get you. I’d attempted. I must’ve wanted out. Nope. Not really. Humans have or need ways of pushing through. Our methods aren’t always healthy. Suicidal thoughts were how I coped. Most, maybe even every time, when those thoughts sparked on, I wanted many things that weren’t death: to be invisible and free; to make everything just stop; to swipe right and change a bunch of past decisions. I detested myself. Hauled around bone-deep sadness while drowning in that shame tsunami. The app I needed doesn’t exist. And the world doesn’t pause. But I could fantasize about leaving it. And that was relief.
There’ve been a number of kindly homo sapiens who, hearing that I was depressed, listed the sparkly fantastic reasons I shouldn’t be: my long life ahead, people who’d miss me. I’d feel dismissed from my own story. That’s what they thought I needed. They didn’t know the certainty of my heart: I was garbage deserving of suffering. This life awaiting me sounded like a sentence to years of kicks in the face. My brain kept a ledger of how I’d failed those same people who’d mourn my death. Being reminded that they’d miss me layered on guilty pressure.
Being suicidal didn’t mean I wanted to die.
I never wanted to hurt my people. But they weren’t living in my skin, in my torture. I couldn’t live for them. The most valuable listeners were capable of hearing the whole truth — they wanted details about my suicidal thoughts. They didn’t try to fix me. Without engulfing me in their worry, they’d ask what problem I envisioned solving by dying. They knew talking about suicide wasn’t the action.
Talking meant I was alive. Being alive kept open the possibility of creating a plan to keep me safe. Understandably, this commitment to listening is difficult. If you’re that listener, know your limits. Care for yourself while keeping your person well.
Just be there.
After my last hospitalization in 2016, a crew of friends encircled me. Together, they coordinated my post-discharge safety net: exchanged emails, checked if I’d gotten out of bed, encouraged me to try to leave my apartment. There were daily texts that made me laugh. Their efforts seemed irrational to me; I felt unworthy. But the messages and invites were soothing. Honestly, at times what I needed most was to just not be alone, to have another person near while I journaled, watched tv.
Helping through tough moments.
Suicide can be a slow building impulse, a moment of breaking the final straw. Depression warps and lies. It pulls me into spiraling webs of self-hatred. I’d lose my keys then get angry at my stupidity. That’s why I’m an embarrassment and I haven’t done anything with my life and I’m a fuck up and won’t ever be anything more and I don’t deserve to live. Multiple times, daily.
My every action was a test of my earthly value. Having someone gently walk me through my thoughts — “Gail, how did losing keys become a reason to die?” — dislodged me. Afterwards, I saw the loss for what it was. Knowing you’ll guide them through life’s hiccups can change a lot for your person.
Hugs. Seriously. Lots.
My best friend would text during her work day, asking if I needed a hug. We’d meet-up and she’d deliver! She’d check in before returning to work. She’d tell me she loved me. Just having those 15 minutes in my future could get me moving on days I preferred to hibernate and let my brain spin.
The world doesn’t pause. But I could fantasize about leaving it. And that was relief.
Therapy and meds.
Drugs are good. They can be. Meds at least helped me begin functioning. Leaving my bed became slightly less onerous. I could shower, get to therapy. Think about this: It’s someone’s job to just listen to you. Finding the right fit might take time, which can suck. But, once I did, I felt safer. My darkness found a sheltered place with her, even those deeper thoughts I kept from friends. Most importantly, I got diagnoses explaining the ways that my illness bamboozles my mind.
Placed in a DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) group, I learned tools to manage my condition.
Maybe try gathering therapy resources for your person. Don’t push. Let them take time. Let them talk about any resistance they might have. Again, listen. Explore what might make it easier. Also, consider who your person is and how to make therapy comfortable. As a blacktina lesbian, a gay-friendly therapist of color was non-negotiable for me. Sometimes therapists without this background were unintentionally offensive, didn’t grasp the weight of particular issues. Therapy became stressful. Reach out for suggestions in seeking appropriate care.
An empathetic family is the greatest support. Unfortunately, my family wasn’t. The willingness to educate yourself for a relative is tremendously loving. There are dozens of useful sites and organizations. But one of the best sources is your person.
Consider who your person is and how to make therapy comfortable. As a blacktina lesbian, a gay-friendly therapist of color was non-negotiable for me.
Ask. Listen: what’s needed, what would feel good, what might be helpful.
Sometimes they may not know. Depression numbs me. Making decisions becomes exhausting. It’s ok if your person is in that place. Just let them know you’re there. Maybe help with daily tasks. Support doesn’t have to be huge.
What’s not helpful: being a dick.
Listicles of statements to avoid are at your Googling fingertips.I even found a moving podcast by survivors of suicide attempts and losses about providing support. For me, labeling the act as selfish is the most damaging. Picture saying that about a person with cancer. Bizarre, right? Depression is cancer — a beastly, soul-chomping tumor, requiring Justice League strength to survive.
Remission, cure or death are the only outcomes from either illness. Calling a suicidal person selfish heaves on even more guilt. Focuses on the emotions of others, rather than the sufferer. Hearing this, your person could isolate instead of reaching out. And that could be tragic.
Since 2016, I’ve completed programs involving daily therapy — group and individual — plus meds management. I’m calmer, sleep better, am regaining some appetite. I’ve learned a lot. Yet, I’m not cured. I’m not drinking iced lattes, paddling my golden canoe while bluebirds pay off my grad school loans. With my therapist’s help, I see my depression as a manageable illness, like diabetes. I still struggle, just not from a bear trap in a grimy cell.
Labeling suicide as selfish is the most damaging. Picture saying that about a person with cancer.
Working out, doing things I’m good at, making decisions slowly — these help me manage. The suicidal thoughts still spark, but now they’re signals that self-care is needed. I know people who’ll treat me well, tenderly before I sink. Ultimately they offer kindness, empathy and compassion.
And I’m sure you’ve got that in you, too.
If you or someone you know is in a mental health crisis…
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — Call 800–273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor 24/7 who will listen empathetically and without judgment. Your call is confidential and free.
Crisis Text Line — Text NAMI to 741–741
Connect with a trained crisis counselor to receive free, 24/7 crisis support via text message.