I Tried to Take My Own Life. This Is What My World Looked Like Afterwards
"Even now, my father still refers to it as 'the incident,' refusing to call it what it was."
September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day.
Trigger warning: This article discusses suicide.
In the spring of 2005, my parents made the four-hour car ride to New York City. Unlike visits before and after, this one was very different. Instead of coming to my apartment to take me out to dinner, my parents went directly to Beth Israel Medical Center. It was there, sitting at a large rectangular table with a team of doctors to my right and my parents to my left, that I was forced to put into words what had brought me to Beth Israel in the first place: a suicide attempt.
I don’t really remember much about that afternoon, what day it was, or what exactly I had to agree to before my parents could take me home to New Hampshire. The only thing I do remember, in specific detail as if it were yesterday, was how small and fragile my parents looked sitting at that huge table. They appeared to be shadows of the people who had raised me. My mother’s hands trembled as she tried to stifle her tears, and my father tried to put on a brave face. It is a memory I wish I could forget, but I know it’s not going anywhere.
It’s hard to explain to people who have never suffered from such despair what it feels like to no longer want to live. I have tried so many times to put it into words for loved ones, to describe the severity of sadness that makes one feel nothing at all, and have always come up short. I’ve repeated myself over and over again, to my family especially, reassuring them that it was nothing they did or didn’t do and that, in fact, that Sunday morning when I made my attempt, they didn’t cross my mind at all; no one did.
My only concern was ending the pain. I’d simply been up all night; my mind was rapid with thoughts of uncertainty. I’d been in New York for just over a year, and things weren’t what I thought they would be. I wasn’t the writer I had dreamed of being, I was stuck in a job as an office manager that barely paid minimum wage, and I was too proud to tell my parents how little I was making. There was a weight on my shoulders and bizarre emptiness inside, and the combined feelings made me feel like I was being squished, gasping for air. And I hated myself for it; I hated myself for not seeing clearly, for unraveling over life when so many other people were able to get up every day and deal with what they had been handed. It was like staring down the darkest hallway I’d ever seen, with only one possible way out; there were no other options or red exit signs that I could have taken instead.
I never once, for even a second, considered how my actions would affect others. Nor did it ever cross my mind to think, “What if I survive this?” Reason, logic, consequences—all of that goes right out the window when you’ve reached that point.
But I did survive. In surviving, I was faced with how my actions affected not just myself but everyone around me, too. You don’t get so close to death—by your own hand—and get off scot-free. Here’s how my life changed after my suicide attempt and why I’ll never make an attempt again.
My relationships with my friends were deeply affected.
As I said, in the moment when you’re actually acting on an attempt to end your life, you don’t think about anyone but yourself. This is why many people call suicide selfish. Although I do agree that it can be selfish in some ways, I also think, having been there, that it’s selfish for others to think that those who are suffering can just suck it up and deal. We’re not all wired to deal with things in the same way, and some of us simply aren’t wired to deal with certain things at all.
When news got out about my attempt through word of mouth while I was in the hospital, the responses from my friends were deeply divided. Some treated me like I was a bomb that was about to explode, tiptoeing around me caringly but also overly cautiously. Others were kind enough to treat me as if everything was okay but also gave me the opportunity to talk if I wanted to, while others (just a couple of them) chose to leave my life permanently. One former friend politely explained that it was “all too much”—something that, although I resented him at the time for it, I would eventually grow to understand.
“Most people often do not understand that those who are seriously contemplating suicide are in the throes of a serious, judgment-altering disorder of the brain,” says Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the “Personology” podcast from iHeart Media. “This lack of understanding is why one may be angry with or upset with the person who considered suicide, while the person who was suicidal may feel guilt or shame. When everyone understands that major depression, deep despair, grief, or other psychiatric illness can cause one to be in so much pain and be unable to see other alternatives than [to] escape—even through death—then they can accept that the disease state is the issue.”
As Dr. Saltz explains, blaming someone for being mentally ill makes no more sense than blaming a person with cancer for dying. In both cases, neither patient has asked for the illness, and to be angry at them for it and/or how it ends is unfair. Instead of getting angry or, as a couple of my friends did, bailing on the suicidal person, Dr. Saltz says that communicating the devastation that loss would entail and offering support is the most productive—and healthy—route to take for everyone involved.
My relationship with my family was difficult for a long time afterward.
I have always been very close to my parents and my sister. Although they’d all struggled along with me throughout the years as my depression came and went in waves, my suicide attempt wasn’t just a wakeup call but a punch in the gut for all three of them. Even now, my father still refers to it as “the incident,” refusing to call it what it was.
As the only person in my family with depression, trying to make sense of my actions that day has been something my parents have struggled with for the past 15 years. I have done everything I can to make them understand, from trying to put it on paper using my own words, to recommending books (Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron is the best one I've found so far), to pointing out high-profile suicides like Anthony Bourdain in the hopes of trying to help them at least briefly fathom the eternal “why?” Bourdain, as I’ve explained to them, is a perfect example of someone who, at least from the outside, looked like he had it all. But inside it was a different story.
Although some of this has seeped into my mother’s brain, making her understand a bit, and my sister has read up on the topic enough to get her Ph.D. in it, my father remains blocked. I can’t tell if he just refuses to try to understand or if he just can’t understand. No matter what it is, it’s steeped in judgment, almost suggesting that if I really wanted to, I could talk myself out of my depression and it would magically go away.
“I think the most important thing I’ve heard from my audience and my patients is the judgment and stigma surrounding suicide,” says Kati Morton, licensed therapist and creator on YouTube. “Whether it’s the thoughts [of suicide] or actually attempting to take your own life, [the stigma] is so strong that they’re worried to talk to someone about it or say anything.”
If my father, for example, would just let me know he cares and offer to be there for me—as Morton suggests people do for those in their lives who might be having suicidal ideation—our relationship might not have the gap that it has now. Listening, as opposed to judging, would be a huge help—something I’ve told him time and time again.
But my relationship with myself was the most difficult to repair.
I’ll never know the exact reasons for my suicide attempt that morning. Although there were those external factors in addition to my usual internal factors, I don’t know what pushed me over the edge that day.
“There's no one reason to attempt suicide,” says Dr. Meredith Hemphill Ruden, a licensed clinical social worker and clinical director at City Center Psychotherapy. “And what has led to the attempt will influence how you ‘best’ approach life after it.”
When I left the hospital, released to my parents with the promise that they’d be in charge of my welfare for the next few months, I wasn’t given any direction as to how to go about things. The hospital did require that I’d have to see a hospital-appointed therapist twice a week, but that was it. It’s not as though they hand you a manual on your way out the door detailing how you’re supposed to move on after such a thing or how you’re supposed to approach life and the people closest to you. It was as though I was being let go, back into the wild, and the hope was I’d figure it out. As if the guilt, shame, and embarrassment were things that I was supposed to know how to untangle on my own. Even when I returned to the city, the hospital-appointed therapist was an unbearable human who didn’t try to hide his disdain for the fact that he was clearly just accumulating hours in order to get his degree. I had no guidance at all. So I slept. A lot. I hoped I could just sleep through the recovery period.
“After a suicide attempt, it’s important to get oriented,” says Dr. Hemphill Ruden. “Be kind to yourself and take it slowly. Work on a plan of moving forward or, if you’re not ready, commit to working on a plan when you are ready. Include in that plan working on things like mood, behavior, and stressors that might have led to the attempt.”
As Dr. Hemphill Ruden explains, during recovery it’s important to feel stable and not necessarily happy. You’re trying to learn how to function again, not be the happiest person in the room. It’s paramount at this point to ask yourself what you need emotionally, to trust yourself, and to not be afraid to ask for help from friends and family as well as mental health professionals.
I wish I could say that attempt in 2005 shook me to my core enough to rid my brain of any and all suicidal ideation, but that would be a lie. My depression hasn’t magically gone away, and I’m still on medication and in therapy to manage it. In the last couple of years there have been a handful of external factors that have contributed to the worsening of it—the death of my husband, a miscarriage, and, of course, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic—so the dark thoughts, as I call them, do pop up from time to time. The only difference now is that, having come out on the other side and being forced to face the pain I caused, I’m more cognizant of what my suicide would mean to those who care about me. This awareness allows me to take a step back when that all-consuming sadness invades my mind, giving me the opportunity to think before I act. I’ve also become more communicative about my emotions, letting those around me know when I’m not feeling so great and when I’m struggling more than usual. I’ve found that honesty about my mental health, even with people I work with, has helped a lot.
In order to help prevent suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts, we have to stop treating suicide and mental illness as if they’re taboo subjects. If we allow ourselves to be candid about our struggles and give others the opportunity to share their feelings and experiences, too, then we can, ideally, subtract the loneliness that comes with the struggle—and save lives in the process.
If you or someone you care about is struggling and experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone who can help. You can also chat with a counselor online here. All services are free and available 24/7. Additionally, here are ways you can help loved ones struggling with depression.