4 Surprising Things You Learn After Considering Suicide
A few years ago, I stood on the corner of a major intersection and seriously thought about throwing myself into traffic. Astute readers will deduce that I decided against it. But you don't have to wander far online to find people who are considering suicide. Or maybe you just have to look in the mirror. So here's how I got to that point, and how I moved on. Maybe it will help a bit.
It's A Slow, Downward Spiral That Leads To A Moment Of Crisis
Did you know that barriers not only massively reduce the suicide rate on the bridges they're installed on, but also bring down the rates at nearby locations? And that a study found only 6 percent of people who step down from such ledges go on to successfully kill themselves? Maybe the barriers are a reminder that a stranger cares, or maybe in the time it takes to drive to another bridge, they get a sudden craving for Doritos and end up going to 7-11 instead. The point is that suicide is a profoundly irrational act, and if you can get someone to snap out of that moment of crisis, they will reconsider it.
I know that because I spent a good 15 minutes weighing the merits of aggressively redecorating the front of a stranger's Mazda, and for the life of me (pun not intended), I couldn't tell you what triggered it. Hell, I couldn't even tell you what year this happened. All I remember is that I was at home, I was angry and frustrated and anxious about something, I went for a walk to try to clear my head, I randomly wandered to a major road, and then I thought that all of my problems would go away if I just stepped out into it. I didn't think about how it would hurt, I didn't think about the consequences. All I knew is that my brain felt like it was eating itself alive, and I wanted it to stop more than I'd ever wanted anything in the world.
Even more than we'll both want this kitten by the end of this.
In pop culture, suicide is a big showy act with a clear trigger. Romeo kills himself because he thinks Juliet is dead, Juliet kills herself because Romeo is dead, Riggs wants to die because his wife died, Bruce Banner tried to kill himself because he didn't like being the Hulk, Luigi swallowed a bunch of poison mushrooms because Daisy dumped him for Birdo after they hit it off on the tennis court. TV Tropes has exhaustive lists of examples of suicide being portrayed as a heroic or manly solution to a crisis. There's always a direct, tidy cause. Have you been bitten by the zombies? Better eat a bullet so you don't infect your friends!
But I just ... didn't like my life. I was depressed, I couldn't stand my job, my writing career was progressing in fits and spurts and I was too immature to know that this was normal, my social life wasn't what I wanted it to be, my dating life even less so, my rhymes weren't fresh anymore, I was living in a basement where my "home office" was also my cramped, poorly lit bedroom, in the winter the Sun joined the likes of Sugar Ray and Crazy Bones as something I vaguely remembered existing once long ago, no one was calling me "Tango" even though I insisted I wanted it as a nickname, and I drank and ate shitty food to deal with all of it.
I was also sick of people judging me based on my looks.
You may recognize this as an assortment of problems that pretty much everyone deals with to one degree or another. No one sets out to make themselves unhappy. No one takes a job or starts a relationship that they know will make their life worse. But sometimes things don't turn out as planned, and if enough problems stack up, you start drowning. The water rises so slowly that you don't even notice until it's over your head. And it's not that you can't reach for a life raft -- one's always there in front of you, in the form of talking to someone or making a plan to improve things. You just don't see the point. The life raft will take years to get to shore, and it will be a tedious journey. Why not just let yourself drown? Why not just let that car hit you?
At a certain point, you feel like you've been bitten by the zombie, and you want to eat that bullet before the situation gets any worse. Before you infect your friends with your stress or anxiety, or just whatever it is that you've convinced yourself makes you fundamentally incapable of being a functional human being in the way everyone around you seems to be. Have you ever seen someone react to a suicide by saying "How could they hurt the people who love them like that?" You don't think of it as hurting them. You think of it as helping them avoid the infection.
It's Fueled By A Loss Of Perspective
On my good days, I'm a reasonably optimistic guy. I see myself as someone who's helping to keep civilization running in my own tiny way, creating things I'm proud of and making my friends happy and being something that vaguely resembles a good citizen. Whatever happens beyond that, well, it happens.
But on my bad days, I'm a nihilist. I don't see the point in working, or even getting out of bed in the morning. What's the point, my depressed mind asks itself, in putting all that work into putting on pants and writing when it will be irrelevant in a few years and forgotten when I'm dead in a few decades? When all of us and everything we've ever done will be forgotten in a million years? When my pants are just, like, super uncomfortable?
Maybe it's because I read too much Lovecraft as a teenager, or maybe that's just how my brain works. All I can say for sure is that under the right circumstances, you find yourself ruminating on the staggering vastness of time instead of answering your boss' emails at the spreadsheet factory. And, in so much as I can simplify a subject as vast and confusing as suicide, the crisis comes when you stop having good days and only have bad ones.
"Okay, I have a dental appointment on the 20th, so that will be the day this month when I feel something."
Looking back at the old job I hated (but which gave me a living wage and good insurance) and the basement that made me miserable (but where I lived with good friends), it's not hard to think of moments that made me happy. Stupid office pranks, fun parties, that time all those beach volleyball players got caught in a storm and sought shelter at my place because the rain was shrinking their bikinis ... I have fond memories now, but at the time, they quickly vanished into the same haze that was consuming all of my other emotions.
When you're suicidal, you tell yourself that you're just being realistic and seeing life for what it really is. It feels like everyone you know is loving life, and you just don't get it. You don't get how they're doing it, and you don't get why. You want to grab them and shout "Don't you see how pointless this all is? You're going to be dead in 10,000 years, and everything you've worked for will vanish! How can you enjoy your caramel macchiato with that knowledge in mind? Also, can you please explain what a macchiato is? I'm so bad at being an adult." But that's not being realistic; that's losing control of your own mind, and your ability to enjoy life on its own terms.
So hurry up and figure this incredibly complicated thing out, science.
I'm sure that to some of you, this all sounds like adolescent angst that I never grew out of. "Ooh, you discovered existentialism. That's great, kid! Now nut up and do your damn job." But man, if you're in that mindset, people who agree with you are suddenly everywhere. You think Kurt Cobain would be nearly as beloved if he had lived to get fat, release mediocre solo albums, and stage crappy overpriced reunion tours? There are communities on Reddit that will encourage you to go through with suicide. There are famous books written by smart people that support your nihilistic views. I've lost track of the number of people who have told me to kill myself because I said something about video games that they didn't like. Someone's probably going to tell me to kill myself in the comments of this article. If you're looking for validation of your suicidal mindset, it's in every dark corner of the world that you can find. It feels like the only people who want to talk about it are the ones who agree that it would be best if you did it.
And if you live in that haze for long enough, it overwhelms you. At the time, if you had asked me how I was doing, I would have said, "Eh, alright." I certainly wouldn't have said that I was suicidal -- not because I would lie to avoid the conversation, but because I honestly didn't think that I was. You don't just wake up and day and say, "Well, I've had enough, it's time to kill myself!" like you're deciding that it's finally time to see what all the fuss about Westworld is. But first you stop being happy, then you stop being functional, then you start to idly speculate about getting in an accident or getting some horrible disease. It's a burn so slow that you don't even notice that the light is fading. And then one day you might find yourself looking at traffic and giving it a long, hard thought without even realizing how you reached that point.
Heh. "Long and hard."
It Gets Better, But It's Slow And Painful
I don't remember what I did after I decided not to force some random person to play real-life Grand Theft Auto. I probably just went home, played a video game, went to bed, and woke up to go to the job I hated without once pausing to think about how weird what had just happened was. I continued to think and read about suicide for a while -- as random speculation, not as a serious plan, like a "Would I fuck Brad Pitt if given the chance? I mean, I'm not gay, but just for the story?" thought experiment for a depressive mind (although suicidal ideation is a warning sign). But I never came close to doing anything like that again, and somehow I went from that life I hated to one I'm okay with, one where I write jokes about suicide instead of considering it.
And that -- and this is the tough part -- took a while. It was tedious, and it was frustrating, and what was obviously progress in retrospect didn't look like progress at all. This is the cruel mirror image to the fact that suicide usually doesn't have any one single cause -- getting out of it usually doesn't have any one cause either. You don't win the lottery or get the girl. You just keep going, and years later you realize that the good days are now outnumbering the bad ones. You look back at the version of you that was standing at that intersection, and they're a stranger. An unusually handsome stranger, but still.
A stranger who, if nothing else, managed to avoid ruining two people's days.
So there's no checklist I can point you to, no recipe you can follow that will give everyone the exact same result. The first step is just waking up the next morning. If you can manage that, you're already miles ahead of where you wanted to be yesterday. Beyond that, it's up to you and whoever you feel comfortable asking for help to figure out how to address the problems in your life. And I do mean address, not instantly solve. This isn't your friend's dumb New Year's resolution, where he bought a gym membership and downloaded some new podcasts and declared his life all good. This is identifying what knives are bleeding you dry, and how to slowly, safely extract them. You'll probably have to focus on one while you ignore all the others, at least for a while.
That might sound obvious, but it sure wasn't to me. It took me time to go from "Well, I didn't step into traffic, so I'm all good now. I'm just feeling miserable for unrelated reasons" to "Shit, maybe I should try to change my life." In pop culture, or in the heartwarming stories on the news, the improvement is instant. "This man was going to kill himself, but the love of his daughter reminded him that he had so much to live for!" Don't lecture a suicidal person about how they have "so much to live for" -- they wouldn't be where they were if they agreed with you. "This story is about a superhero talking a troubled everyman down from the ledge!" Sure, and then their next issue is about the superhero punching evil robots and making out with their girlfriend. We don't get an issue about the troubled man going back home to his empty apartment, sitting down, staring at the wall, and wondering what to do next.
"I wonder if Superman wants to hang out tonight. I guess probably not."
And that's the challenge. The day after you step back from the ledge, it's easy to recognize "I was going to kill myself, but then I didn't" as a sign of progress, and yet you might still feel just as awful. Well, that's understandable -- if you were on the verge of killing yourself, you don't need to be a ray of sunshine 14 hours later, even if it seems like that's what everyone wants from you. It takes time; time it sometimes feels like the world isn't willing to give you. It might be three months before you're invited to a party or get a job interview, and three months after that before you look back and realize that the fact that you attended instead of curling up in a little ball alone in the dark was proof that you're scraping forward.
But if you start spotting those little moments of progress, they do add up. Over the months and years, just being able to drag yourself out of bed becomes something more, becomes a life you can be proud of. The bad news is that, if your brain happens to work a certain way, the idea of suicide never completely goes away. It just pops up sometimes, this whisper in the back of your head about how there's an easy way to solve every problem. But if you make enough progress, you can tune it out. You stop listening to the encouragement, and you start listening to the parents and children and friends who were devastated and left to forever ask themselves if there was something they could have done. You start listening to the healthier part of yourself.
Don't Underestimate Your Problems
I spent months debating whether I wanted to write this. Not because it's too personal or embarrassing (I've written erotic fanfiction about my co-workers, so that ship has sailed), but because it felt kind of, well, lame. I was worried I'd get a flood of responses along the lines of "Aww, a young, straight, healthy, middle-class white guy with no major responsibilities was sad that he wasn't getting laid or being handed a book deal. I had a racial slur yelled at me while getting on the bus to go to the second of my three minimum-wage jobs that support my children, and I'm letting my chronic illness go untreated so they can afford to go to school. I don't want to hear your attention-whoring bullshit, you pussy."
But that's the problem; that's the trick your brain pulls. You become so convinced that your problems are going to sound dumb in the grand scheme of things that no one is going care when there are "real" problems to worry about. There are people around the world risking their lives for civil rights, and you can't be bothered to enjoy yours? What the hell's wrong with your entitled ass?
"Someone in Sierra Leone has turbo brain cancer, you big baby."
But if your problems have become serious enough that you're thinking about putting a gun to your head, they are very real. Misery isn't a competition, and if you think otherwise, then that guilt is just going to be one more thing that shouldn't eat at you, but will. So tell a friend, tell a suicide hotline, shout it from the fucking rooftops if you have to. Because if you don't, you're going to wake up one day and realize that whatever was gnawing at you ate your ability to feel happiness, and that it's going to keep eating until all that's left is a hollowed-out carcass.
I get that it's hard. There's the fear that it makes you look weak, there's the fear that no one will care. There's the fear that this will define you, that you'll stop being the funny friend or the friend who's good at fixing cars, and instead forever be the friend who wanted to kill himself, the friend who needs to be spoken of in hushed tones. But fuck, what else do you have to lose? You don't let that time you embarrassed yourself in junior high define you today, so don't let whatever you're going through now define a needlessly short life.
If you're currently embarrassing yourself in junior high, trust me, you'll get over it eventually.
Ideally, this would be the part where I tell you that my life is perfect now. But it's not, and it never will be, because that's not how this works. I still get bouts of depression and dread, I still get anxious about stuff that's out of my control, people still find me so sexually intimidating that they have trouble speaking to me. But recently I've also seen some of favorite bands put on fantastic shows, I flew across the continent to watch a friend get married, I've spent time talking about stupid Harry Potter fan theories, I told stories I wanted to tell. I'm glad I stuck around, and I'm glad there's more to come.
So I can't promise you that everything will work out. And a million years from now, no one will know or care what you did. But you're here now, goddammit. And I want you to stay here, to tell your friend a dumb joke, to make something you can be proud of while you still can. Because if we don't have each other, if we don't have you, then we don't have anything.
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