It’s another National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and I’ve noticed that we have been largely ignoring a vital aspect of suicide prevention. Attempting suicide is a strong risk factor for completing suicide. But we don’t often listen to the perspectives of those who have survived suicide attempts, and have since found reasons to live. If we sought out and shared more of these stories, perhaps those currently in the midst of suicidal struggle would find some hope and maybe, their own motivation to stay alive.
For the last fifteen years, I’ve been “out of the closet” as a suicide attempt survivor. I’ve shared publicly what it felt like to be unable to live in my own skin – a feeling I will never forget. I have also shared what it was like to be a “patient” receiving treatment after suicide attempts that all too often felt like punishment. The systems that were supposed to be helping me often re-traumatized me in the name of “care.” While this is slowly changing, my twenty year-old stories are far from obsolete, sadly.
I’ve shared my own personal horror stories. But what I want to share now is how I began to heal. How I am still healing. There is no one-size-fits all path to desiring to live after yearning to die. It did not happen for me overnight. But I hope that elements of my path may illuminate possibilities for others.
I reframed my view of myself and what I was capable of. Society’s punitive responses to my suicidality only served to reinforce the negative self-talk that was in my own head: You’re broken. You’re worthless. You don’t matter. Family members and providers gave me messages that I was “fragile” and should have limited expectations for my life due to my many “mental illnesses.” The moment I defied that narrative and reasserted my essential wholeness, life began to slowly change for me. I realized that I could tell myself different stories. In this realization was immense freedom and even joy. My imagination started to open up and I could envision the possibility of a different kind of future for myself.
I discovered mindfulness. The mental health system taught me that my brain was broken and that I had no control over what it did. Then, I learned about neuroplasticity ― how we can literally rewire our neural pathways through the practice of mindfulness. Meditation taught me that I could observe my thinking and practice meeting it with compassion. I discovered that I did not have to believe my “Inner Mean Girl,” or even my suicidal thoughts. I will never forget the experience of being on a long silent meditation retreat. My heart was so open that for the first time, I was able to look at my suicidal past without shame. I felt nothing but compassion for the girl who so desperately wanted to die. In that moment, I was able to stop being at war with myself.
I got help for my trauma. I’ve written previous blogs about the clear connection between trauma and suicide. According to the findings of the seminal Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, almost two-thirds (64%) of suicide attempts among adults and 80% of suicide attempts during childhood/adolescence are correlated with ACEs. I am a survivor of complex developmental trauma, yet the medical establishment continually treated my symptoms without addressing the root causes. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I learned about the effects of trauma (see the video below for more on this) and I began to research trauma-specific therapies. I found an Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapist who helped me to find freedom from troubling memories that used to haunt and terrify me. While my trauma healing journey is an ongoing process, access to trauma-specific care has helped enormously.
I learned to inhabit my body. We know from the science that trauma lives not just in the mind but is stored in the body; the effects are not just mental but also physical. As a result of mindfulness practice and finally getting some help for my trauma, it began to feel safer for me to live in my skin again. I started to bellydance. I’ve been able to cultivate a yoga practice. Recently, I’ve fallen in love with Qoya, a movement system that encourages women to remember their essence as “wise, wild, and free.” One of the components of a Qoya class, as well as several other trauma-releasing practices and modalities, is shaking or “tremoring.” Shaking is the way that animals naturally discharge stress and trauma from their bodies (see video below for an example). Every time I shake, I feel like I am releasing old wounds I no longer need to carry.
I found community. My entire life changed when I connected with other suicide attempt survivors, online and in person. This helped me to feel so much less isolated, less like a “defective” or “broken” human. I see so much fearlessness and beauty in my fellow survivors, who share their stories and do it with immense vulnerability. What they have taught me is that fearlessness doesn’t mean the absence of fear; it means finding ways to keep moving forward despite the fear. As they alchemize their stories and struggles into a vehicle for helping others, they motivate me to do the same. As humans, we are hard-wired to bond and connect. Healing happens in relationship with those who truly “get it” and accept us without judgment.
Let’s face it: our current approaches to mental health and suicide prevention aren’t working. Suicide in the United States has reached a 30-year high, according to the most recent data. We’ve got to stop reducing suicide to a purely medical phenomenon. The suicidal impulse is not just a random symptom of “mental illness,” but a powerful call to attention. We need to listen. We’ve got to listen with compassion, and to stop letting our fears drive the response. The experts need to be a little bit less certain about what they think they know, and develop more openness to attempt survivor perspectives and recommendations. And we need more safe, nonjudgmental spaces, both in person and online, for suicidal people to connect with others who have “been there.”
When we begin to change the way we understand and respond to suicidal suffering, I believe that we will see more people wanting to live in their skin again.
If you’re feeling suicidal, please talk to somebody. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255; the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860; or the Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. If you don’t like the phone, check out Lifeline Crisis Chat or Crisis Text Line. If you’re a suicide attempt survivor and would like to share your story, take a look at Live Through This.