Trigger Warning: This post contains graphic details about suicide attempts.
September is a difficult month. It signals the fading of summer and the incoming, sometimes delightful, stress of school. With the changing of the leaves and the gradual shortening of the days, it often feels as though the world is tightening its grip, the sickly gravity of winter crouching on the horizon, approaching deliberately and unavoidably.
September is also National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, during which the American Association of Suicidology (AAS) observes National Suicide Prevention Week (NSPW), and ultimately World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD), which comes every year on the 10th of the month. It's a somber and necessary acknowledgment of something that so many would rather ignore completely, out of fear, shame, or disgust.
But according to the AAS, as of 2011, there are roughly 4.6 million suicide survivors in the United States. Of the roughly 33,000 deaths per year from suicide it is estimated that 18 percent are veterans, and a recent VA study suggests that nearly 20 veterans take their own lives daily.
As of April, suicide is the 9th leading cause of death in the United States according to the CDC, up from the 11th in 2009. Regardless of our inability or unwillingness to have real discussions about fatal self-harm, the numbers prove that it is a major concern in the United States and worldwide. Suicide Prevention Awareness Month gives us the opportunity and the platform to have the conversations we owe to those who have passed, those who have survived, and those who, in the future, might try to end their own lives.
As a statistical study, suicidality in America is depressing but often uncompelling. If the normal cultural reaction to suicide is to erase those whose lives it has colored from the public sphere, conceiving of these individuals only as numbers is simply another way to flatten their experiences. For me, especially, seeing fatal self-harm discussed purely as a disturbing wall of figures is disheartening, perhaps because I know I am among those statistics, as a survivor, and that I could have been as a casualty.
I first tried to take my own life around the age of ten, when I held my head underwater in the bathtub, hoping that I would pass out before the oxygen deprivation became too painful. I didn't, and, instead, came out coughing and hiccuping, dirty bathwater bubbling of my mouth.
While I cannot say how sincere I was in the moment when I decided that I wanted to die, I can say for certain how I felt when I did not. While most people might assume that the natural reaction to survival is relief, even excitement, it was not for me. In fact, my gut feeling was not even disappointment. It was shame. As a child, I remember looking in the mirror as I toweled off, disgusted with myself: horrified that I was apparently both unfit to live and unfit to die. I didn't know what made me more of a coward: that I couldn't carry on in life, or that I couldn't do what was necessary to stop.
In middle school, I came out, identifying first as gay, then as bisexual, then as pansexual, and eventually, by the time I turned 18, simply as queer. The experience of gay adolescents is one that has become increasingly well documented in recent years, with special attention given to the high suicide rates of LGBTQ teens through initiatives such as the Trevor Project, which was founded in 1998.
Still, when I came out I was only glancingly familiar with what it meant to be queer, and the majority of my understanding came from the ridicule of other students, and the seemingly half-hearted empathy of my parents, who struggled with the idea of my sexuality, even as they tried to hide this. Though I wouldn't make any further attempts on my life until high school, during which I began to experience intense mood swings and various psychotic symptoms, the desire to die felt ever present. Some days this manifested as a visceral, physical reflex, often accompanied by vivid fantasies of tearing out the arteries beneath my skin as though they were faulty wiring in a crumbling home.
Other times, the urge was more docile. As I drifted off to sleep, I would consider how lovely and how convenient it might be to simply not wake up. Perhaps not to die, but to cease to exist, fading from the memories of friends and family upon whom I was increasingly certain I was a plague and a burden. I could evaporate from memories and from photos, leaving the ones who suffered my messy love with the calm and joyous lives they deserved. Of course this was not possible.
Through seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth grades I awoke every morning in the same fleshy suffocating rind. My sophomore year of high school, when I attempted to hang myself from my bedroom door using a lanyard, I decided that barring an impossible act of God, I would have to remove myself. If you want something done right, and all that jazz. The lanyard snapped, and I fell on my ass, gasping for breath, massaging the bruise that encircled my throat. I remember tearing at the rug on my floor and silently sobbing, screaming internally at whatever it was that was holding me back.
That same year I started therapy, during which I was diagnosed with Major Depressive disorder. In sessions with my therapist, I made sure to avoid the topic of suicide except in vague abstracts. It was almost immediately clear to me that the more I spoke about it, the more people would try to stop me, acting (I believed) against their own best interest, blinded to how rancid I truly was. In my depressed brain, I imagined every relationship of mine as a form of abuse-by-existence, where the victim of my choice to breathe and move about convinced themselves to stay in my orbit in the same way a battered partner might rationalize physical or emotional violence. Whereas Albert Camus might have conceived of resisting suicide as an act of rebellion, I envisioned it as an act of sadism, a selfish unwillingness to take the necessary steps to keep those in my life same from whatever it was I was harboring.
Arriving in college, I began to self-medicate. I had already been drinking in high school, but now alcohol was more readily available, and I could make more liberal use of it. Along with cocaine, opiates, and hallucinogens, I worked to fight the voices and visions and mood swings, hoping against hope that I might one day drink too much or shoot a bad batch into my arm. With therapists becoming increasingly wise to my suicidal intimations this seemed like the perfect answer to their suggestion that to kill myself would cause my loved ones great pain. Intentional accident seemed like a happy compromise.
During my time in college, I made six further attempts on my life. I tried hanging myself, slitting my wrists, overdosing, and suffocating myself. Nothing worked, and each time I was left with the same old sense of shame. But now it was growing. As I found myself in the hospital, and then in rehab, I felt as though my failures were compounding with each moment I drew breath. I got better at carrying myself with the illusion of contentment, but my willingness to actually fight internally for something resembling happiness was rapidly disappearing. This cycle continued, through sobriety and relapse, through further hospitalizations, through diagnoses and therapy, med adjustments and group work. It's a battle that I fight as I finish typing this sentence.
Because the only suicide stories that end are the ones that end tragically. Surviving is victory, but it is often a complicated one, marred by self-disgust and fear, the sense that you've done something wrong by trying to do the first right thing. The logic behind suicide is diverse and complex. Victims can be driven by self-hatred, terror, physical and emotional pain, trauma, among many other sensations. That high profile suicides are often met with a sense of discomfort mixed with condemnation only complicates this. When Fox News reporters, Gene Simmons, Henry Rollins, and even a contestant on RuPaul's Drag Race suggest that those who attempt and fall prey to suicide are weak or ungrateful or blasphemous, it only deepens and infects the wounds that give rise to suicidal thinking in the first place. No one has ever been shamed out of shame.
What makes NSPAM so powerful is that it forces us to confront these experiences, all of us, all together. It gives us a forum for stories, and it allows those stories to grow away from the dark basements in which they're often stored. But it's also important for us to fight the urge to apply any sort of narrative template to this discussion. Even among survivors, experience vary vastly, and suggesting that there is one path to recovery or safety is just as reckless as any blanket condemnation. Progress, in its purest form, is cyclical, not linear; and though we may crave stories of rousing success, we cannot force those struggling to continue their own tales to adapt their experiences to our expectations.
Survival, by its very nature, is messy. There are friends who I ended relationships with because they successfully stopped me from killing myself, who I am now too ashamed to go forward and thank. These people who risked my love for my safety, demonstrating a sort of selflessness I can only pray I achieve, whenever I am struggling I think of them.
And I would be lying if I were to say that every day I kiss the ground beneath my feet and thank God I'm still alive. Even if I fight against the urge to actively harm myself, there are still nights when I drift off to sleep wondering how lovely it would be if my life were all some unfortunate fantasy for those I still sometimes struggle to connect with. But I would be foolish to take this struggle as a sign of failure, because the joy we have is not always the joy we thought we might.
In the 2009 rock musical Next to Normal, written by Brian Yorkey with music from Tom Kitt, a suburban mother struggles with her bipolar disorder and its effects on her family. In the first act finale, she attempts suicide and is sent in for electroshock treatment. In the second act finale, she leaves her family to pursue treatment, breaking the heart in one place for the promise for repair in another. As the show closes on an all-cast number titled "Light," lead actress Alice Ripley sings: "And you find some way to survive./And you find out you don't have to be happy at all,/to be happy you're alive." On first listen, it might seem like a grim or even defeatist sentiment, but I've found it to be among the most truly freeing and empowering: the willingness to unbind yourself from expectations of happiness to find happiness in what's present.
Spoken like that is sounds corny, but lived, it's transcendent. It's something I've come to call, "The Still Here:" the most fundamental and most important of victories, something both modest and massive, a small act of rebellion and courage and self-love, a middle ground that feels less like purgatory than a way station.
I may not be overjoyed today. I may even be in agony. I may be afraid, and I may be angry. I may be depressed or anxious or feel like I'm losing my mind. But thanks to the kindness and empathy and perseverance of myself and others, I get to grumble myself awake in the morning. I get to write this. I get to say that I'm still here. And you deserve to be too.
If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.