Thursday, December 2, 2010

Why Suicide is Never a Good Idea

When I was around age 10, we lived in upstate New York in a little subdivision right outside of Syracuse.  It was a great neighborhood.  There was a lot of snow in the winter (duh) and right across the street, behind the houses, was a boat dock that froze about a foot thick with ice from the incredible cold.  Every winter, we would go down to the boat dock, shovel the snow off of the ice, and skate.  How cool is that, being able to skate every single day, just because you feel like it, not having to go to a rink and pay for the privilege?

At the top of our street, I think it was the house on the corner, there was a family of four - a mom, a dad, daughter, and son.  Nothing unusual, typical family, no one would ever have guessed there was anything out of the ordinary.  The biggest problem with depression and mental illness is that there are so many people who either don't know their neighbor has it because the neighbor hasn't shared because they're ashamed or they feel it would take too much energy to suck anyone into their misery.  I would guess, back in the '70's, it was because she was ashamed.  Or maybe the rest of the neighbors knew and didn't want the kids to know, which makes sense because a lot of people still believe that the kids should be sheltered from the knowledge of mental illness from the fear that they will "catch" it just by hearing about it.  They might have known and just not known what to do to help or were afraid to get involved.  It could have been so many things, but if just one person had seen what was going on and asked her what she was thinking, would she still be alive?

I don't remember a lot of the particulars, but what I do remember is that one day this mom went into her garage, closed the door, started up the car, and killed herself.  I don't know who found her - my mother might remember but I haven't wanted to ask her the question.  I'm sure she remembers more of the details than I do.  Or maybe she doesn't.  But what goes through my mind when I think about this is that it might have been her children that found her.  And when I think this thought, I wonder just how depressed you would have to be to take the risk that your children would find you like that.  Because isn't this really the ultimate act of selfishness?  The kids will have to live with your decision for the rest of their lives.  They're more likely to try to kill themselves or actually do it because they have a parent who committed suicide.  They are always going to have to live with the knowledge that "Mom killed herself" and wonder if maybe it was something they did that made her do it.

More likely, the mother was living with the demon of depression or bipolar disorder or some other mental illness and it just got to be too much for her to stand.  She probably believed that her children would be better off without her.  She was completely flawed in her thinking, but that's what mental illness does to a person.  It makes them believe things that aren't true.  Because in no way were her children better off without her.  I can't begin to imagine what that woman's suicide did to her children and I wouldn't want to know.  I don't know what happened to the family.  I don't think my parents knew them well and it was just that thing that happened in the neighborhood.  I'm pretty sure we moved fairly soon after that, but I still think about that family and the people who were left behind and wonder exactly what drove her to do something so final when she had a husband and two children who needed her.

I tell this story because, when I was nineteen, I decided the world would be a better place without me.  I was in the very beginnings of my own mental illness at that time.  The main symptom was a deep, sucking depression that made me miserable to be around.  I romanticized the notion that my death would make people realize how they should have been nicer to me and how sad they would be that I was gone.  I didn't really have a good idea of what my dying actually entailed, how it would be irreversible (this is the problem with teenage suicide - they have no idea that they can't take it back) and how it would affect my parents or my friends.  My boyfriend had just broken up with me and, although that was really a good thing because we clearly weren't compatible for a long term, lifetime commitment, I didn't think it was a good thing at the time.  That wasn't the reason I made my decision, but it might have been a contributing factor.  I also had the incredible delusion that if I killed myself, he would see that he wanted me back and we would get back together.  See how mental illness skews your thinking?  But the major problem was this fucking depression.  Why couldn't anyone see how much I was hurting?  It's truly amazing how good you get at hiding how bad you are feeling from the people who love you when you suffer from depression.  But I think my boyfriend saw through me and was simply sick of being around someone who was so miserable and needy all the time.

I had toyed with how I would do it for a long time and the best way seemed to me to be to just take some pills and go to sleep.  I didn't have the advantage (or in this case, disadvantage) of the internet to see exactly what taking a bunch of over the counter sleeping pills would actually do to me physically, so I just figured I could buy a couple of bottles of Sominex, wash those down with water, and I would go to sleep.  The emptiness, sadness, blackness, insomnia, depression would all magically go away and I would drift off into a (hopefully) better place.  I didn't (and still don't) understand people who kill themselves in violent ways like putting a gun in their mouths or cutting their wrists or jumping off a building, because those things are going to hurt whether you "succeed" or not.  Why on earth would you want any more pain than you are already feeling psychically?  The thing that shocks me now, so many years later, is how much I didn't understand that if I had "succeeded" in my attempt, there was no coming back from it.  That would be the end.  I wouldn't be around to see the effects of what I had done.  It wasn't something was scary, black, stupid, and selfish.

On the day of my suicide attempt, I went to the pool with a male friend of my ex-boyfriend's.  He thought it would help me to get out, so we spent a very pleasant afternoon sunning ourselves and talking (as I recall) and I gave no indication that I planned to go home and down the two bottles of pills that I had stashed in my nightstand.  I actually made plans with him to go to the movies (in retrospect, I realize this was to insure that my attempt would fail and someone would find me, but at the time it just seemed like the thing to do).  My brother and father were in Michigan visiting friends, so I knew I wouldn't have to deal with them.  My brother was in the throes of his teenage rebellion (which more likely was oppositional defiance disorder, judging from the intensity of his hatred of being told what to do) and I was literally tired to death of him tearing our family apart.  My mother was recovering from recent major surgery on the couch when I came in from my afternoon outing and I actually remember (I'm sure she does too) asking her if she wanted anything for dinner.  When she said no, I went upstairs, uncapped the bottles (no childproofing in 1983), and proceeded to down the entire contents with a large glass of water.  I then laid down on my bed and waited to go to sleep.  Easy, right?

Of course I realize now that it was simply a desperate cry for someone, anyone, to realize how depressed I was.  I was screaming for help.  Yes, that's very obvious now.  But back in 1983, they just did not understand the workings of mental illness the way they do now and my parents had no experience in recognizing what was clearly my total withdrawal from the world.  My mother says now that she kind of wondered if something might be wrong, but every time she would come to check on me, I was reading a book in my room.  Nothing wrong there, right?  I was the good student, the good girl, the one who didn't cause them problems or heartburn on a daily basis.  She was probably relieved that I wasn't giving them trouble and my brother sucked up so much of their energy and caused them so much heartache that I must have been a quiet relief, even though I was silently suffering and they had no idea.

Not "succeeding" at suicide is embarrassing, because when it doesn't work, you feel like you've failed at even the most stupid, easy act.  The ending to my story is that I didn't go to sleep.  My friend showed up to take me to the movies, I told him what I had done, and he implored me to make myself throw up the pills.  When I tried and it didn't work, he told my mother, who rushed me to the emergency room to have my stomach pumped.  I remember being extremely angry that nothing was happening and being furious with the drug manufacturers that taking large quantities of their product didn't make me just fade out permanently.  When we got to the emergency room though, apparently there were effects because my heart rate was up, my breathing was becoming shallow, and my blood pressure was all over the place.  If I hadn't made those movie plans, I probably wouldn't be here today and my poor mother would have been the one to live with finding me dead on the bed with the empty bottles on the nightstand, wondering what the hell happened.

Two things stand out to me about that stupid thing I tried to do.  The first is that while I was in the ER having my stomach pumped, I overheard the doctor telling a nurse that I was "just trying to get attention."  I think that really sums up the misunderstanding about depression and suicide.  If someone seriously makes an attempt at suicide, yes, they are trying to get someone's attention.  But it's not just an adolescent acting out.  It's a cry for help and I am furious in retrospect that the doctor was disgusted with me.  Where was the concern that should have been there?  Why didn't that doctor want to know why I had tried to kill myself?

The second thing that I remember, with a sick feeling every time I think about it, is that I learned later that my friend, who came to the emergency room to make sure I was okay, had lost his brother to suicide.  His brother had hung himself and I believe my friend was the one who found him.  I didn't know because he hadn't told me, but I still feel guilt that I put this guy through something that would so obviously be extremely traumatic for him.  I guess I didn't know him well enough for him to share this very personal information with me, but I wish he had.  Because if we had talked about that on that pleasant summer afternoon, would it have made a difference in my decision?  Maybe.  Probably.  Suicide should not be swept under the rug and if you ever wonder if someone you know is thinking about doing it, ask them.  If they are thinking about it, they will be grateful that someone cares enough to ask and if they are not thinking about it, you are not going to put the idea into their head.  It doesn't work that way.

It's not easy for me to tell this story.  But the reason I do is that suicide is such a major part of bipolar disorder.  I don't know the statistics - I've read them, but I can't quote them.  What I do know is that bipolar people are far more likely to die young from suicide.  It's a fatal disease...or it can be if you don't get help.  I got help back in the 80's by seeing a psychiatrist weekly, until I finally decided she just wasn't helping me and I wanted nothing more than to go back to college and be "normal" again.  Cycling, but I didn't realize it at the time.  Being bipolar, you have periods of remission of the disease when you actually believe that there is nothing wrong with you and I know now that this was one of them.  I had convinced myself that I didn't need therapy and they hadn't correctly diagnosed the bipolar disorder then, or put me on any kind of medications.  In fact, I don't think the SSRI's for depression even became popular until the 90's.

I was lucky that I was "unsuccessful" in my attempt to remove myself from this earth.  I went on to marry a wonderful man and have three incredible children, who wouldn't be here if I had died when I was 19.  But the disease did not go away and it never will.  I have what's called "rapid cycling" and "mixed episodes" where I am both hypomanic and severely depressed at the same time.  It's such a fun thing, both in my head and for my family.  And when I am sick, the idea of suicide still comes to me.  But every time I find myself thinking the world would be better off without me, I think of that woman in New York and wonder how her children are doing and how they felt.  I know that I could never be selfish enough to leave my husband and children wondering if it was something they did that caused me to swallow that bottle of pills.  I don't want my children to have to say, "My mother killed herself."  Ever.  So I take my medication, I go to therapy, and I listen to that voice of reason that says I don't really want to kill myself.  Those thoughts are flawed and I know it.


  1. Wow. Excellent post, Chelle. I'm glad you're still around. :)

    And that doctor was an insensitive a-hole.

  2. Thanks Nancy. I am too. :o) That doctor should have had his license revoked, but that is exactly why people don't want to share that they have mental illness. Too many people still think this way. It's really sad. I hope that if I share my experiences, maybe just one person will know it's not their fault.


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