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Suicidal thinking, an important part of the mechanism

On March 25, 2011, I tried to hang myself in the basement. My actions at the time seemed reasonable and rational. The thought process did not strike me then or now as insane or out of the ordinary. The idea of calling a suicide prevention hotline was the farthest thing from my mind. I wouldn’t have responded if someone had dialed the phone and handed it to me. My mind was made up. Nothing would have stopped me.

Then, my eight-year-old son called for me from upstairs just when I was ready to swing. He snapped me into conscious realm in which the consequences of my actions on him and others became clear. I didn’t follow through not because I didn’t want to but because of the pain I would have caused him. Suddenly, ending my life didn’t seem such a great idea.

I checked myself into the nervous hospital that day. The incident is one that seems to have happened to a different person. The memory of the event is crystalline but two-dimensional, like looking at a postcard rather than into a room with perspective and depth. A young doctor gave me a brief orientation before taking me to my room. I stood in the spare unit with two beds. The bottom of the bathroom door stood about a foot above the floor. The top was cut at a long angle, presumably to keep people from hanging themselves. I wondered what I’d gotten myself into.

Over the next week, the head psychiatrist took interest in me. He spent two and three hours a day with me, asking questions and assessing my mental state. His exploration was more thorough and detailed than any I’d been through before. His diagnosis or manic depression was like a revelation for me. All the incredible flights of energetic obsession and the bone-crushing depressions of my past made sense. I’d been suffering from this malady since I was a kid. As I aged, the episodes worsened and ultimately threatened even my most enduring relationships with friends and family.

The stay in the psych ward made me think of my history of suicidal ideation. Self-termination had possessed me since I was a child. At first, it was about gaining attention. I imagined my funeral and who might show up. The obsession continued into adulthood. The thought of self-annihilation became associated with self-loathing, embarrassments I’d caused, and the shame of being me. The thought of suicide became normal at some point. Often, crises turned my thoughts to the comforts of knowing I could get out of this if I wanted. It was my secret, something that was mine alone. Nobody could tread on this ground. I owned it.

Since that time in the hospital, I’ve developed coping strategies. Medications clipped off the peaks and troughs of manic depression. They solved the cyclothymic episodes where both mania and depression drove me suicidal and into self-destructive behavior. But they leave remnants of ups and downs. Now, because I know what’s going on, I can identify the symptoms of oncoming problems. It’s then I take up the journals. I write more. I walk longer and faster.

My time at the hospital also instilled a sense of humor about the ailments that plague me. I can joke about suicide, see the absurdity of it—and of life in general. I look back on the event and see it as funny. When I first arrived, the others in the mental ward followed me around. They began to ask questions about their conditions, about how long they would have to remain in the hospital. I kept trying to walk away from them. They followed. I couldn’t shake them.

A woman stepped up and asked me about her medications. She was shorter than me and wore a worn sweatshirt with a band name on it. She looked like she’d just come out of the rain. Her watery eyes looked hopeful.

“I don’t know,” I said. “What drugs are on you on?”

She mentioned some psychiatric medications I’d never heard of. “When do you think these are going to kick in? I don’t feel anything. It’s been two days.”

“I can’t tell you, exactly,” I said. “Why are you asking me?”

Another man shoved to the front of the crowd. “You’re the doctor. You should know.”

“I’m not a doctor. I’m one of you,” I said.

They all looked so disappointed. They mumbled and walked away.

I’d let them down. To compensate, I led art therapy sessions and moderated movie nights. It was great to look over the audience in the television room and see the people rapt, eating popcorn and drinking from their juice boxes. When it was time for me to go home, the patients gave me a little going-away fete.

After I left the hospital, the shame of self-incarceration diminished quickly. The event came up in conversations. I often made a joke out of how anyone could trust a man who had been in the nervous hospital. After all, I couldn’t trust myself. Responsibilities? Who would give me charge of anything? My pre-hospital self was bumbling and absurd. I saw the world as through a kaleidoscope, a reflection that didn’t show the edges and corners.

This particular suicide attempt changed me and altered the course of my life. I no longer walk around steeped in fatalism. The absurdity of our affairs amuses me. Love saves a lot of us. Optimism about the human condition pervades my days. But I’m not blind. We are strangling our planet. We exploit each other and demean ourselves. We continue to build vast inhumane apparatuses we can’t escape. Poverty. War. Disease.

But I’m all right now not knowing what the point of all this is.

At the same time, suicide is still on the table. Years of suicidal thinking has engraved itself on my brain. When things are tough, I retreat to my secret, my fantasy of becoming indistinct, of ceasing. Now, I don’t reject, disregard, or recoil from a suicidal ideation. I follow the thought through and realize the mess I’ll leave behind. The thought of hurting the ones I love has prevented me from taking suicidal thoughts seriously. This prevents me from taking up the rope.

But it’s there. It’s always there. It’s not a burden. Rather, it’s an indelible part of me, like my arms or feet. I would not be the person I am without either. I wouldn’t be who I am without the suicidal impulse. As a matter of fact, I’m grateful for it. It’s made me who I am. Right now, I happen to like that person.

if you have had suicidal thoughts, attempted suicide, or find yourself preoccupied with self-harm, seek help by dailing 988 or 911. I highly recommend Clancy Martin’s fine book How Not to Kill Yourself: A Portrait of the Suicidal Mind.

Published in Uncategorized


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