“I found this place in the Netherlands that euthanizes people with severe mental health issues,” I said plainly during a therapy appointment while in the throes of the darkest depression of my life.
I used every rational argument I could think of to get a referral to the program: I was in excruciating pain daily. Tormenting thoughts swarmed my brain, mostly about how I should be dead and how worthless I was; I saw no way out of that. I had been battling depression on and off since age 8. I figured that’s how it’s always supposed to be, that it was part of my personality now. The medication and magnet treatment (TMS) I tried weren’t improving things. I wanted to give her and my mom the option to do things the easy way — pay someone to end it clinically so I didn’t have to do the dirty work myself.
I knew it would be a long-shot, that I would be rebuffed. Although, in a suicidal state of mind, I truly believed that was the right course of action. I felt that I had nothing left and I couldn’t possibly see a future. When I tried, it was complete darkness, as if I were falling through a hole in the ground endlessly. Both anxious, OCD, and depressed thoughts raced rapidly through my mind relentlessly. My symptoms were not only mental; my physical health was completely shot. It was as if someone filled my limbs with wet cement; I could move them around, but they felt three times heavier than they normally were. Hot coals lined the space around my heart, so much so that a dull burning sensation lived in my chest for those four months I lived in excruciating pain.
My symptoms were so severe that I had taken time off work to tend to my condition, which my perfectionistic brain saw as a complete failure. I didn’t see a world in which I could recover from that interruption in my career, which had already been disrupted by mental health issues in the past. In my depression, that second breakdown was “proof” that I would never be able to support myself again. I was so steeped in capitalistic brainwashing at the time that I completely wrapped up my worth in how productive I could be and how well my bosses and colleagues thought I was doing. I remembered the words of my ex-colleague and friend gave me years before: “It’s just a job.”As much as I tried, I couldn’t internalize that mantra. It was more than work to me. At the time, it was sadly a key part of my identity.
None of the other factors of my identity were really panning out as I had hoped at the time. I felt consistently disconnected from my friends, like I was always on the fringe of my group. My depressive thoughts told me I was only included in activities or invited to things out of pity. On the relationship front, I had been dumped by the majority of the serious boyfriends I ever had, and I considered all of those personal failings. I assumed I was a terrible dog owner because I struggled to get out of bed and wasn’t providing a positive environment for my pet. I figured I was a complete burden on my family, since I stayed with them while I was on suicide watch. If all these identities were shattered, what did I have left? Where could I source any sense of pride?
Without an identity, I barely considered myself a human being. I’d contemplate how it would be if I jumped in front of a bullet train hourly, thinking about how I ensured the timing would make it the least painful death. It was the only respite I got from a gut-wrenching existence — the thought that I could potentially escape. What people don’t realize is that suicide isn’t a choice; it’s an incredibly dangerous symptom that most people — even mental health professionals — treat like a character flaw.
Despite the shame, guilt, and almost constant suicidal thoughts, I had split seconds of hope periodically. There was something in the back of my mind that urged, “Stay. See what happens.” It was a quiet but confident command. Despite that, it was still easy to ignore in the depths of my existential dread. However, as the medication started working and when I finally got off the waitlist into a partial hospitalization program (PHP), I started to listen to that voice more often. That’s when it all started to turn around — at a snail’s pace, but it did.
During the program, which lasted six hours every weekday for six weeks, I continued to feel isolated and alone — despite attending group sessions with a handful of others with depression. I assumed I was the most severe case and the only one that admitted to suicidal ideation on the daily intake sheet. Even though I felt painfully alone, those tiny spots of hope crept into my day-to-day more often. “Stay. Fulfill your purpose,” said the voice. I named her Gladys. I was committed to getting out of this, if not for me, then for Gladys. Yeah, I was really grasping at straws to survive.
Each day, I made a Herculean effort to try and see a future, even if it took microscopal progress. I slowly started to realize that I was not my job title, that my family didn’t see me as a burden, that I had intrinsic value. When I finally started to see the possibility of escaping my nightmare, I started researching articles with reasons why I should stay alive. Surprisingly, I didn’t find any practical tips on how to stop feeling suicidal in those “don’t kill yourself” essays online. They told me cliches, such as, “Think about the stuff you liked to do before you were depressed,” and “Think about how you’d affect your loved ones if you killed yourself.” There were no words of encouragement out there that personally gave me the will to keep enduring constant physical and mental anguish. I only found what worked for me when I started combining my own unconventional ideas with therapy strategies, and I want to share those tips with anyone that might be struggling right now:*
- Read about people who’ve made it out. When I was consumed by hopeless thoughts, reading gave me a little break from the spiral. Desperate for any source of a “light at the end of the tunnel,” I took to reading about survivors and how they made it out. For example, I read Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig and I searched for essays on The Mighty for anything that could show me how it’s done. I also watched a hilarious comedy special called The Great Depresh by Gary Gulman that made me laugh for the first time in 3 months. Showing my mind that it is possible and that people move on from being actively suicidal all the time was one of the most effective ways I spent my time on medical leave.
- Assign yourself a purpose. During a depression, you likely won’t receive a true “calling” of any sort, mostly because you’re blocked from most inspiration due to the self-disparaging thoughts. And some of you may not believe that anyone truly has a life’s purpose, and that’s why I prefer the terminology “assigning yourself a life purpose” — even if you feel like it doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of things. One of the main things that allowed me to push through my own suicidal spiral is the act of telling myself, “It’s my purpose to spread the messages I needed when I was in my deepest feelings of despair.” I found out that not a lot of people were being truly vulnerable about their suicidal experiences, and I could fill that gap. What’s something unique about you that you can share your knowledge about to help people?
- Think about how similar you are to everyone else. I believe that seeing yourself as part of a collective brings a perspective that lowers feelings of hopelessness. When I was low, I would sit and think about how I am linked to every living being on earth. I’d quietly meditate on the idea that I am breathing in the same air as all humans, that I’m walking the earth made up of similar material, and that my brain still works similarly to everyone else’s. That’s what inspired me to think about my purpose in that collective consciousness and how I could be part of a group.
- Ask for what you need in a specific way. I know the advice, “Tell someone about your suicidal thoughts,” is pretty standard, and it does help. However, I’m talking about going a layer deeper when you disclose to family and friends how you’re feeling. It’s not enough to say, “I’m feeling suicidal” because people often have no idea how to react, so it may make things worse. An effective way to start is, “Do you have the emotional space to talk about something really heavy?” If they do, it’s important to tell them what you’d like to get out of the conversation. For example, if I had realized this while I was suicidal, I would have said, “After I tell you, it would be best for me if you didn’t offer advice or tell me how you feel about what I said. If you could please just show empathy for how I’m feeling, that’s what I need.” It can be really scary to talk about this, but in many cases, I believe it can give you a sense of relief.
- Act as if dying weren’t an option. Hear me out — take this hypothetical through your mind. What if suicide wasn’t even a possibility, and you were forced to live forever? One of the keys to making it out of a suicidal spiral is to pretend like there was no possible way you could kill yourself. For me, this played out in a few different ways. I would force myself to sit down and consider various plans for my future, even though I was feeling miserable and couldn’t even see it as a possibility. I thought I might want to go into therapy, so I researched psychology programs and took notes about them. I would often think to myself, “What is one tiny thing I’d do right now if I weren’t depressed?” Then, I’d use all my strength to do it, like floss my teeth or make myself food. This is a similar technique to the DBT skill called “opposite action,” which is highly difficult but incredibly useful.
There were hundreds of other conventional tips and tools I used to lift out of the canyon that was my worst depression, like medication management, support groups, DBT, talk therapy, daily scheduling/goals, and mindfulness. However, the tips above are the ones that people don’t really talk about in traditional mental health advice, and I want to normalize the idea that reducing suicidal thoughts is a completely personalized journey. That said, the tips above might not work at all for you, and that’s okay. I hope you test out different techniques that give you encouragement to keep going. In the words of Gladys, “Stay. See what happens.”
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*Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional — the tips I shared about reducing suicidal thoughts were personal to me, and they may or may not be helpful to others.