Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month 2018

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I wasn’t sure I wanted to write this blog, but the more I stewed on it, the more I was certain I needed to. I didn’t want to cause drama, or make people worry, and I certainly didn’t want to admit it to myself. But here goes.

In the course of law school, you are told on the first day that a majority of your year will end up as alcoholics or with depression, and maybe a few of you will even die from these. A bunch of cocky 1Ls will think “I’m a smart person, I’m sure that couldn’t be about me.” Some may even laugh about already belonging to those groups and being “ahead of that curve”.

In the course of life, each person may be called to face their own traumas-maybe even secondhand. And there is no weakness in not feeling like you’ve got a grip on it. It’s human to reach your depth and feel like you’re drowning. I think of a quote that a professor once told me on Suicide Prevention Day: “I won’t tell you that it gets better. But you don’t have to face it alone.”

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I lost a friend in June, the third friend I’ve lost to depression. I say “I” because these are only my thoughts-but truthfully, more than just “I” experience this loss. She was a friend from law school, and we were so alike that it just felt more personal. I want to talk about the four things I learned since then, and why they’re important.

  1. Shallow Self-Care Won’t Heal the Painful Wounds

When I first started the summer, I spent a lot of time doing things that I wanted to do-art, writing, tai chi, “spa days” and the like. I wanted a full emotional reset from my academic year and I picked my favorites from a list of suggestions. When I lost my friend, I wondered why those things didn’t help. Everything I wrote was empty, art felt more sad than healing and even my beloved face masks did nothing to fix the way I felt lost.

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As it would turn out, the only way to deal with those big emotional issues is the hard way. The late-night-crying-for-no-reason way. The grapple-with-big-questions-that-don’t-have-answers way. The look-in-the-mirror-and-just-feel way. As it would turn out, not one of my coping mechanisms tools was helpful in processing the loss of my friend. I had to reach the end of my shallow fixes to really understand that I needed to work on myself. That’s not to say that all those self-care things aren’t worth it. When I get stressed, I still engage in those beauty-creating moments. But when the hurt is deep, your self-care needs to be that much deeper.

2. Suicide Fear for People Who Understand (The “Will I Be Next” Debate)

If you have ever been suicidal, you may very well have experienced this. I wouldn’t say that it’s Survivor’s Guilt, but more like Survivor’s Anxiety. At some point in the coping process, you start to wonder what makes you so different from the person you lost to depression (suicide). And if you can’t find those differences, the all encompassing question then becomes “Am I next?” Now, at the surface, it sounds very self-absorbed. But it’s much deeper than that.

My friend had many of the same characteristics I did. Emotional trauma, a history of assault, a heart as big as the ocean with enough emotions to cause hurricanes, law stress, being in a state that wasn’t welcoming to our identities, and more. She was brave, and she fought hard. She had battles not many people knew, and I’m sure some that even I didn’t know. But when the news came, I wasn’t mad at her, I didn’t judge her for it. I sat and cried and wondered about what had led her to that point. And seeing the similarities, I began to wonder that all important question.

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Because if I were in her shoes, as I have been from time to time, I don’t know that I would have made a different choice. And knowing that, what was it that would be my “moment”? Would it be a large, life impacting event? A bunch of small things that I couldn’t control that became too much for me? One poor choice? I became so engulfed in this paranoia that I would be next, that the spirit of death was coming for me, that I think I extended the grieving process far longer than I otherwise might have. I isolated myself, because I didn’t trust myself. I wasn’t suicidal, I was afraid that I would become so.

3. Taking Care of Yourself is Selfish-and It Has to Be

At a certain point, the tie that binds people who have suicidal history and those who we’ve lost from it becomes lost on people who have never contemplated or lost someone before. A good friend graciously agreed to go to the funeral with me, and at the end, I found out this was the first time they’d ever been to a funeral for someone who died from depression. I remembered what it was like for me that very first time and I wept for them. I wanted to make sure they were okay, but I was so entrenched in my own grief that I couldn’t step out and make that effort.

I remember I panicked for the first week after she died and sent every “strong person” I knew a message, asking if they were okay. They didn’t know why I did it, I just tried to carry on a conversation with them to make sure they knew I cared. Every person who had ever admitted they were depressed, anxious, or otherwise emotional got a text or message. I was scared. I was scared that suicide had become an infectious disease that would take away all of my friends (or me) if I didn’t actively try to stop it myself. And I grew so weary that I collapsed into myself.

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A couple friends asked if I was okay. I lied to them, because I didn’t want them to worry that I would, indeed, be next. I spent a lot of time avoiding calls, messages and social media in general because I couldn’t take any more bad news. And that was when I realized that my self-care needed to really focus in on self. I allowed that isolation. I took a chance on letting myself work through the grieving process. I stopped communicating with everyone for two months. (With the caveat that I still texted my parents to let them know I was doing okay.) And I broke down. I cried, I existed, and at times, I didn’t sleep for days at a time. I checked off the stages of grief when it was time-not when I thought it was time. And that meant that life kept on going while I was stuck.

When I finally began to reemerge, I was more honest. I told friends that I spent time grieving, about all the emotions I’d felt. And even though I knew I’d been selfish, I knew that it was because I had to be. I had to spend that time focused on only me because I wouldn’t have survived it else-wise.

4. You Can’t Do it Alone

This may seem like it flies in the face of the last point. It was at the end of the two-months recovery time that I began to seek out friends. I chose to go (the very first day) to see counseling services to prepare myself for reintegration into life as I had come to know it. I started going on friend dates. I put myself out there, because I knew that I needed to. The truth is, without my husband covering for me, I wouldn’t have been able to heal this summer. Without counseling services, I’d be a wreck right now. Without those good friends, I would be alone. And those are just small snippets of the network I have amassed.

I chose to get off of social media, and I told everyone that I was stopping this blog for a while. And all of those things are true. I need to learn how to be my own person, not someone who compares their successes and failures against the polished social media posts that make everyone seem perfect.

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But it’s September, and that means it is Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month. And although those we have lost will not read these words, this blog is for the people who are left behind. The people who are still fighting in the trenches. The people who are still wondering if they will be next.

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I know that it’s hard. And I know it’s scary. I’m not going to lie to you. Life sucks. And then it gets better and then it sucks again. But you don’t have to face it alone.

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Stigmas in Suicide Terminology

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This article may contain trigger warnings: suicide is going to be discussed-mostly the terminology behind it though. Still, better safe than sorry.

I was having a discussion with a professor a while ago and it came up that I wrote for The Mighty. She asked what it was that I wrote about and without hesitation I said “Suicide”. It wasn’t until much later that I reflected on the conversation and realized that perhaps it seemed like I was sending a message that I didn’t mean to be sending.

I think that depression has a really bizarre way of making you rehash your interactions. My fears were that I was going to have to deal with a well-meaning email asking if I was mentally in a bad place, or worse-a phone call from the counselors on campus asking me to come in at my earliest convenience. I have the fear that if enough people find out I have a mental illness that it will come back to bite me in the ass and prevent me from living my life. Which is ridiculous for exactly two reasons.

  1. A LOT of people know that about me-because I don’t view it as something I need to keep quiet about. I’m going to talk about it because I’m not ashamed of who I am.
  2. Not a damn thing is going to prevent me from living the life I want to lead. And that’s a promise to both ya’ll and myself. If I want it, I will achieve it. The end.

So I made a “cover-my-butt” email and sent it to her. Which was probably the lamest thing I could have done. But it ended up working out in my favor because I got to talk about something that I feel strongly about-stigmas surrounding suicide survivors.

I have issue with the terminology used to talk about suicide. Not because I believe that we shouldn’t talk about it (because we should) but because of the words we use that imply things we don’t mean. Ultimately, it comes down to two questions.

  1. What is it that clearly communicates suicide (or living after) without bringing with it the negative connotations?
  2. What do we call people who live after, instead of dying?

So I was thinking about it, about all that I knew and had at my disposal and about what to use instead. Here are some phrases and my thoughts. (If there’s a *, it’s because I’m going to discuss that phrase later on.)

Commit Suicide: This harkens back to when suicide was a crime-and attemptees* who lived were tried as criminals. (From Google (and Wikipedia): “Before the Suicide Act 1961, it was a crime to commit suicide, and anyone who attempted and failed could be prosecuted and imprisoned, while the families of those who succeeded could also potentially be prosecuted. In part, that criminalization reflected religious and moral objections to suicide as self-murder.”) This implies that people who die on their own terms* are criminals, and those with suicidal ideation are nothing more than premeditating murderers. That’s not right.

Successful Suicide: I have problems with this phrase because “success” will always carry the connotation of (From Google: “accomplishing an aim or purpose”) and it seems like when people use that phrase, they wanted the person to die. I can’t get behind that.

Unsuccessful Suicide: This is the bigger problem I have with “successful suicide”. If an attempt is made and the person lives, under “successful suicide”, that person would be labeled “unsuccessful”. The problem I have with that is that a person who attempted suicide and lived would have reached a point in their lives where they felt there were no other options and the first thing they will hear is “You couldn’t even kill yourself.” You are telling someone who probably felt like they failed at life in every possible way that they also failed at death? That’s a TERRIBLE idea.

Died from Depression: I brought this one up as an alternative, but the truth of the matter is this one is very conditional. I was reading just recently about a police officer who chose his death because he’d become corrupt and didn’t want to go to jail. In this case, it wasn’t depression, and therefore it isn’t applicable to use this phrase. However, in a case like say, Robin Williams (may his soul rest), “died from depression” is completely applicable.

Died From a Complication of Depression: Like the point above, this is conditional. I framed this one by saying the following: If someone had cancer and the coroner put on the cause of death “pulmonary embolism”, we wouldn’t say “They died of a pulmonary embolism.” We’d say “They died of cancer.” The embolism was a complication caused by cancer. The problem with “Complication of Depression”? It takes a while to explain and is extremely conditional.

Selfish Suicide (also: Coward’s Death): I take offense to this one-and many others do as well. If there comes a time when suicide is being seriously contemplated because of depression, it is the furthest thing from selfish. The person will usually feel that taking themselves out of the lives of their loved ones will make those loved ones’ lives less painful, less complicated. Or perhaps it’s a matter of not wanting to continue hurting (either physically or mentally, or maybe both). Neither of those things are selfish or cowardly (and in fact the Google definition of Brave is: “ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage”). (A case could be made for incidents like the cop story I mentioned, but that’s a different post for a different day.)

Ultimate Act of Self-Care: First, let’s break this down. Ultimate (From Google: being or happening at the end of a process; final). Self-Care (From Google and Wikipedia: In health care, self-care is any necessary human regulatory function which is under individual control, deliberate and self-initiated.) Now, if you adhere to this very textbook-esque definition, I don’t have a problem with it. The only thing is, not everyone adheres to the same textbook if you catch my drift. “Ultimate” can be seen as synonymous to “highest” or “best”. “Self-Care” has been construed to mean anything from eating well and exercising to splurging on unnecessary items from the store or eating whole pies by yourself. It is this connotation that would imply selfish behavior. However, if we take this to mean “Last deliberate, self-initiated act of addressing an unmet need” then yes, this is good.

Die on their own terms: This is one of the ones I’ve been leaning on. I see it as factual, kind and flexible. The problem with it? It seems to get a lot of “Huh?” faces when I say it-to which I have to reply with the stoic “Suicide”-which defeats the purpose a little. Now, not only does this phrase fall on the ears a little gentler than suicide, it has the open endedness that accounts for mental health, “the police story”, physical disability choices and more without carrying any specific connotation or implication. And should someone live? Then this phrase starts to fall apart a little.

Suicide attempt: (From Google: make an effort to achieve or complete). I know this is really what’s been used in the past, but just as with “success” this seems a little insensitive. Now, I don’t know if there’s anything better for this act. My problem with it comes from the fact that if you attempt something you’ll either “fail” or “succeed” and we’ve already gone over that issue.

Planned/Spontaneous Suicide: These are relatively new introductions to the vocab choices.The only issue I have with these goes back to the “committed” issue. Planned sounds a lot like “premeditated” and that is definitely a word association with crime. The problem I have with spontaneous is that for the person, it’s almost never spontaneous. The thoughts are there-whether the “spectators” see it or not. Spontaneous just sounds like a cop-out for people who weren’t paying attention to the signs, or who weren’t around.

Suicide fatality/Non-fatal suicide: I tried this set, and with mixed success. I think it works better than “Successful/Unsuccessful” but it’s so mechanical. This is what I expect medical professionals, counselors and other “professionals” to use. Having been in the medical field for a short time, I understand that this phrasing would come in handy for clear and precise communication-which is why I was using it. But it seems disconnected, cold and jargon-y.

Attemptee: The person who lives is often faced with more issues than they had pre-incident. And I mean that in the kindest way possible. With that in mind, as I discussed above, I’m not sure “attempt” is the right verb choice. Depression can warp the meaning of words quicker than anything else, so for the sake of the person, perhaps this isn’t something to use.

Victim: This goes back to “crime” ideology. And for that reason I can’t get behind it.

Survivor: This is the one I use for the simple fact that the definition means exactly what I want it to. (From Google: a person who survives, especially a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died). Other people may have died from the same method-and that person lived. It carries with it the same respect as it does with other things you survive: cancer, sexual assault, natural disasters, etc. And it denotes that the living is still in progress.

 

 

So, readers, what do you think? Anything I missed? Anything you agree or disagree with? What do you use to talk about suicide?

 

The Grey Areas of Going Dark

(I’ve literally JUST submitted this to The Mighty, so we’ll see if it gets accepted. In the mean time, here’s my thoughts on the depressive spectrum of suicidal ideation.)

There’s never once been a time when I have looked myself in the mirror and said the
five words that seem to adhere themselves to a mental illness diagnosis: “I
want to kill myself.” Not when I had my first psychotic break (or my second),
not when I reached the lowest part of my depression. And yet, if you asked me
if I had ever attempted suicide, my answer would be yes. Had I ever thought
about it? Yes again. But not once had I ever thought those five words.

One of the first lessons someone with a mental illness diagnosis learns is that
there are often no black-and-white situations. The line between correct
diagnosis and misdiagnosis isn’t a mile wide, it’s a hair’s width. We learn to
see things on a spectrum, on a scale. And yet, in this most prevalent of litmus
tests for depression, these five words seem to be a yes or no, black or white
area.

I’m here to disagree. Vehemently.

All too often, there isn’t a life versus death attitude that accompanies mental
illness. It’s much more layered, a muddled grey than it is a color dichotomy.
There’s often more desperation and anguish in the expression than the pointed
action of “I want to kill myself.” And what’s worse, the other phrases, which
carry just as much weight and sincerity as that one, aren’t even given a second
glance. They’re completely brushed off and put aside because, after all, everyone feels like that at some point,
right?

 

“I don’t want to live anymore.”

 

This sentence, much like the litmus
tester, is one I’ve never spoken aloud, but I can remember a few times when I mentally
said it to myself in the mirror, the tears running down my cheeks. It was the
point where the depression took over and I’d had enough. What I was really
saying was that I don’t want to live a life where I’m constantly feeling used
up, depressed and frustrated.

 

“I just want to sleep and not wake up.”
Life presents itself with some
fierce challenges sometimes. Fighting a battle against yourself is a long,
tiresome journey of epic proportions. Being able to rest for just a few moments
seems like the most luxurious perfection and it can feel like after years of
fighting yourself, you have earned a permanent reprieve. This is my own
personal indicator of depression, because what I’m really saying is that I’m
tired of constantly fighting a battle that no one even knows I’m in and I need
a break.

 


“I want to cease to be. Like I never existed.”

This phrase often comes close to
“rock bottom” when I’m clinging on to the walls of hope and love with bloody
knuckles, waiting for someone to throw me a metaphorical rope. I feel like the
one to blame for everything that’s wrong. If I were better, different, gone,
life would be better for everyone and everything. What I really mean is that I’m
tired of watching everything fall apart and feeling like it’s all my fault. I
want the pain to cease, not my life.

 


“I just want it all to stop.”

Variations of this one seem to be
spoken to the friends or family who got a little too close when I’m emotionally
vulnerable. I don’t want them to worry about me or involve themselves
unnecessarily, but I want them to understand that I’m in pain. I feel
overwhelmed by life: the things that have happened, will happen and are
happening. What I’m really saying is that I need life to pause without
consequences so I can take a deep breath, pull myself together and invest in
some serious self-care.

 


“I can’t do this anymore.”

This one is the rock bottom, end of the line sentence that creeps up at the worst
moments of my battle with depression. There’s no hidden meaning here, it’s very
much self-explanatory. At my very lowest point, this was
the phrase that played on repeat in my head. At that moment, I couldn’t exist
as I was, I couldn’t live the life I had. My last words on earth would have
been these five, because they were the ones that matched the heartache. I
didn’t want to die, but I could no longer live.

 
In the end, not everyone experiences depression or suicidal tendencies in the same
way. But no matter what you mean or what phrase you use, the implications are
real. Being stuck in the grey areas of suicidal thoughts is no less painful,
and yet it’s much less talked about, making it that much more dangerous. There
isn’t just one way to live, and there isn’t just one way to cry out for help.