What is the worst thing you did as a teenager?
This question was asked of those of us training to be volunteer rape crisis counselors at our Saturday-long training, as we discussed the mentality of teens. It was one of the few personal questions we had been asked. A few people said things like drunk driving or skipping school to do drugs, and the rest of us awkwardly smiled and ducked our heads over our written answers without sharing. My answer came to me immediately.
I attempted suicide.
Suicide holds a stigma in our society that is difficult to explain. It is hard for those who have lost someone to suicide to say and hard for people to respond to appropriately. The moment after I refrained from answering that question, I realized my silence was doing the exact same thing: perpetuating the stigma around suicide.
It’s hard to know me for a long time without hearing at least briefly about my mental health struggles as a teenager, as they consumed my life and consequently complete a good deal of my personal history. However, this stark truth has been one of my greatest secrets. It’s always brought shame and guilt with acknowledgement.
When remembering my teenage years, I’m left unable to explain the darkness. That era of my life was filled with an overwhelming depression, occasionally interrupted by a year or two of decent coping. I was always participating in screaming fights with my parents, crying, sleeping, or planning my own destruction.
It’s hard to tell someone who hasn't experienced major depression what it’s like to be continually falling into blackness, to walk around feeling like a shadow among the “normal” people around you, to know that you’re losing touch with reality but not how to stop it.
I didn’t think I would live to turn 18. I certainly never thought I would work in the field of suicide prevention, as I am now. When I did turn 18 and entered college, I didn’t know who I was. I couldn’t have told you my favorite color (brown), what kind of music I liked to listen to (nineties female acoustic), or my political views (mostly green party). I had never taken the time to learn those things about myself, and as I watched my roommate hang pictures commemorating her high school years, I wanted nothing more than to forget them forever.
After my suicide attempt, I thought I was alone. People were angry, people were (understandably) confused, and I was just hurting. I lost a lot of friends, as parents didn’t really want their young daughters hanging out with a girl who was using her body as a permanent etch-a-sketch.
I once heard someone say that suicide is the most selfish act anyone can ever complete. At the time, I didn’t know how to explain that it’s not intended as selfishness when you’re dying on the inside, when you can’t explain the pain but you just want it to stop.
At least 90 ninety percent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental health illness or substance abuse disorder. When people learn about someone who has left a family alone after dying by suicide, they often ask who in their right mind would do such a thing. Well. Exactly. They wouldn’t.
In an average high-school classroom of 30 students, 3 will attempt suicide in a 12-month period, 2 girls and 1 boy. I was not alone. I wish someone had told me.
My “areas of expertise” thus far in the field of social services are torture, suicide and rape. These are words that have become a natural part of my vocabulary, and words that few people say. Many times, I’ve been asked why I want to work with such difficult topics.
My heartfelt and natural answer has been, "Why not?" I’m pained by these things, but I’m not afraid of them. I’m afraid of our not asking about them, our not talking about them.
When someone shares a difficult part of their past with me, I rarely respond with a strong emotion. I typically just nod my head. I sometimes worry this is interpreted as my not caring, but that’s not true -- it’s simply because I hate sympathy from others when I share parts of my past.
Part of this is because I am still angry at myself for some of the mistakes I’ve made. Part of this is because I’m stronger than the things I went through, and I don’t want to be defined by them. I don’t want anyone else to feel that I’m defining them as a person by painful events in their life.
I’m an adult now, and I’ve realized the words of my attempt, my mental health struggles, don’t have to bring me shame. Certain things will always remind me of that part of my past. People will always ask about my scars. I'll never fully forget. But that's okay.
Yesterday, I attended a presentation about suicide my colleagues were presenting at a local college. At the beginning of the lecture, we stood up and introduced ourselves, and explained why we are in this field. My introduction typically goes something like this:
“My name is Katy, I’m a bachelor’s level Social Worker and part of the reason I’m working in this field is because I’m a suicide attempt survivor of 10 years.”
People’s faces are always surprised. Surprised I said it, perhaps. Surprised it doesn’t upset me to do so.
At one point during the seminar, I was coming back from the bathroom and passed a student crying in the hallway. I stopped and asked her if she was okay and if there was anything I could do. She told me she was a recent attempt survivor, and some parts of the lecture had understandably upset her. I know I can never fully understand her pain or her story, but I listened. And when she told me she thought nothing would ever change, I was able to tell her:
It will get better. Maybe not today, or next year, but one day, it will. You’re a strong person. You’re going to be okay. I promise, it will get better.
After the seminar, a woman approached the front and told us that her teenage sister had attempted suicide. Then she turned to me and told me that my survival gave her hope that her sister would make it too.
I don’t know if I’ve ever so clearly realized that my vulnerability in simply saying that sentence enables other people to be vulnerable as well.
A few months ago, I heard an esteemed guest lecturer in the field of suicidology (yes, that’s a word) talk about a teen who had thrown himself off the golden gate bridge and lived. This is remarkable, as more than 1,300 people are known to have been killed jumping off the bridge in less than 100 years. Only 26 are known to have survived.
The teen said he spent a good deal of time pacing the bridge and crying before jumping. Many people saw him -- on the bus on the way there, walking on the bridge, probably even leaning over the rail. But no one asked him if he was okay. In our society, we have a fear of asking those questions, particularly of a stranger. And here is the chilling part: He said that if someone had asked him, he would have told them, and he would not have jumped.
How many times do we refrain from asking questions like that just because it’s awkward?
If someone had asked me when I was a teenager if I was thinking about suicide, I would have said yes. I wouldn’t have had my stomach pumped at 13. I wouldn’t have put my family through a lot of pain and suffering. I might not have lost so many friends. I might not have spent years and years blaming myself for what happened.
When I was entering the field of Social Work, many people close to me expressed their concern that I’m too sensitive, too empathetic, too fragile for this work. But what they may not have understood, and what I could not have even told them then, is that those who have attempted suicide have overcome a fear of self-harm that is terrifying. I still have that, and I think it’s an intrinsic trait I will carry for the rest of my life. However, as I told the attempt survivor yesterday, that fearlessness can also be our strength.
It’s no one person’s responsibility to save a life. However, as people living amongst other people, we have a collective responsibility to speak, to stand with survivors of loss, to support attempt survivors, and most of all to ask.
It’s time to talk about it.