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Trigger warning: This article discusses suicide and self-harm. Please read with caution. If you need help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
I tried to kill myself in the summer of 2006. I was 23.
I spent a month deeply entrenched in an exhausting cycle of breaking up and getting back together with Emma*, the girl I'd loved for three years. She was cheating on me, but neither of us could sever ties completely.
We'd break up. Then we'd sleep together. Then we'd get back together (but only with some caveat that benefited Emma). And then it was over again as quickly as it began. Read: We had some serious codependence issues. I tried to accept this as it came, but I felt helpless. Walking away wasn't an option for me. I thought that the very act of loving her was enough to make it work.
I wasn't eating and I was barely sleeping. I was trying to maintain a job, a social life, and an impending cross-country move (I'd been accepted to graduate school in Miami), and I was trying to do it all without betraying the fact that I was not okay.
I was suicidal.
Emma and I were both pasta slingers at everyone's favorite Italian chain. We worked the early shift and settled into my favorite booth afterward to have lunch together. We had an argument—one of many which, over the years, had escalated to being emotionally and then physically abusive.
I bought a car the year before for the sole purpose of escape. When the fights got bad, I’d drive. It was better than getting punched in the face by the person I loved or, god forbid, retaliating (the latter of which was absolutely soul crushing to me). This brand of escapist panic driving escalated into suicidal fantasies about driving off bridges or into ditches. Rural Tennessee provided plenty of options. I’d even set a plan in motion on Halloween 2005, but Emma came home and stopped me. She told me I’d ruined her holiday—one of many ticks on a very long list of ways in which I’d wronged her over time. She knew this list by heart, and could recite it to me at the drop of a hat.
So when I found myself with her on that afternoon as she recited the list again (loudly, and in earshot of our coworkers), I grabbed my keys and went back to our apartment. We were ON that day, and I was terrified that the argument would flip the switch. I was frantic. I'd easily spent the better part of two years that way.
She came home, packed some things, and told me she was going out. I was supplied with no further information. I begged her not to go. I cried. I tore at her shirt. She went anyway.
I paced. I waited. I cried more. I tried to watch TV ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"). I tried to listen to music (Tori Amos, Under the Pink). Hours passed, and I felt like I was going to combust.
I called. I called again. And again. I felt untethered, like a ball of raw nerves. I felt like I would die if I couldn’t hear her voice. Eventually, she picked up and I screamed her name, begged her to come home. She said no, and I screamed more. I felt like I would die anyway. I felt like there was nothing else I could do. There were no other options. Even if she did come home, I didn't think I could live with her anymore. It hurt too much.
I was in absolute terror of being alone, but I didn't know where to turn. My best friends lived across the country, Emma clearly wasn't coming home, and I felt isolated from my local friends. If she suspected that I was discussing our relationship with them, she'd tell me, “You’re turning them against me.” I feared the repercussions, so I was left with myself. And I was not safe with myself.
I spent weeks sitting on our porch scribbling in my journal, writing "DO FOR YOURSELF," over and over, page by page, like a mantra, trying to convince myself to leave. I listened to the trains pass behind the house and willed myself to lie down on the tracks and wait. I tried to work up the resolve to make deeper cuts with the razor blades I’d used to cope for nine years.
The skin on my arms looked like a roadmap (still does -- funny how some scars never fade). Whenever I found myself in extreme emotional pain, this intense pressure would settle in my chest. It made me feel trapped and breathless, and there was only one way I knew to alleviate it.
The way I used to see it, if I could make myself bleed, it meant that my pain was real. If I could just see it, then I could believe that it wasn't just in my head because it was right there in front of me. Seeing it made it tangible, and it made the pressure in my chest fade a little bit. It made the panic lessen. In its own way, it was helpful, but I also knew what kind of damage it could do if I lost control.
And I wanted to lose control. When I thought about leaving, I panicked. When I thought about being alone, I panicked. When I thought about a life that didn't include her, I panicked. When I thought about any kind of future, I panicked. I wanted to die. And the longer I was alone, the more hopeless I felt.
I had a bottle each of painkillers and wine, and the plan was to get so obliterated that I'd eventually lose that control, and that loss of control would allow me to cut deeper. I'd be so numb that it wouldn't hurt.
Movies show suicide as a romantic drift into nothingness. None of that is real. It's messy and it's painful and it's terrifying -- especially when you’re in it, woozy and bloody and blubbering.
I called Emma again and again, and her phone went straight to voicemail. Eventually, she picked up and, again, I begged her to come home. She hung up on me. She called back two minutes later. This time, she stayed on the phone, but just long enough to make sure the police had arrived.
They pounded on the door, staccato, like gunshots, and barged into my house. Our small living room was suddenly full of policemen and paramedics asking who I was and whether I had taken anything, but I was so hysterical that I couldn't even tell them my name. I dialed my mom's number. She gave them my information. When they put her back on the phone with me, she told me to go willingly because, if I didn't, they'd handcuff me and take me anyway. I didn't actually have an option. She reminded me that having mental health issues on my records could ruin my chances of getting a job (in that very same field) in the future.
They wouldn't let me get dressed. I was wearing a pair of thin, oversized, blue cotton pajama pants and a ratty T-shirt. I couldn't even put on a bra. They wouldn't let me out of their sight.
I remember the quiet of the ambulance ride and the tungsten halos on all the street lights. My next memory is of lying in a hospital bed in a cold, beige room, and being left alone. I don't know how much time passed, but it felt like a long time. I got little cell reception, so I couldn't call or text anyone. I was left to think about what I'd done and where I was as a consequence of that. And the fear. I was feeling such an overwhelming amount of fear. That experience of trying to die made me realize just how much I wanted to live, and I knew that, if I didn't find some way to change, I would die.
So I promised myself that I would find a way to stop hurting myself. And that included finding a way out of the relationship I was in (or not in, depending on the minute).
Eventually, a nurse showed up. She was cold and only addressed me when necessary. I told her I was terrified of needles, which she disregarded as she gave me a tetanus shot and drew my blood. I was lying down, and as she filled the vials, she laid them on my stomach one by one (three total, all warm, all squick-inducing). She left and the on-duty psychologist came to do a psych eval, which I lied my way through. I told her what she wanted to hear and swore that I wasn't suicidal.
My mom called my friend Amy and asked if she'd pick me up. Amy was the one friend Emma and I hadn't shared, the only one I didn't feel isolated from. She was throwing a party that night. I was supposed to go. She had a sober friend drive her the hospital. I was released into her custody under one condition, and it was that she stay the night with me.
We walked out to the parking lot, where I climbed into the front seat of her friend’s Audi, which felt a lot like a spaceship. Everything looked so normal and unchanged, though it felt very clear to me that I was on the other side of one of the most significant life experiences I would ever have. We stopped at Taco Bell. Everything resumed as if it was any other evening.
When we got back to Amy's place, the party was still in full-swing. She led me upstairs to her bedroom, and I crawled into her bed, onto the side I always slept on during our sleepovers. I could hear the music and voices below. Amy told me I just needed sleep, and put on her sleepytime playlist. She told me to find her if I needed anything. I remember Iron and Wine's "Fever Dream" and the sweet lilt of Sam Beam's voice. I'd never heard it before, and I still think of that night whenever I hear it -- not with a sense of fear or shame, but with a feeling of comfort and love. I felt safe.
The next day, I called my best friend, Liz, and told her what happened. We talked next steps, and agreed that I wouldn't be able to heal and move on unless I left Emma, and that meant leaving town entirely. I shared a bank account with Emma, but there was nothing in it. We lived paycheck to paycheck. Liz wired me $300 -- enough to carry me the 16 hours and 1,000 miles to Denton, Texas, where she lived. She had a room waiting for me.
I finished out the week at my job. I packed my stuff. I tried to ignore the stares and the whispers of everyone around me. The night before I left, Emma and I drove to Bristol, VA. We saw Lynyrd Skynyrd (or what's left of them) play "Freebird" under the 4th of July fireworks. I meant to leave at noon the next day, but I was so terrified of saying goodbye to Emma and the town I'd started to call home that I kept stalling.
I put the last of my things in my car at around 5 pm. I kissed Emma one last time before I turned heel and, literally, ran out the door to my car. I didn't get out of it again until I pulled up in Liz's driveway the next morning. I started my life over again after a long nap and in the care of my best friend.
If I could go back and talk to the girl who ran off that porch and into the unknown that day and tell her all she'd come to see and feel and accomplish, she would never believe me.
I started small (a new bank account, a new job). I traveled (all over the country, and mostly by Greyhound). I went to grad school (nope, not for me). I moved to New York with a thousand bucks and whatever I could fit into my car (not sure what I was thinking). My dad died (in prison, alone). I got a job at a record label (not as glamorous as it sounds). I taught myself photography (the camera went everywhere with me and the rule was manual settings only). I met, photographed, and interviewed most of my heroes (Tori Amos, Tegan and Sara, Amanda Palmer). I got married (a week after the Marriage Equality Act went into effect). I quit my job working for The Man and decided to chase my dreams (as terrifying as it sounds, but equally rewarding). I got divorced (she cheated on me six months later). I fell in love again (shock and awe!), and it's not a love that hurts, but a love that heals. I learned to take care of my mind and how to keep it safe (accept that you will have bad days, be kind to yourself, ask for help when you need it).
My story is not unique.
There are so many others out there just like it. But the society we live in tells us that we can't talk about suicide, that doing so is attention-seeking behavior, that it only happens to "crazy" people. The truth is, it can happen to anyone, and until we stop sterilizing it by talking in figures, stereotyping it, romanticizing it, sensationalizing it, or avoiding it completely, we're not going to save any lives.
In the late summer of 2010, I decided to address the issue head on in a series called Live Through This. I took a voice recorder and my camera, and I went to the source. I started to talk to other attempt survivors about their experiences -- what led up to their attempt(s), their recovery, how they were treated by medical professionals, their feelings about psychiatric medications, what their support systems look like, other mitigating factors, and wherever else the discussion led. After each conversation, I made a portrait. I moved in close and asked each survivor to look into my lens as if they were looking directly into the eyes of the viewer.
I started to publish these portraits and stories online as a kind of experiential catalog -- as proof that not only are we not alone, but that this issue spans all age ranges, ethnicities, faiths, sexual orientations, gender presentations, and any other box we might want to put a person in. So far, I've interviewed 88 suicide attempt survivors in nine US cities. I have no plans to stop.
I'm not trying to normalize suicidal feelings. I tell this story, and I do this work because I want people to know that this doesn't happen in a vacuum. The suicidal mind can't be stereotyped. When we do so safely, talking about these feelings can be empowering. It can create identification and breed compassion. It can heal. It can open us up to possible solutions, both for ourselves and the system at large. Maybe it can even save lives, but we won't know until we push forward and try.
I wish I could say that I didn't still battle my mind and the thoughts that I'd be better off dead sometimes, but I do. The difference now is that I'm not afraid to talk about it. I'm not afraid to ask for help when I need it. I know I'm loved even when I can't feel it. And I know I will be able to power through any difficult moment because I know, without a doubt, that I'm not alone.
*All names have been changed.