The first time I was a junior in high school. After a breakup with my boyfriend, which was huge in my teenage world, I swallowed a bottle of aspirin, had my stomach pumped in the ER, and cheered at a football game later that night.
Fast forward two decades. I had now been married to the same boyfriend for 16 years and was a stay-at-home mother of two small sons. When the husband informed me that he wanted a divorce, I sped off in my minivan and bought a six-pack of wine coolers, an assortment of over-the-counter pills, and a couple of bottles of the night-time-so-you-can-rest medicine. Parking the van in a remote corner of a 24-hour store parking lot, I downed the toxic combination and stretched out on the back seat to die.
Hours later, I woke in a panicked stupor and tried to drive home, but proceeded to plow over a curb where I came to a stop, hung out of the door throwing up green goo, and passed out on the grass. Someone driving by called 911, and after being rushed to the ER and having my stomach pumped again, I suffered no physical consequences but did spend a couple of days in the psych ward of the hospital.
The Most Recent Attempt
The last time was more serious — much more.
After the end of the marriage in an ugly parting that made Divorce Court look civil, and years of wrong turns, things not working out, and being flat-out disgusted with life, I tried to die by suicide again in June of 2007, by swallowing over 90 pills – mostly prescription drugs. Because I wasn’t found in time, the chemicals went all the way through my system wreaking destruction.
After a week in a coma, I woke up with a serious brain injury to a very different world. Immediately following the attempt, the ex sued me for custody of our sons, won, and promptly moved out of state with them.
At first, I was painfully embarrassed and ashamed to admit to anyone that I had tried to end my life, had my children taken away, and had some pretty serious mental health issues. But during the first year after it all happened, I began to realize that my shame was like a black cloud hanging over my head that I was willingly pulling around with me everywhere I went. I could step out from under it at any time and let the dark cloud float away. I learned from experience that If I talked about these gasp-worthy events openly and refused to inflict any shame on myself, there was none for me.
The shame only existed if I imposed it on myself.
In the years since my attempt, I’ve grown and healed tremendously, miraculously even, both emotionally and physically. And I haven’t stopped talking – and writing – about suicide, mental health, and other topics that make people uncomfortable. I even wrote what I have learned in a memoir Sex, Suicide and Serotonin. (It’s really a self-help book in disguise.) While I’ve seen some positive changes around these touchy subjects as people have become more willing to share their experiences and less judgmental of others, I also see that we still have a long way to go.
Attempting to die by suicide carries a huge stigma of shame, is hush-hushed, and makes people squirm uncomfortably. I believe that only by sharing our stories honestly can we begin to heal ourselves and help others. Although I can’t begin to know what anyone else feels or speak for them, here are some things I want you to know about suicide.
Suicide was the 15th leading cause of death overall and the second leading cause of death among 15-29-year-olds globally in 2012.
According to the World Health Organization. Over 800,000 people die due to suicide every year and there are many more who attempt it. There is one death by suicide in the world every 40 seconds. Suicide is a leading cause of death among young people aged 15 to 29 years, accounting for 17.6 percent of deaths in high-income countries and 8.5 percent of deaths globally (World Health Organization, 2014).
Suicidal thoughts are very common.
A 2006 study of 26,000 college students showed that over half had considered suicide at some point. Eighteen percent of undergraduates had thought seriously about it. When I share my experiences, I often get a “me too” story from people telling me how they found themselves in a similar dark place at one time in their life. Just thinking about suicide is pretty common. Taking the thoughts seriously is an indication that all is not well. If we consider how many of us think about it, maybe we could find it in ourselves to be a little less judgemental of each other and ashamed of ourselves.
Men are more likely to successfully commit suicide than women, but more women attempt it.
According to The Center For Disease Control, suicide among males is four times higher than among females, with male deaths representing 79 percent of all US suicides. However, females are more likely than males to have had suicidal thoughts, experience depression at roughly twice the rate of men and attempt suicide three times more often as males.
Suicide runs in families.
Evidence that suicide runs in families has been found in both case reports and epidemiological studies due to genetics and social modeling. For example, one study found that identical twins had a stronger incidence of suicide than fraternal twins, even when they were raised separately.
Suicide is socially contagious.
Suicide contagion can spread through a school, a community, or the public as a celebrity “suicide wave.” When the media splashes the details of suicide all over, copycat suicides follow. After Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962, suicides for the month went way up and suicides across the nation in white females in their 30s and 40s in the year after she died increased significantly. There was a similar uptick after Kurt Cobain died in 1994.
A person who dies by suicide isn’t always clinically depressed.
Depression is a significant risk factor, but it’s only one thing contributing to suicide. Environmental factors such as stressful life events, access to firearms, suicide contagion, and others play a role. (Firearms are the most commonly used method of suicide among males and access to firearms correlates with a higher risk of suicide.)
Thoughts and feelings don’t last. Suicide does.
When I tried to end my life each time, I was really trying to escape my feelings, thoughts, and situations I didn’t want to face or know how to navigate. Back then, I believed I would feel the suffocating despair and helplessness forever, but now I know that’s not the case. Feelings pass. Circumstances change. Life can change drastically in a moment, a day, or over a year.
Suicide isn’t a selfish act.
It’s a desperate act. Research has shown that people who attempt suicide or die by suicide are so overwhelmed by the problems in their lives that they either don’t think about how their family and friends would be affected by their suicide or they think that their family and friends would be better off without them in their lives.
I didn’t see taking my life as a selfish act at all. In fact, I thought of it as a selfless act. I know how terribly skewed that sounds – now, but then, I honestly thought that the world, especially my sons, would be better off without me. My opinion of myself was that low. That’s the kind of thinking that leads to suicide.
No one is to blame for a suicide.
The reasons for any individual taking their life are complex, and it would be a mistake to assume anyone is to blame including the person who ended their life. The cause of someone ending their life is never a single thing. It’s a combination of hundreds of things that may have happened in the distant past, impacting and shaping the person, which may not even be known today. It’s biology. It’s psychology. It’s timing. No one ever knows for sure. What I do know is that it’s futile and unproductive to try to pinpoint a reason or place blame.
My reason each time was that it was the option I chose at that moment. I’m not saying it’s right. I’m saying it’s the truth.
Impose. Intrude. Barge In.
Someone who is suicidal needs a person to extend a hand, and intervene with force, if necessary, to keep them safe until they can do so themselves and begin to take the steps towards healthier thinking. Your help may be unwanted at the time, and they may act as if they hate you for it.
That’s OK. They’ll get over it and be alive to do it.
I didn’t like it one bit and was mad as hell at the people who saved me and continued to protect my life. I thought, “How dare they! This is my life. Why don’t they mind their own business?” Now, I’m forever grateful to these individuals.
Be a bother. Butt in. A suicidal person may not appreciate it right then, but they will later.
If you are suicidal:
- Send an anonymous e-mail to The Samaritans.
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TTY:1-800-799-4TTY).
- Teenagers, call Covenant House NineLine, 1-800-999-9999.
- Look in the front of your phone book for a crisis line.
- Call a psychotherapist.
- Talk with a friend or a minister or rabbi.
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