Trying to kill yourself is exhausting. Trying to explain what happened can be even more so. Even for a wire service reporter like me, trained to write tough stories quickly, this one doesn’t come easily.
When I was eight, I watched someone close to me attempt suicide, and I made a number of fierce little decisions. That would never be me. I would be disciplined. I would be healthy.
Three decades later, I was crushed to learn that work and will alone can’t make those things true.
My two attempts, in late 2008 and early 2011, came when I was living and reporting in China. The first time, as the high of becoming a foreign correspondent wore off, I faced isolation, abuse from authorities, and a growing belief that I was a failure.
If I had killed myself, there would have been numerous support groups and resources available to my surviving loved ones. For me, a different kind of suicide survivor, there was nothing.
Asking for help seemed shameful, and I was sure that if I showed weakness, I would be fired. I quietly went to a therapist, who referred me to a psychiatrist, who sent me home with a box of antidepressants. I wrote on it, “I am not taking these,” and stuffed them in a drawer. Not long afterward, I tried to end my life.
Eventually, I wore myself out trying to do myself in, and confided in an editor. To my surprise, my employer was very supportive. They asked me to come back to New York, do everything I could to get better, then return to China. I did, but I slid into suicidal thinking again.
I didn’t understand. This time, I had taken medication. I had been seeing a therapist. I had even taken up running and finished the New York City marathon. Technically, I’d been doing the right things.
I realized something more had to change. What I hit on was simple but startling: Stop being ashamed about what had happened. To do this, I reasoned, I would have to “come out” about my experience to family, friends, and others, removing the stress of self-imposed stigma.
Being the obsessive reporter, I went looking for attempt survivors like myself: organizations, resources, a community. I learned that if I had killed myself, there would have been numerous support groups and resources available to my loved ones. For me, a different kind of survivor, there was nothing.
Finally, on a tip, I flew across the country to the 2011 conference of the American Association of Suicidology, which was having an attempt survivor speak at a plenary session for the first time in its 43-year history. There, I was surprised to find a nervous buzz in the audience, and people asking aloud, “Is this safe?” This was the country’s oldest suicide prevention organization, and even the experts were scared of us.
Someone needed to start a conversation, I realized, and being a journalist gave me cover. I could say, “I’m an attempt survivor, too,” then step back and ask questions. To help make sense of this life-changing experience, I needed to know the stories of others who’d been there.
So in my free time, I began tracking down and interviewing other “out” attempt survivors, and publishing their stories – nearly 70 of them now – on a website called Talking About Suicide. (At my employer’s request, I drew a bright line between my day job and this outside project.) Eventually, AAS asked me to create a similar site for them, and What Happens Now? Life After Suicidal Thinking launched last year.
Already, I see us pushing beyond the drama of our suicide attempts and uncovering more meaningful stories.
Each interview has been a relief for me. Suicidal thinking can happen to anyone. But until recently, the weight of fear and discrimination had crushed efforts to connect us. For decades, mental health professionals assumed that putting “those people” together would be dangerous. Even when we did find each other, the silence was too intimidating to do more than whisper, “Me, too.”
Only in the past few years, since projects like mine, Live Through This, and a powerful TEDTalk by attempt survivor JD Schramm have emerged, has the public started to feel empowered to say more, and more openly.
It’s an exciting shift to be a part of, but for me it hasn’t changed some quiet, fundamental fears. In the end, do people still think I’m crazy because of what I did? I don’t even like going there. In fact, let’s forget I wrote this paragraph.
Since I began this work, I’ve given interviews, spoken in documentaries, given speeches, and promoted others’ groundbreaking projects. Media outlets like The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Salon have written about our emerging movement.
Already, I see us pushing beyond the drama of our suicide attempts and uncovering more meaningful stories. For example, only two states currently require mental health professionals to have training in suicide prevention. Liability fears abound. Handcuffs and restraints are still accepted responses to a crisis. The more we emerge to talk about all this, the more I hope society will respond with change. And fewer people will feel so isolated and desperate that they see suicide as the answer.
In April, I again went to the American Association of Suicidology conference, and this time, it felt utterly different. The president announced a new division for people who’ve been suicidal. A “new voices” panel of young attempt survivors spoke to a packed room and standing ovations. Plenary speakers spoke openly about their own experiences.
And one evening, on the patio of our Beverly Hills hotel, our young community of people with “lived experience” of suicide threw a lively party.
“That’s still going on?” the surprised association president asked one of us, several hours in.
For some reason, that’s the best compliment I’ve heard on this unusual journey. Of course it’s still going on.