My Unconventional Relationship with Suicide
If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Yesterday, I wondered if Kate Spade had someone like that in her life. Someone to talk to about what her life was really like. Someone to tell her darkest thoughts to.
The news of her death was particularly triggering for me, especially after listening to Girl, Wash Your Face this week. The chapter about overcoming her brother’s suicide.
Suicide, as a topic, has been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember. And now that I reflect back, so has mental health.
Part of me is afraid to share this story with you, but another part of me is tired of hiding. It’s time to end the stigma of mental illness. And the only way I know how to do that is by being bold enough to share my own experience.
My relationship with suicide
On my first day of high school, I sat in freehand drawing class as the teacher passed around the previous year’s yearbooks. I remember focusing on a page commemorating nine students who lost their lives the year before, most of them to suicide.
I think that’s where my affair with suicide began. I was fascinated by these young men and women who saw no other way out of their mental illness. I’m not sure I really knew anything about suicide before this moment. But my teenage mind latched on to the topic and wouldn’t let go. I researched it, read about it, published academic journal articles about it. My high school senior thesis was about teenage suicide.
I know this may all sound trite to you. Let me explain:
In elementary and middle school, I used to count things. My main fixation was on clocks. We had digital clocks at school, and I remember the urge to do math with the numbers. I was compelled to stare at the clock until the numbers didn’t fit an equation. 1:22 became 1 x 2 = 2. 1:23 became 1 + 2 = 3. When 1:24 hit, I could look away.
This wasn’t a practice I only adopted at school; it came home with me. Whenever I saw a digital clock, something inside me forced me into math mode.
I never told anyone about this, because at first, it felt like a game. How many equations could I do in a row? But as the years went on, it wasn’t fun anymore. It became a habit I couldn’t break.
Until one day, I did.
They say that to overcome a negative habit, we need to replace it with a positive one. But so often, especially in our teenage years, bad habits are replaced by other bad habits, especially when it comes to relationships.
In my case, the habit of counting numbers was replaced with the habit of harmful thoughts.
I know you think you know where I’m going with this, but I wasn’t suicidal. I thought about suicide a lot, but I never had the thought or urge to end my own life. Although I’m afraid I might have the impulse one day.
Confused yet? I know, it’s a lot to process. I’m still figuring it out myself. In high school, when I tried to tell a friend about it, she told the guidance counselor. When I told my mom, she made me talk to someone from church. But neither of those men understood exactly what I meant.
Let me be clear: I am not suicidal and my depression did not lead me to thoughts of harming myself.
I have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and specifically, Harm OCD, where my symptoms manifest in the form of unwanted, intrusive thoughts I can’t control.
So yes, I think about suicide. It’s the on-again-off-again relationship I wish I could leave.
In my teenage years, the intrusive thoughts whispered sweetly all of the potential ways I could kill myself or hurt others around me. And that terrified me.
The more I tried to stop the thoughts, the louder they became.
I developed a fear of heights because I thought I would accidentally fling myself off a cliff or a ledge. I stood far away from the edge for fear that I would push someone to their death. I didn’t step on cracks, because you know how that ends.
Now that I’m a cat mom, my thoughts include insidious ways to inflict harm onto my two boys. The thought of documenting the graphic details makes me feel like a monster. I can barely tell my husband. You’ll have to use your imagination, although you won’t want to. I picture these harmful scenarios in vivid, graphic detail, as if I'm recalling a memory of the situations.
What makes these thoughts so scary is that they are totally out of character for me. I’m Buddhist and a believer of non-violence. I don’t even kill insects, let alone a beloved pet or a human being.
In hindsight, I think these thoughts replaced my counting because I became aware that suicide was an option. I became fixated on the reasons someone might want to end their life, and my strategic brain showed me all of the available options.
What I did to take control of my mental health
Luckily, one of the options included asking for help.
I’ve lived with anxiety my entire life but refused to accept it (that’s a story for another time). Finally, I told my primary care provider about my anxiety, and shortly thereafter, I started therapy.
It felt freeing to talk openly about what I’d been experiencing for all those years. And even though I feel that some labels can be harmful, it felt good to have a label for my version of anxiety.
I learned that OCD is an extreme form of anxiety and presents differently for everyone. I learned how to sit with my thoughts and not attribute meaning to them. Just because this is what my brain presents to me doesn’t mean that these thoughts define who I am.
During my darkest times, a resource that really helped me was an app called Sibly. It’s not a therapy app; it’s a mental health coach you can text 24/7 when you need help. It’s anonymous, so you can feel safe sharing your struggle.
This doesn’t take the place of traditional therapy (I still saw my therapist weekly while I used the app), but it’s a start, and it’s definitely more affordable than therapy.
There are also apps that allow you to chat with licensed therapists in your area or around the world. Talkspace is a good option.
The reason I like these chat apps is that you can get real-time feedback and help when you’re in the middle of feeling your symptoms. They make therapy accessible and approachable. Using these apps helped me feel safe, understood and loved. I gave myself permission to break up with suicide because it no longer defined me.
While my intrusive thoughts of harming myself and others are more under control, events like celebrity suicide are always triggering for me. I picture the act with such vivid imagery that it feels like I'm in the room with the person. Even as someone who struggles with mental illness herself, it’s hard for me to understand the path that leads someone to suicide.
This article was painful for me to write and brought up a lot of memories I’d rather not consider, but it had to be written. We’re afraid of what we don’t understand. By telling this story, I hope it helps bring awareness to different forms of mental illness.
And I hope it helps others see mental illness for what it really is: an epidemic that impacts millions of people around the world.
It’s time to end the stigma of mental health. We need to talk openly about our struggles, thoughts and experiences so we can collectively overcome the shame associated with these diseases.
We need to feel safe enough to talk to someone, anyone, without the fear of judgment or mocking.
We need to create avenues for people to get the care they need when they need it.
If Kate Spade’s untimely death teaches us anything, it should be this: mental illness does not discriminate.
Whether you struggle with grief, anxiety, depression or any other form of mental illness, know you are not alone. There is hope, and there is relief, but you have to take the first step.
If you want to share your story with me, I’m here to listen.