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I’ve never wanted to die. Sure, I’ve tried to kill myself. I’ve done so three times, and with varying degrees of severity. But I never was fully committed, though I was as committed as anyone can be. Let me explain.
The first time I tried to kill myself is an occasion that I don’t like to label as a suicide attempt, but it is one that is written in my chart as an official attempt. I’ve disputed the designation to no avail, but I embrace it now. The intent was there.
I was a freshman in high school, midway through the year, and nothing seemed to be coming up in my favor. Of course, all was well. I had wonderful friends, the capacity to thrive in school, and a good set of activities under my belt. My family was bursting at the seams, but I had plenty to distract me, in theory. In practice, an hour didn’t go by in which I didn’t think about how I was going to kill myself. I had no access to any method but a knife and pills, and I wasn’t totally sold on the idea yet. However, I was sold enough to start accumulating Wellbutrin.
Wellbutrin is an anti-depressant, and it’s also the only medication I was on at the time. Yes, I was vastly under medicated. One of my parents had only allowed me to begin taking medication a few months prior to my collecting. Once the idea piqued my interest, I waited a week or so without taking the medication at all. Then I started hoarding them in a plastic baggie I kept in my bathroom dresser. Every day, I would steal one or two pills from my mom’s stash. She was also prescribed Wellbutrin. My collection grew and grew until one day, I began taking them in droves.
I was supposed to take a maximum of one a day. It was already composed of the highest possible dose, all in one circular, white pill, if my memory serves me correctly. Before I would go to school, I’d take three or four. I’d also pack one to refresh my heart rate mid-day. And that’s what it did; it pushed my heart rate up to ridiculous numbers.
I remember sitting in Algebra II class, staring straight ahead, feeling my left wrist’s pulse, savoring the fluttering of my heart. I remember thinking that this might be what the early stages of death would feel like, when I finally went through with it.
By the time I was caught, I hadn’t yet formalized a plan to kill myself, but my excess administering of Wellbutrin was enough to hospitalize me and have “suicide attempt” slashed across my intake form. I curled up in a plastic chair in the adolescent unit’s horticulture class and looked out the left side window. The therapists were telling me all about how Marsha Linehan, the founder of DBT, had found the will to stay alive by analyzing a single, growing sprout. I was so thankful that I hadn’t gotten the chance to kill myself.
Months later, I was back where I had been and worse. My stash of pills featured a wide (dozens) variety of medications, from sleep concoctions to depression pills, anxiety pills to Tylenol and yes, Wellbutrin. I spent weeks coming up with the perfect plan. I’d take the pills and slit my wrists. Done and done. I never considered that I’d look for intervention, not once.
If you’ve ever perused Youtube for Ted Talks, you’ve encountered this one by suicide survivor Kevin Haines. He’s one of very few who have lived to tell the tale of jumping off of the Golden Gate Bridge. In almost every talk he gives, he is sure to highlight that the second after he made the leap, he instantly regretted it. He wanted nothing more than to live. After I tried to kill myself the second time, a near tie for the most risky time, I instantly regretted it, too.
I’ve discussed this before. The moment after I did what I did, I slunk over to my phone and shakily dialed Kids in Crisis, a local mental health hotline for high school students. I’d picked up the card that day in school, passively. I’m incredibly lucky to have happened upon the card, for I doubt I would have called 911 that day. I was able to pick up the phone because it felt non-committal, as if maybe I could just have someone to talk me through it, soothingly, as I died. I eventually blurted out my address and a description of what I’d done, and the ambulance sirens blared.
For weeks, months even, I had planned on dying. I was as serious as one could get about it. I frequented pro-suicide (not pro-assisted, just pro-suicide) websites and did scrupulous research into the intersection of lethality and availability. A double whammy was what I came up with.
The ordeal gave me an overnight in the ICU, then another day or so in a general unit for monitoring, before I was transferred to a mental hospital. But had there not been something in me desperate to survive, I may not have had the chance to sleep through any night, ever again. The moment after I did what I did, I knew I had to get help. Dreaming about it for months, certain of its inevitability for weeks, proved untenable in the face of the reality of death.
My third attempt is too raw and upsetting to discuss, but I know that it wasn’t born out of truly wanting to be dead. I was just in such daily agony that I couldn’t bear one more second of existing in my own head.
That’s kind of the catch with all of these tales, though. It wasn’t that I really wanted death. Death has no substance, it’s blackness and absence. It can’t be desirable. The real desire is for the pain, agony really, of having a brain, having thoughts navigate that brain, having a body that responds to the brain, can produce.
Folks with mental illness have to reckon with this pain on a daily basis. If left untreated or inadequately treated, this pain multiplies until it’s truly unbearable. Suicide is considered an escape.
In reality, it’s an escape to nowhere. Our bodies understand that there is always a better way. This understanding is what keeps us from jumping to suicide every time our toes are stubbed. Wired differently, our brains could assume that toe stubbing is all we have to look forward to, and that the absence of toe stubbing would be preferable, as would be death. Instead, we are wired to understand that circumstances will improve for us.
It takes uniquely terrible circumstances, a jumbled brain, or a combination to make death seem preferable. Ultimately, our desire to live always will out. We do not ever, really, want to die. It’s simply a matter of hanging on until the inevitable sunrise streams through the curtains.