Seeking support

isabel-lichtman

Editor’s noteThe following column includes an account of a suicide attempt and may be triggering for some people. The author is sharing their story to raise awareness about an issue many struggle with and to start a conversation about how to better support people dealing with thoughts of suicide. Many 24-hour hotlines exist for those in the midst of a crisis. Alameda County’s can be reached at 800-309-2131.

I am writing about my suicide attempt with the intention of opening an honest conversation about the reality of suicide and the stigma and guilt surrounding it. I hope to empower survivors to get the support they need.

***

I am sitting on my bed, but I’m not really there. My fists clenched around bedsheets, my fingers entwined in folds in the fabric, yet I am tethered to nothing, floating like a used napkin in the wind. I can feel time, but it is not passing — it is rushing like stray water during a hurricane, surging against the barriers in its way. I feel so much, and yet I cannot think; my thoughts are not my own, even though they are a product of my own mind.

The thoughts start out like they usually do — as negative affirmations of myself and my relationships. As I sit, strapped to the bed below me, the thoughts swell in intensity and confidence. They tell me that I am destined for failure, that nothing will improve, that it is my fault that I am like this.

My brain is drowning in the thoughts. With each second, their volume increases, leaving my brain less and less room to breathe — a process that continues until my input is entirely lost.

Something snaps, and I’m running on autopilot. I am walking toward the kitchen, floating in a sea of jagged thoughts, taking larger and larger steps as a mosquito drawn to the light. Except instead of the light, I am drawn to the cabinet above the stove, cracked open a little bit, housing the pills I had accumulated in my treatment thus far. I thrust the cabinet open and the bottles stare at me with their beady orange eyes and white lids, the words on their labels blurred out of focus.

I woke up many hours later feeling like I was recovering from a night out, groggy from the medication and grappling with random gaps in my memory that made my actions feel surreal.

By attempting suicide, I crossed some line that I didn’t even know existed.

To my parents, I was no longer capable of taking care of myself. I couldn’t be trusted to spend time home alone or stay out past 9 p.m. At 19, I had the privileges of a child, but that was not the part that bothered me the most. I couldn’t take the way my dad looked at me differently: not as an equal, but as a responsibility. I couldn’t take the way my mom’s every word was laced with poorly hidden pity, or the way people’s voices changed when they knew.

It felt as if suicide were a belittling factor, something inspiring awkwardness and shame. Despite my identity as a fully fledged college student, I was reduced to a liability to the people around me because I had proved to be a danger to myself.

I have also experienced a significant amount of guilt (and imposed guilt) as a result of the attempt. The mental health professionals I’ve worked with have used guilt as a way to prevent me from attempting suicide again. They ask me to think about what it would do to my family and I sit there, my eyes unseeing and my mind filled with images of my sister’s hands trembling in her lap, my grandmother reaching for her glasses, my mom picking at her nails on her way to work. I can’t have a conversation with a friend about suicide without feeling horrible for what I did, especially given their support.

Because it is so little talked about, suicide is a very isolating issue. Without understanding the experience personally, it is easy to attribute the urge to moral shortcomings or weakness; it is easy to blame the individual who attempted because of the many negative consequences that can come from their action — even though the urge is out of their control. I almost consider myself to be a completely different person from the individual that took the pills. My mind was so clouded by intrusive thoughts that I was unable to distinguish them from my own.

In order to have an honest conversation about suicide, it is necessary to stop focusing on guilt. Because suicide is so stigmatized and associated with guilt, those having suicidal thoughts are less likely to seek help before their symptoms reach crisis level. Tiptoeing around suicide attempts detracts from the seriousness of the issue. Family members and friends should react by listening and offering resources rather than with fear to make it easier and more common for individuals to seek support and talk about how they are honestly feeling.

It took a suicide attempt for me to speak honestly about my suicidal thoughts with my therapist, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I now learn new coping skills at therapy each week — skills that could have prevented my attempt in the first place. It is imperative to have support not only from mental health professionals, but also from friends and family — but I would not have this support if they were not aware of the way I feel.

Many 24-hour hotlines exist for those in the midst of a crisis. Alameda County’s can be reached at 800-309-2131.

Isabel Lichtman writes the Thursday blog on mental health. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @isabellichtman.

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  • lspanker

    Sounds like you have personal issues that need to be resolved, which take higher priority than trying to make it through any collegiate program at present. May I respectfully suggest that you contact the UCB administration and seek some type of academic leave of absence so that you can pursue the professional help you need, then return at a later date when you are able to handle your studies.