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For 42 Years, I’ve Lived with Chronic Suicidal Ideation
As a crisis counselor, I’ve never told anyone. Until now.
I seriously consider suicide at least once a week.
This is the first time these nine words have ever externalized, outside my head, in this particular order. I feel like I need to type them again.
I seriously consider suicide at least once a week.
And I have, every week, 52 weeks a year, since I was about eight years old.
I’m fifty now. That’s approximately 2,184 times I’ve intentionally contemplated ending my life. Like, weighed the pros, the cons. Deliberated means and methods.
Daydreamed about how completely sad people would be. Feared no one would notice.
Then, gone on with living. A week at a time.
I live with chronic suicidal ideation. It’s an important component of who I am, and how I move through the world. It saturates how I see myself, so it commands how you see me. I want to cease to exist, on a regular schedule.
But I’ve never done it. Never attempted, unless we count youthfully, willfully placing myself in situations—following the after-after party long after my friends tapped out, jumping from a jinky rope swing without knowing the water’s depth, walking alone to pick up White Castle at two a.m. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, all in the name of a good time, of fun, of experience (things that now, with the benefit of hindsight, seem miraculous I escaped, hale and whole). But everyone’s done that sometimes, right?
Or l’appel du vide—the call of the void—so common psychologists estimate that fully half of us have felt the fleeting urge, unexplained and unsettling, to leap from the cliff, the bridge, the balcony; to veer straight into traffic; to drive the steak knife straight into our hand.
I’m just like everyone else. Except that I think about killing myself. Four times a month.
There’s not a regular schedule. It’s not on my calendar, a repeating task on Google (“Suicide?” POSTPONE. Not this time.). It probably enters my mind, on average, once a week. Some weeks, a few times. Others, not at all. I’m only thinking about it right now because I’m telling you. Because I’m talking about it. For the first time.
I’ve not kept quiet from shame. Not entirely, anyway. I work as a peer counselor on a crisis line, and I talk to folks all day, every day, about suicide. I encourage them to be open. I tell them to combat the stigma. And I spill, freely, generously, about my anxiety and depression, the fact that I’m Autistic, and how I’ve been sober for more than a decade.
It’s made me a hypocrite. I have never told anyone, openly, about my suicidal ideation. And if I really want what I tell my callers I want—a world where mental health is integral to health as a whole, a world where asking for help is neither defeat nor evidence of a moral flaw—then I have to step out and say it. I have to be brave, even if I’m not sure I want to.
Because, yeah, I’m scared. I know, from being both a patient and a mental health worker, that the s-word is a shortcut to getting sectioned or forced on medical leave. Go straight to no control. For my own good.
Even though, really, this is just a thought I have, a thing I carry: no sound, no fury, signifying nothing, even if it’s weighty. If I was going to do it, I’ve had approximately 2,184 chances, none of which I’ve taken. If it was gonna happen, it would’ve. It’s real and unreal, like my soul—another thing I tend not to mention in conversation, if I can help it.
That’s the other part: imagine it in conversation. To anyone I feel close enough to mention it to, it’d be like handing them a backpack full of lead. Casually (“Here. Carry this. Forever. Thanks!”). It’s a responsibility I wouldn’t wish on anyone outside my profession, even in righteous vengeance. We’re already so unskilled at loving one another well, in healthy ways, when no one involved is considering death.
Even my husband, to whom I spare no detail (up to and including pops that smack the mirror, new body hairs in unexpected places, what I ate as a snack while he was at work). I can’t imagine the pain this would cause him, so I don’t. Imagine or say it.
Rather, I haven’t. I guess it’s out now. I have to be brave. I have to own it. Everywhere, to everyone.
Hi, I’m Caren. I have lifelong, chronic suicidal ideation.
I know I’m not the only one, too. I know one of the beloveds I’ve chosen to protect from the backpack full of lead is doing the same thing for me. Sometimes, I think I see a tell. A look. An expression. A joke, gallows humor, left swinging, untended, ignored, dismissed. Recognition (“You too?), then back onto living, week by week. I speak to people on the crisis line—mothers, brothers, cousins—who talk to me about how they, too, think about ending their life, but have called me instead.
That’s the thing about ideation. It matters, even as it doesn’t. I’m fine—great, even. I like my life. I have a partner who’s still, after 20 years, into me. I publish books. By day, I have a gratifying career supporting people in my community going through the worst days of their lives. I have invisible disabilities, but nothing that curbs what I can and do accomplish. I wake up, I won’t say ready to slay, but I wake up, and most of the time, I’m happy to have done so.
Except when I’m not. That’s when I start thinking maybe things would just be a hell of a lot better if I didn’t exist. That I should end my life. So I think about it.
Sometimes I plan. I research ways to die. I’ve read about poisons and drug overdoses, about hypothermia and drowning. I can point to most of my major arteries. I’ve stood too close to the rooftop’s edge.
I’ve watched video simulations of the 1,600-foot euthanasia roller coaster.
Making myself dead makes sense in those moments when I feel like there’s no difference between being invisible and going dark, when all I want is to just disappear.
Invisible, dark, disappear.
But 2,184 times, that’s as far as I’ve gone. And it’s as far as I’ll ever go.
I stay there awhile. Sometimes hours, sometimes days. You look at me, and I’m smiling back at you. I have a coffee in one hand. I’m cleaning the litterbox, I’m shopping for groceries. But just underneath, I’m thinking hard about killing myself.
And then, I stop.
My husband will make an offhand joke. My cat will plop dramatically in my lap. A spear of sunlight jabs through the mostly-closed shades, and the dust in the air catches the light and sparkles.
The dryer buzzes, and my clothes are warm, clean.
Something happens and I stand up. I walk away from images of death and walk back toward life. I’ll put on those clean clothes and go to work; I will talk to other people like me. I’ve done this frequently enough to trust the process.
I’ll be back here again, like I’ve been so many times before. When you see me next time, I’ll seem the same.
I want to die. I stand up.
I don’t stand up because I’m magically happy. I don’t stand up because I’ve suddenly remembered the fragility of life, or how we only get one. I don’t stand up because I know in my heart that death is more than being invisible, going dark, turning invisible.
I don’t know why I stand up. I just do. I always have.
I stand up.
If you are in crisis in the United States, you can call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, 24/7. Click here for international suicide hotlines.
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