What the Negative Thought Bubbles Are Telling Me

by Sarah Schuster

I call them “negative thought bubbles” because those are the only words I can access at the time. Lying in my high school boyfriend’s bed, I explain to him matter-of-factly he has to let me be until all the bubbles pop.


You’re a horrible person.


You deserve nothing.


You’re fat.


You’re the worst.

The pressure in my head really does make it feel like my brain is full of bubbles. I can feel them building up in the back of my throat, threatening to spill out of my ears. And the only way to get rid of them, it seems, is to wait, to let them pop one by one. Waiting for their turn to be heard, the bubbles tremble with anticipation, and eventually, they all get their way. So there I lie, patiently waiting for the process to run its course.


Nobody likes you.


You suck, you suck, you suck.






The first time I think about killing myself, I don’t want to kill myself at all. But the words are there, almost stripped of their meaning. A sharp, physical poke, rather than something I can actually comprehend.

“I want to kill myself.”


The words move through my head on repeat, and I startle myself by saying them out loud while walking to class. Staring at my wrists, the word “cuttttt” hisses from my lips. I don’t want to hurt myself, but visualizing it releases an imaginary pressure birthed by real pain.

A few years later, my boyfriend, trying to figure out if I have Harm-OCD, a type of “Pure O” where the afflicted is obsessed with the uncertainty that they could hurt themselves or others at any time, asks if I’m afraid I’ll actually do it. Do I get nervous when I see a knife? Am I afraid I’m going to lose control?

No, I tell him. I’m not afraid I might do it. I want to do it. It’s not fear, only release. Whether or not I am capable or willing is irrelevant. I just want to let the pressure out, both with the imagined cuts and with the words, “I want to kill myself.”

After a while, my brain decides to mix it up, replacing the word “kill” with “murder.”

I ponder about this choice, wondering if the word murder seems more deliberate. Sure, you can kill someone by hitting them with your car, but it’s only murder if you see them coming, right?


I’m screaming in a bathroom in a bar in New York City. This isn’t an exaggeration. I am drunk, and I am screaming and it’s horrifying because I cant stop.

“I can’t stop,” I tell my boyfriend, in the bathroom with me, trying to get me to calm down both because he’s worried for my well-being, and afraid someone will hear us and accuse him of hurting me. This is a public bathroom after all. But I won’t stop.

I want to bang my head against the wall. I try, and he stops me. As the next scream desperately climbs it’s way up my throat, I try to scratch myself, and he pulls my hands away. But I want to. I’m craving it. Why must I sit here in this pain when I know scratching, hurting, hitting, will make it better? The screams turn into hyperventilating as the energy finally slows down, and then stops. It morphs back into an itch. We go back to his parents’ apartment and sleep on two separate couches.

I wake up feeling lighter. My head is quieter than it’s been in a long time.

I start taking one pill a day. I tell my therapist I’m sad, but at least I don’t think about killing myself all the time. (Haha.) Words and sentences don’t echo around in my head like they used to. At first, I missed it. I don’t think about it much anymore.

My depression is more dulled and less self-destructive. I can catch it when I see it (oh, there you are), and I know the negative thought bubbles are not villains, but messengers, whose code got hijacked along the way. Sometimes they have something to say. Sometimes they say nothing at all. Regardless, when I shoot them, they grow in strength and size. Instead, I try now to decipher them. Usually, when I decrypt, “I want to kill myself,” it simply means something is wrong. This is a powerful shift in my relationship with self-hate. Each day, instead of asking, “What’s wrong with me?” I try to have wisdom to ask, “What do I need?”

So I talk. I meditate. I find hiking clears my head better than anything else. Crying is also great. Throwing a pillow across the room, if necessary. It’s energy. The messengers are telling me I need to get it out of me somehow.

* * *

Sarah Schuster graduated from Syracuse University with a journalism degree. She now lives in Los Angeles, where she runs the mental health section at The Mighty. Follow her on Twitter.