September 10th was World Suicide Prevention Day.
It’s a name that has been assigned to one day every year for as long as I can remember, yet things felt different this year. The words “suicide prevention” seemed to weigh more heavily on people’s minds. But why?
Maybe it’s because barely 3 days had passed since Kate Spade’s suicide when Anthony Bourdain was found dead in his hotel room. Or maybe it’s because the impact of mental illness on popular culture has become impossible to ignore, with Demi Lovato’s relapse described in her song “Sober” and the suicide of Kim Jong-Hyun highlighting the grueling nature of South Korea’s pop music industry. Or perhaps it’s because the term “mental illness” now holds political significance in highly-debated partisan issues, the majority of which are completely unrelated to health and medicine.
Mental health has become the hottest new trend. Is this in response to the rising suicide rates in the U.S. or proof that we’re failing to properly address it? Help is becoming more widely available, but I’m not sure if it’s the right kind. The suicide hotline has been shared so many times over social media that I practically have the number memorized, but as someone who has utilized this resource before, it falls short of providing suicidal people with the reliable and personalized help they need.
My mind is programmed to subconsciously avoid suicide ideation at all costs with whatever means necessary. I didn’t recognize this particular tendency of mine until my psychiatrist brought it to my attention last fall. It’s when I realized that I had been unknowingly embroiled in a war against my own thoughts for years. In high school, my weapon of choice was a brow razor that I kept inside my pencil case, which I always made sure was within reach to treat my self-declared “emergencies” that occurred when suicidal thoughts would threaten to sneak into my mind and suffocate my brain. It quickly became a habit, and before I had the chance to notice how far gone I was inside this rabbit hole, even the most trivial stressors triggered the thought of my handy brow razor. And when I finally started taking medication regularly, prescription bottles that had been empty for a while would greet the end of months that favored mental sickness.
Yet I have never considered myself to be suicidal. When my psychiatrist handed me a no-suicide contract to sign, I was so caught off-guard by its title that my immediate reaction was to laugh. I had become so adept at sensing these “emergencies” that suicidal ideation rarely succeeded in actually making its presence known to me. When my doctor asked if I had taken the pills with the intent of killing myself after I woke up the next morning slumped against the bathroom cabinet, my throat sore from throwing up all night, I had told him no. And I hadn’t been lying.
I have spent my entire life willing to do literally anything except exist in my own hurt. The thought of allowing my mind to cross into that territory terrifies me because I don’t know what the consequences will be. Every time I pick up a razor blade or swallow three times my prescribed dosage of pills, I am completely focused on my desire to live. The temporary pain caused by sharp objects and the medicinal haze that blurs my thoughts are always accompanied by relief that I had once again managed to ward off any suicidal thoughts. I have witnessed and experienced the indescribable grief caused by losing someone you love to suicide, and when these thoughts first appeared on the horizon of my mind half a decade ago, I turned to solutions that were unhealthy but instant. My physical acts of self-destruction temporarily convinced me that I had some semblance of control, even though I had turned to them only because my mentality offered nothing but a flimsy excuse of what was supposed to be self-protection. For a long time, I had no intentions of stopping. In my backwards opinion, my recipe for coping was the only thing that was stopping me from becoming labelled as “suicidal”.
I’d be lying if I said that suicidal thoughts no longer intruded into my life. Mental illness is an oscillatory beast, and while my mentality is now more comparable to a concrete wall than a broken fence, there are still days when a depressive episode that had been ballooning inside of me pops unexpectedly and throws me off-guard. It’s been a while since I’ve touched my brow razor, but the sharp desire to relapse still appears in the periphery of my thoughts when I’m in stressful situations. I don’t think it’s something that will ever fully go away. But when I reflect on what caused me to find solace in physical pain, I can’t believe how naive I was – I was using washi tape to fix something that required gorilla glue.
If given the chance to rewind, I know what I would do differently to address my suicidal ideation. But whether it’s realistic is a whole different question, mainly because none of my friends realized how serious my situation was because I never brought it up. I have no doubt that they would’ve responded with an outpouring of love and support, but the thought of initiating a conversation never occurred to me. Our society is stuck in an indefinite cycle of individuals choosing to internalize suicidal thoughts, causing the subject to be taboo enough that those who would like to help aren’t sure how to, and won’t know until people open up. The first step to suicide prevention is finding the courage to bring those suicidal thoughts out into the open. Until that happens, we will never see past this era of simply reciting the suicide hotline, the only resource actively associated with suicide prevention, when the topic arises.
Follow Tiffanie on Twitter at @tiffaniechai and read her column here: https://ithacavoice.com/category/opinion/within-the-bell-jar/