Saturday August 29, 2020 marked 10 months since I almost killed myself. That’s not exactly a significant time marker, I know. Realizing that however, made me start to reflect on all the ways I’ve changed over the last 10 months.
In short, my life looks nothing like it did 10 months ago (considering we’re in the midst of an international pandemic and a social revolution, I’m sure I’m not the only person who can say that). I have healed a lot, learned a lot, and changed a lot. Where I stand currently, I am in a cycle of healing that both: inches me daily towards full remission, and spirals me through such an intense range of emotions I sometimes question if this is healing at all.
I’ve decided to make my healing process public through this post. Suicide is such a weird topic in our media. We publicly grieve suicides of famous people like Robin Williams and Anthony Bourdain. Suicide will take over news and social media cycles for a couple days. There will be some cries for more attention for mental health issues, and then everyone pretty much moves on. But unsuccessful suicide attempts? How often do we publicly grieve those? How often do we give voice to suicide survivors, and ask them what support they need to make sure next time they’re not successful? Since I’ve started being vocal about my suicide attempt, I’ve noticed the hashtag #suicidesurvivor largely brings up content about the surviving family members of successful suicide victims. But what about all those, like me, who struggle with suicidal ideation and suicide attempts? If we can grieve successful suicides and lament the lack of mental health support that produced them, why do those with unsuccessful suicide attempts in their past hide in silence and shame?
I don’t know if there really are answers to these questions. I do know that before October 29, 2019 I believed suicide was inevitable for me. I had been in therapy for 3 years by that point and tried several different psych meds, but still truly believed my loved ones would be better off without me. I had thought about suicide for decades before attempting it. Through my teenage years, undergrad, my marriage, years of love, moments of laughter, and professional successes, suicide stalked me. It surged up the back of my throat like bile, every time something triggered my social anxiety. It danced across the hemispheres of my mind every time I fell short of being perfect. And, it sat like harsh medicine on my tongue after being sexually assaulted a second time; daring me to swallow it.
And I finally almost did.
But I survived. And here I am refusing to hide it, refusing to be ashamed. Reflecting on my process of healing reminds me of how far I’ve come. I’m not in full remission yet, but I no longer feel as though suicide is inevitable. I know I can beat it now, which is a paradigm I’ve worked steadfastly to grow and maintain for the last 10 months. Below you will find other important paradigm shifts I’ve experienced throughout this process, and how each continues to fuel my cycle of healing.
I used to think healing was linear, now I know it’s a cycle
Like many, my only frame of reference for healing was physical ailments. When you are sick or injured you go to the doctor, follow the instructions, take the pills, get better, move on with your life. I grew up in a context where mental illness didn’t exist. I didn’t learn what anxiety and depression really were until I was diagnosed with them in my mid-20s. So when I realized I had an illness I did the things. I went to a psychiatrist, I went on meds, I followed the instructions, I tried to kill myself 3 years later.
That’s because mental and emotional healing is not linear, which I have learned through personal experience over the last 10 months. Starting the healing process takes self awareness. You have to understand that your brain is lying to you and identify that a trigger is responsible. Once you identify the trigger, you can start working on the reasons you have triggers in the first place, and start to do the work to make your triggers less powerful.
The thing is, the work you do to make triggers less powerful can often be triggering. Uncovering why certain things trigger me meant uncovering trauma and mental illness that I had no idea were even inside me. Confronting and processing through trauma makes you fragile, sensitive. It can produce new triggers that were never there before. Which starts the cycle over as you confront these new triggers and attempt to heal from them.
This can be exhausting. Some days I have anxiety all day long and I don’t understand why until reflecting before bed that night. Sometimes I get triggered during really inconvenient times and have to abruptly remove myself from situations, often without saying anything. There are still days I can’t get out of bed. Some days I feel amazing, back to normal, ready to get back to work, take on too much, trigger myself, and have to give up responsibilities all over again.
Learning about and embracing this cycle though, has been key to my journey. Once I let go of my expectation of linear healing, I became aware of all my victories. I stopped putting pressure on myself to be “better,” and started celebrating small wins. For example, the ability to notice I’ve taken on too much work, and voluntarily give up responsibilities is brand new. Which leads me to my next paradigm shift since October 2019:
I used to be a perfectionist, now I embrace who I am
I believed for most of my life that anything short of perfect was a failure. This belief came from a fundamental lack of confidence in my own self worth. I really thought that if I let anyone down, or fell short of perfect, everyone would realize they didn’t really need me and I would have no reason to live.
That’s fucking dark, I know. But it kept me working and exceeding expectations. My perfectionism won me several awards, scholarships, and admission into two international honors societies. On paper, I was perfect, so on paper I had worth.
This didn’t stop me from trying to kill myself. I realized that, no matter how perfect I looked, I would never heal unless I started believing I had worth outside of my productivity. This was one of the most difficult paradigm shifts I had to make. It meant giving up everything I knew to be “right” about myself, and embracing everything about me I used to hide from view.
It also meant growing the self awareness necessary to say “no” to people. Perfectionism is the close cousin of people-pleasing. In order to make everyone think I was perfect, I had to change myself to make everyone else happy all the time. In order to change this paradigm, I had to accept that I may sometimes make others unhappy by choosing myself. And that sometimes making others unhappy, does not detract from my worth.
This is one of the most difficult parts for me. The courage to choose myself has enabled me to build more self love than I thought possible. Yet, others’ reactions to choosing myself is triggering as hell. People have a hard time understanding why I would go from bending over backwards to make them happy, to saying no and asserting my needs. I’ve lost people along the way which has been absolutely devastating, and sends me into a spiral of self loathing every time. But I’ve also gained people, and solidified relationships with existing people who have proved they are ride or die on this journey with me.
I have also lost parts of myself that I used to treasure. I’ve had to grieve these losses in order to make way for new growth. That grief unexpectedly became an almost constant fixture in my life.
I used to think we only grieve when someone dies, I now understand grief comes with any loss
The grief I’ve experienced through this process has taken my breath away, hit me like a train, and turned everything upside down. One of the reasons I believe my mental health support wasn’t effective enough to keep me from attempting suicide was because I wasn’t willing to give anything up. I wasn’t willing to give up my high-achieving perfect record and sway with the people in my life who I thought “mattered.”
Once I found myself in a psychiatric hospital, I realized giving these parts of myself up was essential if I was planning to survive. I didn’t realize I would grieve these parts of myself as if they were loved ones who had passed.
Grief accompanies every loss. Humans in general need to cycle through many emotions in order to cope with giving something up. This has been true for every part of myself I’ve had to give up in order to survive. Some days I’m so angry I can’t sit still. Others days I cry a lot. Sometimes I am in such denial, I convince myself every choice I’ve made in the last 10 months was a mistake and desperately want my old life back.
In attempting suicide, I didn’t successfully kill myself, but there were parts of me that died. I’ve had to lean into this grief in order to cope with it. Acknowledging my grief and honoring my emotions allows me the time I need to process through them, and then move on when I’m ready. Some days are harder than others. Most of the time I feel like I’m on a rollercoaster. But each moment spent honoring my grief has pushed me one step further towards acceptance. And that’s what I’m holding onto.
I am only one person who has attempted suicide. I can’t speak for others and their own experiences with their healing cycle. In writing this article I am merely hoping to give voice to a topic we don’t talk about very often. Healing is a difficult journey. My cycle of healing has been surprising, unexpected, difficult, empowering, and luckily steeped in love. I am grateful every day for my support system and the (however small) platform I’ve built to feel seen and heard. And I want that for every survivor, and sincerely hope that sharing my story gives voice to others who may not be ready to share their own.
If you struggle with suicidal ideation or suicide attempts, please know I see you, I love you, I honor you. You are strong, you are worthy, and you are not alone.