***Serious Content Warning: suicide, self harm.
Seriously. This one’s raw.
So, apparently September is “Suicide Awareness Month.”
Let me just start by saying This Sucks. Seriously. I hate it.
All those blithe “You have so much to live for, I’m always listening, here’s the suicide hotline” shareable posts. If you share one of those, I immediately mark you as “not safe.” Yes, you.
I attempted suicide in 6th grade. I didn’t even know that’s what I was doing, for sure, until I was in therapy in grad school. Why? Well, because no one talks about “I don’t care if I live or die as a result of this action” as a kind of suicidal ideation, but apparently it is. I was chopping a carrot and my hand slipped and I made a small quarter-inch cut between two veins on my wrist, just barely missing both of them. My brother expressed worry about how close it was to the veins and told me people can die by slicing open veins. Shortly after, I started sharpening my pencil to a needle point by coloring on my paper in class at a specific angle, and then scraping at the vein on the back of my hand. I wanted to know if I really could die by cutting open a vein, I was angry at school in particular, and thought “If it works, that’ll show them how awful school is.” I had the wrong vein, of course, so it never would have worked, and let me tell you that it is a helluva looooong way to cut open a vein, so I never finished the experiment. And that’s what I saw it as: an experiment. I thought it had to be something more, I don’t know, dramatic to count as an actual suicide attempt. But, after describing it to mental health professionals when I sought treatment for debilitating depression in grad school, I came out with a shiny label for it: suicide attempt.
I’ve been depressed and had passive suicidal ideations as long as I can remember. In 4th or so I declared that, if I could have a genie-style wish, I wanted to die every way possible just to know what it felt like. I got really despondent when I realized that even if I had infinite lives, I could never do it, because humans are always coming up with new ways to die. I cheered up when I realized that there’s really only two ways to die: stop the heart or stop the brain, and one always leads to the other, so I’ll get my wish someday.
My point is, I’m always aware of suicide. And I’m honestly not afraid to talk about it with basically anyone who wants to. I don’t need a stupid “awareness month” and I’m not sure anyone else like me does either.
I’ve been through a lot of therapy in the last ten years, since I started grad school. I’ve learned to manage my symptoms. I’ve tried medications. I’ve got an emergency plan when things get bad. I’ve had a few relapses into old self-harm behaviors, but for the most part I’m managing without medication right now and focusing on reclaiming my agency rather than the endless spiral of medical appointments that managing mental illness can easily become.
But, things got suddenly a LOT worse when September started. I was already struggling a bit with school having restarted and, well, you know, 2020. But when those cute slacktivism sharables started popping up, replete with all those lovely myths about how suicide works that even I believed as a kid, it got a lot worse.
Not because it made me want to hurt myself. I mean, sure, I involuntarily think “I wanna die” probably 20 times a day, but honestly at this point it’s just background noise for me, like noise from an air conditioner; annoying, sometimes worse, sometimes you just need a break from it, but mostly it’s just there.
No, September has made things so much worse for me because it’s put me back in all those other places I’ve encountered suicide and all the cultural baggage it comes with, both imposed and internalized. And that has filled me with rage, a kind of rage I hate carrying around, like carrying around a backpack filled with molten lead.
For instance, it puts me back in 11th grade, when a student at my school died by suicide. I didn’t know him, but as soon as I heard, I understood. I would have done anything to get out of that school too. When the principal, who was usually a paragon of diplomacy, mentioned it in the morning announcements, he blamed the entire student body for this boy’s death. He told us straight up “You haven’t done what I tell you to do. You haven’t taken care of yourselves, each other, and this place.” And I knew he was right. Suicide isn’t an individual problem in many cases; it’s a socio-economic problem.
But that’s not even the moment that this “suicide awareness” month has put me back into. No, it was later that day, when I walked into my AP US History class, and as soon as I was through the door, I saw my desk: it was plastered with notes, the artifacts of public mourning. My desk was, evidently, the same assigned seat where the boy had sat in a different period. “You don’t have to sit there,” my teacher said kindly, suddenly seeing my dilemma as I paused at the door. “We’ll find you somewhere else.”
“No,” I said firmly. “It’s my desk. I want to.”
To the horror of my classmates, I sat at the desk. I spent that entire period reading all the notes that my fellow students had written to him, memorializing him. It was all “We love you!” “We miss you,” “You were so wonderful,” etc.
And I seethed. The question echoing in my head was constantly “Did you ever tell him that when he was alive? Or are you just trying to make yourself feel better now?
Like I said, I didn’t know him. I don’t know what his life was life at all. My only connection to him was that desk. But I was imagining how much he must have suffered, how unloved and unwelcome he must have felt. And how much it didn’t match at all what was being said on the desk. How my entire desk was slathered in lies to make the people writing them feel better about themselves. And how that was the real problem.
And all these posts, all this blithe sharing of hotlines and acting like it can be solved with just a simple sharable image on social media, it’s taken me back there. Flashbacks. Filled once again with that rage, that sheer anger at how it seems easier to mourn publicly than offer real support.
It takes me back to a year later, when I was on a school trip with a friend, and we went to the bathroom together (buddy system!), and as she was washing her hands, I saw the marks on her arm. I grabbed her wrist and told her we needed to talk. The first thing she said to me was “Don’t tell me I have so much to live for.”
Same, friend. “I won’t,” I answered, knowing full well that’s the last thing that would persuade people like us to take care of ourselves. Knowing full well that we didn’t, really. “I’m going to tell you that the world wants us to die, and it’ll do anything to make sure we do so by our own hands. And the only way we can win is by refusing to give it what it wants.”
You think you’re fighting suicide by having a month of sharable images with a phone number on it. I’m fighting it every day, and I really don’t need the friendly fire.