I’ve already talked about suicide once this year. Suicide introduced me to death and thinking about it has been an April tradition for the entirety of my adult life.
Last week, we lost Kate Spade and then Anthony Bourdain, and all my feelings about suicide washed their way to the surface. I sat with them, the feelings, for a few days. I thought about what suicide did to me, what it has done to so many people I love, what it’s meant to me, how it shaped and molded me. I thought about the times I’ve brushed against it, the times death seemed an acceptable response to hardship and hurt, the times I’ve been at the bottom and in the dark and just wanted everything – especially life – to stop.
The first time I remember wanting to die, I was 10. I’d just been thrown up the farmhouse stairs by my stepfather. I’d been whistling and when he asked me to stop, I didn’t. He grabbed me, dragged me to the bottom of the stairs, picked me up and threw me against the stairs, over and over, all the way up the staircase to the door of my bedroom. He threw me inside and slammed the door shut and I, sobbing hysterically, pulled out pen and paper to write a note to explain to anyone who might care that I simply could not live anymore.
I stared out the window and wondered if the fall would kill me. I was tiny, less than 70 pounds, made mostly of skin and bones. I was afraid the jump wouldn’t kill me, that I would just hurt myself, that I’d just get in more trouble. So I didn’t jump.
When I was 16, my friend David jumped from a northern Virginia overpass and ended his life. Weeks before, in English class, we’d talked about suicide, about jumping and flying. I told him if he ever jumped to take me with him, that I wanted to go too. But he didn’t. He went alone.
A few years ago, in the midst of my divorce, I was not ok. The man I had married years before turned into the worst sort of person, the kind who lied, cheated and inflicted intentional physical harm on me.
I lost hold of my wellness. I stopped eating. I slipped down to the same weight I’d been in high school. Dinner was mostly whiskey-based and I closed myself off, telling everyone I was fine, that things were fine, that it was all just fucking fine.
I had friends who were there for me, friends who told me over and over again to reach out if I needed anything, if I didn’t want to be alone, if I just wanted to talk. But when you’re there, when you’re in the darkness at the bottom of the well, the only thing you feel is alone and it doesn’t matter if there are 100 people standing outside your front door waiting for you to open it and let them in, you still feel alone.
I just kept saying I was fine. But I wasn’t.
An acquaintance pulled me aside one day at work. I hadn’t seen him in a few months and he asked me if I was okay. He said I seemed sad, that I’d stopped smiling, that I just wasn’t myself. He said I’d lost my spark. I told him honestly that things were hard, that what I was going through was hard, that I was having a hard time. And then, for some reason, it got easier.
I don’t know how we save our friends from suicide. I don’t know how we stop it. I don’t know how to make people feel less alone, less hopeless or less hurt.
But I know what it’s like to feel those things, to feel alone and hopeless and hurt and maybe there’s some value in saying that, in admitting that I’ve been there too.
I know we could all be better listeners. We could listen harder for the things that aren’t being said. Sometimes you have to be a detective to see what’s really going on, to find your way behind the curtain. But sometimes they tell you. And when they do, we need to listen, really and truly listen and do everything we can to help them, even if it’s scary, confusing, difficult or inconvenient.
We can stop playing that game where we rate trauma, where we brush off the aches of one because, hey, it could always be worse. Privilege doesn’t mean we aren’t susceptible to pain and we don’t have to live the hardest life to hurt. Our hurt, whatever the cause, is valid.
We can keep urging people contemplating suicide to reach out, to pick up the phone, to call the prevention hotlines, but we can also remember what a difficult thing that is. We can remember how impossible it is to reach for anything when you feel like you’re surrounded by walls and your brain has convinced you that you’re alone, that you’re broken beyond repair and that there’s only one solution.
We can do some of the work the broken ones can’t. We can pick up the phone. We can check in and offer help instead of demanding they ask for it. We can check on the ones we love, especially the strong ones, the brave ones and the ones who keep telling us they’re fine.
“As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks — on your body or on your heart — are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.” – Anthony Bourdain
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.