[Trigger warning: Suicide]
2016 has gotten off to an unusual start.
On December 30th, I went to the hospital because I was suicidal to a degree that I’ve never been before. I experience quite a bit of suicidal ideation as a matter of course (so fun!) but this time was different. Before, I would have the “I wish I was dead” thoughts when I was super upset about something, usually crying or paralyzed by anxiety, or so depressed that I couldn’t move. And even then, the vast majority of the time I didn’t think about actual suicide; I’d wish that I could just pop out of existence, or go to sleep and not wake up. I didn’t want to kill myself, I just wanted to not exist anymore. Thoughts like that were scary when they first started for me a couple of years ago, but it’s surprising (and sad) how quickly I got used to them. It’s like once my brain reached out and went there for the first time, it never snapped back into its original shape. It got easier and easier to go to that place, to the point where the thoughts became intrusive and would pop into my head when I was thinking about something normal. Okay, so tonight I have that volunteer meeting at 6 and then when I get home I need to do laundry so my black jeans are clean for the party on Saturday, and I also need to need to run the dishwasher because I forgot last night and hey I could just step out in front of that bus right now and it would all be over. Or I’d be thinking about a problem and mulling over what I could do about it, and within two or three steps I’d somehow arrive at just killing myself because who fucking cares anyway.
So that sort of thing is bad enough by itself. Right around Christmas, though, I had a perfect storm of stressful and upsetting events hit me in rapid succession. They were each upsetting in their own right, but hitting me like BAM-BAM-BAM was too much and something inside me broke. Looking back, I see now that I was doing really badly for at least at month beforehand, but it’s hard to see the downward spirals sometimes because I’m in them. I’d been drinking more and more in the evenings, ducking into the bathroom at work to cry more and more often, and thinking lots of thoughts like, “I can’t talk to anyone about how I feel because nobody can help me. People mean well but they don’t understand and there’s nothing they can say that would take these hellish feelings away, so there’s no point in telling anyone.” So, on December 30th I found myself sitting at my desk at work, very calmly planning my death. I’m not going to share what the plan was, because I’ve been required to share it with several people already and it creates a tidal wave of guilt and shame and horror and anxiety that doesn’t get any better each time I explain it. I’ll just say that I made a specific plan, which had never been the case before, and when I realized that I was very calmly and deliberately doing the necessary research I needed in order to die, I started shaking all over and got up from my desk at 2:00 in the afternoon and took myself to the emergency room.
I don’t have the emotional reserves tonight to tell the whole story in detail, but I was admitted to a psychiatric unit on New Year’s Eve morning. I have never been more afraid in my entire life. This particular unit was a cross between a hospital and a prison. We couldn’t have cell phones, iPods, laptops, anything made of glass, anything with shoelaces or strings, dental floss, or bras with underwires. We had closets but they had no doors, rods, or hangers. There were no towel bars in the bathrooms. Even the fire sprinklers barely stuck out from the walls. There were a few wall-mounted telephones in the corridor that we could use to make and receive calls, and the cords on them were barely long enough to get the receiver to your ear. There was a fine but dense mesh over all the windows that could only be opened with a key. My unit had two sides, and each side went down to the cafeteria for meals at set times, three times a day, in the elevator that could only be operated by someone with a key. After meals we stood in line at the nurse’s station to get our medications in little paper cups with another little paper cup of water to wash them down.
Between meals, we had group therapy. Group therapy, quite honestly, was one of the most amazing, powerful, enlightening, and exhausting experiences I’ve ever had. My fellow patients, I came to realize, were truly beautiful souls. We had all arrived at roughly the same time, and we were each bottoming out in our own ways. We were stripped down to the rawest, barest, saddest, most exhausted and frightened and vulnerable versions of ourselves, and we cautiously accompanied each other through those first really rough couple of days and started having breakthroughs together, and breakdowns too, and there was so much pain in what these people were going through, such unspeakable trauma they’d suffered, and they shared it all out loud with an honesty and bravery that made me cry. I learned so much just from sitting quietly and listening to them – I think I learned just as much from listening, if not more, than I did from talking through my own stuff. They inspired me so. It was so hard and so rewarding at the same time.
I was on the unit for five days and I have lots of things to share from my experience there, but it’s way too much to tell all at once, so it’ll come along organically as I write my way through this next phase, the post-hospitalization phase, which so far has been…weird. It goes without saying that I was overjoyed to come home to my own apartment and my own shower and my own bed, but I also came home to the life I’d been completely sheltered from for five days. Could you willingly surrender all forms of electronic communication for five days? No texting, no email, no social media, no Google when you find yourself wondering about something? No news alerts, no Amazon, no Fruit Ninja, no checking your bank accounts? It creates an extremely uncomfortable feeling of isolation, and that’s exactly the point – in our downtime, we couldn’t fall back on the easy, mindless, sometimes compulsive methods of distraction and self-medication we’d learned to use so well. We had to sit quietly with ourselves and feel our feelings and think our thoughts and sometimes watch ABC because that was the only station the TV in the dayroom could get. So coming back to my couch and my Roku that lets me stream a zillion different movies and TV shows, and my iPhone that basically puts the world in the palm of my hand, felt strange and honestly a little scary. I felt very fragile coming home to the same life that I’d been living in such darkness and despair and fear before, and I had to learn–have to learn–how to live it in a different way. A way that’s more centered on truly taking care of myself instead of just fumbling around for various ways to numb my pain. Because the pain’s still there, mostly. I’m not suicidal anymore, but I still have major depression with a side of anxiety, and it’s possible that I always will. I can take care of myself to the best of my ability, but the fact remains that I may be sick in one degree or another for the rest of my life. But I try not to think that far ahead, because navigating individual days, and even hours, is enough of a challenge. The difference is that it’s a challenge I feel up to, at least most of the time. Old patterns and habits are hard to break, but I’ve come to understand how much better I’ll feel once I break them. It’s a tiring process, and sometimes when I’m alone I break down and cry out of sheer exhaustion, but that’s okay. Everything I feel is allowed – what an amazing thing, to be learning to accept myself like that.
So I’m back in the swing of things, more or less, and I’m starting to feel like myself again (I know I’m getting better when my sense of humor starts to come back). I know I’ll have some setbacks and disappointments, but I’m prepared to accept that. Fighters fight.