This essay was written on September 9th, 2013. It has since been edited.
Tomorrow, September 10th, is World Suicide Prevention Day. According to Wikipedia, its mission is “to provide worldwide commitment and action to prevent suicides, with various activities around the world.”
I am alive today in the most intense, sometimes painful, always beautiful of ways, and one of the many reasons I credit for my life is this: I am a failed product of “Suicide Prevention.”
For this, I am eternally grateful. While this statement may sound like a confusing paradox, I’d like to explain what I mean.
My long relationship to suicide began after I met the mental health system as a fourteen-year old and ended when I found freedom from it thirteen years later, in 2010. My suicidal experiences and I shared something akin to a passionate, painful love affair that grew stronger over time. It was a relationship that I both yearned for and loathed, relied on and desperately tried to pull myself away from, but because I was convinced that the roots of my suicidal urges rested in bad brain chemistry, I felt powerless to do anything about them.
Indeed, after a while, I simply accepted my “chronic suicidality” as part of what it meant to be “mentally ill.” I also accepted and eventually embraced that it was only a matter of time before I took my own life; that this was the inevitable conclusion of being “treatment-resistant Bipolar.” I remember reading a write-up of some Rorschach test results which declared I had a “death wish” and was a “high risk” for suicide; I nodded in agreement, pushing my lips together in grim acknowledgement that this was my fate and that, tragically, even the best treatment in the world wouldn’t stop me from meeting it.
For many years, my thoughts of suicide kept me living. I always have my death, I used to say to myself. I can live another day knowing this. Visual images of my final moments soothed me, and I found relief in the idea of eternal sleep. Like a dark angel, the knowledge of my future suicide sat perched next to my ear, whispering its promises to me. Life passed this way for a long time, the seconds ticking by, days and weeks and years of going through the motions of a meaningless, numb “Bipolar” life, until I reached the end of the road.
After years of receiving elaborate and extensive psychiatric intervention, I determined that I was a lost cause, and allowed the whisper of my fate to crescendo into a loud and determined call. On a cold November morning in 2008, at the age of twenty-five, I made the calm, rational, peaceful decision to end my terminally “ill” life, and I acted on it.
I feel a deep, human obligation to talk openly about my attempted suicide and the years of suicidal thoughts that led me to, and subsequently followed, that decision, because I see my once-profound urge to die as not only the most significant consequence of my internalization of a “mentally ill” identity, but also a crucial step towards the profound realization of how much I actually yearned to live. Leading up to my suicide attempt were years of shame, guilt, and secrecy; of fake smiles and spark-less eyes; of believing so deeply that I had no agency over my “illness” that each day would just be a fight against myself; of feeling hopelessly dependent on my doctors and therapists and parents and the hospitals I kept checking myself into; of knowing no other way to understand myself than as a manifestation of psychiatric pathology; of ever-increasing iatrogenic dysfunction as one prescription became two, became three, became four, became five, while believing all along it was my “disease” causing me such turmoil; of feeling completely disconnected from myself and from the world; of finding peace of mind only after fantasizing about my death. My relationship to the mental health system turned me into a living, breathing ghost, left with only one logical next step to take.
Although I don’t remember what followed in the days after I slipped into a coma that November day nearly five years ago, I will never forget the quietness that washed over me after I swallowed the last handful of my pills, closing one eye, then the other, to focus my blurred and fading vision on finishing my suicide note. Tears are pushing themselves out from the corners of my eyes as I type these words because of how real that moment still feels. I will never forget that peace—I never want to forget that peace—because it’s a testament to the totality of hopelessness that results from a psychiatric label and everything that follows.
During my “Bipolar” years, there was a tremendous amount of energy expended by a tremendous amount of varied “mental health” practitioners in an effort to prevent my suicide. I was taught to see my urge to end the life I felt hopelessly trapped in as evidence of how “ill” I was, and as a medical problem that could only be resolved by compliance to “treatment”, and by the thoughtful strategies of the “experts” around me. At night, when my suicidal thoughts seemed to demand action, I did what I was told and called my psychiatrist so that she could prevent the crisis from escalating. (On more than one occasion, the advice was to “Take extra Seroquel,” and I remember feeling beyond lucky that she’d stay on the phone with me until I passed out into drugged sleep, scared as I was of having to lie there alone, trapped in my head.) I was committed to preventing my suicide, and the psychiatric infrastructure around me was, too. This commitment led me right to death’s door.
There’s no denying that my relationship to the mental health system was a complicated one because of how deeply I came to believe in its tenets. It’s hard to make sense of the fact that while this system introduced me to a plethora of reasons that sparked in me the urge to die, it also carried me along the way, determined to prevent me from acting out on the hopelessness that its labels and “treatment” instilled in me. Locked wards and heavy polypharmacy gave me hope, however false and misguided it may have ended up being. It’s not an easy thing to write this, for the values and principles I live by today go firmly against the institutionalization of a human being, especially a human being who’s suffering, hopeless, and questioning the meaning of life. It’s not easy to write this because I see, as I continue to heal from the physical, cognitive, and emotional trauma of over ten years of daily psychiatric drug consumption, how deadened, numbed, detached, and destabilized I was by psychopharmaceutical “treatment”. But there’s no denying that while I was an indoctrinated mental patient, I stayed alive in the short term because I continued to trust in the God of Psychiatry, and to surrender myself to its power, which, unbeknownst to me, was stripping me slowly of my life.
In the end, psychiatric intervention and “treatment” did nothing to quiet my suicidal thoughts, nor did it play any role in cultivating the unquenchable inner fire to live and thrive that I feel today. What my relationship to the mental health system did for me—and I am truly grateful to it for this—was establish a life not worth living, and lead me as far down its path as I was capable of dragging myself. It was a life of accumulating hospital scrubs and rubber-soled socks and DSM diagnoses and pill bottles, medical records and outpatient programs and locked wards and “treatment team” members. But it was also a life that led me to my awakening—whether determined by luck or destiny, I’m still not sure—which began when I found myself face-to-face with Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic in a Vermont bookstore in May 2010.
The rest is history, so they say. Actually, the rest is this moment, right now, as I write about who I am, and what I’m not, and as I sit back and reflect on my life today, which is full of meaning and purpose. A life that I have faith in, and hope for. A life that I could never imagine ending. Had I never had the opportunity to awaken and free myself from the mental health system’s grasp, I am sure that I would never be where I am today. I am sure that it was only a matter of time before I stopped believing the promises it made to me and concluded, again, that better than sleep on a sterilized plastic mattress was sleep I’d never awaken from.
The “Mental Health” Industry—and American society as a whole, for it seems we’ve reached a point at which we look only to those with letters after their names to speak as authoritative “experts” on the causes of and solutions for the human urge to die—has infused suicide with a deep, oppressive fear. Much of this industry’s fear is self-centered in origin: it is fear manifested as liability, risk, and responsibility by those in positions of clinical power. “I just can’t let you leave the ER, I’m afraid, as you’re a safety risk.” Or, “My license is at stake if I allow you to go home after sharing what you did with me. I’ll be forced to make a phone call if you won’t get a crisis evaluation by choice.”
Missing from this “Suicide Prevention” framework is acknowledgement of the agency of the person considering suicide; of the dignity of risk and choice; of the human legitimacy of thoughts about life and death, especially when life has lost its meaning; of the right to feel and believe what one desires, however dark and scary that may be to those around her.
Missing from this, most of all, is faith in the human condition and our capacity as human beings to survive and move through profound suffering and hopelessness. When an entire system of “care” is founded upon this lack of faith, as today’s system is, it makes it hard for those reaching out for help to have any, either. In fact, I believe that it’s this collective loss of faith and infiltration of fear that lies at the root of America’s rapidly increasing suicide rates.
In my own experience, my shell of a “Bipolar” self had become so thin and permeable that the “safety” and “risk” narrative of doctor after doctor who sat perched before me with crossed legs and furrowed brows, determined to keep me alive, became my own. Full of so much suffering, and convinced I was at the mercy of “my disease”, I concluded that they were right: that I couldn’t be “safe” with myself, or trust myself. That my “chronic suicidality” was evidence of how much help I needed from outside sources.
Soon enough, I began to yearn for the authority and decision-making capacity of those around me, for their assertions of power over my dysfunctional life. I remember often feeling like a wild, dangerous animal, desperate to be confined, contained, and controlled. Eventually, I came to see one-on-ones in the ER, fifteen-minute checks on the locked ward, and large bags of pill bottles as the only valid evidence of my suffering, and as the only potential cure for it. I was just so damn afraid of myself, of my mind, of my emotions, and of what my life had become because of “being Bipolar.” And my “treaters”, blinded both by their own unquestionable faith in Psychiatry’s tenets and by their deep-seated fears of liability, were incapable of seeing anything other than an end objective of preventing my suicide. There wasn’t room for anything else to matter.
When the hand of fear grabs hold of the topic of suicide, it pushes everything else aside and leaves no space to explore. Fear drowns out curiosity, faith, honesty, empathy, and the opportunity to listen with open ears and hearts. It forces an immediacy that simply can’t allow for the lapse of time, for uncertainty, or for the unknown. Fear breeds control, and whether or not this control is welcomed or resisted, the clinician’s agency almost always trumps all. At the heart of it, fear of suicide strips away the humanity of life and death, leaving in its place a sterile, objectified “problem” or “symptom” that allows for only one course of action: prompt and effective intervention and prevention, usually via evaluations, diagnoses, locked wards, and prescription pads. Sometimes even by volts of electricity sent through the brain.
When suicide is seen as something to be prevented, honest listening — which, to me, means listening without needing to act and without needing to find an immediate answer — is deemed irresponsible or even dangerous. Doctors are trained to see preemptive intervention as the only “responsible” course of action: to quickly diagnose and ramp up “treatment”, which, of course, only further buries the designated “safety risk” in The System. This was my experience, and I went along willingly, because I believed I needed to.
Never once was my urge to die seen as something meaningful, as something to be explored and faced, not “prevented”. Never once was I presented the opportunity to take the time to listen to it, or to consider that if I did, I might discover that on the flipside of my urge to die was an urge to live, just in a very different way. I never once had the space to consider that something deep inside of me was telling me that a “Bipolar” life was not the life I was meant for, and that beyond the confines of the mental health system lay true peace of mind, and true freedom. Trapped in this system as I was, none of these paths were open to me, or even visible.
So what do you say about all those people out there who want to kill themselves right now, in this moment? Some of you might be asking, Where should they go?
My answer is that I don’t have the answer, nor do I pretend to. But where it starts, I believe, is in re-humanizing suicidal experiences, and in embracing them as important and meaningful messages that need listening to, not running away from. I’ve learned this along my own journey, and by listening to the wisdom of other suicide attempt survivors like David Webb. The answer to this question starts also in the creation of alternative spaces in which people can talk about their suicidal experiences without fear of incarceration, or silencing, or pathologizing. (These kinds of spaces have developed in Massachusetts, where the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community is running ‘Alternatives to Suicide’ groups and has a respite, Afiya, which offers non-pathologizing support, and they’re starting to spread nationwide.)
The answer, for me, was to take my life back from the mental health system. In doing so, the urge to take my life from the world fell away.
Tomorrow, the international community commits itself to preventing suicide. I can only hope that those of us who consider ourselves failed products of “Suicide Prevention”—for I have a feeling I’m not the only one—do whatever we can to share our stories to encourage the de-pathologization of suicide, and, as David Webb so poignantly says, to foster the idea that suicidal feelings should be treated with dignity and respect, and not seen as problems to be annihilated or “prevented.” I’ve come to believe that suicide is an open-ended question to be explored with trust, and with open ears and hearts. When we as a human family choose to see the urge to die as a human response to a world — which is full of trauma, isolation, discrimination, and dehumanization, whether resulting from Psychiatry or from some other oppressive form of social power — I truly believe that life will begin to glisten more brightly with the potential for meaning, connection, purpose, and peace. Life will increasingly become more worth living, and more worth believing in. At least, this has been my experience.