Please Stop Telling Depressed and Suicidal People to “Reach Out”
If you think someone is in trouble, you should reach out to them. Not the other way around.
[TW: this essay contains descriptions of suicidal ideation, attempted death by suicide, abuse, trauma, and depression.]
In 2002 I moved from California to Switzerland, back in with my family, after attempting suicide. It was actually my second attempt, but I never told anybody about the first time I tried in 1996 when still in high school. After the second attempt followed by being involuntarily committed, I thought it best to keep my history with the act private. And I certainly didn’t tell any of the doctors entrusted with my release papers that suicidal ideation was almost as old a friend to me as reading.
The first time I recall thinking about killing myself I was around seven or eight years old—growing up in a violent household will have that effect on a person—and I’ve mitigated the urge in different ways ever since. In Dexter Morgan’s words: My dark passenger.
Those early days of recovery in 2002 were a new kind of nightmare, made worse by the fact that my father found my traumatized presence at home a nuisance and my youngest sister outright told me I should throw myself in front of one of the trains that passed regularly in front of their house. My sister stood by her words so strong she even said them with my visiting best friend standing right next to me. My friend, who had come to offer the kind of support I’d never get from my family, left with her own secondary traumas of the experience. She’d never seen or heard a family member be as openly cruel as mine were to me, and it shook her core.
The worst part about my sister’s flippant push toward my suicide was that nobody knew how I would sometimes sit at the train stop watching the train go by, mustering up the courage to fling myself off the edge. I would ride the train from the quaint Swiss village my family called home into Geneva, making note of the accessible areas where the train didn’t slow down so I could make sure I got the job good and done. When my therapist would ask me if I was still thinking about suicide I would lie to him. The only reason I survived that time at all was because at least I had my familiar, my half wolf, half German Shepard Cubby, who offered some of the only comfort that actually helped me heal.
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Suicidal ideation is a horrible thing to suffer from. In spite of living with suicidal ideation my entire life, even I didn’t realize the full scope of its internal violence and brutality until I enjoyed a brief reprieve only in the past couple years. My suicidal ideation went on hiatus when I finally cut communication with the abusive family members who inspired these terrible death wishes since I was a child. As it turned out even a weekly conversation with toxic family was enough to stoke the fires of suicidal thoughts until I’d decided I’d had enough and stopped taking their calls, answering their emails, or connecting with them on social media. In a matter of weeks the voice telling me I was a “piece of shit who didn’t deserve to live so just end this already” faded from its eternal scream to a faint whisper I’d have to seek out if I wanted to hear it.
But it came back with Anthony Bourdain’s recent and tragic death. Having lived without it for months I am now newly aware of how insidious this call to death can be. How it crawls under your skin and roots there like ringworm or lyme disease. It makes your fillings rattle with its dark hum. It clenches your stomach into an unsolvable knot. It turns your saliva into poison as it slides down your throat. It brings up every single event that cultivated this horrendous dark force. Sometimes the deep walls of protection you’ve build to protect yourself begin to crumble, revealing old horrors you’ve hidden deep. But this isn’t like resurfacing. This is drowning in your own extreme sorrow. It is a living horror movie, ramping up into new lows of worst.
And as this deathly siren call works its spell, all through social media I see person after person saying, “Reach out if you’re feeling like this.” “Call this helpline.” “Call me.” “Reach out.” I hate to break it to all these well-meaning folks, but telling the depressed and suicidal to reach out isn’t how it works: we reach out when we feel better, not when we’re wading through the worst.
Before my second suicide attempt I called a hotline. The experience was so unhelpful that it actually led to my acting on my thoughts. I didn’t feel connected or supported. Talking to a stranger who had no idea about my life or the depths of my trauma as they followed a script—I could hear them scrambling through pages for the appropriate responses—made me feel more alone then than ever.
The suicidal ideation tells us that we are garbage that doesn’t deserve to live. The voice tells us we are an unbearable burden on others. It tells us we are weak and unworthy of love. It convinces us that there isn’t any hope. It assures us that nothing will ever get better. It does not allow us to believe our loved ones when they tell us that voice is scary and wrong. It doesn’t answer to anyone. It’s a beast uninterested in taking prisoners: it wants pure annihilation.
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In so many ways this is a beast we have to slay on our own, and sometimes we are just too tired to keep fighting.
I look back on my life and there are whole months where I accomplished nothing but not killing myself. It was a full-time job. And I often wondered why I bothered battling against it so hard. Things would eventually get a little better, but enough to warrant all that struggle? Never once. At least not until I excised those toxic people who made me want to die. Sometimes I wonder if I fought so fiercely to survive was simply to spite the people who were disgustingly open about how much better their lives would be if I were dead.
Please stop telling us to reach out. I know it comes from a place of love, but it’s as helpful as unsolicited advice. We aren’t going to do it. This terrible infection doesn’t work like that. The most helpful thing that anyone can do for someone going through this is to not expect anything from them. Do not expect that they will reach out, that they will know how to ask for help. If you think someone is in trouble, you should reach out to them. Not the other way around.
But, this dark passenger is so unique to each carrier, understanding how to dismantle just one person’s would be a lifelong quest. There is no guarantee it’ll work, or if it’ll stick.
We didn’t choose to live the shitty circumstances and accumulations of trauma that works to destroy us over too much time. Nobody makes it out of their life alive. And some simply need out sooner. As for me, I’m channeling my strongest and most primal mermaid warrior spirit and swimming as hard as I can. If death’s call is back even temporarily, I’ll do what I can to go in the opposite direction: toward life. At least until I can’t anymore, I’ll know I’ve done my best.
“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, 1956–2018
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