How to Stay Alive When Everything Hurts
Since I was a teenager, I’ve struggled off and on with suicidal ideation. As odd as it may sound if you’ve never experienced it, being suicidal can sometimes be comforting. Well, I could always kill myself, I’ve thought when things feel unbearable. Reminding myself that I could opt out of all this difficult being alive business sometimes kept me going.
While writing this, I listened to the Death, Sex & Money podcast where a young man talked about his mental illness struggles; he said he still thinks sometimes, “If things don’t work out, I can just kill myself.” Whew, it’s not just me.
Almost six months ago I wrote an article about how I manage my depression without medication. It was not advice, but a list of how I manage my own struggles without antidepressants. This article is similar, in that this is my experience and not necessarily a how-to. My life is not your life, and the ways I’ve stayed alive may not be useful for you. I encourage you to use any coping mechanisms that keep you on this Earth. I am invested in keeping you alive. Even if I haven’t met you, I truly believe you belong here.
In honor of National Suicide Prevention Month, this is my kind-of-sort-of advice, but kind-of-sort-of not. I don’t want to tell you how to live your life. I don’t presume to understand your specific pain/trauma/sadness/hardship/difficulty/synonym for bad thing. I’m not a doctor or a therapist, just someone with a long history of depression and trauma who’s managed to stay alive and is grateful for that. Here’s how I did it.
What’s Kept Me Alive:
This is a very specific passion that has helped keep me alive. I’m a standup comedian and, in all likelihood, you are not. But I bet you are passionate about something. What is your dream, your hobby, your goal, your aspiration? What brings you joy? I rarely cancel shows, even when I am deeply depressed, and dragging myself to a comedy show (almost) never ends in regret. Even if I have a bad set, I learn something and am glad I left the house. What makes you happy when you’ve left the house?
2. Art that inspires me.
Even if you’re not an artist, I bet you like art — music, visual art, television, movies, documentaries, fiction, memoirs, essays, journalism, something. Watch it. Read it. Consume it. Distract yourself with something funny or inspiring or deep or light or ridiculous or interesting or mind-blowing or, better yet, all of the above.
Community is one of my most important values. I’m lucky to have many: comedy, queers, friends, family, writers, femmes, co-workers and some I’m likely forgetting. I love people and I love connecting. Dragging myself to an event with people who inspire me inspires me to keep going. Surround yourself with like-minded folks who bring you up and cut out toxic folks who bring you down.
Yeah, so, this isn’t the most constructive or healthy advice, but sometimes checking out has kept me going. I have at times gotten lost in sleeping, drinking, eating or having sex. Getting drunk and sleeping all day are not the healthiest coping mechanisms, but if it keeps you alive, it’s worth it in the short term.
If you’re struggling with addictions of any kind, they could be contributing to your suicidality and I encourage you to seek support. But sometimes, you just need to check out through whatever vice you choose, whether it’s smoking weed, getting drunk, sleeping all day, masturbating/having sex or whatever hedonistic escape brings you temporary joy and distraction. Just remember that when your particular binge is over, you’re still stuck with yourself and your problems, and you might have a comedown/hangover on top of it.
5. Supporting others.
While I was writing this article, an old friend from college called me. He’s going through a rough breakup and grappling with his long-ignored childhood trauma. I have several friends going through breakups lately, and it’s made me so glad that I’m in a place where I can support them. Sometimes you may not be up for caring for anyone else, but if you have the time and energy to support someone else, it can also help you. It’s a good reminder of your own value.
This idealistic emotion, notion, concept, whatever you want to call it, is the main thing that has kept me going for more than 30 years. In high school, I was debilitatingly depressed and sometimes didn’t go to school for weeks at a time. I obsessed over suicide, but what kept me going was the small glimmer of hope inside me that maybe, perhaps, some way, things wouldn’t always be this way. I’m so glad I didn’t kill myself. I wish I could visit teenage me and let her know that it really does work out okay. But maybe, somehow, my adult self did break time and space to let my past self know that, because I’m still trucking 15 years later.
How to Keep Yourself Safe:
1. Friends/people you trust.
I have rarely told people I’m suicidal because I don’t want the cops called on me. I’m going to go out on a limb and bet that you also don’t want the cops to show up at your house or be forcibly committed. Find out who you can trust. Do you have other friends who struggle with suicidal ideation? The kind who will understand that sometimes you obsess over it but you’re not going to actually go through with it? Who will listen to you vent about your frustrating, stuck-on-a-loop, not-looking-out-for-your-best-interests brain? Maybe your therapist is the kind of understanding professional who can handle you expressing your suicidal thoughts while trusting that you are not going to act on them. Reach out to those people.
2. Gritting your teeth and holding on.
Sometimes I just have to accept that everything is terrible right now and keep going anyway. I acknowledge my feelings of wanting to die, of hating everything, of feeling exhausted and I get up anyway. It’s not easy, but it’s easier than it was in my teens and early 20s, before my brain was done developing. Nowadays, when I have a flare-up of dark thoughts, I remind myself that, “Oh yeah, my brain is broken sometimes because of past trauma, genes, whatever and it always passes eventually, and I can acknowledge it and keep going, even though it’s hard.”
3. Get out of the house.
Or the apartment. Or the office. Or wherever.
I love being alone. Though most folks experience me as talkative and sociable, I can only be that way because I recharge with silence at home. But my solitude is not always my friend, and when I am depressed, my instinct is to retreat and hide. So I force myself to go to an open mic or my favorite cafe or a party or a bar. Where can you go? What events are going on in your area? Who can you bring with you so you feel safe and comfortable and un-pressured?
4. The thing you don’t want, that you may dread, but you may one day need.
If you are truly unsafe and in danger of hurting yourself, it might be time to lean on the medical industrial complex. Though the system is imperfect, if it’s a choice between death or a hospital, I kindly suggest a hospital. Tell a friend you need help. Call your therapist. Call 911. I don’t normally advocate for 911 or doctors, but they are tools that, while imperfect, are designed to keep you alive. Don’t sacrifice your life because of your pride or fear. There is no shame in getting yourself to a safe place.
What tools do you use to keep yourself alive? How have you kept going when life felt impossible? Let me know in the comments, or at firstname.lastname@example.org