-> Personal -> On suicidal thoughts

Posted September 6, 2021.

Three years ago I really wanted to die. It wasn’t the first suicidal period in my life, but it was the most intense and prolonged. For weeks, every second was unbearable. I felt like my soul was being flayed. I would lie in bed for hours in the middle of the day, my entire being absorbed in self-loathing and despair. Just the prospect of continuing to be me, continuing to be stuck in my life, filled me with absolute existential horror.

I had to make the pain stop. I did some research into the best ways to kill myself. It was important to get it right: I didn’t want to just get injured and end up in a hospital, with all the same emotional pain plus a broken body and no control over my situation.

The practical difficulties played a big role in stopping me. Overdosing apparently didn’t have the success rate I was looking for; slitting my wrists also seemed easy to screw up. I didn’t have immediate access to a gun. I tried to figure out how to tie my bedsheet into a reliable noose, but just getting out of bed required a monumental exertion of energy and I didn’t have much left over for learning a new skill. The best option seemed like jumping, but my fourth-story balcony wasn’t high enough - way too much risk of just maiming myself. So I started searching for places at least ten stories high that I could get access to.

In Kansas City, that was nontrivial. There aren’t a bunch of cliffs around. The tall buildings downtown don’t generally provide obvious ways for the general public to get to a ledge. I didn’t want to traumatize bystanders by leaping from the Liberty Memorial - I just wanted to quietly disappear. At least once, I went driving around intending to jump from the first good spot I found, but failed to find one I was satisfied with.

Such obstacles slowed me down long enough to give other ways of addressing my pain a chance to work, though there was no single thing that enabled me to cope. It felt like having a monster in my brain trying to kill me, which could just barely be restrained if I combined every available strategy to fight it. The key things were:

There is an underlying theme, though. Every time I’ve been seriously suicidal, in order to move on, I’ve had to behave in ways that I would normally see as out-of-bounds. This time, that meant reaching out for quite a lot of support from a friend. It also meant telling my doctor, which I never thought I would do. It seemed both humiliating and frightening - what if she had me committed? But her input was enormously helpful: antidepressants (or the placebo effect, who knows) turned out to be absolutely crucial for me. Taking a year off of work was also really beneficial. I was very lucky to have had the option at all, but social convention and obsession with the long-term consequences had kept me from taking it until then.

Anyway, I slowly stabilized. But the question of whether life is really worth the pain always comes back in times of intense suffering. I’ve kept a log of my feelings for the past three years, rating how miserable and how happy I was on each day on a scale of 1-10. In the midst of intense emotions it can feel like everything is and always has been terrible, so it’s nice to have quantitative records to remind myself that’s not true. To the extent that I can trust my self-reporting, I appear to spend most of my life in a mildly happy state.

The graphs leave out something important: how intolerably, inexpressibly awful those occasional really bad days can be. A single day in hell is very hard to compensate for. Ideally, a post about suicidal thoughts ends with, “and now things are amazing and it obviously would have been a huge mistake to kill myself!” Well, that’s partly true. Suicide would have been a terrible decision, if for no other reason than that my death could have inflicted even worse agony on some of my loved ones than what I was going through. Whether the joys of life will outweigh the pain, from a selfish perspective, remains an open question. But the graphs also leave out how absolutely magical some of the best times can be. I've had some really wonderful experiences in the time since I almost called it quits. Enough to suggest that it’s the part of me that wants to give up, not the part that maintains hope, that’s rash and irrational.