Sometimes it’s just a thought that passes through. More of an annoyance than a statement filled with any intent. Like a bee sting. Or a flash of lighting.
Sometimes the trigger is obvious (stress, something I regret saying, more stress), and sometimes it seemingly arrives out of nowhere, disturbing a perfectly good drive or conversation I’m trying to hold with my roommate. At its most innocent, it’s distracting. At its worst, it gets stuck in my head. I sing it out loud to make it less scary. More than once, it’s involuntarily left my lips.
“I want to kill myself.”
But I don’t want to die.
And I didn’t want to die when the frequency of these thoughts was particularly bad my junior year of college. It was a broken record player that would start in class, follow me back to my apartment and swim in my head during work. It was glancing at my forearms, visualizing pain. I wouldn’t. But I could.
What was often worse than the actual thoughts were the those that followed: What’s wrong with me? Am I suicidal? What does this mean? What should I do?
One day the sentence was swirling around in my head during a shift at my job. On my break I left for some air, and, sitting on the side of the street in the dark, I Googled, “Thinking frequently about suicide.” I found nothing concrete. A few forums and suicide prevention foundations. Unsatisfied and without any information, I buried the question away.
Now, I want to write the piece I wish I had found.
— — —
Dr. Ali Mattu, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University, told me he sometimes holds a tissue box in front of his patients to prove a point.
“Think about the box falling,” he says to them. “Imagine it falling to the ground.”
So they do. And after a few moments, with the tissue box still in his hand, Mattu looks up and asks, “Why didn’t it fall?”
At this point, the person usually gets the point he’s trying to make: thoughts are thoughts, and nothing more. Thinking about something doesn’t make it happen.
But what about when our brains get fixated on dark thoughts like suicide?
“Suicidal thoughts, at their heart, are a natural response to specific situation,” he told me, when I explained my situation and — as professionally as I could –asked, “Am I normal?”
Mattu compared it to when he sometimes imagines jumping in front of the subway during his morning commute. Or any other quick thought that might flash through someone’s mind: What if I turned my car off the rode? What if I wasn’t alive? These thoughts, in and of themselves, are just that — thoughts. It’s normal to experience them to a certain extent. But even if they’re not filled with intent — and although most people who contemplate suicide never actually try to kill themselves — Mattu said frequent thoughts of suicide aren’t random.
They probably mean there’s more going on.
He told me about a time when he had similar thoughts. He was in graduate school, and his dissertation had fallen apart. Something he had spent a year of his life on was gone, unusable. His stress shot through the roof. He developed a sense of hopelessness, and on top of that, it manifested in self-hate.
“So many of my friends were able to do this. I’m already behind. What’s wrong with me? What can I can do this?” Mattu said, recounting his thoughts at the time. “It was the first time in my life I experienced a suicidal thought.”
He said perhaps junior-year me also had similar fears of the future or had gone through a painful event. He said sometimes when we perceive a situation as uncontrollable, our brain generates suicide as something we can control.
This resonated with me. Back then, I was dealing with a break-up and unaddressed anxiety, while stress at home and at school built up. Maybe my brain was trying to tell me something.
If you experience thoughts of suicide, Mattu said a great first step is stepping back and looking at your situation. Instead of getting upset over the thoughts themselves, think: Why might I be having these thoughts? Is there a situation that perhaps I need to change or an issue I need to address?
Then — talk to someone.
To a friend, to a family member, to a professional. There’s no data that suggests talking about suicidal thoughts makes them worse. “Recognize it’s normal to have thoughts that were scary, and talk to someone about them. Hopefully it will help you understand why,” Mattu said.
Of course, if thoughts of suicide become more than passing thoughts — or you have a plan — talk to someone about it. Go to your local emergency room. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Know the factors that put someone at a high risk for attempting suicide so you can help yourself or a loved one before it’s too late.
As for me, I wish I could tell myself to seek counseling sooner. That it’s OK to tell your parents you’re not “great” when they call. That just because you’re thinking scary things doesn’t mean you’re “crazy” or that there’s something wrong with you. It doesn’t mean you’re ungrateful or just can’t handle stress. And just because you know you won’t doesn’t mean you’re unworthy of addressing thoughts of suicide, that when your brain is trying to tell you something you should listen: I need help, and that’s OK.
If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.