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Talking About Suicide Is What Saves Me

A few months after I came back from my second trip to Iraq as a journalist in 2003, I went out in my mom’s closed garage around 2 a.m., started her old Camry, rolled the windows down and waited to die.

The filth and the sadness of the war rolled in with the exhaust. The adolescent girl who’d solicited me outside the national press center in Baghdad. The Army Ranger complaining he hadn’t yet found an opportunity to stab an Iraqi. The bombs and the heat and the hopelessness that settles on everything like dust and filth. The twisted and broken people streaming past by the thousands, and the broken and twisted people who made them that way. My alcoholic father, holding me — at age 8, too weak from strep throat to ask him to stop shaking me — by the hair of the head at arm’s length, punching me in the face. I’d woken him up, coughing.

So I sat there in the exhaust, in the dark garage while memories of my father, the Iraq War and (so it seemed) all the pain of all the slights, and the failures, and self-judgments and hopelessness poured over me. Even though I hadn’t written a note, I prayed my family and friends would understand.

I know many of you have been in the same place. Have just had it. Cannot face another minute, much less another day of it.

I know this partly because I volunteer now at Lines for Life, an affiliate of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, where I also work as a consultant part-time. I spend a lot of my time talking with people about death. Or the desire to die.

But I’ve never talked openly about my own suicide attempt, or admitted self-harm, alcoholism, drug abuse and violence run deep in my family. I think it’s time to come clean, and to connect with people in the way I ask them to connect with me, by talking honestly about pain.

When I was sitting in my mother’s car, waiting to die, I imagined how my family would find me, and the shock and grief that would come with it. The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. The angrier I got, the more I woke up — until I gave up on ever falling asleep, permanently, turned the ignition off and went back inside, royally pissed off, still sad and frustrated, but alive.

Guilt saved me then, but what saves me now is talking with people about suicide, trauma and grief. About a year ago a group of friends decided to have a kind of sit-in and talk with me about my depression. One of them suggested I volunteer on a crisis line. It was probably the best advice — the kind of advice that’s also a life preserver — I’ve ever been given.

Over the past year I’ve spent about 230 hours talking with people in crisis. I’d say every single person I’ve spoken with in severe emotional pain believed herself to be utterly alone, the same as I felt, those many years ago. That no one, the earth over, could understand what it means to hurt so badly you wish you were dead.

In the few times I’ve talked with callers about my own suicide attempt, they’ve usually responded first with surprise, then with curiosity. I can hear the relief in their voice.

They want to know what worked. How, in that utterly hopeless place, do you crawl out, stand up and go on? Because the fact is we are all — I believe — desperate to live. The problem is that some of us are also desperate to find a way out of suffering. And so we talk about how to protect ourselves, and how to stay safe.

I’d argue that talking about pain is a kind of rebirth. We reenter the world not as a facsimile of who we’d like to be, or who we think our family and friends would like us to be — as a kind of projection of a fantasized, imagined self — but as our pained selves. Our blood-and-bones selves. Our raw, vulnerable, dependent selves. And when we find someone who can accept that — like people on Lifeline accept it, and in fact want to hear it, because that’s where we truly connect — we find a reason to try again tomorrow.

Every time I talk with someone in crisis, or a read a story about someone facing pain, I feel less cut off, less alone, a little braver and stronger. The things (the true things) I used to avoid, are now some of the things that sustain me.

So, what I’m really trying to say is keep talking. Keep writing, and keep saying exactly who you are and why you are as you are. People need it. If you can find the courage to do that, you’re not burdening someone, or causing pain. You’re helping the other person see and feel what it means to live in the real world, facing pain, yes, but not facing it alone.

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.

The Mighty is asking the following: What is a part of your or a loved one’s disease, disability or mental illness that no one is aware of? Why is it time to start talking about it? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.