The Value of Asking for Support If Chronic Illness Has Left You Feeling Suicidal
Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.
Therapists are required to ask the dreaded question, “Do you have suicidal thoughts?” when meeting a new patient. For a long time, I automatically answered no because I was unclear of the question’s implications and worried about the consequences of saying yes. I worried if I indicated that I simply thought about my death or wanting to die that I’d be unwillingly committed to a hospital. Frankly, I don’t know if there’s any validity in that.
Because of the many stigmas attached to the word “suicide,” this fear has dictated my ability to talk openly about my mental health and the depths of my depression. I recently confronted a therapist about this question while I was filling out a new patient evaluation form. I said, “I don’t know how to answer this question because I don’t know what you’re really asking. Are you asking if I have plans to die by suicide or if I think about wanting to die? To me, those are two different things.”
While I admit that any suicidal ideation should be addressed – urgently – it needs to be in a way that doesn’t make a person feel afraid to admit these feelings or feel out of control of their future. If a therapist/person’s first response to my suicidal ideation is reactionary, I will avoid talking about it. These reactionary tactics exacerbate the stigma that people who talk about suicidal thoughts are “attention-seekers.”
There have been two major triggers of my suicidal ideation: chronic illnesses and relationships. I originally wanted to write two separate posts about how both of these affect my mental health, but the truth is they are never separate. My chronic illnesses don’t disappear if I’m in the middle of an emotionally abusive relationship; my illnesses are embedded in all of my experiences. In fact, I’ve realized my relationship with illness is quite similar to an emotionally abusive relationship. The major thread tying these experiences together is the outcome of feeling like a burden and undeserving of respect or attention.
The truth is, I feel like suicidal ideation is a natural (but not inevitable) consequence of living in a body that’s deemed a burden to society and our healthcare system. As Jordan Davidson says in The Mighty article, “Study Shows Having a Chronic Illness Increases Your Risk of Dying By Suicide,” there’s a strong association between having chronic conditions and suicidal ideation. It is usually expensive and exhausting to live in a body that doesn’t function “normally.” The daily maintenance for my body to function is more than most people can fathom. I’m amazed by what my body has endured, but it is tiresome to constantly endure. When I become burnt out, the idea of disappearing becomes appealing. There are plenty of days I’ve felt like it’s not worth the hassle anymore.
Despite the fact that pharmaceutical and insurance companies make their living off my illnesses, I am deemed a risky body. The anxiety involved with knowing I will always be dependent on what a pharmaceutical or insurance company deems an appropriate price for my survival is a lot to carry on my shoulders. Because of this, it has been a struggle to feel like my life is worth living – to feel like all of the struggles and all of the money I need to keep myself alive mean anything. I don’t see suicidal ideation as abnormal ideation considering the fact we are constantly battling the medical industrial complex and the victim-blaming associated with having chronic illnesses. I don’t want to suggest that I think they’re healthy thoughts, but I want to normalize talking about them like we talk about anything else.
When I was a teenager, I learned the art of hiding signs of illness, depression, anxiety and being in a toxic relationship. I trained myself to communicate that there was nothing wrong with me, that I would be fine without anyone’s help and the best way to deal with my emotions was to suppress them. I worried if I was open about any of these things there would be grave consequences, including hurting people who hurt me. I put other people’s comfort above my own. I worried that people would think I’m simply seeking attention.
There have been times when my significant others have told me I deserve to feel bad about myself. They’ve said: You just want to be the victim. If you tried a little harder, you wouldn’t be so sick. You’re not actually in pain. You’re needy for attention. Over and over again, it replays in my head: Stop trying to get attention, Kristy. No. One. Cares. When a person who is supposed to care demonstrates that they don’t believe you, you assume no one will believe you. When you have medical providers give you treatment plans but offer you no resources to afford the treatment or medications involved, you start to believe this world wasn’t made for people like you. You start to believe it might be easier if you just disappear.
My friend introduced me to the phrase “passively suicidal” and I was amazed at how accurately it described how I’ve been feeling since I was 17. I’ve never wanted to actively die by suicide, nor have I ever had the intention, but I have phases where I long for something horrible to happen to me. I’ve obsessed about getting hurt or killed because it meant that specific people would have to recognize they’ve hurt me in some way. It would mean I couldn’t allow them to hurt me anymore because I wouldn’t be around to allow it. These are unhealthy thoughts. I do not want to justify them, but I want to be honest.
I’ve learned how to manage these thoughts better by combating the idea that I don’t deserve attention. I reach out to people when I feel like I need support. I find clarity when I remember that my body, my family, friends and other people in this same situation are worth fighting for. We’re worth attention. I remind myself that injustice is the root cause of these problems. Not me. I remind myself that my life’s worth living, that I should have options for affordable health coverage and that I am worthy of respect in relationships.
I talk openly about my physical, emotional and mental health because I’m not sure I’d still be “passively” suicidal if I hadn’t made the effort to be more open about my mental health. 17-year-old me would never believe that 26-year-old me is able to talk to my parents, closest friends or the internet about having thoughts about wanting to die. We need to normalize the act of needing attention, as well as talking about suicidal ideation. There is value in seeking attention. It’s called finding support. Connecting with people about my experience has been my saving grace. Literally. It has saved me.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.
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Thinkstock photo via maroznc.