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What Happens When You Don’t Die — Even Though You Wanted To

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A little while ago now, I didn’t die, and a lot of things have happened since then. I hope this piece can offer hope for those feeling bad, and an opportunity to empathize for those who don’t.

I’m so scared that writing this could romanticize, so I want to make it clear that this is ultimately a positive post about living, to help people understand what one individual person (me, if that wasn’t clear) felt and has been feeling since I didn’t die, at a time when I thought I wanted to.

The very first thing I felt was panic. Shit shit shit shit. I texted my best friend, “I need help.” You know that moment when you drop a glass and it hasn’t hit the floor yet and your eyes bulge and your heart stops — you know something bad has just happened but it hasn’t quite hit home yet? Imagine that feeling, but maybe times a billion.

He came over straight away, with another friend. I don’t remember much, but I cried for a long time and they sat with me and told me it was OK. They listened and waited until I was ready to stop crying and walk out the room, helping me to pick up my things and get me to my bed. I don’t think that they felt that they knew what would be the right thing to do, but them being there for me was the most important thing, and I’m so lucky and grateful they were.

It was all very surreal in the hours afterwards. I didn’t feel real, and I couldn’t think properly, so I felt weirdly calm, almost as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I was staying with my friend, and we watched an episode of our favorite TV show and it was very comforting to do something so normal together. I was exhausted and fell asleep, feeling safe and less alone already.

The next morning, I happened to have a pre-booked therapist appointment, which my friends walked me to. I think it was comforting for them to know I wasn’t alone. My therapist asked how I was, as he did at the start of every session, and I took a deep breath and said,



My parents were already outside, so he brought them in and told them what happened, because how the hell was I meant to look them in the eye and explain? I looked at the floor as he spoke, and I could feel them frown in confusion and concern and fear. It kind of felt like the awkward shame you feel for disappointing your parents when your teacher is telling them, in front of you, about something you did at school (except I never got in trouble in school because I was a model student, which has caused its own basketful of problems). I think a judgmental outsider might expect me to have felt guilty for putting my parents through this — I cannot imagine what they could have felt in that moment. But I was in such a state of disconnect still that I wasn’t thinking of that at all. I was just sitting there, an observer listening to someone talk about me, and then nodding as he said he would call my psychiatrist.

Luckily (everything was so lucky — but then again maybe, on reflection, it was actually quite a serious situation so what seemed like luck to me was in fact kind people prioritizing quite an unwell young woman), my psychiatrist had (made) time to see me that afternoon. My parents came into his office with me and held my hand, and again, more listening as people talked about what was going to happen to me.

“She’ll go to mental hospital, she can go tomorrow, she’ll be OK, they’ll look after her there.”

I feel like from the moment my friends came to help me, I handed over the reins to everyone else to get me to the next thing that I needed. Usually I hate being told what to do, but it was a huge relief to have everyone else make the decisions for me. But — and I cannot stress this enough — that was because this was an acutely unusual time. I just did not have the brain capacity to speak for myself or know what to do. I needed help, and I am forever, endlessly, grateful that people gave it to me. Everything helped, even things that might have felt small to people who probably felt helpless at the time, like my sister sleeping on my bedroom floor the night before I went into hospital, and my mum packing me a teddy bear to take with me.

The next few days involved me explaining to friends where I was and why, which sounds incredibly hard, but I was oddly blasé about it, texting them a brief rundown as if it were any other old life update. The friend I’d stayed with on the night it all happened called me just before I went into hospital. He sounded so quiet and upset.

“I didn’t know you actually… tried,” he whispered.

I was incredulous. What do you mean you didn’t know?! I didn’t actually say. I wasn’t angry, just perplexed as to how he’d missed something so obvious. Except — was it obvious?

As I told more people, I realized that it hadn’t been obvious at all. I’d been feeling so awful for so months, and basically all I had been thinking about was dying, so it was disconcerting to observe the shock of my loved ones at the very first stages of coming to terms with it. I kept saying that it felt like I was the one comforting everyone else; for me, everything happening now was a good thing, given that I hadn’t died, whereas everyone else was only just realizing that I’d tried to. As I said, I was so disconnected from the reality of what was happening — it was like telling some stranger’s story rather than spilling my own, darkest thoughts. It didn’t feel private, and I didn’t really mind who knew at all.

Which brings me to the next feeling I had, which was relief. I had bottled all this up for so long, whilst apparently faking my happiness to the outside world even more successfully than I’d been trying to. It had all been building up and up, so suddenly having everything burst into the open was the hugest relief, and I didn’t have to feel guilty that telling people how bad I felt would make them worry about me. That’s not something to feel guilty about anyway — because what I’ve learned since then is that part of the package deal of people worrying about you is getting the help you need. And the help I needed then was three weeks in mental hospital, which I’ve written more about here.

I did not have a miraculous, instantaneous moment of enlightenment where looking death in the face made me understand the meaning of life. Everything was much more anticlimactic than that, to be completely honest. It’s been a gradual recovery, but somehow the days kept passing and I kept breathing, and now, I like being around. I don’t know exactly when or how the change happened, and I definitely don’t think it was a discrete moment when I had suddenly accumulated enough happy points to level up from suicidal to not. But it did happen, and that’s all I care about, really.

I’m also not sure that I always actively want to *live*, but only because I don’t really know what that actually means. When I was feeling really bad, I read lots of “help me” pages on mental health websites. And while they did indeed help me, one thing they often say that I don’t find helpful is that “suicidal people don’t always want to die. They just don’t want to live anymore.” What does that mean?! For me, it meant I was constantly cross-examining myself: “Do I want to live? Do I want to die? Do I want to not live? Don’t I not want to want not to die?” As you can imagine, this only confused me more, which was definitely something that I did not want. It was so much pressure to be measuring my inner will to live against some fictitious benchmark, always worrying that I was tipping over the edge. I personally do not find being too philosophical about it particularly helpful, because to be honest, I just don’t really get it. What I’ve found instead is just that maybe I want to do something tomorrow, or maybe I’m enjoying a little moment right now, and being alive just happens to be a precursor to that. And that is more than good enough for me, especially since feeling this was unimaginable to me back then. So that’s pretty cool.

I don’t always feel great. Who does? I don’t know if getting close to suicide has changed me forever; I doubt it’s anything as theatrical as that. But I do know that it is still something I’m dealing with, for now.

One year after I didn’t die, I was obsessing over the fact that it had been a year, dreading the landmark with ungrounded anticipation. When the big day came, it really wasn’t a big day at all, but I was on edge constantly, waiting for a cataclysm. If I hadn’t been so fixated on the date, nothing would have happened. But it was all I was thinking of all day, totally disconnected from reality, and I got into a massive argument with my best friend. As has happened many times since, that relatively insignificant bad moment turned into a pretty deep depression in no time, snarling and shouting thoughts about death in my mind. To the people around me, mine seemed like a complete overreaction. But really it was a symptom of a sickness. The same thing still happens sometimes — some minor incident can open a trapdoor somewhere in my head and I fall into days of suicide ideation (which means thinking about suicide all the time). In those times, it feels like suicide is all I can and ever think about, like I’m back where I was three years ago, really near to the end. But in the brighter times, I know that’s not true.

The same thing happens if suicide is mentioned in books or film or TV. My ears prick up and no matter how terrible the writing, or how unrelatable the characters, suddenly I’m devastated. Quite often, it knocks me off kilter and into a depressive slump for a while. That’s why trigger warnings are so important. A little spoiler and you feeling a little bit silly for including them will save me from a week of feeling like it’s the end of the world. You’ll be an actual hero.

If you’re feeling depressed right now, I hope this doesn’t discourage you. Yes, there are still hard times. But the wonderful thing is, as I am always kindly reminded by my friends, the times when I feel inundated by scary thoughts are growing shorter and further apart. And part of me knows I can get through them because I have, every time so far, and I will again. And so will you.

As you can hopefully see, I am learning to feel pride. But this too has taken time and practice. One of the most unexpected feelings that has emerged in this whole thing is embarrassment. At my first group therapy session in hospital, we had to discuss something bad that we’d gone through in the past week. Now, I reckon that trying to kill yourself would count as a pretty low moment in anyone’s book, so that’s what I spoke about, but as we went round the circle, I grew more and more self-conscious, anxious that my contribution seemed the most melodramatic. I thought I’d overshared and I was kicking myself for doing the exercise wrong and I felt awkward and stupid.

But obviously, I hadn’t done anything wrong — this was exactly the place to be sharing this stuff. I just happened to have had a particularly shit week. And maybe the reason my discussion seemed to ring the loudest alarm bells was because I was the newest patient — in hindsight, it does make sense that I may have been struggling the most.

A few months later, I heard that a young person in my community had died by suicide. I knew their name, but I didn’t know them, and yet I thought about it a lot. Apart from the shock and sadness, I also, incomprehensibly, abhorrently, felt embarrassed and a bit useless:

How had this person managed to do it, to get to the end, when I couldn’t? I’d hardly got close, and yet here I was, getting all the treatment and pity and healing when there was clearly someone who needed it so much more. I hadn’t felt that bad, I was just being attention-seeking. Pathetic.

On top of that, I also felt so ashamed that in the midst of this horrible story that didn’t involve me, I was having such a selfish, superficial reaction, and making the story about me. I was pretty disgusted at myself from all sides.

The feeling of embarrassment was around for a long time, and a faint tinge of it is still there. I feel embarrassed that my brain got so messed up and I got so emotional and out of control that I wanted to kill myself. I feel embarrassed that I backed out of it, almost as if I didn’t give it a proper “go” I had no physical injuries from my attempt and I got help straight away — I felt like I hadn’t done enough to deserve the help they give to suicide survivors.

But I have realized something — I did not fail at dying. I survived.

I want to make it clear that in no way am I suggesting that people who die by suicide are weak or have somehow failed to just push through. That doesn’t follow from the point I am trying to make. People who recover are survivors, but people who don’t aren’t losers — it’s not their fault, at all. Is that absolutely clear? Good.

When I started writing this, I researched safe ways to write about suicide. One thing that is always recommended is to check your language. Don’t say “committed suicide” because suicide isn’t a crime (although it was, until 1961, which is horrendous). Say “died by suicide” instead, just like you would for any other life-taking illness. Don’t refer to my “failed attempt” at suicide. What?! Just take a second to think about how unbelievably heartless that phrase is. What a thing to make someone feel shame for “failing” to do! You can call me a survivor, thank you very much. (I do absolutely believe in this message, and yet it is so hard not to cringe as I type it. So I’m not quite on Destiny’s Child’s level yet, but I’m working on it, alright?)

I really think that changing our language in this little way can help remove the shame of dying, or not dying (which carries its own form of shame), by suicide. I also hope that by sharing this, I can do my little bit to reduce the stigma around feeling suicidal. Even just writing this has helped me feel a little less ashamed. At the beginning of this piece, I avoided the word “suicide,” tiptoeing around it as if that would make you think I was talking about something else. But as I’ve been writing, I’ve become more comfortable with saying “suicide” explicitly, which is important because ignoring the word doesn’t make the feeling go away.

You can do this too. Lots of websites recommend talking to someone who you worry might be suicidal, and addressing it. Obviously, don’t start screaming “suicide” in their face, but equally, don’t be afraid of saying the word. You don’t need to worry that you’ll put the idea in their head. If they live with a mental illness, or are even just, you know, a human being, then they will have heard of the concept of suicide before. But they might not have had someone brave enough to be there for them calmly, and to listen to them talk about it. It’s hard and scary for the listener as well, I know. But we can all do this together.

I know it’s hard on both sides. I friend I haven’t spoken to in a long time recently told me that they had tried to kill themselves. At first I was sad, obviously, but I also felt quite level-headed. “I know about this,” I thought. “I will listen and be there for them and help in any way I can.” This is still very much true, of course, but in the days after, everything actually sunk in, and I felt more and more horrified that a friend of mine had felt so hopeless. I suddenly shrank a little at the realization that people can and do feel this way even though I had felt that way myself, a few years ago. It was as if I was only just learning the meaning of suicide.

This is going to sound ludicrous to anyone who knows this already, but being on the other side of someone else’s suicide attempt made me realize for the first time that wanting to die is not an inevitable part of life on earth.

It’s like I’ve thought about suicide so much that I’ve almost been taking it for granted, as a constant humming in the background of my everyday life. I’d forgotten that feeling like you want to die isn’t something that you just have to put up with and accept. We deserve better than that. And I think that this realization can only be a good thing — it shows how far I’ve come since the worst times. Things will get better in ways that you could never imagine when you’re feeling so bad. But they will.

So, what happens when you don’t die?

An old friend is so, so glad you’re alive.

You can recover. It’s hard work, and there might be difficult days and confusing feelings ahead. But it’s no worse than what you’ve gone through before, and you survived that, didn’t you? It’s nothing you can’t pull through — you’re literal living, breathing proof of that. That’s amazing.

Every day will bring you new reasons for living, big and small. You might need help to find them sometimes, but help is there and so are your reasons. And one day you’ll find that, without you even noticing when or how, they’ve got you convinced.

U.K. Suicide Resources:

  • If you are in serious danger right now, call 999 (UK) for an ambulance or go to A&E, or ask someone to do this for you.
  • Samaritans – 116 123 (won’t show up on your phone bill)
  • NHS – 111
  • Sane Charity provide crisis support between 4.30pm and 10.30pm 365 days a year – 0300 304 7000

Follow this journey on Quiet Person, Loud Thoughts.

Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash

Originally published: December 29, 2020
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