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What a Tiny Red Car Taught Me About Surviving COVID-19 and 2021 With Suicidal Ideation

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 741741.

I remember burning rubber, the twisting of tires, and I remember a promise, unbroken.

I celebrated my birthday a few months ago, in early February. I usually don’t mention birthdays much, but this was a special day amidst a special era. In the United States, more than 590,000 people have died in over a year due to a largely preventable COVID-19 tragedy. Within that context, a birthday takes on a more specific meaning. It means I’m still here. I’m alive. Something I wouldn’t dare take for granted in 2021. 

But there are more. February also marked a little more than a full year since the closest I’ve ever come to a true suicide attempt. The burning of rubber. I won’t tell that story in detail because those details are often very triggering for others. But I survived. I made it. And shortly after, I returned home, I went to visit my nephews and niece in Manhattan. My niece was just 1-year-old at the time. When I picked her up, I immediately began crying. And I made her a promise she couldn’t possibly understand. I promised her I would never hurt myself again.

A year has passed, and I’m still here. No self-harm since then. No attempts at anything worse. I’m still here. But so many others aren’t. I was speaking with a fellow health care organizer once and we reflected on the uniquely human problem of imagining a better world we will never get to see. And we accepted that this was our role here as organizers — to dream up that world and move towards it, knowing we’d probably never enjoy it in our lifetimes. I phrased it as “dying before we get to heaven.” A world where people who are sick can see a doctor for free — no medical debt or financial ruin — and they get good, comprehensive care. A world where people with mental illness are treated without stigma or shame, where no one ever dies by suicide because supports are in place to prevent it. But we’re not there. We’re nowhere near there. I’m looking around during this COVID-era at my community of people with disabilities, and I’m seeing a lot of people who are going to die before they get to heaven. 

What has become clear to anyone paying attention is that the COVID-19 crisis is also a mental health crisis. A study funded by the National Institute of Health Research recently found that people who contract COVID-19 are more likely to display symptoms of anxiety and other psychiatric disorders afterward. And the Hill reported some alarming trends from the first nine months of COVID-19, citing CDC research that found mental health-related emergency department visits, reports of various mental health symptoms and suicidal ideation among youth all increased. 

Let’s factor in that since then, tens of thousands more families have been engulfed with grief, health care professionals have continued to face frontline trauma, and folks have endured months of isolation and are now reentering a public life filled with all kinds of stimuli they haven’t encountered in over a year. Throughout all this, it’s Black and brown and disabled communities that have felt all of these effects the most.

We’re left then with our primary question: in this country, in this pandemic, how do we stay alive? While we organize to demand that our government help us — through investments in mental health care, investments in harm reduction, perhaps ultimately through Medicare for All — we’re also going to have to help ourselves. We’re going to have to help each other. We’ll continue setting up mutual aid networks and care webs and social media supports. And we’ll continue telling our stories. 

Here’s one story for you. It’s 2014, and I’m on the subway in Manhattan on my way to my first job out of law school, working at a nonprofit that aims to reduce and transform incarceration in America. I’m sitting across from a young girl who is crying — I mean, really bawling like the world is ending. After a few minutes, her mother hands her a small red toy car and says, “Here, vroom vroom.” The kid takes the car and her eyes light up. She forgets why she was upset. All is now right in her little world. I observe all this and file it away in my brain because it feels important. 

Maybe a month later, I’m in my office, and my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is spiraling. I’m seeing and hearing things in my head that I know are not real, and I’m bugging out thinking there’s no way I can do this job, or any job. There’s no way I can survive in America. Just then, a colleague walks in excited, saying we just got some new swag from a funder. He hands me a long silver box, and I open it. Inside — unexpectedly, almost supernaturally — is a small, red toy car. This one is a Mini Cooper with the organization’s name on it. And I hear the mother’s voice in my head. Here, vroom vroom. And then I hear my own voice. Of course I can do this job. Of course I can survive. The panic fades. fleeting, and I squeeze the car between my fingers, grounded. I keep working. I keep moving. 

Here’s the point of that story. I’m thinking of people managing suicidal ideation during COVID, and I know what that’s like — to be in that headspace. And there’s one thing I wish people knew about being down there: it’s an altered state of mind, and it’s fleeting. I am not scared when I want to die. I am scared when I feel that I need to die, as I did a year ago. That’s an important distinction. People who die by suicide see it as a necessity, an inevitability, just like drinking water or sleeping is for anyone reading this. But of course, that isn’t true. And some live long enough for this altered mind state to pass, to remember that they don’t require annihilation. These people live long enough to hug children again, to make promises.

So to say someone is weak for suicide is foolish. To say someone took the “easy way out” is a fundamental misunderstanding of how this works. It’s why we say someone “died by suicide” rather than saying they “committed suicide” or “killed themselves.” Those outdated terms are stigmatizing. Suicide is an illness, something that happens to you. Not something you sign up for. I loathe seeing suicide stigmatized. People in that state do not need shame. They need treatment. They need care.

I keep that red car on my desk. I look at it and remember that these altered mind states pass, that we can ground ourselves in the present moment, that our pain is fleeting. Maybe vroom vroom is too infantilizing. But find your own external reminder, your own red car, some totem to keep you plugged into this world, this very real world that needs you. 

Here’s another story. In early March 2020, as COVID began spreading through the U.S., I spent nine days at a psychiatric hospital in New York being treated for depression and suicidal ideation — a worsening of what went on a few weeks prior. The good news is they treated me well, and I’m more stable now than I have been in years. The bad news is doctors don’t typically recommend you discharge from a psychiatric unit and immediately enter pandemic isolation for 14 months. It’s not “best practices.” I’ve managed my OCD, depression, and suicidal ideation throughout this era with medication and therapy, by keeping that red car on my desk and remembering what it means, and by doing one other thing. 

I wrote a statement of values for myself, and I pinned it to my wall. It’s a list of what I find most important in this world — the things I want to protect, want to sustain. Creating a gentler world for my nephews and niece is one value. So is my writing, my work to combat mental health stigma, and a few other things. Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for, can bear with almost any how.” So I scan my list of whys. I ask myself whether I am working toward the values on that list, knowing that if I am, I can tolerate my pain, can tolerate the hows. But if I find that I’m not working towards those values, I ask myself what I can change to make sure that I do — what small action steps I can take to align myself properly. Depression is a state of despair, and this exercise gives me purpose. It puts my feet on the floor, ideally one in front of the other. 

And that’s my path toward stability and safety. When amidst depression, I look at that red car and remember what is temporary. And I look at that list of values and remember what isn’t. Those two external prompts are backed by medication and treatment that I am very privileged to afford in the middle of a pandemic — a privilege that so many people do not have, whether they are insured or not. It shouldn’t be up to us to keep each other alive. That shouldn’t be our responsibility in this country. But it is, so I hope you find your red cars. I hope you make your lists of values. And I hope you tell your own stories however you can. People need to hear them now more than ever. 

We’ve lost so many in this era. To the coronavirus pandemic, to suicide.

Here’s one last quick story. It’s a metaphor. I read once about the difference between fearlessness and bravery, and I think we all need to keep this in mind as we move forward. If you do not fear a forest, and you walk into a forest — that is a very boring story. It is not extraordinary in any way. But if you are terrified of the forest, if it keeps you up at night, if it haunts you, and then you walk into the forest — well, that’s brave. That’s a story worth telling.

In 2021, while navigating a pandemic and racism and state violence and international horrors, it is entirely understandable for all of us to be filled with fear. Fear of death, fear of loss, fear of pain. And every person managing those fears while moving toward their values is walking into their own terrifying forest. These people should be celebrated, not stigmatized. They should be supported, not shamed. Our work here continues. And if we don’t ever see the world we dream of — or if we “die before we get to heaven” — we might as well all die fighting for what we deserve, our heads aloft, our arms in others’ arms, secure in our certainty that we’re making this cruel place a little gentler, a little more just.

For now, I get to celebrate another trip around the sun. I get to lift the people next to me through this era, as they lift me the same. I get to keep a promise.

Image via contributor.

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