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The Scarlet Letter That Follows You as a Suicide Attempt Survivor

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The stigma of surviving a suicide attempt feels exactly like its definition: a brand; a scar; a mark of shame. It’s the proverbial Scarlet Letter that never washes off no matter how much you succeed in life, even if you regret your action. They will never let you forget what you did. It’s a social scandal in a small community, everyone knows the basics, no one knows the details. Somehow, you become a second-class citizen of sorts, someone lesser, someone almost not worthy of a full and happy life. Why? Because you took life for granted? Because you made a mistake?

People will always find ways to remind you of what you did as if you will somehow forget, or they will tell others in attempts to discredit your sanity and success. You don’t get a single break. No matter how much you heal, grow and change, surviving a suicide attempt isn’t celebrated in any direction. The focus of their fixation will forever be on what you did. Upon survival, you are about to spend the rest of your life defending your life. Ask yourself this question: Do you actually deserve to be here after what you did? The public is a tough room.

When people learn that you tried to kill yourself, no matter five or 30 years ago, they assign themselves judge and jury of your personal case. They decide to determine your worth, to determine if you’re worth their time, worthy of good things, even worthy of life. They will quiz you about what were your motives. Simply, why did you do it? Who, after all, wants to be friends with someone who once tried to kill themselves? They believe it’s their business due to some false sense of self-protection, because no one wants a toxic person in their life. And you might be toxic because you made this specific mistake, because we can see what your Scarlet Letter shows. They will always point it out. They will always make sure it shows, that it’s shiny and clean. Do they want to be seen with someone wearing a Stigma Letter? A Suicide Letter? A Shame Letter. That big shiny letter “S?”

“Why did you do it?” they ask, shamelessly shaming you. “Why did you try to take your own life?”

Keeping it to yourself is not acceptable. People have a curiosity so intense that it tastes best when served wicked and intrusive. They keep prodding. You know that if you don’t tell them — or worse, stay quiet and tell them it’s not their business, which means you’re rude, too — they will automatically assume the worst and you will be stamped yet again, “permanently damaged.” And again, everyone will hear about how you are still unstable. Not to mention rude! “None of your business” is not an answer that flies well, despite how often you still use it. It’s combative, don’t you know? Stop being so rude! Tell me all your business!

Having learned that the truth is easiest, you end up playing their game. You give them what they want by giving them the answer they want. It’s the answer that will have them respond most favorably to you. The truth. Delivered in a fashion designed to make them feel uncomfortable for a moment so they will feel a brief flash of shame at their asking, before they recover and proffer their final judgment. Shamelessly. This is how you achieve their best possible acceptance, this tragic dance.

“I was kidnapped. I had an opportunity to escape. I was severely depressed after I got home,” you answer with blunt and unexpected honesty.

Watching their face take it all in and figure out how to respond politely is the “fun” (satisfying?) part as you see them briefly recognize their own rudeness and feel a moment of shame at having asked. But they get over those feelings quickly. Their response is then always the same, different forms of the same response, all meaning the same thing. They deliver their barely polite verdict, always with some version of: “That’s actually a reason that is understandable; I could see how someone might respond that way, by trying to take their own life. OK, that’s somewhat acceptable. You might actually appreciate life. I’m going to give you a short leash of trust and allow you a little space to recover and grow. But if you do something I don’t like, I’m going to tell everyone how mentally ill you are because you once tried to kill yourself. Because, really, you should be ashamed of yourself.”

After decades of living in the same community, you get used to being questioned and judged for it. They have all gossiped about your kidnapping and attempt, anyway, so you might as well advocate publicly for suicide prevention, tell your story publicly so you can stop being asked. As long as people already know, maybe you could help someone else? But even that isn’t enough penance for many people. No matter how much I succeed or help others — which is actually a lot more than most folx I know — some people will never grant me grace. As if it’s theirs to grant! I have apparently earned a lifetime of punishment in the eyes of most.

This seems to be one of those life mistakes from which you are not allowed back up on the same level of society, forever a second-class citizen with a big letter “S” on your chest: S for Suicide. S for Shame, S for Stigma. I no longer experience daily suicidal ideation. I no longer feel shame. My stigma, my “brand,” may have stayed the same letter, but why can’t they see it blazing from my raised chest, head held high with pride: S for Strong. S for Success. S for Survivor.

I have no reason to feel shame.
You have no reason to feel shame.
You owe answers to no one.
You are allowed to be silent.
You are allowed to speak.
You are allowed to heal.
You are allowed to grow.
You are allowed to move forward with
You are allowed to
You have
You are allowed to
You are allowed to
Not look back.
You are allowed to

Originally published: October 6, 2020
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