This piece talks about suicide. Please use your discretion.
You can also listen to it here.
I’ve participated in TWLOHA’s annual suicide prevention fundraising campaign for many years now. It’s become something that I consider a regular part of my routine—an expected, dependable undertaking that I associate with this time of year. I feel it’s important to be fully transparent and honest, though, right off the bat: the past few years I’ve wondered whether I would host the fundraiser again rather than just contributing as an individual. I’ve noticed and felt more deeply the emotional toll this month takes on me—especially since the COVID era. But after weighing the pros and cons, the outcome has always been the same. I start to think about and write down the reasons why this is important to me, why I continue to show up and raise my voice for suicide prevention, and soon after, I end up launching the fundraising page.
I want to share some of those words with you today, in the hopes that (at least) one of the following things happens for you: you feel inspired and encouraged to donate to the campaign (or even to create your own), you learn something that gives you the chance to pause for a moment and reflect on your own thoughts, emotions, and experiences with suicide, or you are provided with some practical ways to help change the conversation about mental health, to shift the culture so that we can better address and prevent the tragedy of suicide.
Every year the campaign statement addresses truths that are timeless—truths that every single person deserves to hear, deserves to feel: that your life is important. That no one else can play your part. There’s no ‘if’ or ‘but’ about it—you MATTER. Tomorrow needs you, and I want another day with you. This year, we are embracing and standing behind this truth: you are not a burden. This is centered around the idea that we can disrupt the false belief that often drives those who experience suicidal thoughts to action. One thing we know, in the words of Dr. Thomas Joiner, is this: “a person who is suicidal usually experiences a combination of feelings that they don’t belong and that their life or existence burdens others. There is also a conclusion that these feelings represent a permanent situation; that this is how things are going to be, going forward.” This campaign exists to disrupt that belief—to amplify the opposite.
Our culture is very ignorant about suicide, and as a result, we are a society very afraid of suicide.
The reality is, suicide is not a simple, comprehendible, singular “thing.” It is complex. It is multifaceted. It is a universal phenomenon in all cultures and communities, and it is also so deeply personal to each individual suffering. One person’s suicide journey will be very different from another’s. And none of us will ever fully understand what it’s like to be in another person’s shoes. A potentially lethal consequence of this comes when instead of being able to share our different stories with others, we begin to believe that our story is “not normal.” We feel ashamed, and instead of sharing about it, we hide it. We pathologize one another instead of connecting with each other. We avoid the hard conversations because we don’t know how to have them, and we don’t know how to have them because we’re not taught that it’s OK to be honest about the hard things. When we don’t know much about something, we learn to fear it: ignorance breeds fear. Our culture is ignorant about suicide, and as a result, we are a society very afraid of suicide.
If you’re not sure you follow, consider your answers to the following scenarios. I want you to bring someone to mind who you care deeply about–this could be a family member, a friend, a romantic partner, a teacher, a neighbor, etc. Imagine that this person comes over to your house, clearly distraught, and they say that they need to talk to you. When you sit down, this person gets really quiet and says, “I have cancer. I’ve known for a while, but I got treatment. I thought it went away, but it’s back with a vengeance, and I’m scared. I don’t know what to do”. What do you feel right now? I want you to consider how you might respond. What are you compelled to do, say, or suggest, and what questions, if any, do you contemplate asking?
Now, imagine this same person, this same scenario. But instead of disclosing a cancer diagnosis, this person says, “I am having thoughts of suicide. I’ve been struggling for a while, but I thought I was getting better, things were different. The last few days my dark thoughts are back with a vengeance. I just don’t know how to go on, I don’t even want to anymore, and I’m scared. I don’t know what to do.” Phew. Now, what do you feel? How might you respond? Be really honest with yourself–what would you do, say, or suggest, and what questions, if any, do you contemplate asking?
Before we continue, take a moment to pause. Take a deep breath, in and out. Wiggle your fingers, tap your toes. Take another deep breath. Shake it off, and bring yourself back to the present moment.
Hard scenarios, right? These questions are not meant to target you or make you feel bad but instead are meant to initiate a reflection on how little we know or are prepared to engage in discussion about the topics of mental health and suicide. My intention is to highlight the stark difference in awareness about two of the top leading causes of death. We have probably been exposed, over and over again, to examples of a myriad of ways one could respond in the former scenario of someone disclosing a battle with cancer. We see it in movies and TV shows. We hear about it on the news and in our homes. There’s less stigma to admitting we’re scared in the face of this disease. But what about the latter? We probably can’t as readily think of an example of someone openly disclosing suicidal thoughts or a battle with fluctuating mental health, let alone an example of how one might respond, unless we are in the helping profession–and even then, the stigma still exists. Suicide is still taboo. We shy away from talking about it. But it is happening, every single day. Every single minute, in fact. And unfortunately, when we are silent about a topic like this, it causes those who are suffering to struggle alone. It isolates them from the very connection and feeling of belonging that could help them survive.
Acknowledging my own ambivalence.
What I realized, and why writing this blog post took a turn I wasn’t anticipating, is that my ambivalence is because I haven’t been 100% honest… I want to share with you my own ‘why’–the completeness of it.
In years past, I’ve touted heartbreaking statistics, I’ve shared facts to counteract the myths that pervade our society about suicide, and I’ve tried to find the “why” that might stand out enough to compel someone to donate to this suicide prevention fundraiser. And while I continue to think about these things, and my advocacy efforts often include education related to these things, this year I feel pulled to also share more of my own truth about why I fundraise every year. This is a bit foreign to me, I’ll be honest; as a mental health counselor, I’m trained to not make the story about me. In my personal life, too, I far prefer asking about someone else and listening to their story rather than sharing mine. I’ve had years and years of practice keeping the walls up. I save the details of my story for my therapist, and for my own reflection and journaling, and even when I’m comfortable enough to share them with my innermost circle, autopilot kicks in and it takes intentional awareness to override the terror. A friend pointed this out to me days ago as I reflexively avoided vulnerability (fortunately for me, this friend is a “real one” and he called me out on it, which poignantly enabled me to acknowledge it. Damn am I grateful for the real ones).
When participating in a campaign like this, I am weary of pulling the attention away from the main goal, which is to save lives. But this year, I was really struggling to figure out how to be involved. I found myself stalling, getting distracted with other tasks, and avoiding mapping out how I’d begin. What I realized, and why writing this post took a turn that I wasn’t anticipating, is that my ambivalence is because I haven’t been 100% honest. And I had been trying, but I couldn’t override it anymore. This is precisely why, in order for me to authentically show up and take part in this campaign the way I want to, I need to get really deep and really honest for a second. I want to share with you my own ‘why’—the completeness of it. And it involves the intricate, long-term relationship I had with suicidal ideation for much of my young life.
“Why suicide, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Somehow, I continued to skip over—no, I continued to completely disregard and not even acknowledge—parts of the story that I think more directly answer the question…
I’m always grateful when people bravely ask me why I rally behind this cause. “Why suicide, if you don’t mind me asking?” is usually the question, or some form of it. And in response, I’ve always given some version of the same answer. I’m transparent about the relationships that played a large part in my own exploration of the concept of mental health (I didn’t understand what it was until late into adolescence, and even then it wasn’t to the extent that I think about it now), and about the jarring and heartbreaking experiences that led to my discovering TWLOHA out of desperation to help a friend. I share about the journey of getting involved with advocacy and awareness efforts, and about the snowball effect that occurred through college and beyond as I embraced the role I could play in promoting the importance of caring for and tending to our mental health. I share openly that yes, I’d experienced (and continue to experience) my own fluctuations in mental wellness, but my passion for suicide prevention wasn’t because I, myself, had been in that place of contemplating suicide; I never identified with the experience of engaging in suicidal behaviors. My lows were never “that low.” I was one of the lucky ones. And I wanted to be a part of making sure other people knew they deserved to be lucky, too. I wanted them to know that effective treatment exists and can help and that there’s always hope for a better tomorrow. These truths, among others, are what I often shared with people, whether it was in one-on-one conversations or in big lecture hall presentations.
But somehow, I continued to skip over—no, I continued to completely disregard and not even acknowledge—parts of the story that I think more directly answer the question, “Why do you rally behind this cause so much?” And those parts were not intentionally avoided, at least not consciously. There was never something in me that thought, “No, don’t share this! Keep this part out!” because I wasn’t aware—I wasn’t ready to admit—that there was a deeper truth that extended beyond what I was sharing.
The wounds that needed to become scars.
I hadn’t been still enough with the depths of my own pain to figure out how to share it with others in a way that would be an act of service instead of a cry for help.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a friend a few months ago, where I was sharing something I heard Glennon Doyle say a few years back that was resonating with this particular conversation. The quote referenced is this: “If you’re going to share widely, make sure you are sharing from your scars, not your open wounds.” This succinctly addresses my ambivalence: the unconsciously avoided parts were still open wounds—they couldn’t yet be touched. For many years, I hadn’t been still enough with the depths of my own pain to figure out how to share it with others in a way that would be an act of service instead of a cry for help. There was still a lot of healing that needed to happen. But in sitting with my own “stuckness” over how to be involved in this campaign this year and connect with people I don’t know, I reflected on how some of those wounds have had enough time to become scars that they now can be touched. I am able to recognize them and they are ready to be seen. While painful to revisit, I can’t ‘unknow’ my own reasons; I can’t go back to not being aware of my own truth.
The rest of the truth.
So here’s what I feel compelled to share, what I am able to say now that I couldn’t even recognize in years past, about why I show up for this campaign every year: What my advocacy and awareness and prevention efforts have allowed me to do, indirectly, is address the little girl who is deep inside me who needed to hear, a long time ago, all of the things that I passionately raise my voice to say now. It’s allowed me to say to her that I know her pain is confusing as hell, and that it is valid. Her emotions do not need to be hidden, do not make her less than—they will always find a way to be felt, and they make her human. That I see her. My efforts to let others know they’re not alone—that they deserve and are worthy of help and hope—those things are inadvertently the very words that little-me needed and desperately wanted to hear. Her inability to recognize, let alone believe in, those truths is directly correlated to my frustrations now about the lack of adequate education and understanding of mental health and suicide that fuel my advocacy efforts.
That little girl—when she was five, eight, and ten; who then so deeply buried her wounded self in the armor of the multiple façades through her teenage years and early adolescence; the girl who actually did have an intimate relationship with suicidal ideation—that’s who spearheads my passion for this cause the most. Because suicidal ideation was very much a part of her life. How does that make sense?! How can that be true, if this-me has consistently known, and repeated over and over, that I didn’t experience suicidal thoughts? Part of the problem is that research into this form of suicidal ideation—really, about suicide in general—is severely limited, and as a result, my understanding of it was skewed. I didn’t “want to kill myself,” I didn’t resonate with those words, so this concept didn’t apply to me. “Full stop, don’t investigate further” was likely the motto I used as justification to dismiss and ignore the daydreams and often detailed scenarios in my head of what it’d be like if I were dead. Yes, ignorance is bliss. And that’s where the other part of the problem comes in: when we don’t talk about something, we don’t have the language to make sense of it or the chance to examine it with others. I learned—through the silence on this topic—that what I was experiencing was not normal. That I must’ve been crazy, that there was something wrong with me. And it was not to be discussed. So I buried it. If I didn’t face it, didn’t admit it to myself, it wasn’t a problem I had to deal with (spoiler alert: yes it was, and yes I did). Our young psyches will go to great lengths to protect and preserve the reality we’ve adapted to.
Defining the words.
“When you’re suicidal, you want to kill yourself. When you’re experiencing passive suicidal ideation, you want to kill your situation.”
Real quick educational break, because I recognize that what I am talking about may seem very vague and the language convoluted. Let’s break down some of these terms. Suicidal thoughts, or suicidal ideation, refer to thinking about or planning suicide. Thoughts can range from creating a detailed plan to having a fleeting consideration. It does not include the final act of suicide. But even within the wide spectrum of suicidal ideation, there are two divisions. Passive suicidal ideation occurs when you wish you were dead or that you could die, but you don’t actually have any plans to die by suicide. Active suicidal ideation, on the other hand, is not only thinking about it but having the intent to die by suicide, including planning how to do it. I read it described somewhere like this: “When you’re suicidal, you want to kill yourself. When you’re experiencing passive suicidal ideation, you want to kill your situation.”
Now, I don’t want this to be your only exposure to this conversation, because even this feels too watered down, too vague for me. There are so many nuances, so many common threads. Remember—it’s complex, it’s multifaceted, and no two suicide journeys will be the same. We need more dialogue—hell, we need more funding for research and for lifesaving resources—and that’s just one of the reasons why campaigns like this are so important.
What she was feeling, what she was experiencing: it was a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. Her passive ideation was actually something that is very common … There was nothing wrong with her.
I know I couldn’t handle admitting this truth—that I experienced suicidal ideation for much of my life—to the world wide web because I hadn’t yet really admitted it to myself. There were too many layers to work through first to get to the place where I could face the shame and meet it with compassion and understanding instead. And even once I did, the conditioned patterns ran so deep that I continued to successfully compartmentalize it. It’s a strange concept to wrap my head around now, given the juxtaposition between these realities. There’s a lot more I want to be able to say on this, and maybe I will someday soon, but I know I can’t do it justice in this post. For right now, the unraveling of this truth doesn’t matter as much as the fact that this girl is finally being directly addressed. Her suffering is finally being explicitly acknowledged, by the only person who ever needed to truly acknowledge it—the person that this little girl was desperately waiting for validation of her feelings and her experiences from me.
What she was feeling, what she was experiencing, it was a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. Her passive ideation was actually something that is very common, and while fortunately, it had a protective function for her, it also, unfortunately, caused a lot more cognitive dissonance and suffering than it needed to. There was nothing wrong with her. I say that again, to her and to all of you who can identify with her experience. It’s OK to be honest about your pain. Don’t try to carry it alone—you were never supposed to. Talking about your pain does not make it worse, just like avoiding it doesn’t make it go away.
My heart breaks for the person who succumbs to the distorted thoughts that their brain convinces them are the truth, because I know those lies are a result of the impaired functioning caused by their suffering. My stomach plummets to the bottom of my feet when I sit with a client who tells me their family, their friends, and this world would be better off without them because I know that even though this feeling is their reality in that moment, it actually couldn’t be further from the truth. My anxiety skyrockets when I hear the media sensationalize prominent peoples’ deaths by suicide because I know how powerful it is to hear about the death of your hero, to see someone you look up to or identify with, in a black-and-white way that doesn’t demonstrate the complexity of the situation. I know all of these things because in one way or another they have been parts of my story, too.
While for a long time I couldn’t acknowledge, not internally nor externally, the long-term relationship I had with suicidal ideation, it existed. I’m glad to acknowledge it now and grateful that I can write this without dissociating and numbing out to avoid the confusing emotions and the sadness I feel for younger me. I’m damn proud of the work I’ve done over the past few years that has enabled this version of me to feel secure enough to say it, knowing full well the vulnerability hangover is looming. But I also feel the need to emphasize—again—that this comfort with my own emotions and thoughts hasn’t always been the case—it still isn’t always the case—and it didn’t happen on my own. I couldn’t have done it without therapy. This is the first time I’m ever writing these words, and yet I’ve been advocating for the importance of mental health for over a decade. I ain’t sayin’ it’s gonna be easy (it isn’t)—but I am saying that it’s gonna be worth it. That you are worth it.
I know that there’s a younger me in there who is saying, ‘fuck that,’ and doesn’t resonate with the truth that this-me knows exists … It proves why the point of this campaign remains such a crucial priority: things change.
I’ll reiterate that I know part of my ‘stuckness’ in promoting my fundraising campaign was because the hopeful, positive, and encouraging messages that I want to focus on were not always things that I believed. I know that there’s a younger me in there who is saying, “fuck that,” and doesn’t resonate with the truth that this-me knows exists. And I know that there are people out there—maybe those reading this—who don’t find hope in those messages, either. And that’s OK. It proves why the point of this campaign remains such a crucial priority: things change.
Nothing is static. The beauty of the light is so often much more prominent after we’ve experienced and trudged through the depths of the dark. I know that mental health matters, and that it is not static. I accept that I’m going to have hard days. Just like physical health, mental health is fluid—it exists on a continuum. It takes care and attention to protect. There will be days, weeks, months where it’s going to be harder—when it’s going to take more energy to protect. And that’s OK. That’s what we need other people for; our brains are wired for connection and belonging. We can’t do this alone.
Sitting with the uncomfortable.
We can know that the feelings will pass if we allow them to be present.
So where am I going with this? I have no idea. I’m trying to be honest about my experience to normalize talking about these hard things. We can sit in the uncomfortable and know that the feelings will pass if we allow them to be present. I’m writing all of this to say that yes, I rally behind suicide prevention because I want to raise a lot of money to get people adequate mental health resources that can change their lives. Yes, I want to dispel the dangerous myths that cause people to suffer in silence and thus turn to suicide as the only solution to their perceived insoluble problem. And ALSO YES, it matters, and I rally behind suicide prevention because it’s personal. It is so deeply personal.
I believe that what we say, what we do, and how we show up in the world, matters. What we’re honest about, what fragilities we’re brave enough to show to the ones in our innermost circles, matters. Whom we choose to embrace vulnerability with, and how we choose to embrace it for ourselves, matters. We can’t do this life alone. We need other people. We all deserve to fully believe that our fears, our worries, and our struggles do not make us a burden. They make us human. You are not a burden, and you deserve the chance to see the beauty on the other side of suffering.
Whatever you are facing, there is always hope. And we will hold on to hope until you’re able to grasp it yourself. If you’re thinking about suicide, we encourage you to use TWLOHA’s FIND HELP Tool to locate professional help and to read more stories like this one here. If you reside outside of the US, please browse our growing International Resources database. You can also text TWLOHA to 741741 to be connected for free, 24/7, to a trained Crisis Text Line counselor.