Suicide, the National Crisis we Keep Ignoring
The Willfully Blind. Photo by Jacqueline Loweree.
It was a rainy Saturday morning when my phone rang and woke me up from my 7 a.m. slumber.
"Yes? What's up?"
"I have to see you. Can we meet for coffee?"
"Of course, give me a few hours to get up and ready."
"No, I kinda need to see you now."
"Are you okay?"
I hung up the phone shortly after I muttered, "Come over." You see my friend would never call me in the wee hours of the morning and ask to meet for coffee "now." And I didn't need to be a mind-reader to know that his simple "no" meant that his entire world had just collapsed and that he was in serious trouble.
Fifteen minutes later my doorbell rang. There he was dripping wet, ghostly white, and with sunken eyes surrounded by deep dark blue circles. As he collapsed on my couch, he shared with me the most gruesome details of his night. Alcohol. Pills. Cocaine. Anything he could get his hands on to drown the pain. He had tried to overdose. Luckily, his body rejected his continuous attempts. And everything he ingested didn't last long in his system.
You see my friend suffered from a very aggressive form of depression. We met in a peer support group for individuals with mental illness. We immediately bonded after we shared some very real stories about how our mental illnesses were affecting our everyday.
"I need to call my psychiatrist, Jackie, but I don't want to be sent to the psyche ward you know."
"I know. But you are not okay. And we need him to help us. I'm scared."
We didn't call his psychiatrist, instead we took an Uber to his apartment. It was important to him that we clean up the "crime scene" before his girlfriend got home from a weekend trip. Although his girlfriend is one of the kindest cheerleaders supporting my friend, he still felt the guilt we all do with our loved ones when we suffer a mental disorder. He wanted to be happy for her. But he couldn't. And that devastated him even more.
Our Uber ride was eerily quiet as the rain fell silently on the car's windows. He closed his eyes and rested while I read one my poetry collections. I had picked up a book of Russian poems from the stifling decades of war. Russian poetry is by no doubt the most sentimental, also the hardest to read.
I'm still alive. That may be soon
a sin. Perhaps these days to live
is not the human thing to do.
Perhaps this age is iron and all
must fall. Perhaps it's not the poet
anymore who writes the poem.
- Marina Tsvetaeva, 1918
Twenty-three years after she penned this poem, Marina killed herself. The war took her children and her husband and left her destitute, hungry, and desolate with poetry being her main companion. She remains one of the best poets in Russia to date.
I suppose there was a bit of an irony there. I was reading a poem about dying, by a woman who took her life, sitting next to a friend who had just tried to commit suicide. Irony or coincidence, who cares. The situations regardless were tragic.
Nothing about that morning was easy and as we entered his apartment things got harder. The "crime scene" as he called it looked like something out of a movie. There were empty hard liquor bottles everywhere, the bathroom was a mess, the bed sheets drenched from sweat, and traces of cocaine were visible in the living room. My heart dropped even more. I was invited to witness a gory scene of excruciating pain and mental desperation.
I picked up a black trash bag and quickly began filling it with empty bottles, cleaned the counters, made the bed, vacuumed, and fed the cats. We were fighting against the clock.
Then she entered and saw me there and knew immediately why I was there.
"I'll give you guys your space."
"Thank you, Jackie," she murmured as I walked out of their apartment.
It was still raining when I left their building and catching an Uber to head to my place was the last thing I wanted to do. I needed a distraction and remembered I hadn't eaten anything all day so without any actual hunger I made my way to my favorite salad shop down the street.
Drops kept pouring and thank goodness they did because I could no longer contain the wave of emotion I had been courageously holding in. I cried. Walked. Cried. My tears poured in synchrony with the rain. No one noticed. No one ever really notices.
Finally, I found my salad place and sat at the corner facing the main window. And for what must have been in a hour, I sat there, food untouched, quiet, staring at the passersby. Thinking.
Is this what the other side feels? The loved ones? Those who suffer the aftermath of a suicide? Is this what my mom felt that morning in the emergency room after one of my attempts?
I don't know. It just knew it hurt. And as someone who with a record of suicidality I felt this situation from two perspectives: from the perspective of a loved one and of the person wanting to end their suffering.
That's the thing about suicide. No one ever really wants to die they just want the pain to stop.
I recently read an article by Forbes magazine that demonstrated how deaths of despair, or those due to drug overdose, alcohol, and suicide, are at an all time high. The study they discussed compared the rates of these deaths from 2005 to 2017 and revealed that nationwide suicide has risen by 28% and is continuing to trend upward.
That means that that on average if 100 people killed themselves in 2005, 128 took their lives in 2017. That’s 28 more people per every 100. People with families, connections, thoughts, dreams, and hopes.
Hopes that somewhere along the way faded.
According to the World Health Organization, every 40 seconds someone in the world takes their life. That is 800,000 people every year. Twice as many people die by suicide than they do by homicide. Yet, we invest less in research, resources, and support than we do in policing, homicide investigations, and legal fees.
So why does it keep happening? We have more mental health awareness now. But are we just generally sicker? What's going on?
Suicide is a phenomenon, a declared national (and I would even say international) crisis. I can't explain much of the why without writing an entire book about it only to end it with, "expect part two next year." What is clear however, is it's magnitude and the devastation it leaves behind. Don't believe me? Read this New Yorker piece for a sad narrative on the death of a beautiful-17-year-old in Singapore.
So as loved ones what can we do to support those vulnerable and in the trenches of mental illness?
A lot. But here is some concrete pieces of advice:
Pay attention: those contemplating suicide are talented actors but leave behind clues
Listen: these feelings are hard to voice and explain and it's even harder when we are fighting for someone's attention
Check-in: it doesn't hurt to be every once in a while ask your loved one how they are doing and if they need anything
Reaffirm your love: Remind your loved one how much they matter to you, how special they are, and how there is no one else like them, and that if anything were to happen to them, how much you'd miss them
Talk about it: Reduce the stigma, raise awareness, treat this as the health problem that it is and not a source of shame
Stigma. That's a strong word for us because it's silently real. Suicide is one of the most shameful topics to discuss because there's so much associated with it. We are seen as weak, undesirable, gloomy, negative, unloved, etc. That is why we suffer in silence. We don't want to be judged.
But it doesn't have to be that way. We don't need to resort to bottles and pills to ease the pain. We should look out to our communities and loved ones for support.
We have to be better. We are currently failing. And that's unacceptable.
Here is the letter I wrote to my friend the day all occurred. Maybe it'll speak to some of you or maybe to someone you know. Please share it to someone who may need it. It's yours.
My dearest friend,
I do not intend to ask you why or how you tried to take your life. You do not owe me any explanations. I know it hurts. I know why. The how is irrelevant. Just know that all I would like to do is hold your hand, in a tight grip, look you in the eye and reassure you that everything is going to be all right. But we both know better. We know this fog we carry often feels eternal and that the light feels like a mythic fairytale. Others, who are less blind, assure me they see the light. So allow me to reassure you by extension.
I know you are ashamed. You feel pathetic. You tried. You failed. In the attempt we hope that maybe just maybe they’ll take us seriously. And that this invisible illness we fight everyday will finally be visible to those whose sheer reaction is to prescribe us with yoga, meditation, and the empty advice of positive thinking. We both know that if it were that easy, we would not spend thousands of dollars and countless hours on treatments, therapies, and lifestyles. I will not insult your intelligence and echo such empty advice. I trust you. That is why we are friends. I respect you. You are not crazy to me. You are hurting. And I’m hurting with you. Your pain is my pain. Oh, how I wish I could carry it for you, even if for just a day. I do not know how much your burden weighs. I only know of mine. But because I respect you, I know it weighs more than I could possibly imagine. And you walk through life carrying this pain everyday. And sometimes it crushes you. Sometimes it is all just too much to bear. And that is why to me you are the most courageous person I know, even if you tried to take your life and failed. Or perhaps BECAUSE you tried and failed.
So, my dear friend, I won’t ask you any questions. Instead, I will simply listen and the only words I will say are these, “I am here.”
The Ins and Outs of OWN IT: A Blog on How to Show Bipolar Who's the Boss
A blog for people with mental illness written by an unstable, unpredictable, and uninhibited woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder
Covers all topics including relationships, coping mechanisms, entertainment, and everyday resources
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Disclaimer: OWN IT is a first-hand account of bipolar disorder designed to orient those diagnosed with mental illness. It by no means intends to offer medical advice. If you are diagnosed with an illness, or think you may suffer from one, please seek professional help. Otherwise, take my words lightly and have fun reading!