Trigger warning: discussion of suicide and suicidal ideation.
I debated on whether or not to write this column for nearly a week after a 12-year-old Hillsboro resident died by suicide. But there are people who don’t understand why anyone, let alone a seventh-grade student with his whole life ahead of him, could die by suicide.
Suicide deaths are never easy for anyone. In the wake of such a death, there’s always grief, which can manifest differently in different people. When my roommate completed suicide during our first year of college, the campus community scattered. My college attempted to support the rest of its students — they canceled classes the day after she died, and there was a memorial, a bus ride to her visitation, and regular group grief counseling sessions — and for a while, social media was filled with posts from her friends, family, and people who had only interacted with her briefly. After a while, a lot of people stopped talking about her.
But the day after her death, while I was taking a walk with my then-boyfriend, he stopped to talk to another student, who almost immediately launched into, “I don’t know why they canceled classes. Her friends are just going to mope when they should really be exercising or doing homework.”
It’s easy to say things like that and “how did they not notice their kid was suicidal?” and “why were they left alone if they were that bad off?” when you’ve never thought that suicide would be best or even a blessing. As someone who is suicidal and who has lived with people who were suicidal, I can tell you it’s so easy to miss or overlook warning signs and it’s so easy to hide the fact that you’re suicidal.
Though my depressive symptoms began sometime around the age of 8, I had my first actively suicidal thought when I was about 13. I’d wanted to not-exist before that, but at 13, I had a decent idea of what suicide entailed. Even then I was so deeply exhausted on every level — mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually — that I felt like death would be a relief because at least then I wouldn’t be suffering.
I’m 23 now, and I’m still exhausted. On a good day, I only have 10 suicidal thoughts and those thoughts don’t majorly affect my ability to function. On a bad day, the thoughts in the forefront of my mind are that I want to die, that I’m a horrible person, that I deserve to die.
Sometimes, I can reason with myself. I’ve seen what suicide deaths can do to families and communities. People are always affected when someone dies by suicide, and I know there are people who would be affected if I died, even when it doesn’t feel like it. But even knowing that, I’m just so tired that another 50 or 60 years sounds unbearable.
I’ve been diagnosed by several mental health professionals with major depressive disorder, a chronic condition that affects my concentration, memory, and ability to perform basic tasks nearly every day. Major depressive disorder has been linked to chemical imbalances in the brain. It’s not something a person can control or “snap out of,” though I really wish I could. There also isn’t a specific reason why I’m constantly sad.
Not everyone with major depressive disorder is suicidal, but suicidal ideation — thinking about, considering, or planning suicide — can be a symptom. Symptoms can be managed with counseling, medication, or both, but counseling and medication aren’t automatic “cures.” Getting to a good place mentally can take a lot of time and money, and that makes it more difficult or even inaccessible for some.
I’m fortunate to be able to go to counseling every week. In sessions, my counselor and I talk through the week and how I’ve been feeling and discuss healthy ways to address those feelings and symptoms.
I also meet with an advanced practice nurse (APN) once a month, and over the last six months, I’ve been on several different medications in an attempt to find a medication or a combination of medications that work for me. These medications made me groggy and overwhelmingly nauseous; they zapped my appetite to the point that I lost 20 pounds in less than a month. One of them made me dangerously suicidal to the point that my counselor and I had to consider hospitalization.
This will be the fifth year that I’ve been struggling with medications and debilitating depression. Most of the time, I feel like I’ll never be a “normal,” “fully-functional” person with energy and hope. And that’s frustrating because there are so many things I’d like to do. I’ve probably tried close to 20 different medications so far in an attempt to feel better, but even as I write this, I’m struggling.
But I am alive.
At the last Highland County Drug Abuse Prevention Coalition meeting, Jack Stem, a former nurse anesthetist and recovering addict who now works as a counselor, said that one of the things he tells some of his clients is that plugging a power strip into itself doesn’t power anything — meaning you can’t do everything alone. He said there has to be a support system and some sort of higher power, though it doesn’t have to be a god, if you want to get better.
I’m not religious, but I do have a cat, whom I’ve always called “the light of my life.” If I die, she would never know what happened. She doesn’t speak English, and my family doesn’t speak Cat. If I die, no one would pet her the way she deserves to be pet. She’s my main motivation to stay alive. Anything I do is so I can try to improve my mental health and give her everything she deserves — and she deserves everything.
Staying alive for me means trying to be nicer to myself and to find joy in the smallest things. The color of cara cara oranges has saved me countless times. I’m in so many Facebook cat groups, and strangers’ pictures and videos of their cats help me get through the day. After a tough day, I sometimes (frequently) stop and get an orange-vanilla Hi-C as a “treat” on my way home. And, of course, my cat is waiting for me when I get home.
But even with my cat motivating me to stay alive, I can’t get better without support from other humans.
As we recover from the grief and shock of losing one of our own, we need to think about the future. Suicide can be an uncomfortable subject, but we can’t only talk about it when someone dies by suicide. We need to educate ourselves as a community, so we can provide support for those who are already dealing with suicidal ideation — while they’re still alive. Mental illness is treatable, but prejudice and misinformation don’t encourage people to seek treatment or reach out to their loved ones for support. If you indicate that you judge people who deal with mental illness, you risk alienating the people in your life who may be struggling.
The only way we’re going to stay alive is with support, love, and understanding from our communities.
If you’re having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. If you think you’re in danger of harming yourself, please go to an emergency room or reach out to a loved one.
McKenzie Caldwell is a reporter at The Times-Gazette. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-402-2570.