The first time I was afraid of killing myself was when I read Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms as a freshman in high school. At one point, protagonist Robert Jordan speaks of his father’s suicide in rough, insensitive terms. Hemingway himself, a self-styled macho man, was also grappling with his own father’s suicide at the time he wrote the book. The passage, along with the knowledge of Hemingway’s own trials which ended in his own suicide in 1961, struck a chord in the almost unreachable recesses of my psyche. I felt the recognition as a threat to my feeling of wellness and would not let myself reread the paragraph describing his father’s end.
The fear was the dark, predatory kind. I had had thoughts of suicide before. I was not especially depressed at the time, but I was not all that stable, either. My handwriting then would slant in opposite directions one line to the next. I tried to ignore that, too. I was a keenly anxious and insecure child.
Two years later, when I was 16, I learned a paralyzed dear family friend had not had an “accident”, as I had been told throughout my childhood, but in truth had tried to shoot himself through the heart and had paralyzed himself from the waist down instead. The truth of his tragic attempt had come to me in a loose, dark, scream-riddled dream not two weeks before his death. My parents confirmed. The closely-guarded secret made me bury my own feelings deeper. But every time they came to the surface, I was always worried and concerned I was crazy. I felt that there must be shame for having those thoughts. And so I never shared them except to my therapist.
Over the years these fears sporadically came and went. Mercifully I never went through days or an obsession about suicide, and I never got to the point where my shrink was worried I was in real danger. I never had a plan or a solid wish to leave the planet, but I knew something was very wrong.
In fact, throughout my life I knew I was “not right.” I was a compulsive hand-washer at 6 and had a nervous breakdown at 9. My fear of abandonment has been terrifying, numbing and incapacitating at times.
Only last year did I find out, that, as irrational as my fears were, their existence was entirely logical. They were survival skills I had adopted to stay alive. Only I kept them long after I was out of danger.
The cause was PTSD from numerous operations on my hands in the first two years of my life (and some other things). After speaking to a friend of mine who had been date-raped and only gotten over it through EMDR, a trauma therapy known for helping war vets, I sought the help of Janet Christenson here. When I told the her that I had had suicidal thoughts on and off my whole life, she told me that you don’t have suicidal thoughts unless you had been traumatized. That helped a lot— I thought I had been born crazy— in fact my father had half-jokingly called us all nuts except for my brother— and now knew there was a proximate cause.
It was then that I knew I was not inherently defective, as I had always feared. Instead, there was an explanation and a way.
In the past year I haven’t had those thoughts. Recovery has given me tools, and I know I am not alone. But I read the news about suicides. I’m happy that Katy Perry and Prince Harry have come forth about their own struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. I don’t think this can happen enough.
I truly believe shame drives many people to kill themselves. Shame, as trauma therapist Lee Norton told me, is about “what people think they are.” Shame begets isolation, which increases the sense of alienation, which tightens the spiral. The further a person gets from intimacy with others, the graver the risk of a destructive act.
So I share these secrets not just to help others seek help and talk about suicide, but also to increase my community. I think there is a very large group of trauma victims who share these thoughts to varying degrees. It scares me to do this, but I know I must. Recovery only happens through community and helping, understanding hands. That starts with sharing.