When I was 16, I tried, on two occasions, to kill myself. While this isn’t news – I talk about it on the “My Story So Far…” page in very broad strokes – it is a period in my life that I haven’t really addressed on this blog. And lately, it’s been a period in my life that I’ve been thinking an awful lot about. I thought about it as I wrote and practiced the motivational speech I gave last week (although I ultimately decided not to mention it during the speech). Then I watched a wonderful episode of Anderson Cooper’s new daytime talk show where he interviewed his mother, the legendary Gloria Vanderbilt, and I burst into tears when they talked about the day that Anderson’s brother, Carter, killed himself (watch a clip here).
All this activity has created these waves of memories, some that I haven’t thought about in a decade, that keep splashing around in my brain. Last night, they kept me from getting a good night’s sleep. I need to process some of these memories, and to do that, I’m going to write about them. I don’t know where this post is going, but I’m just gonna write, and hope that it’ll help. Somehow.
Me and my pet ferret, around 1995 (age 16).
Thinking back 15 years, to my junior year in high school, before those two suicide attempts, what strikes me is how terribly afraid I was and how terribly alone I thought I was. A darkness was quickly settling in, and I was powerless to stop it.
I can’t pinpoint what, if anything, started this mental descent, but I started thinking, as my junior year began, that people didn’t understand me. That I was different. I couldn’t articulate why, because I didn’t understand it myself. Knowing what I now know about myself, I’d say it was probably due to a number of things. Because my own developing passions, for creative endeavors and the arts, were different from the emphasis on academics that my parents stressed. Because my lack of interest in team sports seemed so bewildering to others (I had recently quit playing water polo, which everyone seemed to have an opinion about). Because I had a body raging with hormones, yet girls weren’t popping up on my radar (it would take me another year or so before I figured out that other boys caused the radar to light up). At the time, I wasn’t able to recognize any of this. I just felt different.
My self-esteem was also low. I didn’t think much of myself to begin with. I already thought I was ugly, weak, and that my excess weight was hideous, and then I started realizing, on top of all that, that I was different, and I didn’t like it. Different was shameful, different was embarrassing, different was bad. Different meant I didn’t belong. I didn’t fit in.
At first these feelings were occasional and merely confusing at worst, but they soon increased with frequency and strength. I was sure that something wasn’t right – that I wasn’t right – and there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t even describe what was going on, let alone have the wherewithal to ask for help. As these feelings increased and become more pervasive, the confusion they brought gave way to dread. Why am I constantly feeling so shitty about myself? Why won’t this ever stop? I don’t think I’ll be able to overcome this.
As I spiraled downward, the fog of depression got thicker, and my self-worth plummeted. I convinced myself that normal people don’t suffer because of their own thoughts, that I don’t deserve to be happy, that this is something I must soldier through alone. After all, who would sympathize with someone as weak and worthless as me? I was sure I was beyond help, a lost cause. Because I felt so alone and certain that no one would understand, I started focusing on making sure no one knew. I had to keep this private. I couldn’t draw attention to myself. When I was around other people, I smiled and laughed and pretended to have a good time, but I grew to both look forward to and hate being alone: I looked forward to dropping the act that I was happy and things were fine, but I knew the second I was alone, these terrible thoughts would instantly began swirling again in a vicious tornado that would wreak havoc within seconds. It was downright terrifying.
1996 or 1997 (age 17)
My own mind was poisoning me. I didn’t love myself, and before long, I convinced myself that no one else loved me either. I told myself that my family’s love was obligatory, and therefore didn’t count and wasn’t true. I had friends – good, close friends – but they all had lots of friends, so they couldn’t possibly care about me. I internally spun everyday conversations into evidence that I was right: anyone’s compliment became back-handed, any gesture of love towards me became an outright lie. Sometimes it felt like a puzzle, and I would relish replaying someone’s kind words in my head over and over until I could figure out the malicious and hateful intent behind them. Most of the time, though, it felt like a beating, like I was continually being pummeled from all sides with these ideas that I wasn’t worthy: worthy of friends, worthy of family, worthy of kindness, worthy of living. I cried myself to sleep many nights, often ruminating on a new thought: Maybe I’d be better off dead.
Death. I don’t remember exactly when the thought of death first entered my mind, but in the throws of a major depression, it was something I could latch onto, a beacon of some sort, a way out. At first, the thought of dying terrified me, but it kept popping up in my head, often in dreams that involved car accidents or falling from high places. My thoughts on death evolved, as all my thoughts did, and over time I started comparing death to the life I was living. Was death so much worse than living, when living meant wandering through my days, feeling alone, haunted by the thoughts in my own head? So much of my life felt out of my control, but suicide… well, I’d be in control then.
The first time I tried to kill myself was by swallowing 200 extra strength aspirin tablets. It was late at night, and afterwards, I laid down on my bed, not sure how my body would respond, and hoped that I wouldn’t wake up. I did wake up, violently ill, and puked all over the bathroom. It took me forever to clean up. It was clear the next morning that I was ill, but my mother presumed it was a flu of some sort, and I didn’t correct her. I stayed home from school that day, spending a good deal of it hunched over the toilet, and in between the retching, I became resolute: I was going to have to try harder. This was one thing I couldn’t fail at.
The second time I tried to kill myself was by poison. I found a bottle of pesticide in the garage, and it was potent stuff: you were supposed to dilute a tablespoon of it into a gallon of water, and that was all you needed to spray a whole acre of land. I drank what was left in the bottle – around 6 ounces. I laid down on my bed, and my memories of the next few hours are fleeting and incomplete, like a series of polaroids that provide details but not the whole story. My sister found me, convulsing and unable to talk, and she got my parents, and they called an ambulance, and at the hospital, the ER team pumped my stomach and stabilized me. I spent three days in the intensive care unit, and then was transferred to an adolescent psych ward, where I stayed for another three weeks or so.
June 1997 (age 18)
I can’t begin to describe all that I learned during those three weeks and the months that followed, when I was seeing a psychiatrist. It was a lot of work, but being around other kids with similar problems and learning even the basics about depression were enormously helpful.
Compared to that year in my life, the fifteen years that have passed since then have been relatively smooth. I’ve had a few rough patches, and I expect the occasional rough patch ahead of me, but I’m armed with so much more knowledge and so many more resources (especially in my own head), and I know I’ll figure out ways through them that don’t involve resorting to the drastic measures that I once resorted to. That shows a confidence in myself that I didn’t have when I was 16. I’m a lot of things now that I wasn’t at age 16. And for that, I’m proud.
I’ve spent most of the day composing this post – thinking, remembering, editing, crying – and I do feel better. I’m not sure why all this was so important for me to share right now, but after thinking about it for the past couple weeks, I feel a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I also feel pretty vulnerable, but that will go away as soon as I click the ‘publish’ button. I’m sure for many people, this wasn’t an easy read – but I can assure you it wasn’t easy for me to write, either. But I felt I had to, and I’m glad I did.
Keep it up, David.
PS. If you need help, there’s always someone who will listen at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.