Managing Suicidality: How I Have Survived all my Hardest Days
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
The last time I tried to kill myself I needed fourteen stitches. The time before that I was in a coma for almost a week. The very first time, I passed out in the backseat of a taxi from an overdose. With each suicide attempt I survived, a new plan for treatment was made. The hope was that I would be treated and get better. End of story.
I wish I could tell you a simple story of being diagnosed, finding treatment and recovering. Recovery however, is not a straight line—it is more akin to a tangled squiggle vaguely sauntering in what is hopefully a forward direction. My journey has been riddled with ups and downs, slip ups and falls. There were times I thought I would never improve but, so far, I have picked myself up each time.
Suicide. It’s a word that frightens and shocks. It’s a word most people don’t pronounce lightly. If suicidal thoughts are something you experience, maybe you believe you won’t be taken seriously. Maybe you’re afraid of scaring the people close to you. Maybe you feel that your darkest place is too dark for anyone to understand or that you’ll be judged.
I was ten years old the first time I discussed my desire to die. My friend’s mother overheard me, and then told my mother, who asked me if I wanted to talk to someone. The thought of talking to a stranger was overwhelming. I said no. I don’t remember exactly how I felt but I do know I was a very emotional child. I often cried myself to sleep, I felt a great amount of anxiety, and I was bullied. Once I entered high school, things changed. I made a supportive group of friends who were like sisters to me, and I believe that was the emotional buffer I needed to keep my symptoms and suicidality at bay.
Once I reached university, things started to unravel. I was stressed, anxious, and depressed. But I was so adept at hiding it, at putting on the façade of the bright, fun, energetic girl who is the life of the party. I was living a double life. I was the girl everyone wanted to be like or be with, meanwhile, on the inside, I wanted to end my life. It was confusing, it was painful. I pushed aside any thoughts that things did not have to be this way and settled into a comfort and familiarity with the pain of my emotions. This was just the way life was.
Research has shown that talking about suicide out loud, intentionally and candidly, significantly reduces someone’s chances of killing themselves. Talking about it relieves the pressure of the emotions the person is experiencing and gives them an outlet to be honest; to admit they are struggling.
My suicide attempts stemmed from intense emotional pain. Pain I thought I wasn’t strong enough to live through, real psychological pain brought on by very real challenges. It was a feeling I couldn’t contain.
I am diagnosed with bipolar II disorder and borderline personality disorder (BPD). Both of these illnesses are characterized by a magnitude of emotions most people don’t experience. The seventh diagnostic criterion for BPD is chronic feelings of emptiness. This is something I still struggle with—that feeling of worthlessness, purposelessness, that nothing matters and nothing is worth it.
BPD brings on rapid changes in mood based on mostly interpersonal triggers and a delayed return to baseline. For me, these triggers were almost all within romantic relationships. I would find myself defining the meaning of my life through the partner I currently had, and when that went poorly, nothing mattered and I was worthless. This intensity of emotion was almost unbearable and made me react with behaviours that weren’t always effective. When I was in a disagreement or argument with my partner, I needed things resolved NOW. I needed to know I was loved, I needed to know we were okay. If my partner walked away or needed a moment away from the conflict, I would become manipulative. I would start packing a bag, claiming to be going to my family’s or my best friend’s. This wasn’t conscious manipulation, it was the best way I knew how to ask for my need to be met.
Bipolar disorder, on the other hand, sends me into bouts of depression and periods of hypomania or mania—both extremes of the spectrum. These extremes are just as unbearable. I once rode an ATV around Mykonos, in Greece, my hair free in the wind and my iPod blaring, as whitewashed and blue-trimmed towns blurred by. I turned a corner and found myself at the top of a cliff watching the horizon turn a soft orangey pink and the sun set into the deep turquoise of the Mediterranean. I stopped. I stood on my ATV, turning the music even louder. I could have jumped off the edge of that cliff. I wanted to breathe in the pinks and oranges and smoke out every bad thought I’d ever had with these soft bright colours. In that moment I was truly limitless, invulnerable. I laughed and reached up to the sky. I could do anything. I was everything I had ever wanted to be. I needed no one. But with every upswing comes depression.
When I am in the depressive part of my cycle, I am no one. I am nothing. Laughter is not something I can remember, it feels so far from anything I know or believe in. Depression keeps me tied to my bed like being in the orbit of a very large planet. I live my days in the penumbra of my illness and it almost kills me.
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I lived in these extremes for years, unaware that there was a reason for it. I spent a long time believing that if I tried harder I could be different, better…that I could be normal. I saw most people around me handling life without crumbling at every onset of emotion and I decided that I must be doing something wrong.
I was finally diagnosed in my early twenties. My family made an appointment with a psychologist for me and I learned that there were names for what I’d been experiencing, and more importantly that there was treatment. I thought being given a diagnosis would make me feel even more different. I thought that it would make me feel judged. But it gave me logic. It gave a name to what I was feeling and showed me that other people experienced this as well. I wasn’t alone and it was not a shortcoming, nor was it a flaw in character—these were very real conditions. And there was treatment for them.
I now know I’ve struggled with mental illness my whole life. Having reached the other end of the tunnel alive, diagnosed, and supported, I can understand what is different about me. I’ve learned how my mental illnesses affect my life and how I can manage them.
Learning to manage my mental health is not a once and done task. It is something I do consistently every day. I gave myself a more stable baseline by finding the right medications, learning the skills to cope through therapy, and practicing those skills regularly. I spent five months living in a residential treatment program for borderline personality disorder, working on dialectical behaviour therapy day in and day out with nine other women with the same diagnosis. It was a challenge at times, but I learned skills that saved my life.
In the case of so many people like me, mental illness is a chronic problem that will be managed for years if not the rest of their lives. The key to managing these issues is speaking openly, candidly and honestly about mental illness. This is what I hope to promote and support.
At a time in my recovery when I was feeling more stable, I decided to seek a volunteer position at a crisis helpline. I wanted to help provide a service I wish I knew existed when I was struggling with suicidality. I was living in Oshawa at the time and found Distress Centre Durham’s website. I have now been involved with DCD for almost ten years, volunteering as a helpline responder, taking on leadership roles and training new volunteers. Through this work, I’ve become more and more involved in mental health, taking every training that was made available to me and furthering my skills and knowledge.
In 2016 Distress Centre Durham named me Volunteer of the Year. In 2017, I was awarded a province-wide volunteer award by Distress and Crisis Ontario called “The Spirit of Volunteerism Award,” for my outstanding dedication to the distress centre and my volunteer work there.
During my time as a volunteer, I started understanding the importance of speaking up and being honest. I began sharing my story with fellow volunteers and to the volunteers I was training. I found that they were inspired and that they gained a better understanding of the people they were connecting with on the helpline. This encouraged me to keep sharing and keep trying to promote understanding and compassion.
The mental health field has become my passion. This passion prompted me to start a business as a speaker and workshop facilitator. I aim to use the platform I am creating to connect with people on a genuine level and encourage them to talk about mental illness. Talking about it with kindness and empathy is the only way to create a safe space that people can reach out to seek help. I give workshops and presentations in schools, colleges and universities. I offer workshops for corporate groups and community agencies. I speak at events and fundraisers.
It is a little bit selfish, honestly. Inspiring people, connecting with people, helping people feel less alone. I do it partially because it makes me feel good, worthy, useful. I thrive on raw and real connection and working in this field allows me to give positive meaning to what I have experienced. It has propelled my recovery forward by giving me a deeper reason to live, by teaching me to celebrate my accomplishments and believe in my worthiness.
A therapist I worked with for years once told me that so far, I have survived all of my hardest days. This told me there would unfortunately still be hard days, but also that I was capable of facing and overcoming them.
Recovery doesn’t get easier. We just get better at it.
When I first started realizing this, I felt despair. I felt like the fact that my mental illnesses would never be cured was a death sentence. Now, I realize it gives me the opportunity to show resilience, to master the management of my symptoms and to help support others.
When my journey of recovery began, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I quickly realized how much hard work it takes. I realized how despair is a friend I’d have to cozy up to. It comes on so sweet and soft you barely notice it, and it settles in the pit of your stomach and in the wrinkles of the bedsheets you can’t bring yourself to leave. It’s something I still have to fight.
You might say I have learned resilience and found my passion the hard way, however my struggles have helped me understand on a deeper level the power my story can have. My mental illness has led me to a career where I can truly effect change. I don’t regret the pain I have been through. I’ve seen how hard I can fight this thing and all I know is I’m going to keep trying. Don’t be ashamed of how different you are; be proud of how far you’ve come.
If you or someone you know may be in crisis or considering suicide, please call, text, or chat the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, in the United States, at 988. In Canada, you may call 1.833.456.4566, or text 45645 from 4pm-12am.