Now What?: Suicidality and Planning for an Uncertain Present
I’m sitting in my childhood bedroom as I write this, and it is one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever experienced. The blue floral wallpaper is peeling, a process I helped speed up with restless fingers that picked at the yellowing material. The carpet is so worn and used that it’s completely flattened, and just feels like a thin layer of rough blue cloth over hard ground.
My older sister got a new king-sized bed last year, so I’ve inherited her twin mattress. After all, as the younger sibling I grew up using her old hand-me-downs, and mattresses are no different. But my old mattress—the one I used for around fifteen years—is still propped up against the wall. It’s a shade of faded blue with white roses scattered across the cloth, and there are permanent pee stains from when I wet the bed as a kid.
It’s also the mattress on which I used to cry at night, unsure whether or not I could keep from attempting suicide the next day, convinced I wouldn’t live past thirteen.
So you can imagine it’s pretty bizarre to be alive eleven years later, calmly writing about suicide in the very room in which I’d planned it. The view present-me has really isn’t anything like I’d imagined.
My first depressive episode and the months leading up to it are still hazy to me. Though I can catch a glimpse of a specific memory here and there, for the most part I can only remember the vague yet all-consuming feeling of misery, of dread, of nothing. But there is one particular moment when I was finally reached thirteen that stands out to me, one that I would revisit over and over again during subsequent relapses.
Sobbing my eyes out in a bathroom of a café, I wrapped my arms around myself and looked at my blotchy face in the mirror. I promised myself that I would hold out for ten years. I would be twenty-three one day, and I would no longer be bullied at school by classmates and teachers. I would no longer come back to an unhealthy family life and shut myself in my room to avoid the toxicity under my roof. I would no longer dread waking up just to spend every lucid moment wanting so desperately to die.
In ten years, I thought, you will be happy with where you are and who you are.
That promise became my lifeline throughout the next decade, the light at the end of a tunnel that I thought would have a defined end.
Flash forward to the day I received my college degree, one day before commencement and less than two weeks before my twenty-third birthday. I was grateful for almost hitting my ten-year goal, for the chance to hold the overpriced college degree that I never thought I’d live to see. I had a found family that I loved more than anything, and an amazing internship at a prestigious theatre lined up to kick off my career.
I now had not only recurrent major depressive disorder, but also persistent depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. I was suicidal again for what seemed like the thousandth time in the last ten years, leading my therapist to describe me as chronically suicidal. These issues were all well managed thanks to a combination of medication and psychotherapy. Even my suicidality wasn’t exactly that big of a problem—sure, I was miserable, but I had the tools and experience to ride it out time and time again. My therapist taught me to exhale longer to prevent hyperventilation during panic attacks. I regularly employed grounding techniques when I felt myself floating away in a dissociative episode. Experience reminded me that despite all my past suicidal episodes, my track record for getting through all of them had been one hundred percent. Yet ‘well managed chronic mental illnesses’ wasn’t what I’d meant when I said ‘happy with where I am and who I am’.
So, yeah, the view was pretty damn underwhelming.
It was kind of like biting into what you assumed was a chocolate chip cookie, only to find out that the dark blobs were raisins. It was like driving thousands of miles to see a wonder of nature, only to realise that, well, it’s just a bunch of rocks, innit?
Recovery was underwhelming. It was underwhelmingly banal, underwhelmingly bland, underwhelmingly pedestrian. As soon as I reached twenty-three, I found myself thinking, ‘Okay, I’m here. Er…so now what?’
I’d finally reached the milestone I’d been aiming towards for years, and it was nothing like I’d expected. There was no splash, no spectacle, and since I was dealing with more diagnoses than I had ten years ago, I questioned how much of an achievement survival really was. And now that I had accomplished what I had set out to do—to survive for ten more years—I was lost.
Like most millennials, I never quite knew what to do with my life (whatever that vague phrase meant), especially given the socio-political tension and instability that plague modern society. However, the feeling of uncertainty was amplified tenfold because this was never part of the original plan.
The original plan was to die young to prevent myself from causing any more pain to others. My ten-year promise was frankly just a desperate attempt to motivate myself to live. I didn’t actually think I’d make it this far.
As if navigating tax forms and apartment leases wasn’t confusing enough, I was also disoriented because I wasn’t sure how far ahead I should be planning my life. I dreaded the ‘imagine yourself in ten years’ question at job interviews. It was as though I didn’t have the capacity to look past my twenty-third birthday because that was supposed to be the end of the tunnel—it would lead to either endless daylight or a dead end. Turns out it’s neither, really.
To top it all off, obsessive-compulsive disorder makes me medically unable to accept uncertainty. OCD was once known as the doubting disease. Compulsions aren’t just quirks—they’re generally fuelled by some sort of obsessive anxiety or fear. You can’t know for certain if the bad thing will happen or not, so it feels like the best way to prevent it is to respond with these rituals, even if you’re aware they’re illogical. Just in case. Just in case. Just in case.
A major manifestation of my OCD is a fear of suicide. Ironic, I know, and incredibly confounding. When I had my worst bout of OCD in 2014, I oscillated between being suicidal and not being suicidal yet terrified of snapping suddenly and ending my own life, triggered by what seemed like the smallest things. I couldn’t look at any food that was red and liquidy. It reminded me of blood, even though I had no problem with menstruation.
I repeatedly glanced at anything hanging from the ceiling to make sure it was impossible to hang myself from it. I was paranoid that I’d develop yet another mental illness and increase my risk of suicide. That led to a debilitating fear of alcohol and drugs. The twisted logic behind OCD argued that developing a substance abuse disorder on top of all my other problems meant I’d probably end up dying by suicide.
A million ‘what ifs’ still flash through my mind today, most of them illogical but nonetheless harrowing. What if I didn’t lock the door properly? What will happen if I don’t check the stove again? Will I lose my mind and hurt my friend? After working specifically on my OCD with a therapist for around a year, I learned two phrases that have helped minimise the distress that stems from this unhealthy and unproductive thought process.
As it turns out, the words that help me manage my OCD-related anxiety also help me sit and lean into the uncomfortable uncertainty of being alive.
Those words are ‘I don’t know’ and simply ‘maybe’. Constant attempts to seek reassurance from myself and others only exacerbated my anxiety in the long run, so the key for me was to sit in the uncertainty and embrace it.
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What if I didn’t lock the door properly? Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. I don’t know, and that’s okay. What will happen if I don’t check the stove again? Maybe nothing, maybe something. I don’t know, and that’s okay. Will I lose my mind and hurt my friend? Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. I don’t know, and that’s okay.
I never expected to live this long. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m too scared to envision my future because what if I don’t make it? Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. I don’t know, and that’s okay.
I will never know anything for certain, and that is okay.
Perhaps that’s the most frustrating part of all this uncertainty: I cannot promise my loved ones that I won’t die by suicide. I’ve made my peace with the possibility of dying this way, and I’m doing everything I can not to be in such a despondent, hopeless headspace. But I can’t plan for everything. I don’t know if I will be okay.
I don’t know.
I do not know.
And that is okay.
I don’t need to have a plan, or a grand goal to achieve by a specific time. Yes, the promise of happiness ten years down the line did help me power through some incredibly difficult periods of my life. I survived multiple major depressive episodes, all of them including suicidality. When I exhibited symptoms of C-PTSD and OCD for the first time, I was afraid and lost, but reminded myself about my ten-year promise. In doing so, I didn’t set up the most realistic or healthy expectations for my early adulthood.
My story doesn’t quite match the personal stories shared with me during my turbulent adolescence, the inspirational tales about overcoming mental illnesses and finding oneself. Those stories of triumph helped to motivate me, but they became the only narrative I knew, the only iteration of happiness I saw that became the definition. Trying to force my journey to fit that narrative was ultimately unhealthy for me. Sure, everyone I knew emphasised the importance of routine maintenance work, but they always seemed so optimistic and happy to be alive. They were inspirations, beacons of hope that I aspired to be. But that’s not me.
I don’t think life holds any inherent positive meaning, which sounds very nihilistic, I know. I’m not one to wake up in the morning and think, ‘Wow, I’m so glad to be alive!’ My life is neutral to me, a blank canvas, if you will. Because here’s what I’ve learned about life: it can really suck, and the good stuff doesn’t always outweigh the sucky parts. The ups don’t necessarily justify the downs. It’s kind of moot to compare the good with the bad.
Sometimes shit hurts for no fucking reason.
Adapting a more neutral mindset to my life and my future in particular has helped my health immensely. I’d put too much pressure on myself to be ‘happy’ without keeping in mind that I won’t get the happy ending I’d envisioned because, well, I’ve not reached the end yet.
I am so, so lost: I’m an early career actor and writer not knowing when I’ll book my next gig, I’m a queer woman of colour in a hostile society, and my relationship with my birth family is fractured at best. Oh, and on top of that I need to stay vigilant about my mental health to minimise relapses. My story of recovery is not pretty. It’s not polished. It’s not glamorous. It’s not inspirational. At least, not to me.
It’s boring maintenance work that is at times breezy and at others gruelling.
There’s been no grand moment of triumph for me, no big splash signalling my achievements, just the incessant drip of an endless leak that I try to catch before the sink overflows.
And that’s okay. I’m okay. Maybe this is how happiness takes shape for me, accepting that mental illness is woven into the fabric of my being and that being okay with it is the best I can do.
But then again, I could be wrong—it wouldn’t be the first time my predictions have gone sideways.
Maybe one day I’ll be planning my life another ten years into the future. Maybe twenty, maybe even thirty. Who knows?
I certainly don’t.