44th in the Queue: What Texting the Suicide Lifeline Taught Me about Life, Mental Health, and Toxic Masculinity
Listen to Editor in Chief Gabriel Nathan read this story:
My name is Chris Russell. I am a 35-year-old, straight white male. I am the eldest of my siblings. I am an actor, filmmaker, and acting coach. I’ve appeared on major network television shows and feature films. Over the years, I have been a teacher, union delegate, film director, and catering captain. Professionally, I am a leader. Socially, I am a “guy’s guy.”
I was also physically, verbally, and emotionally abused for most of my childhood. That abuse carried over into my adulthood, where I maintained an array of toxic relationships and endured years of gaslighting… out of “loyalty.” When I was 29, then again at 30, I was sexually assaulted, by two different men, in social settings.
On September 30, 2019, I contacted The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). I had been having thoughts about ending my own life for weeks leading up to that day, but when I woke up that afternoon, things became real.
I walked to my car to move it out of a street-sweep zone, got in, and turned the ignition. I sat in the driver’s seat for a few minutes and thought about driving to the hardware store to buy rope. I imagined a clerk asking me if I needed help, and not being able to look him in the eye as I asked where to find it. I felt the shock he would endure if he ever found out he was the last person to see me alive. I contemplated what I would have to install in my ceiling, to fully support all 200 pounds of me. I played out my funeral, who would deliver my eulogy, what my Facebook wall would look like. Then, most vividly, I felt the rope being burned around my neck. The heat, the strain, the coarse strings scratching my skin, the air escaping my lungs. These thoughts began to course through my veins. I was slowly moving out of fantasy, and into impulse.
I have a wonderful family, an amazing partner, lots of friends, and a solid career. I own my own coaching business. I’ve made movies and created more art than I could have ever imagined at this point in my life.
In that moment, though, none of those things mattered.
On that day, I was entrenched in an overwhelming, emotional quicksand that was swallowing me whole. I felt worthless, disgusted, and, above all, hopeless. To top it all off, the guilt and shame I felt for even FEELING this way was just another dagger.
Do you really think you have it THAT bad? This person overcame this and that, what makes your life so tragic? Those things probably didn’t even happen to you. You’re making it up. Fucking LIAR.
I drove around a little bit, getting within a block of that hardware store. I made an impulsive U-turn back towards my house. I considered flooring it and crashing into the side of a Dunkin’ Donuts.
I don’t remember the exact moment of clarity, or if there even was one, but at some point, I made a choice that saved my life– but not without obstacle. I didn’t know what actually happens when one calls The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. I thought they would call 911 and send an ambulance or the cops to your house, then lock you up in a psych ward. I was truly ignorant. That uncertainty, in and of itself, was more daunting than the actual act of taking my own life.
I saw a spot and pulled the car over. It took several attempts to parallel park. I punched the steering wheel as hard as I could and screamed till I ran out of air. Quivering and torn between moving into the house or putting the car back in gear, I took out my phone.
When I called, I had to give my zip code. I was given the option to speak to someone, or I could use the website and speak to a counselor via chat. I chose to speak to someone, because texting in this situation sounded ridiculous to me.
Then I was put on hold. A very long hold. A recklessly long hold. I felt like I was waiting to dispute a credit card charge. I jumped out of the car and walked in my door. Still on hold. I took my shoes off and hid in my room. I didn’t want my roommates to hear anything. Still on hold.
Fuck it. I hung up and opened my laptop. Might as well give this chat thing a shot. I wondered how many fucking people have died waiting on hold to talk to someone. I was angry. And, as I realized much later on in therapy, that moment of anger was a very good thing.
So, sitting on my bed, with my laptop, I was put into the chat queue… where I was 44th in line. I had 44 people ahead of me. I came this far, I might as well stick this out. I sat and waited, and waited, and waited…
45 minutes later…
I was 10th in the queue. My anger slowly turned to… amusement. How could it possibly take this long to talk to someone when you’re in crisis?
And what the fuck am I supposed to be doing right now? I’ve just been staring at this screen.
Then it occurred to me; I hadn’t thought about killing myself since I got ANGRY at being on hold. It was the first OUTWARD emotion I’d experienced all day.
So… I clicked a new tab on the browser. I opened ESPN.com. I clicked on “New York Mets News.” I read an article. Then, the guilt and shame monster kicked down the door… Are you really suicidal, or are you just being dramatic? Look at you, you’re reading about baseball. You’re fine.
Then, a chirp from the other tab. “Still there?” Christine is waiting to talk with you.”
And there was Christine, on the other end. She asked me to explain my situation, asked if I had already done physical harm to myself. I answered. I told her all of the things, all of pain, all of the wallowing and hopelessness; the feeling alone in all of this. Christine sat on the other end, wherever she was, waiting for me to finish. Then, she asked a simple question:
“And what would suicide do to solve these problems?”
I’ll admit, when I read that question, it made me angry. It felt irresponsible, and judgmental – almost like a game of chicken. Okay, guy… let’s see what you’re really made of… you gonna do this or not?
And so I sat with it for a few moments. I read the question over and over. My anger slowly turned to sadness. I answered:
“I’m not sure.”
For the next forty-five minutes, Christine stayed with me. I talked about my history of abuse, unhealthy eating and drinking habits, my relationships, the never-ending battle I’ve endured with shame. And she listened… or read. It was like writing a long, cathartic journal entry, with my journal sporadically interjecting with the right things to say.
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In those forty-five minutes, the anger, sadness, shame… all of the rest of the heap, came something hadn’t felt in months:
Heard. Seen. Understood.
That led way to relief.
In that moment, I understood why I was 44th in the queue.
I had multiple friends and family members reach out in those weeks leading up to my suicidal day. Everyone knew something was off. And I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I’m sure, if you’re relating to any of this, you understand the “burden” aspect. My pain didn’t feel significant enough to make it a central point for anyone else. The shame I was experiencing for feeling this way was wrapped in a cloak of guilt for not being able to be myself around people. So, in turn, I completely shut down from my partner, friends, and family.
And there was, on many levels, comfort in the suffering.
After I signed out, I was able to get myself up and make breakfast. Then I napped for three hours. When I woke up, I got out of my bedroom and watched some TV. I didn’t spring into action, alive and ready to conquer. I was simply still alive.
My recovery has taken time. Months. It took a couple of weeks to confide in someone about that day. It was not the person I thought it would be. But this person just sat and listened; kind of like Christine had done. They didn’t make me feel judged, or alone. They didn’t say things like, “I would have been so angry at you!” They simply heard my story, expressed relief that I am still here, and shared some struggles of their own.
I told another person. And another. Same result. The more people to whom I opened up, the better I felt. And the more people with whom I shared, the more safe people felt sharing their experiences with me.
I was blessed shortly after with health insurance, for the first time in years. I set up an appointment with a psychiatrist. I should note—it took six weeks, multiple phone calls and emails for me to get an appointment. For a “non-emergency,” these things take FAR too much time.
I was prescribed a medication that treats bipolar disorder. I have a family history. For years, I suspected something was off in me, yet I was sure I suffered from only depression. Getting clarity from a doctor changed how I approached my moods, and how I acknowledge them in the moment. The ups and downs, big or small, were a large part of how I can sink so low at any given time.
I initially resisted this diagnosis because I was afraid that it could be a thing that makes people not want to hire me, that I would have to disclose my new-found diagnosis with anyone who would want to work with me professionally, would fear me “going off my meds,” thus not being able to build a trust. I worried that people would judge or shame me because of my bipolar disorder.
That fear came from my own narrative of “so-and-so is so bipolar, they’re fine one minute and a total so and so the next.” It was a narrative I got from the stigma regarding this disorder—that we are, in some way, untrustworthy because we have a chemical imbalance that triggers inconsistent moods.
As a writer, I rely heavily on feeling inspired. I chase the dragon of feeling “up” while I’m the throes of a great story. As an actor, I rely on being able to tap into my emotions. The thought of compromising those tools that have helped me to get where I am as an artist was scarier than any of those social stigmas.
I’m new to this medication game, but I will tell you, I’ve never felt safer in my own moods than in the day I made the choice to acknowledge and treat them. When I’m acting or writing, I’m so much more present, but it’s so much easier to be cognizant of my artistic boundaries. Because I didn’t have any in the first place.
The more people I talk to, the more I hear of their own battles with depression and bi-polar disorder; people I wouldn’t have thought in a million years.
Somewhere in my long road back, I had floated a post on social media regarding a project that deals with the stigmas of mental illness, particularly in men. Now, up until this point, I had only confided in women about that day. I felt safer talking about this to women. Since I was a little boy, I only felt safe around women. All of my past abusers were men. Even now, at 35, I still have a guard up in a “masculine” environment. I’ve never taken to “ball busting” and “just fucking with you, bro”.
That, coupled with the incessant pressure to be good at sports, while knowing how to fight, and emulating what it meant to be “manly”, I grew up lost. There has always been a blur between the good-natured ribbing and the harmful, verbal hazing I’ve endured since as long as I could remember.
What I’m getting at is, when I posted that floater idea on social media, I had several men come to me, in private, stating that, if I needed help with anything regarding this “project”, to please keep them in the loop, that they also had something they’d like to contribute, but weren’t ready to tell me about it.
Why are we remaining anonymous? Do we believe that, in an era of oversharing and constantly chasing the fix of validation, opening up about your vulnerabilities, insecurities, traumas, and mental illnesses, will somehow discredit, or disavow you?
Can we let go of this idea, that your ability to remain “strong” for people, and to “keep your business to yourself,” and “act like a fucking man,” is something that’s going to keep us evolving? You can get drunk at a tailgate with a dude, and also cry to them about a breakup. It’s called “building trust.”
I’m not saying I’m innocent in all of this. I’m fresh off a big “ah-ha” moment in a series of little, recurring “ah-ha” moments. I have been toxic with people. I have been disrespectful towards women. I, myself, have been a bully. I have made terrible mistakes. I was let loose in a world where I had shit in my soul that I didn’t address, an unresolved boy in a grown man’s body. I acted out for the majority of my twenties. My evolution only came with professional help, and a lot of listening.
If I had the tools to address some of this stuff at a younger age, I may have been able to avoid some of these mistakes. Who knows? I might be more successful. More evolved. But at no point did I feel like I lived in a society where expressing that vulnerability felt safe. Especially for a straight man.
Toxic masculinity is a thing. And we can fix it.
So, what now?
This was my story. If you’d like to share yours, use the hashtag #44thInTheQueue, or if you’re not ready to put a face to your story, email firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll share it for you, anonymously. The more men who share their story, the more we can help in the fight to de-stigmatize these myths that keep us from being the best, “manly” men we can be.