I tried to kill myself three times between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. Nothing horrible had happened to me. My parents loved me and I was safe and provided for. But I didn’t want to exist – I didn’t feel like I was cut out for this world and wanted to escape. One way or another.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 10-24 year olds in the United States and in 2009 ranked as the second leading cause of death among 15 to 34 year old Canadians. Despite these staggering statistics it seems that we are still afraid or ashamed to address the issue openly. Or we make assumptions about ‘the type of person’ who might commit suicide, not realizing that our girlfriend, our beautiful ten year old, or our beloved mama might be secretly harboring suicidal thoughts. I am not an expert on this topic. This post is simply part of my story and an examination of factors that may have contributed to my suicidal tendencies as a teenager.
The first time I tried to kill myself, my parents were out and my siblings were watching The Cosby Show in the living room. I called a nurse (at the hospital, I guess) and pretended I was writing a report on teen suicide, fishing for information. She wouldn’t help me. So I found a jumbo bottle of X in the medicine closet, closed myself into the bathroom, and slowly downed the entire thing. Then I joined my siblings in the living room to watch the show. After a short while the screen began to blur and the room began to spin. I didn’t want to scare my little brothers and sisters so I walked, as casually as possible, hand bracing myself along the wall, through the kitchen and downstairs to my bedroom. I was fading fast and felt no fear or angst at all. All was well. I lay down and closed my eyes, knowing that I would never open them again.
But the next morning I awoke in time to get ready for school! There was nothing to do except get ready and head to school as usual. I didn’t cry or panic. I don’t remember feeling much of anything. I just went through the motions. Until the next time. And the next time. I was living with my big sister the third time and downed a bottle of X. Instead of putting me to sleep, my whole body began to vibrate violently (or that is the way it felt). I felt like a failure – I already loathed myself (I wasn’t pretty enough, smart enough, strong enough…) and now I couldn’t even kill myself. But after this third failed attempt I knew I couldn’t try again – it was too painful to have it fail every time. I realized that I had to find a way to live.
There were a few circumstances in my life that I suppose may have contributed to my suicidal tendencies. I attach no blame or judgment to anyone and want that to be perfectly clear. This is simply an exploration of what was going on in my life, and an appeal to other parents to really watch and listen and engage with your kids. To not assume that all is well. To be authentic and willing to talk about ANYTHING with your kids, or to seek help for them beyond what you are able to provide. And to take care of your own mental health so that you are emotionally available to your children.
- I think I was probably a highly sensitive child. I carried the weight of the world on my young, sensitive, shoulders – I just wanted everyone to be kind and get along (I haven’t changed much). I was a peace maker and an introvert; I didn’t want to rock the boat or cause pain. We had some issues in our home with a couple adopted children who joined our home wounded and I did not want to cause any more grief. So I hid. Literally and figuratively. I was also an honor student (until grades 11-12 when I started skipping frequently), organized, and responsible, and think that because of this my parents just assumed all was well with me.
- My parents didn’t really talk openly about emotional stuff. My mom didn’t even talk to me about my period – thank goodness for an older sister and her friends from whom I could glean information. Because of this, I didn’t know how to approach my parents and open up about personal issues. I do, however, remember telling my dad several times that it didn’t matter what I did or didn’t do because I’d be dead by the time I was eighteen anyways. He brushed it off and once told me I was being dramatic (which really hurt me though I suppose it was true), but I was trying to ask for help. That was the last time I said anything about it.
- I took my first drink in grade six and began doing drugs in grade seven. Drugs were perfect for me – they numbed me so that I didn’t have to feel. Food helped too and I began binge eating in high school.There is a link between adolescent depression and substance use – although it isn’t clear if it is the depression itself that gives rise to drug/alcohol use, or the substance abuse that leads to depression.
- In junior high I had two head injuries. In grade eight, I was skiing one evening and couldn’t stop on the ice at a bend in the hill. I put my head through a fence and was knocked out. In grade nine I had a bike accident. The brake cable disconnected from my handle bar, entangling in my wheel, sending me flying. I woke up to someone screaming (me!) and the sound of the ambulance. Despite the fact that I hit my head hard enough to be knocked unconscious and scraped the skin off my face as my body skidded along the ground, I was only very briefly checked over at the hospital and sent home. It is important to understand that people with even mild traumatic brain injury/concussion can experience recurring psychiatric symptoms including depression and that depression is the most common illness among those who die from suicide. I didn’t see myself as depressed, mind you. It was only in my 30’s that I realized I lived with “low-grade depression.”
- When I was a young adult, my mom confided that she had been suicidal around the same time that I was. She constantly thought about driving her suburban off the bank into the river. She told me that during that time she wouldn’t drive anywhere without my baby brother strapped into his car seat because she knew she would never hurt him. I had often wondered why my parents couldn’t see that I was hurting and needed them. But if my mom was, in essence, fighting for her own life, how could she have been in a place to see my need for help? I may have inherited “a vulnerability to depression.”
- I lived with chronic pain. A childhood disease left my left hip joint malformed and, as a result, I lived in fairly constant pain. Cold and damp conditions were particularly hard on me and I used to bang my legs up and down on my bed at night to try to distract me from the constant ache so I could fall asleep. Apart from sending notes to school to excuse me from recess in the winter, my parents never discussed my pain as a child nor helped me learn healthy ways to manage it. They did support me when, at age 19, I was told I needed a hip-replacement. But before that it was kind of brushed under the rug. Depression is common among people living with chronic pain.
- As an adult, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto”s – an autoimmune thyroid disease causing hypothyroidism and a host of other “lovely” symptoms. Hypothyroidism can cause depression. (I also suffered with pretty intense anxiety before being diagnosed). My doctors say there really is no way of knowing for sure when the attack on my thyroid began.
Any one or a combination of these factors could have contributed to my struggle with depression and suicide in my younger years. Once I made the clear decision to live, life didn’t just miraculously get better. My numbing habits escalated and I suffered from perfectionism and a need to control my environment. I experienced intense anxiety at times and panic attacks and until even a few years ago always felt unworthy – of love, of financial stability, of any good thing. It has been a long journey of healing for me and I am so grateful to be in a place of greater peace and wholeness. But I want to use my experiences to speak out for others and as impetus to continue to learn so that I can be a support to my immediate/extended family and friends.
Depending on the situation, of course, there are strategies we can use to help people we love who are struggling with depression or suicidal tendencies. Suicideprevention.ca writes that “Talking about suicide can provide tremendous relief and being a good listener is the best intervention anyone can give.” I honestly think this would have been the most helpful thing for me as a teen when I was struggling – a safe, nonjudgmental space to be honest and open about how I was feeling. To tell you the truth, this is STILL the best gift anyone who loves me can offer!
A super quick mention of additional helps might include: stress and pain management education; Cognitive Behavioral Therapy; counselling for self-harm, addiction, or eating disorder (or just a safe place to talk freely); complementary therapies such as chiropractic care, massage or acupuncture following injury or for pain management; medication (ex. thyroid hormone) or supplements (fish oils- especially DHA, supplements for leaky gut, Vit D3, B-complex, neurotransmitter calmers or boosters like GABA or 5-HTP, as examples*); a mood-balancing diet (plenty of EFA’s, low-inflammatory); light-therapy; regular exercise or time in nature; and mindfulness training.*Seek out help from your medical/mental care team to know which supplements or other strategies would be appropriate to your situation!
Please consider reading more about warning signs or how to help someone you know when they are depressed or suicidal. Good starting places might be suicideprevention.ca or the Canadian Mental Health Association. I also recently learned about To Write Love On Her Arms, a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. And, again, remember that YOU ARE IMPORTANT. Care for yourself well so that you are in a position to help those within your circle of influence.
May you walk in peace and wholeness,
*photo by magpie3studio