On May 18, 2017 we lost Chris Cornell, the legendary alt-rock singer whose sudden, shocking death left a wide path of mourning in its wake. I saw the tweet almost immediately and I knew it was going to be a tough one for his fans. Since he died so young, and these days 52 is pretty young to shuffle off one’s mortal coil, we waited for the cause. When it finally came, I knew it would be an even tougher blow for people.
Whenever someone commits suicide, it shades the mourning into something akin to anger at the person who died. Let’s face it. Losing someone is hard. You have a lot of powerful emotions and they can be very hard to manage. Nobody wants to feel despondent. Rage at least gives you some illusion of control over the whole thing. Anger puts you back into a position of power when the choices of someone else pull the emotional rug out from under you. You hear words like “selfish,” or “cowardly,” thrown around, mostly because it’s easier. It’s also more socially acceptable. If someone buries a 500-lb person, you’d never go up to the person’s family and say anything negative about the choices that brought him or her to her end. You show sympathy.
Direct suicide, however, comes with a much more visceral reaction, even though – technically speaking – they sort of come from the same place. One’s just a hell of a lot faster.
I never get angry. I know all too well the seductive lure of suicide. I know what it feels like to be so overwhelmed you just want the pain to *end*, right now, no waiting. I’ve thought about the unthinkable more than once.
I’ve thought about it recently.
Part of it stems from the depression and mental health issues I’ve had all my life, I’m sure. At least I hope so. I hope that it’s not normal to contemplate such a horrible thing, even when things aren’t going well. Even if things never seem to go well.
To me, the presence of suicide is the absence of hope, and that is a bleak, bleak place to be.
Whenever I hear of someone who has died this way, my heart immediately breaks for them. I think about their final moments that they had to spend alone, with this monster in their mind, a lying, seductive devil that convinces them there is only one option left.
I have wrestled more than once with this darkness. It’s terrifying.
And every time I hear about someone losing their battle to that monster, it fills me with my own terror. I’ve been where they were. I fear I will be again. And I worry that one day all hope will run out for me and I’ll do the unthinkable, because it is by the hair of my chinny chin chin that I made it through those scary times at all.
So what brings someone to such a desperate end?
Lots of things. We all have different thresholds of what we’re willing to endure to survive. Pain. Trauma. Financial worry. Sickness. Fear. Exhaustion. The option to punch your own ticket sometimes seems preferable than living on under the weight of such overwhelming conditions. Sometimes we as humans feel painted in a corner and it’s just easier to check out than to keep fighting a losing battle one more day.
And sometimes the thoughts are fleeting. Like, “Jesus, I should just fucking down a bottle of pills and get it over with,” but you keep going, one foot after the other, trying to find your way to some sort of break that will help you recharge your batteries. You know you only think these things in a weak moment, when you’re feeling particularly drained, but you don’t *really* mean it. It just gives you some sort of sense of control to say it, which is important when everything in your life is whirling around out of your control.
Other times, the scarier times, you begin to plan. You start to think about how you will do it, and maybe even arrange your life in such a way that it could accommodate such plans. Maybe you start to give away things that matter to you, or write your goodbye letters. Maybe you talk about it more, and people who know you dismiss is as some “cry for attention,” because they just can’t see someone so strong, someone who has so much to live for, doing such a “selfish”, “cowardly” thing.
It is in this period we need your compassion and your help most of all. It is in these moments that we feel selfish and cowardly, and such dismissal reinforces those negative, bleak feelings. If talk of suicide is someone’s “cry for attention” – GIVE IT TO THEM. They’re still in the planning stages at this point, and in that stage their mind is a war zone trying to list all the reasons to stay and all the reasons to leave.
If people heap onto their shame and their own feelings of low self-worth and failure, it can give a lot of ammo to that monster that resides inside their brains, who tells them things *regularly* – like, “You’re such a burden. The people you love would be so much better off without you.” “You’re such a fuck-up. Just end it already.”
People will say it’s selfish for someone to consider suicide, and maybe it is – but these are vulnerable people who are under the influence of the worst kind of liar that hides in the shadowy places in their mind, who convinces them a selfish act would actually be a loving one.
And they’re so out of gas at the moment, they’re ripe to believe it.
The first time I contemplated suicide was when I was thirteen years old. I was only 13, but it was the fourth time I had dealt with the fear of sexual abuse. I was raped at four as most know, but I had two near brushes with nefarious types before I turned twelve, which set off my radar that I was in trouble. One was with a preacher, who sat me down in an empty church to talk about my faith. I remember two things: the blue leisure suit he wore (I think this was probably mid-70s) and the gawdy gold ring he wore on his pinky finger.
He laid his arm on the pew behind me, leaning in close, with that seductive tone in his voice, as he spoke about his concern for my soul.
All sorts of alarms went off and I was glad that I got the heck out of there. I don’t even remember how I escaped, but I assume my parents probably came to get me to take me home.
Thank God. Literally.
The next brush was some stranger in a car, who tried to pick me up as I was heading home from school. He drove slow enough to keep up with me while I was walking, not saying anything at first, and then finally rolling down the window to offer me a ride. I shook my head vigorously and all but ran home.
So when my friend decided to take a guy we had both met to court for raping her, I kinda felt at that point that this was my lot in life, to forever run from these kinds of men who only set out to hurt me. Maybe you don’t know what it’s like to feel that hunted, but it’s fucking terrifying. When I heard that this guy kept a gun in his glove box, in a car I had ridden in, the terror became unbearable.
Imagine the feeling of having zero control over your body, up to losing your very own life. The powerlessness that comes with that is crushing.
And keep in mind that this emotional baggage was something I shouldered all alone. There was so much shame heaped onto my young shoulders, thanks in large part to the way our society views women and how my religion viewed sex in general. I had yet to tell ANYONE what I had gone through. There was no other voice to combat the monster in my head, who used my own religious upbringing against me. I was damaged goods. Corrupted. Unlovable.
What. Was. The. Point?
So I sat at my kitchen table with a knife to my wrist and I thought about the long road ahead of me, one I walked alone, confused and afraid. I was going to have to face this guy in court, and likely be the thing that ensured he’d face legal consequences for fucking around with a fourteen-year-old girl. That’s what they told me anyway. It was more than just “he said/she said,” with my testimony. I could prove that he was lying when he said he had never met us or taken us for a ride one afternoon at lunch at school.
I could prove that I saw him drive off with her in the car that day in question.
That’s a lot of weight for a thirteen-year-old girl to carry all by herself. Finding out he had a gun, and I might be the thing that jeopardized his very freedom, put me in a precarious situation. I felt like I was teetering on the edge of the abyss, with life on one side and men in general on the other side, playing this tug of war with me and my sanity hanging in the balance.
When you feel that powerless, you’ll do anything to seize control of something, of anything, even if it’s ensuring no one would ever be able to hurt you again, even if it means you have to hurt yourself first.
And so I was over it. I sat there at that table, tears running down my face, as I tried to end it before life ended me, without my choice, as was the pattern of my entire life up till that point.
At least this time, for once in my fucking life, I’d have control over my pain and of my fear.
Then the phone rang. It was my best friend Jeff, in a rare long-distance phone call that his mother usually never let him make. This was back in 1983 when there were no cell phones, no Internet, no Facetime or Skype. If I wanted to communicate with my bestie, I had to sit, write a letter, mail it out and wait for about four days to get a response. Long distance phone calls were expensive, and neither one of us had a job. We were at the mercy of what our parents could and would afford. When we lived in the same town, we talked every day on the phone. His was the lone voice that helped me through the dark silence that followed my dad’s death. After I moved away, I held on for deal life thanks to weekly letters that came addressed solely to me, that made me feel special, like someone in the world gave a damn about me.
Turn that feeling up to 11 and you have the joy I felt when I could talk to him in “real time” on the phone, even when he was 300 miles away.
I picked up the phone and was greeted by his cheery voice, so happy that we could chat for real instead of just exchange letters back and forth like we had done for the year or so before then.
I burst into tears, unable to hide the pain anymore. When he asked me what was wrong I finally told him. Likewise he burst into tears, to tell me that he couldn’t imagine life without me, and that he needed me. As a gay teen in Texas in the middle of the 1980s, he was going through so much he couldn’t even tell me at the time. So I had no way of knowing what a lifeline I was to him, even though I totally was.
But the lying monster in my brain had never let me consider that, because it was too busy keeping my focus pointed inward towards the abyss. I was stunned when he said these things to me.
It was enough to put down the knife. Just knowing someone gave a damn, and – the really important part – didn’t stop loving me when I told him my greatest shame, literally saved my life.
I credit this to divine intervention. I don’t share my faith a lot, but this one event convinced me that not only is there a God, but he/she/it cares what happens to me.
Thanks to that phone call, I once again had hope where there was none.
I didn’t seriously contemplate suicide again until sixteen years later, when I faced yet another overwhelming crisis, one that involved my kids.
And this was even after I lost my newborn son to a fatal heart malformation when he was nine days old. When the paramedic came into the bedroom where I waited with Tim (who was a day short of five years) and Jer (who was three), he broke the news to me as gently as one could tell a young mother that her beautiful baby was, simply, gone. I felt the will to breathe leave me and started to sink to my knees. This man grabbed me by both shoulders and held me up, forcing me to look him straight in the eye. He reminded me that I still had two other children who needed their mother to be strong.
It wasn’t hope necessarily, but it was purpose, much like being there for my bestie who needed me back in the 80s – and that was just as powerful a motivation.
Those two children became my reason to live. And I struggled with every decision after that to give them what I thought they needed. Dan finally got diagnosed and treated for his bipolar disorder. I worked hard to support the family as the sole breadwinner, while managing the new complications that came with living with the disorder, and all the treatment options we had to work through to get to ANYTHING that might help.
But the damage for my young sons was already done in all those dark years before we understood what demons drove my first husband. Thanks to Dan’s illness, my two remaining children ended up removed from the home, with never-ending hurdles I had to jump in order to get them back. The harder I fought, the more life pushed back. I was powerless and in pain, once again. Only this time I felt I had lost every single thing left to live for. I started the planning stage in January of 1999. I couldn’t bear facing the anniversary of Brandon’s death without my other two children. I decided to steal a bottle of Dan’s powerful pills, go to my youngest son’s grave and just go into eternal sleep like he did.
Even with a success story, even after I soundly beat the devil before, it’s amazing how long suicide lingered in the back of my brain as some sort of escape hatch if life gets to be too much.
A stranger I met through the internet picked up on my defeatist dialogue and spent an entire night on the phone with me to remind me how many things there were still left to fight for, including my two kids who, even though the state of California may not have agreed, still needed me to fight for them.
He barely knew me from Eve and we’d never meet face to face, but this angel didn’t get off the line until he was sure I was okay.
He restored my hope so that I was able to keep fighting. Within a year I had made the hard choices the courts demanded of me, which included dissolving my first marriage. By 2000 I got my kids back.
Someone refilled my tank. It wouldn’t empty again, for real, until 2015.
There were moments of weakness, though. When my chronic back pain threatened yet ANOTHER job because I just couldn’t make it to work regularly, I remember vividly sitting on the edge of my bed, in the nagging awful pain that had become the norm for me, thinking what was the point? I was a burden to those I loved, who virtually had to take care of me.
As fiercely independent as I was, that was a very hard pill for me to swallow.
The Mind Monster whispered constantly how much better off my family would be without me. I had worked tirelessly for years to ensure the survival of my family, and I couldn’t work anymore. That fucked with my identity.
And the pain I was in was relentless, shading everything in black tones as I struggled just to get through any part of the day I was conscious enough to muddle through.
The rest of the time I was out on heavy narcotic medication – missing out on my marriage and my kids… and my life.
But I was able to talk about it, to avoid the planning stages for the most part. I maintained my hope. I found reasons, no matter how small, to keep going.
Suicide still lingered in the back of my mind though, as the ultimate “break glass in case of emergency” option. If things got a little hairy, I still had access to pills that would help me check completely out, painlessly and efficiently.
It helped me maintain that illusion of control I’ve always wrestled with. If things got too bad, I knew what to do.
In 2015, things got “too bad.” I had a mental collapse of sorts, the worst one I had ever had. Depression and anxiety are no joke. They have leveled me in the past, starting after my dad died and I skipped school for ten days, hiding away in my bathroom day after day, in the warm womb of a bathtub as I struggled to find SOME way to comfort myself and heal, when I felt as bereft as an eleven-year-old girl could possibly feel.
Fast-forward thirty-four years and I found myself unable to handle life again, despite being a 45-year-old. My promising writing career had flat-lined. I went from making more money than I had ever made in my life back to struggling for each and every goddamned penny again. And it was completely out of my control. There was nothing I could do. So I relented and considered Plan B, because being homeless again was NOT an option. After being out of work for four years, I couldn’t find a job to help my family. Our economic situation was dire, struggling each and every month to pay the rent and keep our fragile little house of matchsticks from being blown over by the hungry wolf at the door.
I felt once again powerless, out of control and without hope. I lived my whole life for the dream of being a successful writer, and that success felt like it was over in a minute. The Mind Monster had a fucking field day with that. I truly felt that no matter what glimmer of happiness I could wrestle from the greedy hands of fate wasn’t ever going to be enough to justify all the days, months and years of pain, fear and hopelessness I’d endured.
It just never felt like it was going to stop. The liar that lives in my brain whispered in my ear that I had failed at everything and had a purpose for nothing. I disappeared into my room for about three days solid, even throughout Mother’s Day. I didn’t get out of bed. I cried a lot, almost anytime anyone would talk to me. As a result I didn’t talk to anyone, which was the scariest moment for me. I didn’t talk to my family. I didn’t open up to my husband, who had no clue how to handle my breakdown. I probably could have sent Hal a message and he would have been kind enough to talk me down from the ledge, but that wasn’t what I wanted. Not only had I run out of hope, I wasn’t interested in anyone renewing it. I knew the drill by this point. Yeah, it got better. And then it got bad again. And then it got worse, the price my Mind Monster always told me that I had to pay for any little morsel of happiness.
I wasn’t worth a good life. Clearly. Every good thing that happened would last a minute, and then I got thrown back into the wood chipper to tear up any idea that I was special.
That was why I lost my dad, remember.
It was a tough, tough period. Once again Jeff called me, worried because I hadn’t been online to talk to him every day like I have always done since 1995. It was no longer the 1980s. We could communicate in real time all the time, even with phone calls that became a lot less random the older, and more financially independent, we both got.
But this time I couldn’t bring myself to answer the phone. How could I face him 34 years after he had saved my life and tell him it had all been for nothing?
(And yes, I know after all those years, raising my kids, loving my husbands, creating my career out of thin air, that it wasn’t “nothing.” But that’s the lie. And it’s running fucking non-stop in those dark bleak moments.)
I got myself out of it that time, but it was a freaking miracle. I was as close to dancing with the devil as I had ever been. I’m reminded with every death by suicide that getting that close and still beating that sonofabitch is not a given.
So I feel nothing but sympathy for the person who falls to their Mind Monster, the one that convinces them of all the lies, that they have nothing to live for, to just end it – even if it is just to make the pain of the moment stop because it’s just too fucking much to bear.
I hate that they went through that alone.
I hate that they succumbed to the lie.
And I hate, most of all, how fucking seductive that lie can be.
That Chris’s death came at the expense of drugs that were supposed to heal him makes the loss even more acute. He was doing all the right things, and yet…
So I don’t know what the answer is. I just know we have to keep talking. And those who love us have to keep listening, *especially* when there’s a cry for help.
And we can’t give up. Because it is in that bleak, black moment of hopelessness where our control will slip and we can do unthinkable damage not only to ourselves, but to the people who love us most – even when we can’t seem to love ourselves.
If you’re thinking about suicide, it is my hope that you reach out and talk to someone. It does get better. Sometimes it even gets great.
And it’ll probably suck again too. Such is life for everyone. No matter what your Mind Monster says, it is not because you are a bad person. It is not because you are worthless. It isn’t because the world would somehow be better off without you. It is because we are all fighting our own type of battle, to varying degrees of success.
But you still matter.
To someone out there, you may be their lifeline helping THEM to hold onto hope. To someone else, you may be the very moon and stars, even if you don’t know it.
Even if your Mind Monster won’t let you see that.
But you still matter.
You really are here for a purpose and a reason. Life is about finding out what both of those mean to you and the people around you.
So if you’re hurting, if you’re feeling powerless and hopeless and vulnerable, if you’re feeling like the only person in the world who can touch the depths of those things, reach out to someone. It’ll be the hardest, bravest, most important decision you will ever make.
And one day, maybe you’ll help someone else who is feeling powerless and alone. You’ll give them strength. You’ll renew their hope.
And what greater purpose is there than that?
I wrote the above blog post several weeks ago, but I stopped myself from publishing it. I thought maybe it was too late to say these words. It no longer felt like posting a virtual life jacket that might have stopped just one person from drowning. Instead talking so frankly about the lure of this devil felt like an homage to suicide itself.
“You’re weak,” the devil whispered. “And now everyone will know.”
So I backed away from it. I justified it that the Mind Monster needs no foothold and I wasn’t about to give him one.
It was yet another lie.
This week I was faced with being on the OTHER side of the glass, with someone who was going through their own personal crisis, a single mom whose life was imploding around her with a failed relationship and a crushing economic downturn. “I just want to die,” she sobbed. And I totally fucking believed her. I stopped everything that I was doing to share my story, weak or not, and to take her into a hug and hold her up when she wanted to fall – just like that paramedic did for me all those years ago.
I knew in that moment THAT was my purpose. It made the pain I’d been through matter, and there’s nothing more empowering than that.
But then, by Thursday, when I heard about another artist losing his battle with the Mind Monster, and I realized that maybe I’m strong and okay now – but remaining that way is not a given.
Remember, I told you I had thought about breaking the glass even recently, during my own devastating economic downturn. What others consider an unthinkable option still sits there in the back of my brain like the ultimate escape hatch.
So I’m posting this. With any hope at all, this will replace the seductive lure of suicide as my “break glass in case of emergency” option. Not just for someone else out there, but for me as well.
Because that’s what we need most to win our own private wars. We need any hope at all.
When you feel hope is just beyond your grasp… keep reaching until someone reaches back. Because they will if you just give them a chance. It is the hardest, most terrifying , most powerful thing you can do to defeat that Mind Monster, even if it is one hairy, scary battle at a time.
That’s how wars are won.
Let’s win this one.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255 – available 24 hours a day