My brother was 27 when he took his own life. It was the end of my freshman year of college. To my knowledge, I was the last person to talk to him. It shook my family. It shook me. I couldn’t understand why. I don’t think anyone could.
Fast forward a couple of decades to a time when my own life came to a screeching halt. I can’t speak to everything that led to this day, but I came to a place where I had planned my own suicide. Thanks to divine intervention, my intent to act on my plan was thwarted, and I’m still here today. Since that time, I have reflected a lot on what everyone else in my life must have been thinking. Maybe the same things I had been thinking when my brother took his life. I also spent a lot of time reflecting on what could have led me to that place.
Through intensive treatment and a lot of loving support, I have come to understand more about myself, depression, and suicidality. Recently, I stumbled on an article by Sam Dylan Finch where he talked about his attempt taking his own life - and how to make sense of it all. Sam is a leading advocate in LGBTQ+ mental health and gained international recognition for his blog that went viral in 2014 called, Let’s Queer Things Up! I’m not a famous advocate like Sam, but when I read his article, I knew I needed to share some of the insights he shared as well - things that those who don’t struggle with mental health issues might want to know. Here is my take on his 5 Things Suicide Loss Survivors Should Know — from Someone Who’s Attempted (Healthline, December 2019), with his words in italics and mine in standard font.
People who attempt suicide aren’t always convinced it’s the only option. As they expend emotional resources, they come to a neurological state that overrides survival instincts. At that point, it’s an acute state — not totally unlike a heart attack or other medical crisis.
My emotional pain began to outweigh the amount of time I could wait for relief. My brain was getting less and less able to put the burden on a shelf. And it wasn’t because someone had failed me. Rather, perhaps the system and our culture failed me. Anytime I sought therapy appointments, it was weeks before I could get in. And then there’s the stigma - a mom doesn’t get help, let alone consider ending her life. The guilt and shame of needing help, coupled with limited access to resources, left me holding out until the very last minute.
Sam points out that the time when someone in crisis has to expend the most energy in order to keep themselves alive is often the time when they have the very least energy available to do so. Suicide is a tragic outcome of extraordinary circumstances that, in reality, few of us have a lot of control over.
Many survivors of loved ones who commit suicide wonder if that person actually wanted to die. But it’s rarely that simple. As Sam says, Imagine a scale being tipped back and forth until one side is finally outweighed by the other — a trigger, a moment of impulsivity, a window of opportunity that disrupts the precarious balance that allowed us to survive. That back-and-forth is exhausting, and it muddles our judgment.
For me, the suicidal thoughts became so incredibly consuming that I couldn’t hear/perceive any other option. My psychologist friend described this to me as the “tunnel.” We can’t perceive anything outside the tunnel, but something in us may still feel conflicted about taking our own life.
As Sam explains, A suicide attempt doesn’t reflect how we felt about our life, our potential, or about you — at least, not as much as it reflects our state of mind in the moment when we attempted. My doctor described this state to me as anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure. The despair, pain, and consuming pull of the tunnel overpowers any other feelings.
As I planned how I might end my life, there were times when all I could think about were the people I loved. I thought about how I could make it look like an accident, because some part of me thought that would make it less hard on my family. I didn’t want my loved ones to blame themselves. Many attempt survivors share a similar sentiment. We don’t want to hurt our loved ones, but that tunnel vision and state of acute pain can override our judgment.
Logical, reasonable thought isn't really on the table once someone gets to the point of an attempt. As Sam explains, suicide attempts are often as much an emotional event as they are a neurological one.
Sam writes, A suicide attempt doesn’t necessarily mean someone didn’t believe they were loved. It doesn’t mean your loved one didn’t know you cared or believed they wouldn’t get the unconditional acceptance and care that you (without a doubt) had to offer.
It hurts deeply to love someone - and to know many people love and care about them - and still not be able to keep them with us. If only love were all it took to keep someone with us. Many attempt survivors share the sentiment that we wholeheartedly wished we could get better, that we could be strong enough to stay. But as the tunnel closes in on us, it’s hard to believe it’s possible to get well, to stay.
For those that have passed, Sam points out: Your love made their time here on earth so much more meaningful. I can also promise you it sustained them in many, many dark moments that they never told you about. Your loved one’s suicide attempt says nothing about how much you loved them, nor how much they loved you. But your grief does — because the pain that you’re experiencing in their absence speaks volumes of how deeply you cherished them (and still do).
If you’ve lost someone to suicide, I can’t imagine you haven’t spent sleepless nights wondering what you could’ve done differently. There’s kind of a self-consoling element going on there, as if convincing ourselves we might have had any sort of control over the outcome.
What if we saved everyone we loved from painful experiences, from saying the wrong thing, from making poor decisions? Of course, it’s simply not possible - nor is it necessarily what’s best for the loved one. Like Sam, and many others who have lost (or nearly lost) loved ones to suicide, I have often comforted myself with thoughts that if someone were hurting, they would know they could call me. That something I might say or do would make the difference. But as Sam points out: when a pot of water is on the stove, even if you turn up the flame, you aren’t responsible for when the water boils. If left on the burner long enough, it was always going to come to a boil. Our mental health system is supposed to provide a safety net that takes that pot off the burner so that, no matter what happens with the flame, it never gets to a fever pitch and boils over. You aren’t responsible for that systemic failure, no matter what mistakes you did or didn’t make.
Survivors who have lost loved ones often ask themselves, "Why them and not me?" or "Why must they be gone, yet I am still here?" The sentiment is the same. And this is the question no one can answer. This is the question that can haunt those who have attempted and survived, as well as those who have lost someone to suicide. It's easy to get hung up on this thought, get consumed by the perceived injustice, wonder what could have been different... and I wish I had some magic words of wisdom to answer this question. I don't. But what I can say is this: you ARE still here. And that matters.
I’m going to end this with Sam’s words. When I read them, they rang deeply true to me. And I’m not sure I could say it better myself.
Grief is a powerful teacher. It’s challenged me, again and again, to recommit to living a life imbued with meaning. I can tell you, both as a survivor of loss and of an attempt, that life is unquestionably precious — and I believe that more fiercely than I ever have before. You’re still here. And whatever the reason might be, you still have the chance to do something extraordinary with this life. Fight for your own life the way you so desperately wish you could’ve fought for theirs. You are just as worthy; I promise you.