Mental health milestones and how to normalize them
I’ve been thinking about writing this for a while. I’ve been waiting for the “right” moment; the time I had all of the wisdom ready and succinct; a more balanced, structured place where I could lay it out effectively and have my writing prowess solidified.
I wanted to write the type of personal essay I’ve never had fun writing – contained and self-conscious, knowing someone I work with or someone I went to school with or dated or even my aunt might come across and read only the intimate surface I provided; they would get part of the story. I’d shut the rest down and keep it for myself. Like I have been, mostly.
But that’s not what we’re about here. What’s the sense in half the story when a full one is more cathartic, and might normalize a feeling for someone who’s unsure they’re “sane,” might one day end up across the eyes of someone who needs it at that very moment? We call this over-sharing, sometimes.
And now, why we’re here: I just got a new charger for my old laptop. Once it settled after resetting itself for the third time, I came across a picture of my arm laced up with bright blue stitches. Some beloved suicide attempt memorabilia so I never forget. I didn’t open it – I only saw the thumbnail – but that was enough to knock me over.
In one week from today, it will be the fifth anniversary of that attempt. A traumatic attempt. Fortunately, the last attempt, as it stands at this point in time.
A lot has happened in five years. Today, what’s washing over me the most is the absolute awe-struck feeling of realizing that there was a sincere chance that I wasn’t ever going to experience any of this. I would not have lived the past five years, and all of my life would not exist.
That’s fucking wild.
Not everything has been excellent and a steady upward line of joy from March 26, 2013. I’ve only been self-harm-free since August 2017 (my longest stretch since I started when I was 12).
Wait – I started this when I was as young as my cousin is right now? That little angel baby who wore an adidas tracksuit just because I was coming for Christmas dinner?
It’s realizations like this that make you question whether or not you are, in fact, fortunate and lucky. I think that I’m closer to feeling horrified, if not dazed.
A thing I’ve learned is that you can be traumatized by your own actions. Out of every trauma I’ve suffered, two stand out the most to me. This is one of them. I won’t watch movie scenes with self-harm or limb-related violence (what a way to phrase that...). I don’t like that arm touched. I instinctively hide it from people. I still pull sleeves all the way down. Sometimes, I have flashbacks in the middle of important conversations.
Does it ever go away? Are we really not in this alone?
I think, likely not, and probably not – but that’s not an effective way to process this. We need to face the facts and accept reality:
I tried to kill myself. It has traumatized me. It does not stop me from living a full life, with all the ups and downs and in-betweens.
Another reality: it doesn’t have to happen again. Even in these five years, with no real direction in recovery until five months ago, I’ve wanted to do it again. I’ve gotten close. I’ve wished for it. I’ve justified and rationalized and planned. But something inside me has been interested enough in wanting to see the next five years. Something slows my hand and forgets the type of pressure to use; something reminds me I hate throwing up. Something tells me to just go to bed or call in sick. Sometimes, I’m resentful. More often, I’m proud.
More reality: not everyone will find peace in this life. They seek it out in this way and succeed. They’re not stupid or weak or insane. I feel strongly that they have been failed.
Aside from trauma, there’s an uninformed survivor’s guilt. I, whining about this at my beautiful desk in my beautiful apartment in my beautiful neighborhood surrounded by my beautiful possessions and friends and dog and career and everything I have now. Others, not anywhere near this reality or feeling, or they are, but they’re going to do it anyway. Why am I okay now, and not them? But this is to say that my living was a mistake - at my worst, this is how it feels; but again, facts show that all life is valuable. This was not an error.
Crumpled over trauma and survivor’s guilt is shame. Shame often feels like the overarching theme of my life. I’m scared of what happened to me, I’m scared of feeling that way again. I’m scared of being “found out” so I have to tell it first. I make jokes because I want to show that I’m “over it,” but I don’t think you actually “get over” this. I feel ashamed because I feel like I should get over it, but you don’t fucking have to. I’m scared, like, really scared of this truth of mine. Because it is horrific. But also a pivotal moment in my life.
I will never forget that this happened. And I will never forget the most important thing I’ve learned through not talking about it – people need to hear about it. I need to talk about this because someone might hear it and I might normalize conversations around mental health, at least in my inner circle.
Suicide is not an effective option. But we get there when we feel like it's the only option. However, it's a feeling at its core. It is not the reality; it is factually not the only option. Presenting other options, supporting them, making them accessible - this is where society goes wrong. This is where we need to challenge the state of medical care and the language we use about mental health in public and private.
I imagine how things would have gone if I wasn’t written off as “crazy” or “too chaotic” or “full of rage” or “undisciplined.” I imagine hearing about a similar experience and saying, “That sounds like something I do, too.”
I imagine myself as brave, and I’m able to talk about the facts: Suicide is real. People – even children – self-harm. I have tried to kill myself. People who feel this need to be held.
I imagine myself still talking about the facts even through it being called “over-sharing.”
Do not equate “over-sharing” with considerate honesty. Do not shut someone’s catharsis down, sling around “emotional” as an insult when it’s really you that can’t handle what you’re feeling.
I think what I really want to do, on this fifth anniversary of my new life, is bring awareness to the realities others may be living.
And I want to simply express my gratitude. For being here. For you, reading this. For myself, talking about it.
BetterHelp.Com - affordable, online professional therapy.
Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention - find a crisis centre or helpline near you.
Toronto DBT Centre - where I've had my life changed and improved every week.