I’m not supposed to tell you this, but I tried to kill myself once. I lived, obviously.
I’m not supposed to tell you this either, but I feel guilty about both facts.
Clinicians call this paradox “survivor's guilt”—the guilt one feels for surviving a situation many people don’t. It’s common among survivors of trauma, including soldiers returning from combat and people who’ve survived epidemics. “Survivor's guilt” even used to have its own entry in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, although it’s since been reclassified as a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Most studies on survivor's guilt following suicide attempts or deaths by suicide focus on the effects it has on families of the attempter or the person who died. In a study from the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, for instance, researchers found that people grieving the death of a loved one by suicide is fundamentally different than that of people who’ve lost someone to natural causes. The surviving friends and family members experience shame and are left to grapple with the “why” question that people who lost someone to, say, a heart attack or other obvious cause don’t have to.
But very little research exists on how an attempt affects the psyche of the attempter. “Those who have survived a suicide attempt, also known as those with lived experience, were on the margins for a long time due to stigma and shame,” says Michael Nadorff, director of the Sleep, Suicide and Aging Laboratory at Mississippi State University. "In the past half-decade or so, there’s been a movement to conduct more research on those with lived experience, but it is going to take time to catch up."
Unlike Nadorff, I don’t have a lot of clinical information to share, but I do have two and a half years of anecdotal experience. On March 2, 2015, I made the choice to end my own life. I called up a friend to say goodbye and he made me go get my roommate, who called 911. The cops came, and I was put into an ambulance. The next few hours are a little blurry.
When I woke up the next morning, it took me a moment to remember where I was. Surviving a suicide attempt made me feel like an idiot—I can’t even kill myself right. Then I felt like an idiot a second time when I became aware of the pain I'd put my loved ones through.
That was just the beginning of the guilt. Once I came to and looked at the bandages on my wrists, I saw how close I really came to dying. I ran my hands over the gauze, feeling the deep wounds. I realized how narrowly I escaped death. What under normal circumstances might have been a moment of relief turned into one of painful introspection. I woke up, woo. Well, fuck.
After a day in the medical ward, I was transferred to the psych ward. What happened in those four walls isn’t for public consumption. The whole time, though, I felt the guilt weighing on me like a boulder. Every visit from a friend began with, “I’m so sorry.” They told me not to be, of course. They asked if I was okay, said they came as soon as they heard. They brought food, movies, books, hugs, laughs.
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On the second anniversary—can you call it an “anniversary?”—of my attempt, I stayed up all night waiting for 11:34 p.m. I texted some friends, apologized for waking them up that night, making them feel like they had to come to the hospital. A few months later, I moved home, hours away from them. I became a recluse—well, as much as you can be while still using Facebook and Twitter. I started a partial hospitalization program, and took photography classes at a community college.
Only the people in my inner circle knew what happened. In the weeks that followed, I felt a deep-seated need for them to hear me, understand me, tell me I was good. I craved validation from the people who, ironically, were now too far away to give me hugs.
The compulsion to apologize never let up: I found myself wanting to apologize for how much I apologized. “The emotional life and sense of place in the world for survivors of suicide depends on external validation,” says Paul Hokemeyer, a family therapist based in New York City. “ Unfortunately, there's never enough of what they crave. As a result, they’re forced to endure the sear of self-loathing.”
Guilt is sinister that way. It leaves you with a need for sympathy, but as soon as you get it, you feel guilty about it. I regained my will to live in fragments thanks to my friends, my family, and lots of medication. Slowly, I also regained the sense of agency I lost—a bit here, a bit there. A job offered, a trip planned. A new flavor at Rita’s, a text from a friend. A baseball game, a new suitor. I learned to take pleasure in the mundanities—reading the paper, buying groceries, organizing cups at the coffee shop where I stay busy. They’re the stupid things that prove I’m alive. Some days, it still feels like the slightest breeze will throw me back into the abyss, but I dig my heels into the ground, and I stay on my feet.
Next month, it will be three years since my attempt. I don’t know how I’m going to celebrate—it seems a bit morbid and perverse. I don’t want to make light of a serious disease—especially one that will continue to affect me for the rest of my life. There are still days when I wish I hadn’t woken up. I know I’ll never beat bipolar disorder, I’ll never not feel guilty, and I’ll never completely not want to die, despite being heavily medicated and doing lots of CBT.
I’ve lived much longer than my brain tells me I should have. Sometimes I cry thinking of all the moms of people who don’t make it. I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to internalize the idea that I lived, and that’s okay. The word “guilt,” I learned, comes from the Old English word for “debt.” And I’m indebted to the people who nursed me back to health as well as they could.
When people ask me what it feels like, sometimes I say that it’s a little like dropping a plate. You know you’ve made a mistake the instant it happens. You might freeze before assessing the damage. Maybe you search for the glue, try to put the pieces back together again. But certain pieces don’t fit. Others are destroyed completely. With enough time and patience, you can make it functional again. It will never be the same, but it will have to do.
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