Suicidal thoughts are multifaceted and can stem from a myriad of sources, but uniting all of them is the belief that life has lost its sense of meaning, thereby leaving nothing but absurdity. So, the depressed and despondent individual resorts to planning a way out of a dream which transformed itself into a nightmare. That’s what living with suicidal thoughts is like; it’s a state of utter hopelessness, in which the individual is transfixed by the horror of a dream-like realm that offers only one way out.
For several years, particularly in adulthood, I was plagued by suicidal thoughts, which occurred in varying degrees, depending on the period. They reached their peak while I was in graduate school, and I’m still unable to answer why. I suppose that I’ve struggled with some mild form of depression for the majority of my life, but things appeared to be pretty tame until then. Perhaps, it was the stress and the expectations or maybe, my perfectionism was their root cause. Regardless, I felt the weight of my sorrow in an unfamiliar way; it was as though death’s bells were tolling louder than before, an unparalleled pitch expected to be heard only in one’s geriatric years. But, here it was, calling, before I was even thirty. So, what the fuck was I supposed to do with that?
Despite their intensity, I managed to survive graduate school and even start a career, which I was deeply unhappy with, as life for unlicensed, young therapists is a financial nightmare, comprised of high student debt and low wages (relative to other graduate degrees). Thus, here it was again, another period of hopelessness, one which I was sure I would never leave. I felt hopeless about my financial future, hopeless about ever finding a semblance of romantic love, and hopeless about my ability to start a family or have a moderately successful career. I had all of these standards and pressures, all of which I had failed to live up to. So, I asked, what was the point? Why bother continuing?
I’m sure that you’re feeling sorry for me as you’re reading this, but you shouldn’t. My problem was never, and has never been, my circumstances; it was something else, something that I discovered on a trip to visit one of my best friends, who lives in San Diego, California. Throughout it, we visited several places together, including San Francisco, which instantly captivated me, and became one of my favorite cities. But, the destination that changed me wasn’t glamorous. It wasn’t Alcatraz (which was awesome), it wasn’t any one of the museums or restaurants, and it wasn’t any of the usual scenery which tourists from the world over travel thousands of miles to see; it was a miniature mountain in Pacifica, California, an area which I had never heard of until then. And, it was that mountain, that view, that realization, which saved me.
For those of you who don’t know, I’m terrified of heights, and I’ve spent the majority of my life avoiding them. Yet, on this day, I decided to do something that I never thought I ever would; at my friend Dan’s request, I climbed the mountain with him, utterly terrified of cascading down. Inch by inch, I climbed up its rough exterior, feeling its presence with each scrape and bump. In my mind, this mountain seemed enormous, and I vowed never to climb up anything that high ever again. (Smoking a cigar during the climb made it even harder. Stupid move, I know.) And, when we finally got up there, my fear only intensified. I looked down at the world with terror, desperately hoping that I wouldn’t fall.
My friend, Dan, felt serene and decided to climb further in order to meditate, leaving me to my own devices as I contemplated the potential of impending doom. After he was gone, I took a look around, sitting on the mountain’s edge, noticing how easy it would have been for me to tumble down and end my life. (Dan later convinced me that our location wasn’t high up enough for me to have died, but still.) And I was then presented with an existential choice; this was my opportunity! I thought about suicide and death for so long but was never afforded the actual chance to choose… life or death. Which one would it be?! The universe was calling, telling me that I had to choose at that particular moment, on that particular cliff, one or the other, and that when I did, there was no going back; this was going to be it!
So, I stood there thinking about what I actually wanted. Did I really want to die? The answer was a resounding no! I didn’t, but I knew that I’d need to resolve my depression if I were going to remain alive, embracing life in the process. I considered and came to accept the good things in my life, the people who loved me, the people I’ve helped; I came to acknowledge that my conception of my life was a bastardization of reality; and, I learned that my life wasn’t terrible, but my interpretation of it was. On that day, on that cliff, I chose life, resolving to discontinue seriously contemplating suicide. My decision carried a sense of finality with it, and brought relief. Through it, and because of it, I had affirmed my life and took responsibility for it, for my joys and my sorrows, accepting that it was my duty to make it as good as it possibly could be.
I came down from that cliff a changed man, not fully, as it took me some time to habituate myself to my new perspective, but enough to act as a catalyst for brighter days ahead. My life, like most, was, and is, full of good and bad moments, but my depression precluded me from seeing the good; that was the main lesson. The universe and that cliff provided me with the chance to do what I had been threatening to do in my mind for god knows how many years, teaching me that life and death were the only two meaningful options, but informing me that if I were to choose the former, my happiness was my responsibility and mine alone. On that particular day, on that particular cliff, I ceased asking life to make me happy, remembering everything that I already had to be grateful for.
I’m happy for you that you turned this corner. For me the no has never been “resounding” but it has been “no,” so I keep going blindly forward.
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I think that all of us eventually have this moment.
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This is so courageous that you’re able to talk so openly about a topic that is taboo but most of us are scared to admit. Your story reminded me of my law school experience when I was having panic attacks on a daily basis. I wonder why people with relatively good material lives have suicidal inclinations? I think there’s two issues: 1) kids are given impossibly high standards and when they can’t live up to them their lives become a hellacious nightmare and 2) kids aren’t taught coping skills and so they are exposed to the slings and arrows of life. What do you think? Really proud of you dude.
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It usually goes back to family, especially in terms of self-impsosed expectations, which are internalized from one’s environment. Thanks so much for reading!