Suicide continues to be a recurring theme in my life. And I believe anything that’s recurring, whether that’s lessons, themes, or people, are recurring because we have not learned all there is to learn from them. My repeated experiences with suicide, which are often greeted with a deep sense of heaviness, have led me to feel compelled to write about them.
I was first exposed to the darkness of suicide when I was 14. My best friend at the time was struggling, struggling so much she attempted to hang herself at school. I recall feeling overwhelmed, as you would, and not knowing what the fuck to do. I wasn’t qualified for this. But much like anything in life, you don’t have to be qualified to be a friend. And often, that’s all we ever really need.
So I sought out the only person I knew who was qualified; my school counsellor. I remember asking her for practical advice on what I could do to help my friend and the exercise she gave me, which I now realise is probably rooted in the principles underlying CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), was not at all helpful. My friend’s pain was not going to be eliminated by altering her perspective - what she needed, and what so many of us often need, is someone to listen. Someone to share the pain, the burden, the darkness. Someone to sit alongside us, to physically remind us that we are not alone.
And that’s what I tried to do with my friend. I offered to accompany her to see a counsellor, and I offered her the one thing I can never get back: my time. I’m fortunate to say, she made it through. But not without struggle. And not without pain. And not without attempting everything she possibly could to try to escape reality; sex, drugs, alcohol.
I’ve noticed I become reactive any time I read the words, “You are not alone.” And it’s because of their hollowness. Sure, they might be said with the absolute best of intentions. But the reality is, I’m sitting here, and I’m still fucking alone. No words can offer the same level of comfort as what one’s physical presence can. And that, I believe, is a big fucking problem in today’s society. We are more connected, yet more alone. We have more Facebook friends, but fewer real friends. Worse still, this, all that I’m writing about now, we don’t talk about. It’s as though vulnerability is weakness with a guarantee to be left behind. We’ve become so consumed with success and getting ahead that we’ve forgotten how to be real, to be human, to be alive.
Within the past three weeks, suicide has been intensely present in my life. In the space of 24 hours, I became aware of two individuals struggling with suicide. One, a 14 year old kid that I mentored in America, and the other an ex of someone I had formerly seen. The latter of the two entered my life because of a decision I made a little over a month ago to speak openly and candidly about a former relationship of mine with a mutual friend. Because of this transparency, it became evident that my lived experiences could potentially be helpful to this girl who wasn’t just struggling with thoughts of suicide, but had genuinely attempted to end her suffering.
I write this post with a deep heaviness in my heart because I know how close she was to no longer being here. And I write with the knowingness of how close I was to no longer being here either. It’s confronting to know and accept that someone with so much beauty, so much still to offer this world, essentially gambled with life. And fortunately, in these cases I write about, we all won. We’re still here. But the same can’t be said for Madison Holleran.
Shortly after I hit my rock bottom on February 15, 2015, I read the following article on ESPN about a student-athlete at Penn State, Madison Holleran, who took her life. I proceeded to write my reaction to the article, which I’ll insert here, unedited, from over two years ago.
Note: Please read the article first to understand the context of my reaction.
The only difference I feel between Madison and I? I am here and she is not. This article, which was written by Kate Fagan, could easily have been about me. I was there. I was at that point. But for whatever reason, I did not succumb to the fate of what Madison did. Imagine reading something and knowing how close you were to being that person the article is written about. My experience yields power. It yields power because I have the voice that Madison no longer has. I can be the spokesperson for all those who tragically took their lives. I think one of the most tragic clichés is that if you are fortunate to be unsuccessful in your suicide attempt, you realise that life does get better…because at that moment, you are at rock bottom. There is nowhere that is lower than the intent to take your own life. As is mentioned in the article, Madison approached something that we naturally try to run away from and escape: death. To her, death was her light. Death was her freedom. Death was her escape from the indescribable turmoil she was experiencing. The unimaginable loneliness and internal feelings of failure, of worthlessness, of emptiness. Death gave her purpose. Death paradoxically became her saviour. I write this from the perspective of being at that moment. Of having intent, of needing that escape. It was no longer about life or death; I had failed life. Life had failed me.
The only thing that stopped me from living the fate of Madison is the thought of my parents getting that phone call. When Kate Fagan relives the experiences of Madison’s friends the night that Madison jumped from the parking garage, I’m reliving the experiences of my friends and girlfriend at the time. Nothing but utter panic, stomach-twisting thoughts, denial of the gravity of the situation, the fear of being too late, and that dreaded phone call…she’s gone.
Some might consider suicide selfish. Some might be angry at the individual. But instead of focusing on your pain, your grief, your struggle – consider for a moment what the individual who, “successfully” or “unsuccessfully”, took their life might have been feeling. Madison’s story resonates with me. You live a life of emptiness. You feel hollow. You feel worthless. But paradoxically you feel nothing. You’re numb. You’re lost in the overwhelming waves of thoughts and you’re drowning. No matter how hard and fast you try to stay afloat, you’re going under. You try to find an escape. You try to distract yourself from the treacherous emotions that have become your perception; your reality. Nothing works. Friends and family cannot comprehend, instead they make the situation worse…why are you feeling that way? You shouldn’t feel that way…You have no reason to be sad, you have everything…You are x, y, and z. As though people who have x, y, and z, are immune to mental illnesses like depression. Depression doesn’t discriminate based on age, sex, socioeconomic status, race, sexuality, etc. Sure, some populations are more susceptible than others, but depression can affect anyone at any time. Just because you’re wealthy, doesn’t mean you’re immune to feeling sad. We all experience bouts of sadness. And we’re all entitled to those feelings. The most important feelings are the feelings you are feeling right now. Two phrases that need to be dropped are “should” and “should not”. There is no right way to feel. The right way is your way. Your feelings are valid. All feelings have a cause. Some causes are neurochemical imbalances. And that is what depression is.
I cried when I read the article about Madison. Not only because I was grieving the loss of Madison, but because of how close I was to having the same outcome as this beautiful individual. I was grieving what could have been for my friends and family, the repercussions, their grief, their blame, their lifetime struggle of losing someone to something so tragic: suicide. So much of the article resonates with me. Whether it’s small things that Madison did, with quotes, with writing, with her intelligence, or whether it was with her feelings – I feel connected to her story. The sense of loneliness doesn’t stem from being physically alone, it stems from people’s inability to comprehend one’s internal feelings and struggles. How do you verbalise your pain? The constant, simultaneous internal battle of feeling worthless, but then invalidated for those feelings. The convincing belief that there is no end to this pain. The only end is death, which to many is a paradox because we perceive death as the absolute and ultimate pain. But for Madison, and for people who have or are experiencing similar, death is peaceful. Death is an escape. From the pain. From the thoughts. From the constant, inescapable turmoil called life. Madison was a shell. Like her friend said, she seemed lost. She felt like she had lost Madison. And she had. Madison had died long before she physically took her life – she died in the worst way possible because she was still alive. And I think that’s what many people experience before they take their life. Life isn’t life. It’s fucking hell. Breathing becomes strained and effortful. How beautiful it would be to rid oneself of this seemingly inescapable pain - death presents that opportunity. By no means am I glorifying death or suicide, but to individuals who are at that point, and who have intent to end their life, they do so with the thought that life has become so painful, so heart wrenchingly difficult to survive, that death seems the only fathomable solution. To those who are left with the remnants of this individual’s life, you might never be able to comprehend how or why someone would turn to death as a solution. But hear this: suicide is not selfish. It is selfish to judge those who are contemplating suicide as being selfish. It’s selfish that there are people experiencing these struggles daily, and we not only fail to acknowledge their struggles, but we make them feel bad for their struggles. Suicide is a heartbreaking tragedy. To contemplate the severity of someone’s struggles that drove them to that point, the point of realising death is the only solution, is sickening. There are people who are experiencing this battle every day. There are people who become victims to this battle every day. What is it, more than 40,000 Americans commit suicide each year, which translates to approximately 110 people every single day taking their own life. 110 beautiful, beautiful souls, who have been driven to the point of no return. I hate numbers for one reason: they’re superficial and shallow. I hate that an individual’s life can be confined to a number, or a statistic. As I recall my own suicide attempt, I have considered that my attempt will be marked in the books as “an unsuccessful suicide attempt”. Firstly, labelling it as unsuccessful needs to stop. Considering an act as “unsuccessful” from an individual who is struggling with feelings of worthlessness and already feels like a failure, or from someone who has only known successes, or who is accustomed to experiencing successes, suggests that they even failed at trying to take their own life. No worries guys, I’ll make sure I’m successful next time.
The reality? A large percentage of those who are “unsuccessful” will have future suicide attempts.
So much of the article irks me and troubles me. Our inability to talk about such subjects, our inability to acknowledge individuals’ struggles and to confine them to this idea of permanent happiness or their superficial social media account, it creates unrealistic expectations, it creates the environment for demise, it creates situations like Madison’s. She already felt alone. But when she reached out to others, their inability to not necessarily relate, because I doubt many of them had gone through similar, but their inability to empathise with Madison, and to truly comfort her and validate her feelings, that’s what contributed to her downfall. Holding her to these pre-existing beliefs of how she should be, based on her social media, or based on prior interactions with her, is recipe for failure. Everyone is entitled to their feelings. Everyone’s feelings are valid. Everyone is entitled to feeling sad. I understand that it is difficult for friends to comprehend how someone so lively, so energetic, so positive, can in fact be struggling – but that’s because of the beliefs that these individuals have created and their perceptions of this individual. It is impossible to be happy all the time. As the Arabic proverb states: sunshine all the time makes a desert. Usually those who are happiest, or who appear the most positive, are those who have experienced the greatest struggles, the toughest adversities – why? Well, simple contrast effect. When you’ve known the darkest of dark days, anything, and I mean anything, is better than that rock bottom. Experiencing that enables an individual to radiate positivity – white looks the brightest when it’s contrasted against black – its opposite. A star only shines so bright because of the darkness that encompasses it.
I’ve echoed many of these thoughts throughout former writings because of the pertinence and essentialness within today’s society. Afer volunteering for the Crisis Text Line for six months, and with my additional experiences with suicide, I’ve learned that all anyone ever usually needs in a time of crisis is someone to listen. Someone to validate. Someone to remind them that they aren’t crazy for what they feel. That someone cares enough to sit with them in their pain. How sad it is that people must text a hotline to receive the sort of validation that once used to be a norm within friendships. Any time that someone would text in, I was reminded that we’re failing. That we had failed. We had failed to fulfil what it means to be human. To be there for one another. The fact that two girls I coached, at the innocent age of 13, had contemplated and are still contemplating thoughts of suicide, suggests there’s something seriously fucking wrong with the way we interact with one another. And unless there’s a radical intervention on how to be human, on how to listen, unfortunately tragic stories like Madison will continue to occur.