When I was a child, my mother used to allow me to wander the library unattended. She is a genealogist, and for the most part, the library is where there were computers or other machines that connected to archives. I tagged along, happy to be left alone to explore my wonderland.
I remember the moment I first laid eyes on that spine in the philosophy section. At first, I was drawn to the idea of a German female author (Emile Durkheim) talking about suicide. Little did I know it was a Frenchman postulating on the reason why people turn to suicide. I sat in the aisle, my back to the shelves, searching for answers. Turning the first page, I realized this book, this crisis, this epidemic of existential proportions, was older than me (1897!) I wasn’t the only one searching for answers. I had not come up with this concern myself.
I was twelve years old.
A year earlier, I had spent hours in the same library, reading my summer book list from start to finish, at times tagging along with my mother, and other times persuading my friends to come with me. To explore the library, full of possibility and knowledge. I rarely read non fiction, rather traveling through the young adult classics and fantasy sections, save for my time spent reading biographies of the greats: novelists, classical musicians, architects, artists. I was obsessed with the world’s beauty. I longed to be part of a world where beauty and luxury existed. I believed it was possible.
At twelve, I experienced loss from suicide. She was 14, a girl I more than loved, a familiar. My tribe. My heart.
Sitting there, alone, tearing through Durkheim, I searched for the answers no one could give me. Why? How? What does this mean? Can I catch it? Is all hope lost? What happens to her now? To me? Why does this hurt so much?
The answers in this book puzzled me, frightened me, excited me, angered me. Mostly, they left me pondering more often how suicide happens. I was searching for answers and it just prompted more questions.
That year, I began to tempt fate myself. It wasn’t like playing Russian roulette. I was alone and in pain. I was searching for answers, for comfort, and I found nothing. I’m convinced that my obsession to solve the puzzle of how pain turns into death, how people die in pain, has kept me alive.
At 14, I became involved in group therapy where other survivors of suicide came together to communally ask the questions I found in the book. Some weeks I went to every group offered. It was then when I came to the realization that the pain that causes a suicide is transferred from the victim to survivor. It creates a link that perpetuates pain, and the only way to relieve it is to discuss it, in community.
I started my own group, then found others with whom we started a non-profit. It became the thing I woke up for every day. I developed a peer mentoring program, an adolescent survivors of suicide group, then a train the trainer program that was taught throughout the country to peer mentors in high school and resident advisors in college. I created spaces where people could continue to ask Durkheim’s questions. I was obsessed with finding the answer to this problem through the pain left behind in survivors.
But when I left these groups, when I came home, I was often in more pain. I was more disconnected. People were still attempting and completing, dying, all around me. Despite the hours logged managing a suicide hotline and teaching others about suicide prevention and self care for grief and loss, I never received the help I needed.
Lesson 1: Sometimes the helpers need help too. Often, the helpers find little help. No one sees them as having weakness.
When I was 16, after the loss of my sister and grandmother, I created a plan to take my own life. The most serious of my several attempts landed me a spot first in the emergency room, then strapped to a gurney in the back of an ambulance, and finally placed in an inpatient psychiatric facility for adolescents. “Why did you attempt to take your life?” A weary nurse asked upon intake, removing the laces from my shoes. I responded that I no longer could be in my family of origin. And, because of that, I had no one left alive who was safe.
In this place, I had conversations with children and adolescents who had the risk factors and warning signs I used to teach teens when discussing suicide prevention. I was the hypocrite, and all I could think about was studying for AP exams. They were my only hope for leaving my family behind. I craved safety I had only read about in the books from the library. In this place, we openly talked about pain, about anger and loss. We all chased Durkheim’s questions. Alive but dying inside, we collectively pondered how we’d gotten to this point so early.
Sadly, we didn’t come to conclusions. The majority of those I shared space with for 9 days died by suicide or overdose, or became incarcerated for drugs or violence.
Lesson 2: Pain is rarely just physical. No substance, legal or otherwise, can lessen its grip.
At 18, i completed my first thesis on suicide, mainly highlighting and applying the works of Durkheim and others from that era to collected experiences from suicide support groups I facilitated and suicide hotline calls I managed. I analyzed themes, still desperately searching for answers. My cerebral approach created distance from my own pain.
I was surprised when my mother asked to read my paper.
One evening, after one of our long drives down the coastline, my mother taught me about my family history of suicide. My premature birth was a result of her own attempt following my father’s desertion just weeks before. I was horrified. Upon sharing this with my stepfather, he recounted the many times he prayed when my mother and I would take our iconic coastline drives. She used to write suicide notes, stating she was going to remove us from the suffering. She was going to save me from my future pain.
Lesson 3: Pain can be genetic. It can be contagious.
They say “you’re only as sick as your secrets.” In a family or environment where safety is rare, where love is conditional, where trust is optional, and loyalty is constantly questioned, children are never taught to seek community. They do not learn how to ask for help or share pain openly. The pain, suffering, anger, and loss is not resolved, and grief continues to take hold.
Eventually, if not resolved, isolation, desperation, and paranoia sets in. Hope is lost. The existential noose pulls tighter, the box closing in, and options become limited by the weight of the pain.
Lesson 4: The only way out is through.
What have I learned now, in my many years of continued research, exposure to survivors and victims of suicide attempt and completion, and from my own treatment for trauma?
- How someone dies fundamentally changes your memory of them.
- A shared distribution of weight lightens the load for everyone.
- Pain is only lessened by the reduction of stigma and the increase in open discussion about what brings the pain.
- Pain leads to shame, which leads to isolation.
- Some of the best medicine is community.
I have dedicated my life to making better memories. Only when we talk openly about and process the pain is it possible to remember people, places, and things with greater fondness. Only when we feel safe can we process the pain.
Safety and community can break the cycle. Safety and community are the answer for which I have been searching. Safety and community, not substances, reduce isolation. Safety and community prevents suicide; it creates and maintains the best memories. It creates a beauty in this world that, too, can be passed from generation to generation.
Lesson 5: It’s ok to fail. It’s ok to ask for help.
I am forever grateful for the ones who have picked up the phone or answered my cries for help. There have been many along my path, and I remember them all. Thank you for reminding me that life’s beauty is not just something I can read in the fantasy section.
And for the hundreds of souls who I have lost along the way, especially my heart, you continue to drive me to search for the answers, to create solutions. We can do better; we must be better. I carry your hearts in my heart.
In the end, only kindness matters.