The day I did not die

Content Warning: Descriptive narrative of a suicide attempt. Discussion about suicide and mental illness and depression.

I was 16 years old, and my parents were not home. I don’t know how to describe it – it was just a wave that came over me, and when it did, I was ready.

I was a smarter than average kid who looked differently than his classmates – I was scrawny, pimply, socially awkward and most of all, afraid. I was always afraid. These days you would say I was bullied. In those days, I would have said I was in hell. But that wasn’t the reason it came over me. But had I been successful, it would have been the reason ascribed to my actions.

I had read countless accounts of suicide – no mean feat in that pre-internet age. I had read all the dictionary entries, all the encyclopedia accounts. Then I researched famous suicides – Socrates, Hemingway, anyone at all who had made their way into the Britannica. I had a morbid fascination with death, and with suicide.

So when the dark wave came, I was ready.

I had received a shotgun for Christmas when I was 14. There were strict rules around its use, but it was unlocked. I sat on my bed and loaded it with buckshot. I took off my shoes, because I had figured out I could pull the trigger with my toe – a “trick” I had learned in a book I read about famous deaths. I put the barrel in my mouth – right now I can taste the bitter, acrid taste of the oil and the metal on my tongue – and placed my toe on the trigger.

And I sat there for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably 30 seconds or so.

And then I took the barrel out of my mouth, unloaded the gun and put it away. I don’t know why. The darkness receded, just like it came. I was horrified to find myself there. And it would be more than 10 years before I would tell anyone that it had happened.

I was on no list of people who would have been watched. I had a neurologist, but no therapist. No guidance counselor ever approached me. No teacher was concerned about me. I should NOT have had a shotgun, but in my world, people my age often did, and so nobody could have known. I was active in youth group, had been baptized, and would have strongly identified as Christian.

It wasn’t the last time I thought about self-harm, however. Once since then since then, I was as close as that day, and have been contemplative multiple times, although not for several years now. The darkness just comes on sometimes, and it seems an incredibly rational solution to end the pain. It is always late at night (more accurately early morning). I hate waking up at 3 or 4am – not because I am afraid I won’t go back to sleep, but because I am afraid of where my brain will take me if I stay awake.

Don’t mishear me – I have a good support structure in place. I have tools and strategies should things get scary, and I learned to recognize triggers, and avoid them. I have people who know my history, who love me, who I feel safe calling should I need them. There are people Renee knows to call if I scare her with my moods. Mentally, I am in pretty good shape these days. Or as good as one can expect given everything that has happened the last two years.

When all is said and done, most suicide is a symptom of mental illness.  And mental illness is just illness, like pneumonia is illness, or cancer is illness.

I’m not saying nobody ever rationally decides to end their own life. The enslaved Africans who threw themselves into the waters of the Atlantic rather than be enslaved made a rational choice. Those who fell from the burning building rather than burn – I get that. People facing months and months of excruciating pain before their inevitable deaths – totally understandable. But we are not talking about those people right now.

People who appear happy can be mentally ill, and people who are bullied can be mentally ill, and people who have families that love them can be mentally ill. And all of those people can commit suicide, because suicide is a symptom of mental illness.

Likewise, people who love Jesus can be mentally ill. People who go to church can be mentally ill. People who are clergy can be mentally ill. And all of those people can commit suicide, because suicide is a symptom of mental illness.

And when people die of illness, it’s horrible, but we don’t blame them for it. We wish it could have been prevented, and we seek to prevent other people from dying from it.

So, this is why we don’t have shotguns in my house – ever. And why every chance I get, I tell people that they need to take care of themselves, and be honest with the people who love them, and don’t be ashamed to ask for help. Because the world is a much better place with you in it.

If you feel like hurting yourself, please don’t. The National Suicide Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. And if you don’t want to call them, please call someone. 

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