This article was first published on May 20, 2016 A few years ago, I called my dad for one of our weekly chats — but he wasn’t happy to hear from me. “Today, something happened that I never, ever wanted to happen,” he said wearily. He had just found out that my uncle had committed suicide, and he was in complete shock. I didn’t know what to say — or how to help. High-profile suicides or suicide attempts make headlines (think Robin Williams, Kehlani, or countless others), but when it hits closer to home, we have trouble broaching the subject, which leads to a shroud of silence. Research shows that glamorising or sensationalising suicide can increase its likelihood, but honestly discussing it does not. Instead, an open conversation about mental health issues — and the fact that help is out there — can fight the stigma of mental illness, benefitting both those who have contemplated or attempted suicide and those who have lost someone to it. That's why I talk about it. When I tell people my uncle died by suicide, I could be telling them anything. I’m matter-of-fact and composed: all facts, no tears. It’s been hard to process. My uncle and my dad had stopped speaking years earlier over other family issues — the kind you might find in a Tennessee Williams play. So the last time I saw my uncle was at my high school graduation. I waved at him from the football field. We know very little about what was really going on in my uncle’s life when he died. Maybe he’d still be alive if he had better access to mental health resources. My uncle’s no longer in pain, but the family he left behind will never get over this loss. I hurt for my cousins and their children, my aunt who still lives in the house where he died, and my dad whose last words to his brother were angry. My sister and I don’t have the closest relationship these days, and my dad regularly urges me to be the bigger person and fix it. “Someday, she’ll be all the family you have left,” he says. I know he thinks of my uncle then. Suicide is sad, tragic even, but it’s not shameful. It’s a health problem, and it can be prevented. I talk about my uncle’s death because it feels better than acting like everything’s fine. He mattered too much for me to stay silent. To continue this conversation, we collected stories from R29ers about the impact suicide has had on their lives — and what they wish others knew about this issue. Click through to read them, and know that whatever your relationship to suicide, you are not alone. If you or someone you know is considering self-harm, please get help. Call the Samaritans at 116 123.
Four years ago, my father committed suicide while I was at graduate school in the U.K. It was five days before his 50th birthday. When I found out, I remember making a sound that I’d never made before, a sound that wasn’t entirely human. I immediately left school to be with my family.
My dad had always been depressed, but he refused to take meds. He was a software engineer and believed that medication dulls your edge. He didn’t really want to admit there was a problem. My mother did a good job of keeping him going. He’d attempted suicide a couple of times when I was a child, but she hid it from my brother and me. Now, my family thinks of life as before and after. All of us changed so much. My mum was this bohemian in bright colours, the executive director of a non-profit organisation. She immediately started wearing black, quit the job she loved, and moved to a new state. I used to wear velvet, polka dots, and jewel tones, and I completely stopped wearing colour. I left grad school, changed careers, stopped smoking, started running, and then moved to New York. My mum has said that she wishes [the suicide] had never happened, of course, but she’s happy my brother and I reacted by changing our lives for the better. I studied history in grad school, but I quit academia and discovered a new passion: programming. Now I’m a software engineer like my dad was. My brother went back to school and got a degree in computer science. My mum became the HR director at a university that trains software engineers. We all gravitated toward computers. In a way, it’s an opportunity to keep my dad in our daily lives. At the same time, it’s torturous. I want to tell him about my success, but I can’t. In a way, my dad's death prevented mine. I realised it's not okay to just try to deal with it when you have a serious mental illness. After his death, I made the decision to get on medication. It didn't dull my edge. What it did was give me my life back. — Anonymous
My mum is an alcoholic and also has borderline personality disorder (BPD), which any therapist will tell you is nearly impossible to treat. Unlike mental health issues such as bipolar disorder, people with BPD don’t really respond to medication — only to talk therapy. However, many people with BPD will not go into therapy because they're convinced that nothing is wrong with them. My mum tends to blame her issues on other people and doesn’t think she needs help. As a result, we don’t have a good relationship.
When my sister phoned a few years ago on Christmas Eve to tell me my mum overdosed and was in the hospital, I was neither surprised nor particularly upset. But it turned out that my youngest brother, who was just a teenager at the time, was the one who found her on the kitchen floor and called 911. As soon as I heard that, I completely lost it. I sobbed the whole flight back home. It seemed like the culmination of all these years my siblings and I have had to "parent" our own parent — that my baby brother had to be the one to see her like that and save her life was just so sad and terrible. I wished, and still wish, that I could have protected him. My mum left a suicide note blaming my siblings and I for her death — apparently, we hadn't done enough to "prove our love" for her and make her life worthwhile. When my siblings and I all gathered in the ICU once she was awake, I forced her to apologise to my brother for putting him through that. Today, my mum still refuses treatment. She's still drinking 24/7 and hiding a handle of vodka in her closet. And my little brother still lives in fear of the next time she tries to kill herself. The circumstances around suicide can be very complicated. I’ve known three people who committed suicide — and it's true that the vast majority of these stories are just 100% tragic. These were loving and loved individuals who found the struggles of this world to be too much. Their deaths were shocking, and they were mourned by countless members of their families and communities who truly miss them. My mother's attempt just wasn't like that. Nobody was surprised, since she already had so many issues she was refusing to confront or get help for. She didn't have any friends to rally around her. In fact, the hospital would only release her "into the custody of an adult," and everyone I called to help refused. She had burned too many bridges. When someone makes a suicide attempt and lives, you should show up for that person, help him or her understand how loved he or she is, and that living is worth it after all. But all of that kind of goes out the window when the person who made the attempt did it to be manipulative, like my mother did. Afterwards, she kept asking, "Now how are all of you going to prove to me that you love me? How are you going to make my life worthwhile?" — Anonymous
My friend Matthew committed suicide about a year and a half ago. Matthew was outwardly an extremely happy and comical person. A lot of people said he was the happiest person they’d ever met. But he and I were really close, and I knew he was actually in a lot of pain. He was gay and raised in a really strict Mormon family. When he came out at the age of 18, they basically disowned him.
Matthew always said he was looking for his tribe. He remained very religious and went into Pentecostal training, which was always really interesting to me. Here’s this person who was outcast by religion, yet he still believed in its importance. Matthew wasn’t judgmental — he gave everyone a chance. I always perceived kindness like that as weakness, but I later realised it was one of the strongest things about him. It’s easy to turn your back on people. It’s hard to stay there for them and know that you might not get anything in return. The biggest thing I took away from this is that we can’t assume what other people are going through. Just because someone looks happy on the outside doesn’t mean they’re not experiencing depression or pain inside. People underestimated when Matthew was upset. They’d be like, “Shake it off! Be happy!” He was expected to be like that, because that’s how he was most of the time. Matthew committed suicide when he was 26. He had the rest of his life ahead of him. He called me three days before it happened, and I wasn’t available. He left me a voicemail that I didn’t listen to right away. Now, I play it and think, What if I’d been there or called him back or gotten on a plane to get to him? What could I have done differently? — Stacy Scripter
I lost my mother to suicide when I was seven. I can see the night it happened like it was yesterday. My parents divorced when I was two, and I’d spent that weekend with my father. My dad drove me home, and there was heat-lightning in the sky, which I'd never seen before and haven't since. My father told me to stay in the car, and I heard screams when he entered the house.
I remember playing outside with my friends the next day, and my dad's two friends calling me inside to chat. They told me my mum was “with the angels now." I didn't say much and asked if I could keep playing outside. Until I was 11, I thought my mum died in a car wreck. My mum’s death didn't affect me until high school, when I started to come out of my shell and discover different parts of myself. I can't remember her smell, her laugh, her mannerisms — nothing. But as I grew up, I decided that anything that didn't match my father was from her. I have her eyes, her cheekbones, and her teeth. In a way, I get to know her more and more as I age. She visited me in a dream once. It's hard to recount, but I remember she hugged me and said she loved me. I woke up crying. With every success in my life comes a bit of grief, because I can’t celebrate it with my mum. I want her to see where I am now, how far I've come, what I'm doing, who my friends are... There are so many things I want to tell her. I think the hardest part is just not having her next to me. I'd never leave her side, if I did. Looking back, I wish there had been some suicide prevention program my mum could have gone to for help, instead of trying to figure things out on her own (and failing). It should never be too late to save someone from depression. I think it's important to share my story, because awareness can only help someone going through a similar situation. I'm sharing it with my name attached, because this is my mother and my experience. — Landon Peoples
My wife got the call that her brother Ben was in the hospital in January, one month before our first anniversary. She’d gotten a message from his roommate earlier, asking if she'd heard from Ben. We were concerned that he’d been arrested again.
Ben had always been impulsive, which is common behaviour for someone who experienced child abuse like he did, and it remained a problem as an adult. Ben had served seven years in prison for burglary, and frequently broke his parole by driving under the influence and doing drugs, though he never got caught. A day earlier, he was fired from his job as a line cook for losing his temper when coworkers picked on him. My wife answered the phone in a huff, but her scowl quickly turned to agony. The sound of her sobbing will be burned in my memory forever. Ben had attempted suicide. At the hospital, we learned his prognosis was not good, but doctors were doing everything they could. Ben was taken off life support that first week, occasionally regaining consciousness long enough to cry and apologise before being put back on. Ben lived for four more months on a ventilator until he had had nothing left to give. Those four months have defined the last four years of my life. I immediately lost my stomach for horror films, running out of the room at the first sign of blood. Even children's cartoons can send me reeling. Nothing will ever be the same. The suicide of a family member isn’t like a natural death in the family, which is hard enough. It’s an acute traumatic event that can cause PTSD, flashbacks, and years of triggers and emotional minefields that can affect your relationship with other survivors in unpredictable ways. If you are mourning a loved one who committed suicide (or care about someone who is mourning someone), please be patient. Don’t expect him or her to recover quickly or to ever completely get over it. — Anonymous
It was somewhere between midnight and 1 a.m., and I was being wheeled into the back of an ambulance. As the EMT tried to get me to breathe properly, the only thing I could think of was to tell her that I couldn’t afford a trip to the hospital.
“Do you have health insurance?” I didn’t. And even if I did, I was doubtful that insurance would cover suicide attempts. (In fact, insurance companies are required by law to cover suicide attempts, yet there are still sneaky exceptions.) There are a lot of things no one tells you about being in the thick of depression. No one really told me how much it feels like drowning — a constant state of alternating between dread, nothingness, and panic, trying to decide whether to keep fighting or to succumb. Nor do they tell you how desperate you'll become to do anything to stop the hurting. They also don't tell you what happens after a failed suicide attempt, how strange and difficult it is to navigate back to who you were. That is, if you can even remember who you were before all this started. I'm still stumbling and trying to work out who that is. Here’s what I can tell you about suicide, though: The shame and stigma around mental illness and suicide don’t help anyone. Telling someone suicide is selfish only makes him or her feel worse and less comfortable reaching out for help. Things don't get better right away — at least, in my experience, there's no moment of awakening like there is in the movies. But what matters most, what gives me the most hope, is that even though my attempt was only three months ago, it feels like a lifetime away, when I was a whole other person. — Kimberly Truong