The impact and stigma of suicide
Reprinted from "Recovery: Stigma and Inclusion" issue of Visions Journal, 2017, 13 (1), p. 17
Mental illness has been a part of my life for almost 20 years—most of my existence.
At the age of four, I lost my father to suicide. He was battling a deep depression and was struggling with recovery from his addiction to cocaine. From this event, I created an idea of myself, that I was not good enough for my father to want to continue living life with me. With the help of a counsellor, I have come to realize that I am doing a disservice to myself if I continue to believe that I am not worthy, not “good enough,” simply because a four-year-old decided I wasn’t.
It’s been a tiresome journey to get the help I needed, as I never wanted to admit that something might actually be wrong with me. I looked at myself and said, “Other people have it worse than me,” or, “I have nothing to be upset about; I’m just whining.” It can be difficult being young and listening to an older generation say, “You haven’t even lived yet. What do you have to be depressed about?” Hearing these words can cause young people and teenagers to retreat farther into themselves. Without knowing someone’s struggle, we can’t determine what someone is feeling or what someone might be affected by. It is always possible for someone young to “have something to be depressed about.”
Growing up, I felt the stigma surrounding my father’s suicide. I never spoke much about him, and when I was asked, I used phrases such as “He died,” or “He passed away.” I felt that nobody wanted to hear my sob story and I didn’t want anyone’s sympathy. None of my peers and none of the adults in my life ever spoke about suicide or its victims, and so when I started having suicidal thoughts of my own, I kept them hidden. Stigma is not always about what someone says. The less suicide is talked about, the more taboo it seems, particularly to people who have never been affected by it.
I knew that some symptoms of depression applied to me, but I had always thought the typical depressed person was so exhausted that they could not go to work or function in their everyday lives. I thought that depression always consumed you—that you couldn’t do anything at all except lie in the darkness of your room with the covers pulled over your head, blocking out the world.
I have since learned that there is no such thing as “typical” when it comes to depression. Nobody fits into the categories perfectly because everyone experiences mental illness differently. The stereotypical “depressed person” is just that: a stereotype. My assumptions were based on a stereotype rather than on real experience.
I became interested in alcohol around the age of 15. Others among my peers were also beginning to drink—mostly the ones with parents who did so frequently. I hid my drinking from almost everyone I was close to. I would purposely hang out with acquaintances at school rather than friends. Among my acquaintances, I wasn’t the only one using alcohol, so no one bothered to question me about it. Isolating myself from my true friends was the only way I could get away with it. My close friends would have been alarmed; acquaintances just thought I liked to “have a good time.”
During high school, I worked a part-time job and kept my grades up to As and Bs—but I was also drinking straight vodka every day before 8 am. The only time I wasn’t intoxicated was when I had to work on the weekends, when I had to write a test, or when there simply was no alcohol around. In hindsight, I realize I was self-medicating. I continued to wake up every day, poison my body with alcohol and then put a smile on my face. Anybody who asked me “How are you?” received the same answer: “I’m good, how are you?”
Obviously, I was not good. But when someone asks how you are, they don’t really want to know how you actually are; they are simply greeting you, and the expected response is that you are, indeed, fine. I had everyone fooled, even myself—that I was a capable person living a successful life.
After high school, I quit drinking heavily in order to work full-time. Without the giddy weightlessness of near-constant intoxication, my depression became increasingly worse. At work, I chatted lightly and laughed with my co-workers, while inside my head I was replaying false statements about myself: I am stupid, ugly, fat, worthless. Often when I worked an early-morning shift, I would be the first and only one in the department for an hour or more. My thoughts rapidly became focused on ways I could end my life. I told nobody about the way I was feeling for fear of being judged, seeming weak or being talked about behind my back.
On the morning of July 22, 2016, I intentionally overdosed. I called my best friend and told her what I had done. I was immediately admitted to the hospital. My mother, my partner and my other family members and friends were in utter shock. That was the lowest point I have ever been, and I never want to experience it again.
But ironically, because my plan hadn’t gone the way I intended, I considered my suicide attempt to be a failure rather than a second chance. The doctors told me that if I had waited another two hours before arriving at Victoria General Hospital, my liver would have failed and I would have died. When I heard that, it didn’t matter to me that my closest family and companions were horrified and in tears. I was numb, and I still wanted to die. I wished I had never picked up the phone.
After my release from the hospital, I did not tell any of my wider social circle what had happened. The stigma surrounding my own father’s suicide was still with me; I didn’t want people to look at me as a poor, sad little girl or—perhaps even worse—be indifferent.
Even though I had left the hospital with a prescription for my first dose of antidepressants, I was still uncertain what the future would look like. The pills worked for a while, and I began to feel better. But after about three months, I started getting worse again. I was clutching my chest at night, my stomach in knots, as I cried myself to sleep. Suicidal thoughts began to resurface, and I became afraid; I’d had a glimpse of hope after taking medication and I didn’t want to feel suicidal again. When I looked back at the person who had been admitted to the hospital, I felt I was looking at a version of myself that no longer existed.
I knew I needed to reach out. I was still hiding secrets, and I suspected the fact that I was keeping them secret was affecting my health. So, I took a big step: I disclosed to my mother that I had been through a horrific experience of sexual assault a few years previously, and that I continued to deal with the effects of that assault every day. I battled constant feelings of guilt, shame and disgust. After I opened up about my experience, a physician was able to diagnose me with depression and noted that I also had some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
I have a high-functioning form of depression. In times of emotional distress, I focus my energy elsewhere—on my work or, as in the past, on my studies. It is usually impossible for others to see that I am struggling.
But I also have days where all I do is lie in my bed while the tears fall, for I cannot stop them. There are times when I am too tired and sleep too much—hours when I don’t feel like I am moving my own feet or even aware of my surroundings; I’m just going through the motions. I overthink conversations in my head, second-guessing myself and wondering at all times if I’m doing what I should be doing.
But I am alive, I am breathing, I am reading, walking, writing, talking. I am living. It’s wonderful. I reached out, I am properly medicated now, in counselling sessions, and I am doing better. I am learning to enjoy life again.
Now that I have been completely honest with my family and close friends, I also feel free of my invisible bindings. The people I care about most have accepted me and everything I have been through; it feels like I can start anew. Keeping things bottled up was always how I dealt with any difficult scenario in my life; I was ashamed and I worried about how I would be treated or viewed if I let anyone know what troubled me. I was under the impression that my thoughts were a reflection of who I was. I am glad to say that I have crawled out of the hole I was stuck in. Stigma is the darkness which makes the hole seem deeper and darker than it really is.
I have come to accept that not every day will be a good day, even if I want it to be. The most important thing is to ask for help when I need it. I am grateful that it is increasingly acceptable to talk about mental health openly, though I never thought to share my personal story in this way. Writing and speaking freely on this topic has helped my recovery. I hope this piece will encourage others to share their experiences.
About the author
Brittany enjoys reading, writing, cuddling with her cat and spending time with her family, partner and friends