Surviving Myself: What It's Like Living With Suicidal Thinking Since Childhood

Updated: Sep 12


My First Time


Everyone remembers their first time.


I am eleven years old. My father has forgotten to pick me up from a friend's house, again. I’m embarrassed, and don’t want their parents to see where I live if they drive me home, so I sit alone on their cold concrete steps, waiting. My hard learned patience fades into a slight panic as the sun begins to set behind the mountains.


People don’t forget people they love.

You’re not important enough to remember.

No one even notices you’re not there.


I push myself up from the steps and start walking. If I get in trouble for not being where I said I was, or for walking home alone in the dark, so be it. I’m sick of being forgotten and overlooked and dismissed. Frustration fuels the pace of my little feet shuffling their way down the paved road.


Now I’m at the bridge that connects the affluent side of town to my side of town. Under the bridge there’s mostly jagged rocks. Sharp. They catch my eye like the steak knives at dinner.


“Jump.”


I feel a strong physical pulling, like someone has grabbed me by the shirt neck and is lifting me to the railing. But I don’t want to die. Do I?


“No, no, no, no, no.”


I push my arms out in front of me, touch the railing, get a grip on the cold metal, and it burns. The pain brings me back from the ledge long enough to exit this scene safely.


I know I have to tell my mom, but I have no idea where to start.


Where did this start, anyway?


I get home and walk into my bedroom, close the door behind me quietly. My mom enters anyway.


“Jump.”


Does this mean I’m crazy?


After staring at the wall for an indescribable amount of time, I tell my mom some mix of “I’m not happy,” and “I’ve been thinking about dying a lot,” and “Tonight I didn’t feel safe on the bridge.” I do not tell her about the cut marks on my arm.


Knowing our family history of mental health conditions, she brings me to our family physician.


This is the first time I will tell a doctor about my suicidal thoughts and about my self-harming tendencies. About the steak knives. It will also be the first time I am prescribed a serotonin selective reuptake inhibitor or SSRI.


I am prescribed a starting dose of citalopram hydrobromide, the antidepressant medication known as Celexa.


Children shouldn’t be like this, the doctor confirms.

Not My Voice

I’m sitting in a chair across from the same doctor, several weeks and several side effects later.


“Something told me to reach for the pills,” I say. “I saw myself sitting in the computer chair outside myself and then a voice said to grab the bottle and open it.”


I imagined swallowing the pills, and I saw them Alanis-Morissette-swimming-in-my-stomach, bursting open one at a time and poisoning me. Mini grenades. I imagined my mother finding me and wondering what went wrong.


“And then what happened?” the doctor asks.

“And then I took eleven of them. You know, one for each year.” I try to insert some logic to prove I haven’t totally lost my mind. “And I don’t want to die.”


This damn voice just keeps telling me otherwise...and it’s just so painful to be alive and feeling these feelings, and honestly, I’m scared. Honestly, I'm not sure that I don't want to die but I don't have the words to explain this right now.


The conversation ended with me getting a prescription for venlafaxine (Effexor). It’s a different kind of antidepressant known as an SNRI (serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor).


Weeks later, after complaining of being overly tired, distracted, and dizzy, methylphenidate AKA Ritalin was added to daily dosing to counteract the side effects.


Ritalin works as a central nervous system stimulant and helps with increasing attention and decreasing restlessness as well as sleepiness.


While this new combination of medication provided some initial relief (and probably more so from the fact that someone else was acknowledging something was wrong with me), it didn’t cure me. Instead, taking pills when none of my friends were and still feeling crushing depression and thoughts of self-harm unlike them made me feel worse about myself and my mental health.


This was of course a massive disappointment for everyone involved.


But now I know antidepressants and stimulant medications don’t "cure" suicidal thinking. Rather, when used under the care of a professional, certain medications can help quiet that line of thinking so you can function again and start the work on healing the root cause or ‘why’ behind suicidal thinking and, eventually, developing a life you desire to live (at least most of the time).


If you don’t keep working on the why, though, these thoughts can resurface.


I Did Ask For Help


Sometime shortly after the first time I had a near-suicide experience, my father relapsed, my parents got divorced, and my family split into two.


At just barely 13, I had sex for the first time, drunk, with my older boyfriend, and it sent me into a shame-fear-attachment spiral. I started smoking weed and drinking much more regularly. My depression, as it was now called, wasn’t getting any better.


And so came my first foray into cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT with a trained mental health counselor.


“You can tell her the things you don’t want to tell me,” my mother said.


This was confusing because I thought I could tell my mother anything, and that’s why I had spoken out about wanting to die and about having sex. I concealed nothing. Knowing I had given that information to the person I deemed safest, and that they didn’t know what to do with it, alarmed me. It also didn’t give me much confidence in the ability of a stranger to help me, either.


Therapy did eventually grow into a productive place to deal with other immediate issues, like family separation after divorce or school drama and stress, but it’s therapeutic potential was limited because I was scared to talk about the suicidal thinking and my sexual history. I didn’t want anyone else to have to get involved if this person deemed me a threat to myself. I didn’t want to get into trouble, be taken away from home, or, worse, I didn’t want to be told I was crazy and there was nothing anyone could do about it.


Marked.


I am not crazy.


After all, I’d say over and over again, I’m not *actually* going to kill myself. I haven’t thus far, and for the young mind, that’s all the reassurance needed.


Cured. I’m not a threat to myself, I say while staring into the mirror. I’m still here, aren’t I? And I have always been depressed, I say. Plus, it’s not like I think about killing myself all the time. I’m fine. This is fine. Move on.


Your boyfriend hates to see you so sad.


And so began my attempt to pass as someone else—someone who didn’t look like she was walking the line of being unalive. I was going to stop cutting, stop thinking about suicide and meaning and pain, and I was going to be the happy girl and the healthy girl.


Why? Because those girls looked how girls our age should look. I believed these identities would mask my own: The girl with the dark cloud hanging over her, raining down passive and occasionally active suicidal thoughts.


Coping Gone Wrong


Somewhere around 15 years old, my fixation on becoming the healthiest version of myself took over every other thought. I quit drinking and smoking and stopped eating almost all fat and sugar.


I would obsessively ruminate on every calorie consumed that day, week, and month. I would write calorie-based menu plans, and I would spend hours researching the nutritional content in both whole foods and packaged foods.


Counting calories became the new thinking about suicide. A coping strategy for how to get out of the darkest depths of my young mind. While adding up and checking multiple times to ensure accuracy, I felt safe with myself. This felt like taking care.


I lost 50 pounds dropping down from 142 to 92 pounds. This dramatic weight loss caused a health crisis I didn’t even know was possible. Starvation sent my body into survival mode.


It wasn’t until I was being bullied about how much weight I’d lost over the summer and it wasn’t until I was severely malnourished with my hair falling out in clumps and it wasn’t until my menstrual cycle stopped and it wasn’t until I lost the ability to sleep that I considered I may be sick with an eating disorder.


Thinking about anorexia was scary because by the time I thought about it, it was already so beyond me. I’d crossed a line and my mind was trying to get me to survive by binging on high-calorie foods to compensate for months of starvation.


I went back to therapy because I thought I had lost control over myself. I went back to therapy to learn how to get that control back. I refused to gain more than a few pounds, and I told my counselor I’d do whatever she wanted so long as she promised I could stay at 100 pounds if it got to that.


What could be more perfect than 100? I said. It felt like a reasonable and even sustainable compromise.


Anorexia Showed Me I Do Want to Live


During this time, my counselor recommended I speak to my doctor about being prescribed fluoxetine AKA Prozac to help me manage daily binge eating sessions and symptoms of depression. Both professionals asked me to stick with talk therapy and pharmaceutical treatment for the foreseeable future.


Treatment for me meant showing up to several therapy sessions per week and taking a pill daily with the goal of saving my own life.


I completed worksheets to retrain my brain on how to take care of myself, how to stop self-harming, and how to determine what's right for my body (intuitive eating) and how that fits into what it means to eat a healthy diet, eat without compensation, and exercise without shame, and all while staying on top of my school work, working an after school job, and trying to gain enough weight to stabilize my hormones enough to start menstruating again and stop losing my hair.


I was faced with a desire to fight back that I'd never experienced before. I didn't want anorexia to end my life. It's at this time I started writing Ana, Mia & Me: An Eating Disorder Recovery Memoir.


Months of life-changing work and effort helped me to mostly exit the binge-purge cycle, at least temporarily. But back at 120-125 pounds, I saw my experience not as one of recovery and triumph, but of failure.


Stigmas about taking medication for depression encouraged me to quit taking Prozac.


And so ensued another dive into isolating depression and self-harming.

Undergraduate Years


When moving out of my small town and being the first in my family to attend university didn’t cure my depression or stop the binge-purge behaviors as hoped, I fell into what felt like a deep well slowly filling with muddy water. Buckets being tossed on top of me:


You will never be happy.

You don't deserve to be happy.

Oh, you think this is happy?

Don't get comfortable with happy.

This will never last.

This isn't what you think it is.

This isn't good enough.

You aren't good enough.


“I’m crying all the time. I don’t know what the point of this is anymore, but my boyfriend is worried. I can’t seem to get out of this,” I say to the on-campus doctor.


“Do you feel like hurting yourself?” they say.


The thoughts intrude from time to time, but they’re not my own. It’s no big deal. I promise, I’m fine. I’m just doing this “thing” again. I do this from time to time when I’m stressed, I say.


I think about what counts as “hurting.”


  • Is it fantasizing about walking into oncoming traffic?

  • What about filling your pockets with rocks and walking ever so slowly into the lake you swam in as a child?

  • Is it the desire to bash your head into a glass table?


I explain I have a history of suicidal thinking, but that I’m not a danger to myself. It’s “more like” what I’ve learned is called “passive suicidal thinking.” In other words, no, I do not have plan.


Not really.


They seem to relax.


I’m diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, and severe depression is yet again confirmed. I’m prescribed Prozac again because it worked well in the past, right?


They use the word “episode” this time around and they refer me to campus counseling. I go. I do the work. I take the Prozac pills.


Another episode of depression fades into muddy memory, and I survive myself.


What Happens Next

I leave my first post secondary school with district honors and degrees in both Sociology and English. I move across the country to start a new life, determined to leave any mention of mental illness at the airport. I’ve convinced myself that I can outsmart whatever part of suicidal thinking may be genetic, and I can prevent any other episodes of depression because I am now in control of my life: out of school and ready to take on the world.


Except the flashbacks, dissociative tendencies, and hypervigilance I’ve come to live with don’t get the message. Chronic pain starts popping up in my knees, wrists, and chest. Depressive episodes happen anyway and it's becoming more challenging to tell the difference between normal mood and low mood. I have no energy unless I'm drunk.


At 23, I am diagnosed with the chronic pain condition known as fibromyalgia. I feel as though some suicide has already happened, but I can’t explain it to anyone.


And I don't want it to be real.


So with the help of the internet and internalized ableism, I convince myself I’ve created my own suffering, I've made it all up since day one, and I'm faking it. The bridge stuff never happened. I have never been truly actively or passively suicidal. I was just being dramatic and my life could be a lot worse and I should be grateful, like everyone says.


And so, I fixate on myself as subject and on the idea that if I eat perfectly, sleep perfectly, live perfectly, and still end up thinking about suicide, then it’s a “real” problem. Then, and only then, will I consider taking medication again and seeking more help.


And so I spend the little energy I have in my mid-twenties seeing naturopathic doctors, chiropractors, massage therapists, and colon hydrotherapists (yeah, the people who give water enemas). I read mental health and addiction memoirs instead of talking to anyone about how I still sometimes feel after all these years. Not all the time, but sometimes, and those sometimes sting.


You should just kill yourself, a small voice says as I chop vegetables for dinner and consider turning the knife on myself. I am 26 and about to be married. I tell myself to just ignore it. Stop it. Keep chopping.


You should just kill yourself, a bigger voice says after I leave that man and find myself shopping alone for a new couch. I weep in the middle of the store, wipe my tears, buy a couch, and leave.


You should just kill yourself, a screaming voice says as I think about jumping from my 14th floor apartment balcony and into the busy city street below. I am choking on tears as my new live-in boyfriend comes outside our apartment to console me. He thinks someone has died. I don’t know what to tell him. I'm 28 and tired.


At this point, I’ve lost interest in my job, my relationships, my goals, and my reality TV escapism shows. I’m struggling to read. Depression and anxiety are getting louder and sounding out my other senses. Food has lost all appeal. Wine has not. A doctor at a walk-in clinic prescribes me duloxetine (Cymbalta) and tells me to walk daily (at least 1 km) and return in two weeks. The Cymbalta, he says, will help with depression and fibro pain.


I started gaining interest again, working on my goals, and watching all my shows. Reading. I was even able to take an extended break from drinking. Depression was getting more quiet.


I even got to an emotional place where I felt safe enough to get married again. To commit my life. I considered myself happy and lucky and loved. And then my world fell apart quite literally with a knock at the door one morning. The person I’d married was no longer and it was time to make a major life change whether I was ready or not. The suicidal thinking returned with a vengeance. Why would I want to survive this kind of loss?


“No, no, no, no, no.”


Alcohol and Suicidal Thinking


After that, I started drinking like I wanted to die, and I nearly did (twice, but we'll just share the one story here for now).


Alcohol adds fuel to the spark of preexisting suicidal thinking... Several glasses of wine in one night, I was washing a chef's knife in soapy water when the voice returned. This time, stronger than ever. My grip around the knife tightened. Desperate.


"Stab yourself."


I removed the knife from my one hand and slid it across the counter as if to someone else for safe keeping but no one was there. After sobering up, I dragged myself to the walk-in clinic and I sat for 8 hours, yes, the entire day, to wait my turn to ask for help for suicidal thinking.


Was it an emergency? No, but yes. Yes, but no.


Before the clinic closed for the day, I was given another medication: bupropion (Wellbutrin). At the time, it probably saved my life. It certainly lifted me out of the well, drained the water, and enabled me to continue working on my mental health.


The work has included as many sessions as I could and could not afford with a trauma-informed therapist who I still see today. Together, we have done crisis management with cognitive behavioral therapy and EMDR or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing of traumatic past events. THIS is one of the best tools we have in letting things go.


And while some of the scars are so deep they will never fully fade, they do remind me that I am alive. I am alive. I am alive. Despite myself.


Do I still experience suicidal thinking? Sometimes a thought will pop into my head, but it’s not as weighty or loud or scary. It’s not as pulling or sinking or threatening. It just is. Like any other passing thought that comes and goes throughout my lifetime, I now acknowledge it and choose to respond with curiosity: What am I really feeling under this intrusive thought?


This kind of self-talk is remarkably more accessible or easier to do after alcohol dependence is dealt with.


Reflections From 20 Years of Suicidal Thinking

Twenty years of experiencing intermittent, passive suicidal thinking has taught me a few things, including how uncomfortable a topic it is to discuss.


The reason why I’m sharing so openly is because of the young age at which this all began. I didn’t know if it was serious, but it was scary. I didn’t know if anyone would believe me, or take me seriously, or help me, but I couldn’t keep the secret. I spoke up not knowing if it would change anything, or if it would be worth it to expose myself, because some part of me wanted to survive myself.


I want to let you know it’s worth it, at every age, to seek help.


And if you think someone needs help, please reach out to them or someone you trust. People who hurt themselves or talk about hurting themselves are in the kind of pain that demands attention. They’re pleading for it, actually. Please give it to them. Please let them know they are worthy enough of believing and helping.


Solutions have included antidepressants that have helped turn down suicidal thinking so I can better address the underlying reasons contributing to the thoughts; talk therapies that have helped me understand how childhood risk factors and events played a role in my story; and independent research on depression and suicide that has helped me contextualize the personal into the political. EMDR, yoga, and complementary treatment methods for suicidal thinking have also been integral tools in me surviving myself.


I’m not alone in this and neither are you.


Now into my 30s, I look at milestones like my birthday as a time to reflect on everything I didn’t miss because my story continued. I read every loving text with gratitude that I’m here to receive it. I appreciate my life with such a vulnerability I could have never imagined in my youngest years.


If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide or talking about suicide, please take it seriously and seek support immediately.


Go to Talk Suicide Canada

Hours: Available 24/7/365 for calls; 4 PM—12 AM ET for texts; Languages: English, French Learn more

1.833.456.4566

or text 45645


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