I’m a suicide attempt survivor, and I’m glad the American Association of Suicidology is launching this blog to give a public voice to people like me. Because, frankly, where are we? Why do we have to hide?
To me, it’s been a relief to come across other people who’ve been through this and see that it’s possible to move on in life without a dark trail of stigma. But it’s very hard to come across these people when no one dares to say anything openly. It’s not enough to have a few brave attempt survivors speaking publicly for the many thousands of us. For one thing, each of our experiences is unique, and piecing together the “why” and “what to do now” can take more resources and insight than each of us alone can provide.
We are such a crowd of isolated people, not knowing who else out there would understand, and too scared to ask. Wasn’t homosexuality once this way?
Over the past year or so, I’ve been seeking out and interviewing the small number of attempt survivors who’ve made the decision to speak publicly about their experience. I’ve found that speaking about it doesn’t have to mean being defined by it. I’ve also found that even some of the people who study suicide for a living are nervous about us. When the president of AAS spoke with me last fall about creating and editing this blog, she asked me to write something that she could take to the board to justify why it’s needed. It makes sense to share it here, with a few changes:
Openness trumps anonymity, and it’s more healthy. After I decided to stop keeping my own experience a secret from everyone, including my family, I went online to look for guidance. Any national organizations for attempt survivors? No. Any regular publications? No. Any support groups? For the entire country, a dozen at best, and almost none are in our largest cities, including New York. The groups you can find for suicide survivors are for people who have lost someone, and they’ve had to make their own journey from widespread silence. I was left with the shadowy world of forums with no real names and no sense of who was talking. It was no way to make the connections I needed.
When we talk about the need to break down the stigma around suicide, it shouldn’t stop short of attempt survivors. Statistics say we’re more at risk for suicide than other people, but engaging us shouldn’t feel risky. When I started interviewing attempt survivors, among the frank, smart, funny, startling life stories were the reminders of fear. Therapists’ fear of treating people like us, tied to the fear of losing us or being sued. Fear of mentioning suicidal thoughts to therapists, tied to the fear of consequences. Fear of being rejected by family, colleagues or friends, or fear of letting them down. Fear of failing to meet our own standards. Fear of even saying the word. Is it any wonder that suicide comes so often without warning? We don’t reveal what’s going on. “We have to watch him from the outside,” Joan Wickersham wrote in her book “The Suicide Index” after her father killed himself. “He leaves no clues, his whole life is a clue.” I’ve even corresponded with a suicide researcher who fears mentioning their own attempt to colleagues.
We need more information, because suicide’s not going away. The rate isn’t even going down. Making it easier to talk openly would give us more resources to explore: Better firsthand knowledge of coping and recovery. Better understanding of motivations. Better statistics. Some people would rather pretend that a suicide attempt never happened, or that a suicide was an accident instead. Because of this, we don’t even know how many people kill themselves, or how many try. It’s hard to address an issue when that issue would rather hide.
Finally, a conversation about, and among, suicide attempt survivors is not going to inspire us to go kill ourselves. This is the fear I find the most astonishing. The biggest weight I felt before my pair of attempts in recent years, one that practically spurred me on, was the knowledge that I was alone and that nothing good would likely happen if I confided in the people around me. If nobody talks about suicide, how could I? Speaking with a crisis line or a therapist can be helpful, but that requires stepping out of everyday life into a world that reinforces the fear, “See? I must be crazy.” Surely, knowing that all kinds of people have experience a suicide attempt, and being able to speak with those people in the course of our regular lives, would be better than letting silence give another strong twist to our isolation.
Let’s relax a bit and explore an open conversation, as awkward as it may be. I’ve seen scattered sparks of discussion out there, interesting ones, when people comment on articles or blog posts about suicide. And then they fade away. But there’s no anchored discussion, no landing place for the lonely Googler. Without one, we’re left in the cycle of keeping everything carefully quiet and then, after another suicide, once again asking “Why?”
As you can see, this blog was approved. Now it’s a test, I suppose, to see if anyone responds. Who are suicide attempt survivors, and why us? Why did this happen? How do you move on? What would make moving on easier? What’s the best way to talk about this? How do you figure out who won’t panic if you tell them? What needs to be said? Or should we all just keep quiet instead?
I’m not so sure about that last question. I believe suicide is the most stubborn of the many topics that eventually have worked their way out of the world of unmentionables. More than one attempt survivor has pointed out that we used to talk about cancer, for example, in whispers. That seems almost unbelievable now.
We can draw other parallels between cancer and suicide. In both cases, we often can’t single out the cause. We don’t have a certain cure. We can’t guarantee it won’t return. It’s also safe to say we didn’t want it to come upon us at all.
In either case, that’s a lot to take on alone.
Editor’s note: Cara Anna is a journalist in New York and a former foreign correspondent in China.