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‘Not once was I asked if I wanted to live’

36 comments

Before handing today’s post to Craig Miller, a quick thank you to the group To Write Love on Her Arms, which wrote about us last week and sent our page views jumping _ almost 3,000 in two days’ time. We’ve now been online for a month, and we hope more groups will include this site in their resources.

Craig self-published his memoir, “This is How it Feels: Attempting suicide and finding life,” last year and has just started speaking publicly about his story. He says the biggest question he gets is, “How did you overcome your issues?” He’ll be writing about that here in future posts. And he’ll be speaking at the Massachusetts Suicide Prevention Conference on April 2-3. That’s sure to be a far bigger audience than for his first speech in a small town in western Massachusetts, where he faced a modest crowd of three.

I don’t remember how long it was after my suicide attempt that I knew I wanted to live. It wasn’t immediate, I know that. I didn’t wake up in the intensive care unit, fill my lungs with oxygen from a plastic tube and think, “Thank God I’m alive.” What came to me first was that I didn’t want to die. And as a person who has lived nearly 20 years of struggling with suicidal thoughts, I can tell you that there is a very big difference between not wanting to die and wanting to live.

Until my attempt at age 20, not wanting to die was how I lived most of my life. I hovered just above the bottom, inches away from my breaking point and buried beneath mountains of bad memories, mental disorders and hopelessness. I was always just one step away from suicide but not really wanting to die. That certainly didn’t mean that I was safe from suicide. It just meant that I was able to keep my suicidal thoughts at bay, even if it was a constant struggle. But knowing that I didn’t want to die seemed to suffice for everyone around me: my parents, friends and doctors, even me. When asked if I were considering suicide, I could almost always answer a truthful, “No, I don’t want to die.” This became the way I learned to cope with suicide: one step from the edge, buried in hopelessness, alive but definitely not living.

My first memory of this is when I was 8 years old and held a chef’s knife in my hand while crying uncontrollably. I was home from school alone one afternoon and doing the dishes as part of my daily chores. It wasn’t often that I had the house to myself, and I couldn’t help but notice how quiet it was. The TV was off. There were no sounds of nightly news reporters filling me in on the latest world tragedies. My mother and stepfather were not home yet. There were no voices shouting back and forth at each other, venting the dramas of the work day. It was just me, the sound of my breathing, the occasional drip of the faucet and the muffled clank of dishes sliding beneath soapy water.

I was drying the dishes and putting them in the rack when I picked up the knife. My mother had warned me about how easily I could get hurt if I mishandled it. Sometimes I was afraid to even touch it, but on that day I wasn’t so scared. I held it by the handle in a firm grip and slid a kitchen towel down one side of the blade. I could see my face in the reflective shine. I could see my teeth, and the big space between them that I wished I didn’t have. I could see the cowlick in my light blonde hair that made me look messy, no matter what I did to hide it. I could see my skin, my nose and my eyes. I could see their sadness and their weakness. Tears began to form.

At 8 years old, I hated my life. I hated that I was being molested and I had no one to tell. I hated that I was bullied for being a messy kid with a cowlick and crooked teeth, teased for being a bad student and disliked simply because I was me. I hated the thought of waking up each morning scared of what the day would bring. I hated the knot in my stomach that always seemed to be alive within me. I hated that I had trouble controlling my thoughts. I hated that I felt so weak inside and so sad. And for all of that, I hated myself.

My reflection blurred as tears continued to well up in my eyes. I turned and leaned against the counter. I gripped the knife with both hands and imagined what it would be like to not have to wake up again, to not have to face another day. The crying turned to sobs. I breathed deep with heavy wails. I was so broken, and so alone. Slowly, I slid down the kitchen cabinet. I wished I was strong. I wished I was brave. I wished I didn’t live in my house or go to my school. I wished everything was different.

I lay the knife down beside me, curled into a ball on the kitchen floor and sobbed for what felt like hours. The house remained silent. No slamming doors or heavy footsteps. It was just me, an 8-year-old boy lying broken on the floor, curled in a ball with my cheek pressed in a puddle of tears, quietly wishing I wasn’t alive, but somehow not wanting to die.

For years this is where I remained. As a teenager, I was committed to several mental health facilities for treatment. I was consumed by depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and relentless anxiety. Each time I met with a therapist or hospital clinician, they would always ask me the same clipboard questions and would inevitably ask if I was suicidal. That question was always there, probing my darkest desires and gauging the criticality of my current state: “Do you feel like you want to die? Do you want to hurt yourself? Are you thinking of suicide?” But strangely, for all of the times I was asked that, for all the doctors, therapists and counselors I sat with over the years, not once was I asked if I wanted to live.

It wasn’t until my suicide attempt at age 20 when I asked this for myself. I lay in the intensive care unit, tubes running from my mouth and nose, wires hooked up all over my body, and my hands and feet restrained to the bed. I thought about my life. I thought about how I had lived it, or rather how I hadn’t lived it. I looked back at all the significant moments that shaped me, all the things I had been through. And I remembered the quiet afternoon when I lay alone on the kitchen floor as an 8-year-old boy. I realized it had been more than a decade since that day, and for more than a decade I had allowed myself to remain there. All because “not wanting to die” was a good enough place to be.

Over time, I didn’t just “not want to die,” I wanted to live. But a thought like that doesn’t come so easily after years of struggling with suicide. The reality was, I wanted to want to live. Although I’d love to say that I was grateful to be alive and ready to start over, diving headfirst into everything life has to offer, the thought of living life was completely terrifying to me. Living in my shadow was all I had ever known. Living in the darkness of my illnesses, no matter how devastating and dangerous, no matter how isolating, was the only place I knew. I had never known what it was like to get up off the kitchen floor. But I did know then that I was ready to.

For all the difficulties I have had in life, I can tell you that making the decision to say, “I want to live” instead of saying “I don’t want to die,” was one of the hardest things I have ever done. It was facing a fear like none before, a step taken into an unknown world, a step forward into me. But fear, no matter what form it took, was something I had lived with my entire life. It influenced my decisions and kept my head pushed below the surface. Fear, in a large sense, was the reason I attempted suicide. So what was I so afraid of now? I had made a conscious decision to end my life. No matter what answers I gave to the questions of “what if,” none were as devastating or as frightening as what I had just gone through. The truth is that it couldn’t get any worse than it had already been, and my fears were weightless, empty and void of truth. I had nothing to be afraid of.

I’m not sure how long it was after my suicide attempt when I was certain that I wanted to live, when I knew I was ready to pick myself up off that kitchen floor. I’m not sure how long it took for me to truly convince myself that living was what I wanted. It didn’t come immediately. Living life took time. It took work and acceptance. It took a full understanding of what life means to me personally and how I would choose to live it.

As someone who has spent almost 20 years of life battling with suicidal thoughts, I can tell you that there is a very big difference between “not wanting to die” and “wanting to live.” One will leave us where we fall, letting us believe that we are safe and disguising us from our true potential. The other will help us up, dust us off, embrace us for our efforts and present a world which we’ve never imagined, a world worth living for.

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36 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. Such a powerful post! So glad you decided you wanted to live and that you survived your attempt. Your explanation of the extreme difference between not wanting to die versus wanting to live is one that many attempt survivors and those struggling with suicidal thoughts will very much identify with. Have shared this with my FB Suicide Shatters page members. Thank you for such an open, honest and candid post that will give others courage to come forward with their stories too.

    Reply

      • what a moving story. I related to it on so many levels that it was scary. I’m still in the ‘not wanting to die’ category but I’m glad you’ve shown there is a better way.

      • Thank you, Peter. Always remember there is a better way. It may not be easy at times, but I can assure you that it is worth it.

  2. As a suicide intervention worker on the Lifeline, I confess I have never considered the difference between wanting to live and not wanting to die. Thank you so much for your insight. I am always grateful to see a life that has survived suicide; I am particularly grateful for the gift you have brought to the world. May you have many happy days ahead.

    Reply

    • Thank you for the kind words, Marzipan, and thank you for the intervention work you do. I’m glad you found the post to be helpful.

      Reply

  3. Read this as it was posted on Suicide Shatters and also shared it to my own FB page. Thank you for your courage and honesty and for giving a voice to those who can no longer speak. You are saying what I constantly say about my own son. He wanted to live, just without the pain. You have done a beautiful thing with this post.

    Reply

  4. Thank you for the courage you show not just for sharing about your life, but for living them and getting to this point where you can help others. Lots of love to you. Continuing to share your story.

    Reply

  5. Craig,thank you so much for sharing your story,your honesty and bravery to share your story is wonderful.The language we use is so important and you have given us good insight.Again thank you craig,blessings to you

    Reply

  6. I very much enjoyed reading your blog this afternoon, Craig. I made a serious suicide attempt, not quite a year ago, and woke up angry at having been saved. I have come a long way since then, mainly thanks to nine glorious weeks at a wonderful in-patient facility in Houston.
    However, I still haven’t made that switch to wanting to live. I don’t know if that will ever happen (I’ve been suicidal since childhood, like you, but hung in there because I didn’t want to hurt my loved ones, until my depression became absolutely unbearable last year at the age of 56).
    But I am doing my best, and have just succeeded in getting the local acute mental health facility to start a weekly depression support group. In order to do that, I had to share my experience and thoughts in a talk to a group of therapists at a luncheon a few weeks ago. That was an interesting but worthwhile experience. There’s so much more that’s needed, though. It’s just one small step…
    Debi

    Reply

    • Hi Debi,
      I’m glad to hear you were able to find refuge after your attempt. As far as moving forward and wanting to live, I can understand your hesitation as I have been there myself. I think it’s best to ask yourself why you are hesitating to want to live. It’s a question that can really be asked and answered only by you.
      What I have found is often times we are so engrossed in our past that we tend to project those same feelings into our future. We become our own fortunetellers and make unconscious predictions that life will continue to be as it always was or even worse. It’s hard to want to live if we see our future state as just a continuation of the horrible road we’ve been travelling for so long.
      It sounds to me though, that your road is changing. You’ve succeeded in pulling together a support group- not an easy task. You’ve overcome the hurdle of sharing your story to a group of strangers in order to convince them that supporting the startup of the group was the right decision- again, no easy task. And above all, you’ve admitted that despite the fact it was “interesting” (which I’m interpreting as awkward and perhaps uncomfortable) it was “worthwhile” to you and your cause.
      That may be “just one small step” in your mind, but to me, as an outsider and as a person who understands, I’d say it’s so much more than that. I’d say it’s a move in the right direction, a move away from your past and the suicidal thoughts, you’ve struggled with, and perhaps, even a move toward a life that allows you to experience the value of who you are.
      Wanting to live does not come easy, especially after wanting to die for so long. The most important thing to remember, and focus on, is that you cannot let your future be dictated by your past. Just because things have always been a certain way does not mean they always will be. That is, unless we let them remain unchanged. It is our responsibility to recognize that our future can change, to recognize our future can be what we want it to be, so long as we allow it to be.
      If you feel like you haven’t made the switch to wanting to live, then you need to ask yourself why? And be honest and truthful with yourself. Is it because you are assuming your future to be a life not worth living? Is it because you are assuming your future to be an extension of your past or even your present? Is it because you are assigning a reality to the rest of your life without letting the rest of your life have a say in it?
      I would tell you to try and envision your future life better than you’ve ever imagined. I would tell you take the steps necessary to get there-even the seemingly small ones. I would tell you to face your fears and share your story. And I would tell you to make it a priority to recognize your accomplishments along the way… But it looks to me, from reading your post, that you are already doing these things.
      I hope this makes sense. If I could summarize my reply to you in only two words, they would be…keep going.

      Reply

      • Hi Craig,

        I so appreciate your response and all your support ,as well as the thoughtful suggestions. I would like to keep in touch, and I apologize for the brevity of this note, but I wanted to gratefully acknowledge your reply before any more time passed. My excuse: my daughter is in a basketball tournament and it’s taking up all my free time for another couple of days!! So being engaged in her life is a good thing…it keeps me from thinking too much, but it’s also keeping me from writing you back right now!

        More another time…

        Thanks again,
        Debi

  7. Thanks so much for sharing. I’ve made many attempts over the years and to be quite frank, wasn’t happy I failed. Although, I’m better, I live because I have to. I am trying to improve my life but if I were given a choice, I’m not sure I would choose life.

    Reply

    • Joan…for what it’s worth, I feel exactly the same way.

      Reply

      • I have mad several attempts of that last couple of years. I always woke you and mad that they saved me and if it was not for my daughter finding me it could of been a different story. I was admitted for 14 days at a in-patient facility and was mad i was put there as i felt my world did colapse and then something click in my brain that said to live and then i started with alot of help from medical team and some family members and today i still struggle with the thoughts of dying but i now know how to control the thoughts now and survive to live. I know i have a long road ahead of me but with support i know i can live.

      • Thank you for your replies. I’m glad to hear you are doing better, Joan, and I hope you continue to make progress. My road to recovery has not been an easy one, but it has proven to be worth it. I hope you find the same value in yours.
        Craig

  8. It is good to come here and see how many people share the same struggles. There’s some weird comfort in this. Craig, I am finding so much to think about from your answer last week regarding making the switch from not wanting to die to wanting to live. Your words ring with truth, and yet it is hard for me to act on them. There is so much baggage…not only from the past but sitting here beside me in the present. But I keep reading your words over and over because they are full of encouragement (and it’s hard to accept the compliments….) and, again, I know they are true. Making choices for me and my life, separate from those that love me, is not easy. As I explore more and more of myself in therapy, perhaps the choices/changes I need to make will seem easier. In anhy case, as you said the main thing is to “keep going.”
    Debi

    Reply

    • Hi Debi,
      It’s nice to hear you that I was able to help in some way, but keep in mind that you are the one doing the work. Continue to give yourself credit for that- always. I will be writing a post shortly where I hope to highlight how I dealt with my own baggage after my attempt. I hope you will find something in it which you can relate to and perhaps find ways to adopt some of the strategies I took and make them your own. It appears that you are on the right track and making beneficial decisions. I know it’s not easy, but I can assure you that if you keep an open mind and remain focused on your wellness, it does get easier. Oh, and one more thing, be patient- life takes time.
      Craig

      Reply

  9. This post made me cry, mostly in a good way. It’s very (VERY) nearly 20 years since the first time I tried to kill myself and about eight year since the last, and I guess I’ve spent most of the last 25 or so years (since I was a tween) floating between “wanting to die” and “not really wanting to die.” Therapy and medication help, and I have no intention of trying again, but I have a great deal of difficulty imagining a world in which I don’t wish I were dead on a regular basis. I don’t know what that’s like. I’ve had these glimmers of actually wanting to live and wanting to find something better than the lonely, livable rut I’ve made for myself, but it’s terrifying. It feels like there’s nowhere to talk about it, about living with and breaking through the many repercussions , and it’s difficult to feel like it’s safe to be honest. Thank you for YOUR honesty.

    Reply

    • Elizabeth, reading your comments really struck a chord with me. I constantly think about my death and the act of dying although I have reached a point where I no longer wish to attempt to take my own life but I am constantly flat. No highs or lows. I think my medication helps me but also leaves me feeling this ‘flatness’. Neither happy nor particularly depressed. Like you, I cannot imagine a world where I wouldn’t feel like this.
      Thank you for sharing your feelings with the rest of us,
      Peter

      Reply

    • Hi Elizabeth,
      Thank you for sharing. I’m glad to hear you have no intention of trying again. I think what’s most important to recognize is that you have ”glimmers of wanting to live and wanting to find something better” for yourself. I’ll call that hope. And, trust me, I understand your fears. Sometimes what can be most terrifying about moving forward is the uncertainty. But I think there are a few things you can be sure of: You’ve found a great place here where you can talk about your journey. You can be honest here and should feel safe to do so. All of us are in this together, sharing what we can for each other. And the best part about that means you are never alone- ever.
      -Craig

      Reply

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    Reply

  11. I can’t even begin to tell you how inspirational you have been to me in the last HOUR that I have known of you. I am going to meet you tonight in Taunton, MA and I cannot wait! I too am a suicide attempt survivor but am not quite as strong as you. I struggle every single day to want to wake up and be alive. I have said to my husband time and time again that I don’t want to die, I just don’t want to live. When I read that exact line from you tears still have not stopped coming from my eyes. I want to be able to say I want to live but the words just can’t come out of my mouth. I have never never seen my husband cry until the day I attempted suicide and and I never want to see that again but that still just isn’t enough for me to want to live. We have an amazing 7 year old son together and I can’t dream of him not having a mother but that too is still not enough for me to want to live. I really look forward to meeting you tonight so maybe, just maybe I can leave with a glimmer of hope that someday I can say I want to be alive. Thank you for wanting to live and thank you for sharing your story to help others just like you. Thank you.

    Reply

  12. Hi Craig, and Shelly,

    It has now been one year and twenty eight days since I returned home from nine weeks in a psychiatric hospital following a suicide attempt in March, 2012. Yesterday was the very first time I could actually say to myself, “I am so glad to be alive today!” And it was not any special kind of a day…but it seemed as though all the work I’ve been doing is finally paying off. I know that the only thing I can count on is change, so the good won’t last forever, but neither will the bad. But I have to say that I am sooooooo grateful that I was able to feel and say that life is wonderful, even once! And now I have hope that these times and feelings can come again.

    Thanks, all of you, for putting yourselves on here and sharing.

    Debi

    Reply

    • Hi Debi.
      Thank you so much for the update. I’m so glad to hear you are doing better. I wish you all the best as you continue moving forward.
      Craig

      Reply

      • Hi Craig,
        Have you seen my post on here this week?
        Thanks for your encouragement….it’s definitely a continuing work in progress and process.
        Debi

  13. Thanks for writing this post. I hope you want to live for a long time to come. Find your dream and chase it to all corners of the world. Wishing you safe travels.

    Reply

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