They say the best way to get a reader’s attention is to throw a shocking statistic at them. But that statistic, if I chose to throw it in, would make no sense unless it was described in its entirety. Like this one for instance: Between the five years of 2011 and 2015, India lost nearly 40,000 young people to suicide. Young people = between the ages of 15 and 29. Of these, 2015 alone saw nearly 9000 suicides. And these were only the reported ones. Those that were unreported and the number of attempted suicides are likely to take that number higher.
I should know. Out of the two times I attempted suicide, one time I was herded to a police station after getting out of the hospital where I was let off with a paternal sounding warning about how much pain I was causing my family. The second time, it went unreported, but not without admonishment from the nurses who attended to me. On World Suicide Prevention Day, I’d like to talk about why we try to kill ourselves.
Many years after my first attempt, I now understand the difference between being suicidal, attempted suicide and suicidal ideation. For those of us who live with mental illnesses, it is critical that we understand the difference between these three things. But before I get to that, I’d like to spend a little time understanding why we are driven to suicide. For this, I’d like to go back to myself once more; not because my story is more interesting than others’, not because I know, down to the last detail, what that final impulse was that tipped me over to ending it all, and not because I have answers for anyone else who might want to end their lives. I go back to myself as I was then because I know deeply that every single person who gets to the place that I got to when I wrote my suicide note in the middle of the night and sent it to a chosen few on email and locked my door is at almost exactly the same edge as I was, give or take a few abysses.
Why do we kill ourselves
At the core of it, suicide is an option not so much for the hopeless but for those of us who see no way to help ourselves. Hope is a stubborn stain that never goes away no matter what dry cleaner you send it over to, no matter what stain remover you use. If you choose to burn away the stain, then you’ve left a hope-sized hole in your being for the rest of your life. It is still a memory of hope, an imprint. Hope doesn’t let you forget. And for this very reason, even at our most hopeless places, there is still an exceedingly dim flicker of hope that says, maybe, just maybe there will be rescue. And which is why I decided to look at suicide as a result of being unable to help oneself, instead of being hopeless. Hope implies a belief that something from the outside will help. Abject helplessness, on the other hand, is the deep knowledge that not even you can help yourself. And if you can’t even back yourself, even in the smallest way, then what else is left but the sweet oblivion of death?
The few years that I spent being suicidal I remember having convinced myself that my infant children would be okay growing up without me, that anyone else would make a better mother than I, and after all, kids get over stuff. I was convinced that my parents would mourn for a bit and then life would go on. Anyone else who missed my being alive would get over it very quickly. I was convinced that my life held no value to anyone, least of all to myself. And all I needed to trip me wildly over was a heated argument where I perceived I was being told what I believed: that I was a burden and that I was worthless. I left the room, locked myself up, waited for everyone to fall asleep, calmly wrote a succinct note and with complete conviction, overdosed on my pills. That I am writing this should tell you that I hadn’t waited long enough for everyone to fall asleep, because someone was awake, had found my email and raised alarm.
Am I looking to die when I try to kill myself?
But did I really want to die? It is a question I have asked myself for years. And the answer is always ambivalent. Yes and no. I wanted to die because living was not getting me anywhere. I wanted the incessant, unrelenting grasp of despair to disappear. I wanted to die because I didn’t know how to escape that grasp, to step out of the quicksand, because anything I tried only sucked me in deeper. And I didn’t want to die because we are all, all, born with an innate desire to live; the fight that that desire gives us is a strong one. You’ll see shades of the fight if you’ve been suicidal, and have resolutely made your exit plan — you’ll find that when it comes that moment in your plan when you need to end it comes, there’s a small voice that stops you. A small little volley between two voices trying to keep you safe. You then relent to those voices and everything calms down inside. Your instinct for staying alive as won. This time. It usually takes mental illness, extreme desperation or some form of external catalyst to quieten that instinct.
For those of us who have lost loved ones to suicide, I will never have enough words of compassion. No one can ever take away the person-sized hole in your life. But for those of us who live with people who are suicidal, I might have something that might help. Before that though, a few distinctions. Suicidal ideation is continual thoughts of suicide: they aren’t usually compelling and most often, they do not impel you to act. But they are constant and can be as innocuous as wishing you do not wake up the next morning. I still have these thoughts on days that don’t go too well for me. Being suicidal, however, is a more frantic, less reasonable state of being where desperation is at a sharp pitch and, more often than not, the person is reaching out and trying her best to not kill herself.
And this bit above forms the second part of my answer of the “No” to the question of whether I wanted to die. You see, many times, attempting suicide is the language one uses because she no longer knows what words to use to ask for love, for help, for support, for attention, for warmth. Because when you feel worthless and unworthy of love, how can you ask anyone for something you don’t deserve? What are the words for that? In what language do you ask without, feeling utterly crushed, “See me,”? Every so often, a suicide attempt is half hearted because of this. And that half-hearted attempt doesn’t deserve being told, “If she really wanted to kill herself, she would have succeeded.” The half-hearted attempt deserves care and attention, professional help, and, for some time at least, a stress-free environment. It is a call upon the mentally healthy to draw deeper within themselves and be bigger, better, more giving. It is, after all, a privilege to be mentally healthier than the person who tried to kill themselves.
Keeping young people alive
One of the biggest causes for suicides among young people in India is academic pressure. Mental illness and drug abuse follow close at its heels. Invariably, well-adjusted people ask me, “But if some kids can withstand the pressure of performing well academically, why can’t the others?” Over the years, I’ve answered that in many ways — facetiously, earnestly, sarcastically. Because how do I describe the entire universe this young person who commits suicide lives in? How do I list out the pressure to achieve, no matter what economic background she comes from? Well-off, high achieving parents want their kids to be the same. Economically challenged families depend on their kids to pull them out of their financial binds. And all of it seems fair and even natural. The question, then, is how do we raise kids who are resilient? How do we walk the fine balance between pushing the child to learn the skills that will help her to give things her best and yet not shove her over the edge? For this, it is imperative to find in yourself to raise children without coddling them or protecting them from what the world will invariably show them. It is imperative that we define, for ourselves and for our children, what it means to grow and grow strong. For this, it is deeply important for a parent to be less self-centred: to understand why you stop the kid from doing something (is it because it worries you?) or why you push a kid to do something (is it because it will make you feel validated as a parent?) It’s a long, hard look that parents rarely take at themselves, but absolutely should. And not just once, but periodically so the mirrors we look in are clean.
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Sandhya Menon is a writer and journalist based in Bangalore. A single parent to two kids, she lives with two diagnosed mental illnesses — bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. In this column, she explores the experience of being mentally ill while living her life.