By Kimberly Zapata
The first time I tried to kill myself I was 17 years old. I wrote a note and made a plan. I bought a bottle of pills (and a bottle of Coke) and I began executing said plan. But after swallowing several dozen capsules, things got fuzzy. The next 36 hours were a blur of sleep and sickness — and nothing more.
There second time there was no note; there was no plan. Instead, I impulsively grabbed a knife and began wielding it, turning the serrated blade on myself.
That attempt may have been my last, but I’d be lying if I said I never considered trying again. While in the depths of despair, I’ve entertained leaving my daughter, my husband, and this whole world behind — both in the pursuit of peace and to give them what I envisioned at the time to be a better, happier, and healthier life.
The good news is, I’ve been able to keep those dark thoughts at bay. With therapy and medication, I am able to manage both my depression and anxiety. I was also lucky enough to survive my two previous attempts, after which I sat up. I got up. I walked away — forever changed, but alive.
And I am not alone.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, for every suicide, there are 25 attempts. There are 24 others who, like me, woke up alive. And yet, despite the fact that suicide affects thousands — if not millions of us — it’s still a topic that many shy away from.
We don’t talk about suicide because of shame, secrecy, or fear. We don’t talk about suicide because of the stigma. (And when it comes to suicide, believe me, there is a huge stigma.) Unfortunately, our collective silence has led many to “fill in the blanks” about it. Our silence has propagated many of the myths, stereotypes, and “crazy” tropes we see on TV.
But I am more than a trope. I am more than a stereotype. So allow me to dispel some of the many (many) myths you may have heard.
Myth 1: Those who attempt suicide are weak.
One of the most prevalent myths surrounding suicide is that those who attempt and/or commit suicide are weak because they “gave up” or “gave in.” But as someone who has attempted suicide — as someone who still battles suicidal thoughts and ideations — I can tell you with absolute certainty that neither attempt was taken lightly. Instead, it took every ounce of strength in my body to take those pills. To grab that knife.
Of course, I am not suggesting that suicide is a courageous act. However, as Elizabeth B., mother of three and multiple suicide attempt survivor, tells Babble, attempting suicide is not a weakness. It is an act of desolation and desperation that most only turn to after years of suffering through seemingly insurmountable pain.
“People simply do not understand the pain suicidal people suffer,” Elizabeth shares. “You truly just want to lie down and die, just to make it stop and make it all end.”
Mike Thornsbury, a five-time suicide attempt survivor, agrees. He says it was “a sense of hopelessness” that led him to make his decision, and that he felt like “there was no path forward.”
“Like I am stuck in a hole that I will never be able to dig out of,” he explains.
In many cases, suicide is the result of a mental illness. Which begs the question: If you wouldn’t refer to someone who died from an illness like cancer as “weak,” why would you say it about someone who died from suicide?
Myth 2: Those who attempt suicide are selfish.
I’ve heard it all before:
Why did he do it?
How could she do it?
And how could they take their own life?
Why would they do this to us?
What did we do wrong?
And I get it. On the surface, suicide seems like an attack on those left behind. It appears self-centered and self-serving. Even narcissistic, greedy, and gluttonous. And this is especially true when that person is a parent. I mean, how dare a mother or father abandon their child? So willingly. So painfully. So violently. However, what most people don’t know is that the act of suicide is far from selfish. In fact, family and friends are usually the ones who help us live. They are the reason we hang on. At least, they were for me.
My mother, brother, grandmother, boyfriend, and best friend were all on my mind until what might have been my very last moments.
Unfortunately, many who attempt to take their own lives are so desperate, so sick, and so hopeless that they believe their families would be better off without them. They believe the whole world would be better off without them.
And many survivors feel or have felt the same. Thornsbury tells Babble that his family was always in his thoughts during an attempt. In his mind, he thought his death would help them — not just as a relief, but as a way to “unburden” those around him.
Elizabeth B. echoes these sentiments, saying “I thought no one loved me, and more than that, the people that I did love would be better off without me, because I was so mentally ill. It was, I thought at that messed-up time, the altruistic choice on behalf of the people I loved.”
And during a recent depressive episode, these very thoughts entered my own mind as well, which is to say that I didn’t just think my husband and daughter would be better off without me, I “knew” it. I believed that if I took my life I could save my daughter from an unfathomable amount pain and suffering.
Make no mistake: I understand how absurd and irrational that sounds, but it is not an uncommon thought for someone with suicidal thoughts.
Myth 3: Those who attempt suicide are needy/attention-seeking/trying to manipulate others.
Perhaps one of the most dangerous, unnerving, and infuriating myths surrounding suicide is that those who attempt it do so to gain attention. When I tried to take my life I was “needy” in the sense that I needed professional help. However, my suicide attempt wasn’t done for attention. It was done out of desperation. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t know how to live.
Suicidal thoughts, ideations, and attempts are all serious and should be treated as such.
Myth 4: There’s nothing you can do to help someone who is suicidal.
Most people who are suicidal don’t want their lives to end — they just want the pain to end. (I know I did, and at times, I still do.) They want to find a way to drive out the darkness, but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing you can do to help someone who is suicidal.
In fact, what you do — or don’t do — in those final days, hours, and minutes can make a world of difference.
First: talk about suicide. Actively work to better understand it, learn the risk factors, and know the warnings signs. Because yes, contrary to popular belief, most suicidal individuals exhibit warning signs.
And if you’re worried your friend may be actively suicidal, go to them if possible. Engage them however you can. Ask them how they’re feeling. Ask them what they’re thinking. Ask them if they are having suicidal thoughts. And then listen, without judgment.
Once you’ve heard them out, encourage them to seek professional help and/or get help on their behalf. This can be done by contacting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. In cases of immediate danger, call 911.
I know that talking about suicide is painful and difficult, especially since it can feel like there’s nothing you can do to “fix” your child, your friend, your family member, your colleague, or your loved one. However, your unwavering support can help them. Your unwavering support has the power to comfort them. And your words can help them feel less “crazy,” and less alone.
I know because this is what helped me. It was the love of my family and friends that carried me through those dark days after my first attempts, and it is my daughter’s love which has held me up in recent years. She has been a candle, a beacon, and a guiding light during my darkest times.
So love someone who is suicidal through the sadness. Love them through the pain. And remember that even if your loved one doesn’t seem to hear you now — even if they cannot comprehend or feel your love while in the depths of despair — with your help and support, they will.
One day, they will.
A version of this story originally appeared on Babble.