I have been wanting to talk about my struggles with suicidal ideation for months but have never been able to find the words. However, as I sit in my bedroom on the night before a birthday I never planned on seeing, I physically cannot stop writing. As a close friend said to me recently, “you’re a writer, write about what you’ve been through. It will heal you.”
[Much like my emotions these last several months, this writing is very messy, intimate and raw. I didn’t worry about grammar or trying to be poetic, I just had to write. If you read it, be kind.]
Last winter, I made the decision to end my life. At that time, I was six months into a state of constant, severe terror. Each night, panic attacks would wake me up and leave me shaking for hours. My mind was so unwell that I developed such crippling dysmorphia that I couldn’t even walk into a room with a mirror in it, had to shower with the lights off and wore gloves, long sleeve shirts and hats at all times because I could not mentally handle the sight of my own skin.
While I have always struggled with mental health problems, I kept them at bay through constant social activity, ensuring that I was never alone for too long. Then COVID-19 hit and I lost all of my avoidant coping behaviors in an instant. I couldn’t go to a girl’s house, I couldn’t travel to a new city, I couldn’t visit movie theaters. I was forced to spend every single day in my home, trapped in the confines of my own mind.
The isolation from COVID-19 forced me to confront decades of trauma and serious underlying psychological problems that I had no desire to face.
At both 13 and 21, I spent two years unable to leave my house because my mind and body were so unwell. From 2003 to 2005, I had a serious infection and crippling OCD that resulted in me experiencing such severe trauma that my brain literally fragmented. I spent all my time in doctor’s offices and would go months without seeing a single friend. This was a time before phones, social media, online communities or any manner of digital connection with other people. I missed 101 days of school in a single year, lost every single one of my friends and spent each day in my room, alone. The profound loneliness I felt in those years haunts me to this day.
That was the first time I thought about suicide and it is where my lifelong struggle with self-harm began.
I began to improve mentally and physically during my freshman year of high school and developed the misguided belief that I could put the trauma of being 13 and 14 behind me if I just never got sick again. Unfortunately, my anxiety over avoiding sickness manifested in an intense fixation on food and illness. I convinced myself that eating at certain times would make me sick and that I had to starve myself to ensure that I stayed well.
This mindset almost killed me when I turned 21.
On July 20, 2011, I had my very first POTS attack at a Taylor Swift concert (stream Red Taylor’s version on November 12 ;)). My already undernourished body quickly deteriorated. I lost 20 pounds in a month, completely stopped eating because the tachycardia was so substantially worse after each meal, did damage to my vital organs and got so sick that I spent a year and a half unable to stand for more than 15 minutes at a time. I couldn’t walk up any steps, I had to crawl to the bathroom for months and couldn’t sleep without my heart skyrocketing to 160bpm.
Despite my health anxiety’s best effort to keep me safe, I was in the same position I was at 13: sick, suicidal and alone.
I spent two years extremely ill with POTS but, with the right treatment, I slowly began to recover. I started eating regularly, despite the adverse effects, started an exercise program and eventually regained the ability to stay upright for more than a few minutes. As I continued to improve, I started achieving things I never thought I would be able to achieve. And I thought maybe this time I was really free of my past.
Then I turned 30.
And suddenly something a few doctors said to me in my 20s resurfaced. They suggested that I get tested for a genetic condition that dramatically shortens your lifespan because I was exhibiting symptoms of it. If positive, I would likely die in my 30s. As you can probably assume, I refused to process this information and spent a decade trying to pretend it wasn’t a possibility.
However, when I turned 30 and realized that I might be entering into the last decade of my life, I decided it was finally time to confront reality.
I went to get tested on February 5, 2021. At this point, my mental health had deteriorated so severely that I could barely function. Every single day was fucking torture and I had decided that suicidal was the best option for me. I just didn’t have it in me to keep fighting so hard to just keep breathing.
A month to the day after getting tested, before I knew the results, I lost the closest person in my life and it changed absolutely everything. For the third time, I faced the prospect of being sick and alone. While this initially triggered an intense emotional reaction, motivated by a deep sense of shame and worthlessness (that cost me a dear friendship), it also motivated me to finally heal the decades of trauma and mental health problems that were controlling my life.
And I had a choice to make: follow through on my plan to kill myself or throw absolutely everything I had into healing my trauma, processing decades of suppressed grief and taking ownership of my mental health. As evidenced by the fact that I’m even able to write this post, I decided to heal. And the first step was to stop pretending I was okay.
Ever since I was 13, I have struggled with intense, distinctive emotional shifts that I could never seem to control. It was as if different parts of my brain were at war with each other, screaming and trying to tear the other apart. Some days my emotions were so intense that I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy anything because I was so acutely aware that it would end. Other days, my emotions were practically nonexistent and I would act act completely disaffected and cold.
My feelings and emotional responses varied so strongly from moment to moment that I learned to never trust myself.
As I got older and accumulated more trauma (emotional abuse, sexual abuse and assault), these shifts grew steadily worse. Seemingly out of nowhere, I would be overcome with an intense desire to hurt myself or end my life. The feeling was so deep that I couldn’t do anything but cry on the bathroom floor, clutching my head, until I physically exhausted myself.
The torment in my brain was so loud. I remember feeling so different from every other person on the planet. I felt like my feelings ran deeper than anyone else’s and no one could ever understand what I was going through.
Despite trying to broach the subject of my mood swings with my OCD therapist for years, he never took my concerns seriously. It was because I refused to explain the gravity of the situation. I was terrified of admitting what I truly experienced because I didn’t know what it meant for my future. I had grown up in a household where a family member told me that having mental health problems, particularly medically documented ones, would ruin my life and all future job prospects and I believed them.
These experiences made it extremely hard to talk about my mental health issues but I also knew that my life depended on no longer lying about how I was doing. So, I began talking.
I told all of my closest friends and some of my family about what I was experiencing. I allowed them to see my episodes and sit with me in the discomfort instead of isolating myself when they happened. I trusted them with the most intimate details of my mind and emotions, I asked them to stay the night when I didn’t trust myself to make it through it alone and didn’t shy away from touch or affection. I started opening up to people who I had previously written off out of fear of being “too much” and genuinely just trusted them to support me.
Eventually, I was strong enough to tell my therapist everything that I once refused to say in session. I told him that I wasn’t sure I could keep myself safe and expressed how desperate I was to finally get the help I needed, regardless of the cost. Due to the complexity and severity of my mental state, he immediately referred me to a therapist who specializes in mood disorders.
In June, I had my first consultation with a therapist specializing in Dialectical Behavior Therapy For the first time in my life, I could talk openly about my urges to self harm, my plans for suicide and all of my erratic moods without fear of judgment or overreaction. I didn’t hold anything back and told her about 17 years worth of trauma in an hour (the poor woman). After a series of tests and a few more meetings, she diagnosed me with a form of dissociative identity disorder and borderline personality disorder.
Finally, I had a name for my suffering and a course of treatment to try.
She recommended that I start a DBT program, designed for highly suicidal, at-risk patients, that utilizes a combination of group and individual therapy to navigate, understand, and change ineffective emotional responses. Created by Marsha Linehan, the program teaches distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, mindfulness, and emotional regulation skills.
I am now in my 22nd week of my DBT program and I am not exaggerating when I say that it taught me how to save my own life.
Prior to therapy, I simply did not have the knowledge or the ability to understand what I was experiencing. My desperation to feel better made me rely heavily on other people for emotional support because I had no confidence in my own ability to manage my emotions. I thought that I could never be alone or I would fall apart entirely.
But DBT taught me how to turn down my emotional volume and communicate my needs effectively. It helped me understand that there was a deep pain underneath my emotional reactivity but that didn’t mean I couldn’t also experience happiness. Each module encouraged me to dig deeper into the root of my emotions and undercover the genuine reason that I was upset in specific situations.
It taught me that emotions are not bad, even the intense ones. It made me stop hating myself for my emotions and encouraged me to embrace their purpose in my life. Regardless of the emotion, they guide us to deeper truths about ourselves and, if we listen to them, we can structure our life in better alignment with our values.
I am so grateful to every single person in my life who encouraged me throughout this last year. Your constant presence has meant so much to me. I literally am indebted to each and every one of you for your constant support. Because of you, I get to appreciate the fall foliage, I get to feel my dog lick my face and hug my mom.
I am so glad that I am alive. I am so glad that I didn’t give up on myself and I am so glad that I made it to another birthday. Please, do not give up on yourself. If you’re struggling, be willing to ruin everything to protect your mental health. Suicide is never the answer, no matter how much it might seem like it is in the moment.
If you’re interested in learning more about DBT, feel free to comment/message me or utilize these free resources on Distress Tolerance, Emotion Regulation, Interpersonal Effectiveness and Mindfulness.