Suicide and Wanting to Die

I have wanted to kill myself since I was 11. I will soon be 24. I never expected to live this long. I thought I would at the very least be dead by 21. Yet despite it all here I am continuing to exist. Suicide has in a sense been my permanent companion in life. The option is always there looking at me. I need only choose it.

I spent my adolescence looking at trains and wishing that I had the courage to jump in front of them. I would stand on top of bridges and imagine myself falling to my death. I would look down staircases and wish my corpse lay at the bottom. I would shift back and forth through the five stages of suicide. These are: wanting to no longer exist; wishing that something terrible would happen such that I die, such as a car crashing into me or a restaurant accidently giving me nuts and causing an allergic reaction; wanting to kill myself; and actively planning to kill myself. After this stage comes the act: attempting to kill myself. I have never attempted. I’ve always stopped at the planning stage.

I have wanted to kill myself for so many reasons. When I was a child it was because I knew that if I didn’t exist then I wouldn’t be bullied anymore and not having friends would no longer be a problem. Child me had to keep whispering to herself that no matter how bad things got things could in principle improve and so I should wait to see if they did. I did make friends but friends did not take away the pain. As trauma developed into insanity I wanted to die because I could not live with myself. I could not live with the constant sadness, the terror, the emptiness, the inability to feel anything, the inner scream that drove me over the edge day after day. I could not live with the shaking anxiety that would flow through my entire body every time another human looked at me, let alone spoke to me, let alone touched me.

I think David Foster Wallace, who killed himself in 2008, has provided the best description of what it is to be suicidal. He writes,

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling. (David Foster Wallace 2008, 696-7)

It was the fear of falling that consistently saved my life. The only thing that terrified me more than life was dying and wishing that I wasn’t. I was terrified that I would go through all the effort of killing myself only to realise just before life left me that actually I wanted to live. I would then have a second of total regret and terror only to be consumed by nothingness. As a child I was terrified that my death would upset my family and so kept on living because, despite being in great pain, I didn’t want others to hurt as well. As an adult I didn’t want to hurt the person who found my dead body. I would lay awake at night imagining my post suicide funeral. In my imagination only my family would turn up and probably only out of politeness. I wasn’t a very good judge of heights and so was always worried that if I jumped to my death then the fall would only break my legs. This led to the even greater fear: that I would survive and then have to sit in hospital awkwardly explaining to my parents that I don’t like existence.

If I managed to overcome these fears and actively plan my suicide then I would by saved by my perfectionism. I would agonize over ensuring that my suicide was perfect and as painless as possible. I would write and re-write suicide notes in my head but they were never good enough and so I decided to wait. I’ve found that the key to staying alive is procrastination: why kill yourself today when you could wait until tomorrow. You keep saying this and before you know it you’re an adult and you no longer want to die.

My advice to someone who is currently suicidal due to mental illness is as follows: when suicidal it feels that the only option is death. It feels that the current pain will never end and that there will be no escape. But this is not true. Depression merely makes it feel so. It causes the window of possibility to shrink so that all you can see is a noose. This is, however, a delusion. Just because things are currently bad doesn’t mean that they will remain so. Things can in principle get better and so long as this is true there is still hope. Had I killed myself I never would have felt the genuine happiness that I currently experience. I never would have made the amazing friends that I have. I never would have read the books or heard the albums that I currently love so much. Life has the potential to bring wonderful surprises which you cannot and will never predict. For this reason alone it is worth continuing to exist and sitting with the pain. I know it feels unbearable but you can survive and learn to live.


David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest. London: Abacus, 2008.


The Internalisation of Abuse

In an abusive relationship it is common for the victim to be attacked, either verbally or physically, by their abuser. The abuser will justify these attacks to themselves and others with a huge array of different reasons. They will say that they only attacked you because you didn’t do as instructed, or you talked back, or you hurt them or made them angry. The specific reasons given are not particularly important. They are merely after the fact justifications for oppressing another human being.

Ultimately abusers abuse their victims because they feel entitled to do so. An abusive boyfriend will think that they have the right to hit their girlfriend or control who she sees and how she dresses. An abusive parent will think they have the right to micro-manage their child’s life and constantly make decisions for the child, as if they were a doll and not a human. These actions are grounded in a value system that they have created in which what they want or think is more important than anybody else. Their abuse is in a sense an attempt to force another person to live according to what they want. What the victim wants is viewed as irrelevant.

During the course of an abusive relationship the victim will come to evaluate themselves and their behavior by the value system of their abuser, rather than by their own set of standards. This occurs due to the victim trying to avoid abuse by not doing things that sets their abuser off. This is a trap. An abuser will always be able find a reason for why you’re deserving of abuse irrespective of what you’re doing. No matter what you do they will always be able to find a way in which you don’t conform to how they think things should be. After all, nothing is ever perfect and can always be found to be inadequate.

The victim doesn’t realize this and thinks that the abuse tracks their behavior, that they are at fault and so that they deserve the abuse they receive. In some sense this is an attempt to regain control over the situation. You can control your behavior and so fixate on that. This is part of why victims so often blame themselves for their abuse. They internalise the abuser’s notion that the victim shouldn’t have made them angry or should have done as instructed.

It is because of this that one of the hardest parts of healing from abuse is unlearning your abusers value system and no longer evaluating yourself by the standards of your abuser. To be free from oppression is not only to no longer be actively oppressed by another person but is also to no longer limit what one thinks, says, or does to what was permitted by your oppressor. It is a matter of learning to live in freedom by learning to decide for yourself how you shall live.  I have found that doing so is a constant struggle against those aspects of myself that continue to operate as if I am still living in chains. Although the physical chains have mostly gone the mental ones have remained and it is these that I have found hardest to break.



Words Hurt People

People like to say that words don’t really oppress other people. We’re told that words are just words. This is wrong for so many reasons. Here are a few reasons…

Firstly, if you deny that words can harm people then you are not in a position to understand the harmful effects of emotional abuse, let alone those moments in your own life when someone’s words have upset you.

Secondly, when we speak we are performing an action. If I say “I do” in the context of a marriage ceremony I perform the action of agreeing to marry another human being. Likewise, when a person calls another person a slur they are not merely saying words. They are speaking words and thereby performing the action of subordinating another human being.

Thirdly, to understand the harmful effects spoken words have on someone we must not view these words as isolated incidents. Under structures of domination individuals will experience many minor moments of oppression which through their repetition over time add up to have a significant effect on a person’s mental life. While an individual sentence may not greatly harm another human being, it can cause severe harm when it is part of a wider chain of events. For example, you cannot understand the harm of calling a black person the n word unless you consider their life time of experiencing racism and racial slurs and the wider social context of white supremacy. We cannot evaluate the words a person speaks to another person by looking at the words in isolation. Words are spoken by humans to other humans who have had specific life experiences living within a specific society at a specific historic moment. We can therefore only evaluate words by considering the wider context of a person’s life history, the society in which they live, and the history of the society in which they live.

I personally know the harm that words can do to a human being because I grew up in an abusive home. One of the subtle ways I was abused was being constantly corrected by my dad for every minor imperfection he perceived in me. I was made to feel like I wasn’t good enough or was a failure. Being corrected a few times would not have severely harmed me. But being corrected several times a day over the course of a life time did seriously harm me.

I came to internalise this constant criticism by constantly criticising myself. I came to view everything I said or did as wrong or imperfect. I would spend hours attacking myself after I made the most minor of mistakes. I would and could only see all the ways in which I was terrible, be this terribleness real or imagined, and I struggled to see anything good about myself. I thought I was a net negative to the world. I felt guilty just for existing because by existing I was failing to be good enough and therefore shouldn’t exist and therefore deserved to die.

The voice of my abusive father became my own voice. The constant criticism went from being a voice I heard outside of my head to the voice I heard within my head. This meant that even when I was at university I had not left my abusive home. I had brought it with me, carrying it inside my mind. I still carry it with me each moment of my life.

Oppression isn’t just something that happens to you. It changes how you relate to yourself. It changes what thoughts your brain produces. It changes your very sense of self. If you’re constantly hearing that you’re ugly because you’re black or that you should be beaten because of your sexuality then your brain will internalise these messages and self-reproduce them. You’ll be looking in the mirror and your brain will tell you that your skin colour is bad or you’ll be finding a man attractive and your brain will tell you that you should be ashamed for feeling this. Oppression is not just one person doing something to someone else, it is also someone doing something to themselves because of how other people have treated them. This includes how other people have spoken to them.

The words of an oppressor are not simply things you hear. They are words which hurt you and flow into your brain and sink beneath your skin. Days, weeks, months and years after you heard those words your brain still says them to you, no longer as the words of somebody else but as your own.

The internalisation of oppression is the process whereby a human being learns to attack themselves more than another person ever did or could. Another person isn’t in a position to directly oppress you every second of the day. At some point, they will leave your company. But you cannot escape yourself. You are your constant companion. As a result, you alone can oppress yourself for every moment of your existence and this will be an oppression whose pain is that much harder to resist. When someone is punching you, you can externalise the pain. You can direct your anger towards another person. But when you are mentally punching yourself you cannot externalise the pain because you yourself are producing it. While any anger you feel will be anger directed towards yourself which will only in turn lead to more self-inflicted pain.  You’re caught in a vicious cycle of self-destruction from which no escape seems possible.

Over several years I have learned to be a lot kinder to myself. When I attack myself I have learned to ask the question: whose talking? This makes me realise that I am not talking to myself, my abusive father is talking to me. Or I am not talking to myself, cis-het patriarchy is talking to me. This makes it easier to resist these thought loops as I have learned to view them as intrusive thoughts produced by experiences of oppression, rather than as thoughts produced by myself in isolation.

Given all of this, words matter. Be careful what you say to someone because your words could become the words that drive someone over the edge. They could become the words that eat another human being alive. Think before you speak. Your words have power.