I have struggled with depression and suicidal ideation for years. My darkest period was as recent as 2013. In fact, there was a day last September when I let my guard down for just a few minutes. It was enough time for me to walk into my kitchen, pick up a large knife, and touch the blade to see how hard I would need to press down to cut through my skin.
Sometimes that’s all it takes. If I hadn’t scared myself and snapped out of that headspace as quickly as I did, I might not be writing this right now. That’s the truth.
I’m not telling you this as a plea for sympathy. I’m telling you this because Robin Williams is dead, and like everyone else on the Internet, I am deeply sad about that. Yes, part of my sadness is because I grew up watching him in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Aladdin,” “The Birdcage,” and “Dead Poets Society,” and it’s awful to think of someone as talented as he is gone so soon. But another part of my sadness is because suicide is always heartbreaking. I know people who have committed suicide. I know people who have attempted and considered suicide. I am someone who has considered suicide. It is a serious problem that far too many of us know all too well.
But we don’t talk about it, ever. We’re not allowed to talk about suicide, because then we might be labeled “selfish.” We might alienate our friends. We might have our feelings undermined and dismissed. There’s never a good or convenient time to talk about suicidal ideation, so it’s hard to know when or how to have those conversations, and that prevents many people from seeking help when they need it most.
The best we can do is support those who come to us in need, offer support to those who may be at-risk but don’t know how to ask, and, when possible, be open about our stories in an effort to destroy the stigma surrounding depression and suicidal ideation. Other than that, we all have different needs. What works for me might not work for you, and it might not have worked for Robin Williams or the boy from my high school who died a decade ago or the woman whose stand-up comedy I admired who died last year. But, just in case it might help you or someone you know, here are the strategies that help me cope with suicidal ideation:
1. I talk about my feelings. I talk to my husband, my close friends, my therapist, the women I met through group therapy, and medical professionals. Sometimes I’m afraid to tell anyone how badly I’m feeling. I don’t want people to know, and I don’t want to bring down the mood of a room. But I always push myself to open up to at least one person. When I’m able to do so, it helps a great deal.
2. I seek professional help. In addition to my individual therapist and my group therapist, I see a psychiatrist who prescribes me medication. Medication isn’t for everyone, and it took a lot of trial and error before I found the right combination of chemicals that works for me, but my doctor helped me find what works for me (or, at least, what’s working for me right now). Also, shortly after I scared myself out of attempting suicide last fall, I spent 10 days in an inpatient psychiatry unit at a top-notch hospital. It was an extreme choice that I hope to never repeat, but it was what I needed at the time, and it helped immensely. Don’t be afraid of that option if you think you might need it. It’s there for a reason.
3. I focus on my work. After I left the hospital, I chose not to go on medical leave from graduate school and instead focused all my energy on my Master’s thesis proposal. Working on my thesis has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and I am grateful to have it as an outlet when I just need to stop thinking about difficult issues.
4. I write. I write privately and publicly. I write in notebooks, on my computer, and on the Internet. I write about personal things – my intrusive thoughts, my past struggles, my fears, my goals for the future – and not-so-personal things – feminism, activism, sexuality, film, television. Seeing your thoughts on paper, whether or not you ever share them with anyone else, can make it easier to move past them.
5. I draw. I’m a terrible artist in that medium, so, no, you can’t see my crayon scribbles. But art therapy is a wonderful thing, and one that has helped me greatly over the years.
6. I take walks. I hear exercise helps, but I’ve never been able to get into a regular regimen of yoga or jogging or going to the gym. So I walk everywhere, as often as I can, sometimes when I have nowhere to be but need to be in motion. It’s a way to clear my head and keep my physical well-being in check.
7. I leave my apartment even when I don’t have to. Being inside, especially home alone, can make depression feel so much bleaker. The rituals of showering, getting dressed, and leaving for the day or night helps me feel like a person, which is essential, because depression can feel horribly dehumanizing.
8. I blow off steam by singing show tunes at Marie’s Crisis. It is more cathartic than written words can express. If Broadway isn’t your outlet of choice, substitute anything frivolous and fun that you enjoy solely for pleasure.
It’s my hope that, if you are in need, some of these techniques might help you. Some of them are only feasible with health insurance and other financial resources, creating a serious barrier in mental health treatment today. Others are feasible for a much wider group of people. And please don’t take this list as prescriptive advice. I’m not a doctor, and your needs may be significantly different than mine. But I’ve often turned to the Internet for support when I’ve needed it, and in case you’re doing that right now, I want this to be another essay that you can turn to for support.
I want to close with some words of wisdom from Kate Bornstein: “Do whatever it takes to make your life more worth living.” Rest in peace, Robin Williams, and take care of yourselves, world. Take care of yourself in whatever way works best for you.