What Comes After Surviving Suicidality?

I’ve long held that everyone who goes through suicidality — thoughts of suicide marked by ideation, planning, or intent — is a trauma survivor. The pervasive perception that suicidality is partly our fault keeps us from sharing our experiences or identifying as trauma survivors.

Surviving suicidality is a profoundly painful experience. At best, we’re left questioning our right to exist. At worst, we reach the brink of death. Even though people who attempt suicide often don’t try again, having a previous attempt is still a major risk factor for later suicide.

Despite several close calls and postponements with death, I now live a life of warmth and silliness. I feel whole, but the experience left an indelible mark on my psyche: I know that suicide is an option. How can any of us live with that once we’ve realized it?

Suicidal ideation is much more complex than public health education maintains. In an effort to educate us en masse, it sacrifices nuances. One of the most important pieces lost is that it’s part of a continuum of thoughts and behaviors. People aren’t simply suicidal or not. There’s a vast gulf between somebody with depression who makes a joke about wanting to die and someone who is researching methods and settling their affairs. To complicate things further, people can switch between active (research, planning) and passive (thinking about dying).

Living in that state is distressing beyond words. Psychotherapist Jacob Wilen calls it “an all-encompassing mental state that tends to blur the details,” but doesn’t discount the value of persisting despite the despair. Even in those depths, he says, “the details can be the compass that guides you out of the dark suicidal fog.”

I don’t think we talk enough about how downright traumatic suicidality is. It’s a cocktail of despair, anxiety, and pain tailored to our lives and contexts. Nobody can personalize our suffering like our own minds. It’s an internal battle that looks meager from outside: The outward signs can be as simple as a pile of dirty dishes and disconnecting from friends. But inside, it’s literal life or death.

We talk about how bad it is but rarely discuss the details. Suicide is a taboo topic. Clinical Psychologist Dr. Kiki Fehling says that, “talking about suicidality scares people. It’s easier to pretend that it doesn’t exist, or that it’s only a symptom of mental illness. But, you don’t need to have a diagnosable psychiatric condition to have suicidal thoughts.”

Any focus on personal agency is also a double-edged sword. Our desire to survive and prosper can help us escape, but it’s also a convenient way to internalize the problem to the sufferer. Dr. Fehling notes that, “it can be easier to ignore suicidality or to treat it as an individual problem, rather than to address the systemic problems that can lead to it.”

Just as the suffering of suicidality is personalized to everybody who lives with it, so is the relief. There are people in my life who count exercise as genuinely beneficial for mental distress, but nothing would fizzle me faster. Conversely, I don’t think my recovery approach of bed rotting until the wave passes and reflecting back on the event is for everyone. In fact, I suspect it would make most people feel worse.

What I’ve found to be near-universally helpful is talking to people about it. Mental distress is isolating. It’s our illnesses’ way of solidifying its own miserable cycle of reproduction. Finding and talking to trustworthy people about our experiences (in measured doses) can break that cycle. Even if it doesn’t halt the feelings, it brings someone onto our team so that we’re not alone.

Dr Fehling says that, “the stigma of suicidality, creates an environment where a survivor of suicidality feels unable or unwilling to get the help and support they need, which can exacerbate or extend their difficulties.” Therapists, friends, support groups, and even plush toys can be an antidote to the isolation.

For people whose well-being nosedives when we’re not actively upholding it, it’s pivotal to treat mental health as a basic need. It’s not just something we look to after struggling through our daily chores. It deserves a place alongside eating and sleeping. Seeking communities and friends to talk to about prickly suicidal thoughts is a survival necessity after suicidality.

Still, I’ve never found a satisfactory answer to the question of how I can live on knowing that suicide is an option. Dark impulses to resume planning still catch me in low moments ten years later. I doubt they’ll ever go away, but I won’t give those thoughts an isolated and weak target. I’ll keep talking to myself and others, no matter how difficult the topic.

In the absence of a satisfactory answer to my lifelong problem, the best thing I can do is to tell people they’re not alone. Nobody who survives knowing that they could slip into suicidality again should feel alone. It’s an under-discussed topic — even in mental health circles — and mental distress thrives in taboo and isolation.

During the lulls and ebbs in suicidal events, there’s space to strengthen ourselves.

  • Quiet, almost-stable moments are ideal for reaching out to trusted friends and professionals to break the isolation.
  • We can try to apologize and forgive ourselves for self-harming acts (emotional and physical) to reduce the burden we’re already carrying.
  • See our suicidal ideation in phases and severities, rather than treating it as a yes/no division. This gives us an idea of how much danger we’re in and makes it more manageable.
  • Residual thoughts about death and ‘disappearing from Earth’ aren’t always signs of distress — they can also show our recovery progress.

If you’re reading this in the midst of suicidality, it might seem pretty shit to hear that life afterward is still an ongoing conflict. But I think that viewpoint is colored by the abject horror of being suicidal. Things feel bad when we’re in distress. It’s impossible to overstate how much worse things feel when we’re thinking of death. However, it’s not hopeless.

My girlfriend and I have both lived our worst moments. I’ve watched myself draft and address suicide notes. She’s sat on her bed to count pills before. But those were our lowest points and nobody looks good at their lowest point. Most of the time, we’re downright boring. We do laundry, game together, work, and meet friends.

Living after suicidality isn’t just an endless war against the forbidden knowledge of your own death. It’s also about happiness in unexpected places, like meeting new dogs. It’s about everyday stress, too. It’s oddly…normal. But only if we fight back.

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Summer Tao

Summer Tao is a South Africa based writer. She has a fondness for queer relationships, sexuality and news. Her love for plush cats, and video games is only exceeded by the joy of being her bright, transgender self

Summer has written 40 articles for us.

18 Comments

  1. Wasn’t expecting an article on this subject . Autostraddle as usual being the best.

    I was so deep in just a few months ago, that I have found an almost foolproof plan.
    I’m better now but like you said you can’t just forget it’s an option . I’ve spent years and years depressed and suicidal but I always knew suicide methods available to me were quite unreliable. Now I know how and I will never be able to erase that info from my mind.

    When my pms hits, when the loneliness overpowers me ( this Sunday I must have spoken a grand total of 10 words),when my physical health takes a turn for the worse, when I see how we torture other humans and animals for truly idiotic reasons…I remember the item that I never threw away. I remember the plan …I remember the goodbye letters who have already been written.

    Positive note:
    What personally helps me is exercise…. It helps with my anxiety. I don’t smoke anymore because it would make my performance worse. Same for drinking. Also, I get very very dark when I drink. ( And I drunk text my straight crush who also happens to be a friend – ?lesbian cliche award? )
    Did I mention that she has a fraternal twin and that I’m actually better friends with her twin. Do I win even more queer points for that?

    I don’t know if I’ve survived suicidality yet. Maybe Anna Kendrick’s character wasn’t so wrong in A simple favour when she said that she thinks loneliness kills more people than cancer.
    P.S: I don’t usually remember quotes from movies, but I think everyone will understand why I remember that particular one. Hint: It’s for gaaayyyy reasons.

    Thank you for making suicide a little less taboo.

    • Hey Fouras,

      Thanks a lot for writing in. It means a lot to both read it and know you’re still around. And yeah, the knowledge about planning never leaves you. It still bothers me that because those memories are so traumatically vibrant, I can always ‘resume’ from where I left off. There’s no forgetting the existing knowledge, which makes recovery all the harder.

      And yeah, even though we can turn to various forms of chemical escape, they often make things worse while making us feel better about it. It’s not usually good in the long run. My mental well-being was always at its worst when I sought out alcohol.

      Lots of gay points and love to you

  2. When I was 17, I was about 90 seconds from swallowing the contents of several different pill bottles. Even at 17 I knew that the medications I had chosen to assist me would have quick and lethal consequences. I was home alone and no one would be there to stop me or call 911. But as I started opening the first bottle, I realized that I didn’t actually want to die, I just wanted everything to stop. I called my mom and she talked me down.

    Now, 14 years later and my 16-year-old cousin recently did the same. Physically, she’s fine. But, I’m so saddened that she too will carry that scar with her.

    I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you.

    • Hey Lindsay,

      I’m as glad as you are about the decision you made at 17, and I’m really sorry about what happened to your cousin. It’s a horrible thing to live with, but it gets easier with time. Thanks for the love.

  3. You are a damn good writer, Summer, with a lot of range. Thanks for writing this.

    I appreciate the continuum mention too. I’ve never gotten as far as you describe, but I’ve been on the continuum, got the Calm Harm app on my phone and everything. Even now that I’ve transitioned, once in a while something hits me, I catch a glimpse of SI in my own mind, and it scares me shitless.

    • Thanks a lot, M. There’s a wide gulf between how terrifying SI is to people who don’t experience it much and catch it at the edges…and people who went so deep that they got used to a ‘baseline’ amount of ideation. It should be terrifying to have those thoughts, but it’s also so easy to grow accustomed to them when things are bad enough. And that’s when there’s massive danger. Being afraid of SI thoughts is the rational and positive response by far.

  4. Thank you for this piece. In a way I very strongly relate to that knowledge from suicidality never going away. It became kind of a habit to have passive suicidality when stressed or depressed.

    I also agree that it’s very hard to talk about. Some of it is the skewed perception that qhat I experience now isn’t that bad because I’ve experienced worse. There’s also a part of it where I’ll hesitate to bring it up to even mental healthcare providers. After going through inpatient treatment and multiple intensive outpatient programs, some parts of the treatment that’s supposed to help feel like it was its own trauma, and I don’t want to be told to do that again.

    Not that treatment has always been bad; just that some providers mess up bad and some treatments efforts are very poorly suited to many people.

    • The response on this piece has been both heartwarming and heartbreaking. And yes, suicidality completely fucks with your standards for what a ‘bad time’ in life looks like. That heals with time as your recent memories get replaced by better ones with… higher standards for happiness. It takes so long and it’s so easy to set the recovery back.

    • Hey Mo, I’m really thankful I gave you the nudge you needed. I hope it goes well for you and you find a new path forward. Remember that setbacks are a normal part of recovery, but the most important thing is to keep trying when you slip

  5. I was suicidal all throughout my childhood (since about age 7) and my 20s. I didn’t think I’d make it to 30 but then it happened. I’ve been in a dreamlike state since then because I feel like I made to a precipice of something better. I can’t explain it but it feels positively absurd I’m still alive but I am. I’ve been free of self harm since 2017 but it’s not something I can really talk about publicly. I feel like a punch line to an old joke when I think about it. But I’m also somewhat proud of it. It’s an ambiguous way of feeling.

    It’s hard to feel like I’m on “the other side” of it because it’s all I’ve ever known really. I never really had a baseline for it. Sometimes I still keep suicide in my back pocket like it’s a backup retirement plan. And I admit it feels dark and comforting at the same time. But I also feel like maybe I won’t end up that way and that’s a hope I didn’t have before.

    • Hell, I feel similarly. There’s an incredulity attached to surviving a decade or longer when I was so, so sure that I was going to end it before age 20. I’m much more attentive of special days and memories now. I never thought I’d make it this far, so every new year feels like ‘bonus life’ that I really, really need to make use of.

      It definitely is dark and probably a bit concerning that many of us still think of suicide as a valid Plan Z if everything else has gone wrong. It’s… the nature of the beast, and the best we can do is put as many boundaries, memories, and good things between us and that contingency. I don’t think there’s a point to demonizing ourselves for thinking about it as a possibility. But we’d do well to make that contingency look as unappealing as possible.

  6. I didn’t think I needed an article like this, but it does help. 15 years of suicidal thoughts and 10 years after my lowest point, I’m still fighting those thoughts and feelings. It helps to know that most of us are still going through that

    Thanks Summer for these words, you truly are an amazing person who can write about everything and be compelling.

  7. Thank you for sharing so generously and courageously.

    I’ve had spells in my life where I’ve entertained thoughts of suicide, planning those goodbye letters, figuring out where to find supplies, and so on.

    Once, 6 years ago, I held a needle against my arm. To this day, I don’t know how I brought myself to put it down.

    The past 2+ years, my mental health has been gradually worsening, with greater and greater intensity of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thinking.

    I’m held back by a life insurance policy that needs to reach the point where its suicide exclusion lapses, so that it will settle a mortgage and not leave my spouse homeless.

    I have a countdown timer on my phone, that I look at daily, ticking ever closer to that date.

    I’ve painstakingly researched scientific journals to figure out a method that’s not messy, traumatic, or likely to fail. I’ve not bought the supplies, as they’re temperature sensitive, and rotational power cuts are likely to return, and I can’t take that chance.

    So I wait. Patiently. What keeps me going – essentially the only spark I feel these days – is my sense of purpose and responsibility in the work I do. I want to leave the world in a better state than I found it, at least for the few decades humanity has left before we vanquish ourselves from the planet we’ve callously set aflame.

    If I can keep finding ways to be useful, I’ll probably endure the pain of living to try achieve those ends.

    And I acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, through all the care I’m accessing, I might some day not feel suicidal.

    One thing that didn’t change, even before this bout, is that I can’t conceptualise old age, or retirement, or passing by natural means. I feel like, on some level, I _know_ I’ll end my own life. Either as the cumulative result of protracted mental illness, or perhaps out of sheer exhaustion, nihilism, and a sense of futility, as the world becomes an ever more hostile place for those of us on the margins.

    And the stigma is the worst. Because I want to talk about it, without shame or guilt or fear of panicking those who hear.

    I’m lucky in having found a psychiatrist and psychologist who don’t scare easily, and who value agency above all else. And small, anonymous internet fora where tortured souls gather to talk about mental health, and disordered eating, and suicidality, and self-harm, free of judgment or shame.

    I wish we could see that talking about such things does more good than avoid them. By speaking about suicide, we’re not going to create more suicidality. If anything, we’ll work towards lessening the othering that those in desperation already feel so pervasively and profoundly.

    A long comment, too long even. But tl;dr: thanks for saying the things. Perhaps this allows more of us to do so too.

    • Hey, Anaphylaxus,

      You’ve left me a profoundly honest and difficult comment, but one whose contents I’ve well empathized with at times in my life. The desire to ‘leave’ in a way that is as unobtrusive as possible and have my affairs in order is exactly what my mind fixates on in dark moments. And fortunately, my desire to organize was eventually so tedious that a suitably planned death never found me. I’m thankful that I’m not a more impulsive person. Pre-transition me also couldn’t visualize an unplanned end to my life, but that’s slowly passing. I’m still not sure I can visualize old age or my far future, but like you, I’m ever-searching for meaning.

      I’m with you on feeling the stigma of being unable to discuss the really… procedural parts of suicidality. Even in therapy, I tended to waffle about with abstract stuff and feelings stuff when to me, most of it is logistics. The worst kind of logistics, but as much to do with organizing and preparing as the actual ‘feeling’ of it. For some of us who’ve gone through it, I suspect that the planning and organizing of our own death IS a coping mechanism. As awful as it was, it sometimes felt like the only part of my life I really had control over. I now know that it was a deeply wounded part of me talking, but it really felt that way.

      I strongly believe that the work you’re doing is incredibly valuable. If that keeps you anchored to reality on some level, then that’s a small spot of light, even if work itself brings challenges.

      Thanks for visiting my article and leaving your words. I’m sure they’ll make someone feel less alone about their internal monologue. It did that for me, at least.

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