What we don’t talk about after suicide attempts

There are some things people don’t often talk about after a suicide attempt.

After my first attempt, the main question no one could give me an answer for was ‘how do I live with myself as depressed as I am, knowing that I tried to kill myself and had no regrets, when I still feel suicidal?’

The second attempt was different. After the first attempt, not only did I not get answers to those questions, but I also didn’t get any help. The help I was given was addressing problems I didn’t have, so it didn’t work. I had appropriate help and support after my second attempt, so this changed things. I was hopeless at first, but as I started to recover I found the genuine willingness and desire to live that I hadn’t felt in many years. Having had no regrets didn’t imply the inevitability of another attempt, but it did bring the fear of knowing if I were to hit rock bottom again, it was very much possible I would attempt again and succeed.

I wrote more about the experiences and thought processes behind these two attempts here: https://not-just-bipolar.com/2021/03/03/i-am-happy/

What’s left after two attempts is the knowledge that I had no regrets, the knowledge of what rock bottom is, the memories of what it was like to fall there, the memories of the attempts, and the weight of all the pain I caused to those who care about me.

Whereas after my first attempt there was just acceptance that it was only a matter of time before I attempted and completed suicide, what I had after the second attempt was fear that it would happen again and that I would die this time.

This was a very intense fear at first and it caused several panic attacks during the first couple of months out of the hospital after my second attempt. It was not just the fear that if I hit rock bottom again it would be inevitable, but also the fear that I would spiral down again and I wouldn’t be able to stop it. I got so worried and scared any time my mood changed in the slightest. As time went by, I kept proving to myself that I am strong and resilient, I have developed good and effective coping skills, and I know myself and my healthy range of moods and emotions a lot better. So I’m a lot more confident in my ability to stop things way before I reach a point of no return. I can’t say I know for sure what I would do if I hit rock bottom again, but I do know what to do as soon as the first warning sign of an episode appears.

Now it has been nearly two years since my second attempt and I don’t live in fear anymore, but it is still in the back of my mind. It’s not a constant fear, but any dips in my mood even within my normal/healthy range make me afraid that I’m about to spiral down again. I track my mood daily and put it on a spreadsheet every couple of weeks, so I can look at a graph and know that it’s not the case. As I said, this keeps getting easier with time, but some amount of sometimes irrational fear remains. The knowledge that I felt relief as I was dying is not something I can forget. I didn’t die, but at the time I was sure there was no way I would survive, so I was dying. It’s a very strange thing to be alive, to want to live, while knowing I was at peace dying.

I think a small amount of fear is helpful, it keeps me away from danger. It’s when it goes beyond that healthy level that it affects me. Not so much consciously, but I’ll go to bed at night second guessing whether my being tired today was normal tiredness or the beginning of an episode. I will then have bad dreams and nightmares where I suddenly wake up agitated and anxious. It’s often screaming in despair within the nightmare that wakes me.

In these dreams I feel as I did leading up to my last suicide attempt. I won’t go into detail as I’ve written about this in other posts, but needless to say it is upsetting and unsettling.

The theme of these dreams, aside from feeling like I’m in a whirlwind of mental instability, tends to be that of being unable to escape a situation or do anything about it, often trying to scream with no sound coming out. This mirrors the experience of waking up delirious after my first attempt, with the perceived danger and the inability to escape it or get help, as well as waking up after my second attempt trying to scream but not being able to because I was intubated. As I awake, the feelings transition from being immersed in that state to knowing I’m not there, but deeply fearing I will.

Something else I haven’t seen being discussed that much is flashbacks. When you look it up, most of the content is related to PTSD in people who have witnessed a suicide. I found two personal accounts of experiences from people who attempted suicide (A Flashback About My Suicide Attempt Is Not a Setback and Facing The Aftermath Of A Suicide Attempt).

These were more frequent and stronger the first few weeks back home from the hospital, when a reminder would trigger a flashback. Luckily I don’t really experience this anymore. Medication lingering long enough in my mouth to feel the bitter taste, taking meds with an empty stomach, sitting on my bedside or lying in bed in the same position I did that day, getting in bed when there’s still daylight, taking medication and looking at the clock to know what time it will kick in… these things would take me right back to that moment. They don’t trigger suicidal thoughts, but they bring these vivid memories right back and for a second or two it’s like I’m right there on that day.

It’s good I hardly ever experience that now, but the memory of having tried to die, of knowing I actively wanted to die, is something very difficult to shake off. For about a decade, there was rarely a day I didn’t think about dying to some extent. This ranged from passively thinking “I wish I’d never been born” to actively planning an end. In contrast, for the past nearly two years there hasn’t been a day I don’t remember I tried to end my life. This always comes with the reassurance that I’m happy to be alive. Every day I get out of bed grateful I woke up to live another day. It doesn’t matter if I’m in terrible physical pain and want to go right back to sleep, if I have a stressful work day ahead, if there are unpleasant things to deal with in the day… I still wake up grateful to be alive. Sometimes there will be an actual reminder like someone mentioning suicide, mental illness, or something that relates to what I went through such as certain hospital experiences that will remind me I tried to die. But most days there’s no explicit reminder and I don’t consciously think about it, it just pops up in my mind even if just for a split second.

I don’t know if I will ever not remember it so often. As I said in the beginning, no one really tells you what it will be like to be alive after trying not to be. Whether it’s “I attempted suicide once and now I have to carry on living feeling just as suicidal” or “I’m no longer suicidal, but I was relieved when I thought I was dying and now I live with that knowledge,” they’re not experiences someone can easily guide you through. I will start counselling soon to explore other unrelated issues, but I’m hoping I can explore some of this too at some point.

Maybe it’s a good thing that I can live with these memories somewhat comfortably, accepting rather than trying to bury them, and letting them fuel that healthy amount of fear and self-awareness that keeps me in check. And they aren’t constant upsetting or distressing memories unless I dwell on them, they just come and go sometimes nearly unnoticed like briefly catching someone’s perfume as they walk past you. In any case, it’s a very strange feeling having these memories and these experiences that hardly anyone in my life can fully understand.

I understand why these things aren’t openly talked about and shared, but at the same time, it can be a very isolating experience never hearing about them.

Father’s Day

The last time I saw my father for Father’s Day he was at the bar. That was the place to find him. I didn’t like going in there, but I went in to say Happy Father’s Day. I don’t remember his reaction or what I did after.

In a way, I never really felt like I had a father. I never lived with him. Most of the time I spent with him was out of obligation. His presence wasn’t comforting, it ranged from awkward to threatening. I knew how much he had hurt my family.

As a kid, it was black and white for me. I didn’t see the nuances of how some people become bad people, I just knew they were bad. There were many times of wishing he was different, wishing we could be like other families. At one point I hated him.

But there were good times. He taught me how to draw, how to paint, how to play chess, how to identify different animal tracks. He’d record home videos where I’d pretend to be a news presenter. He’d tickle me to make me laugh and he’d let me paint on his back with sharpies. He showed me his small collection of fossils and he took me to the little mountains bordering our town to show me the marks previous water currents had left on the rocks. He taught me not to litter the countryside. He taught me to leave bugs alone even if they scare me.

When he was kind, he was kind.

When I found out he had taken his own life, I couldn’t cry. I felt numb for a long time. I was also told not to discuss this with anyone because suicide is something shameful, so no one should know. I was alone with my already existing suicidal thoughts and now my father’s suicide, while the ones who should’ve supported me instead questioned my ability to care about or to love people.

It took me a couple of years to actually start grieving. At this point I was around 16 and I blamed myself for my lack of previous grieving, for my lack of understanding the complexities of his personality and his actions, for not trying to build a relationship with him. I still haven’t entirely forgiven myself for not reaching out when I did feel like reaching out but felt it was the wrong thing to do, or felt it went against what was expected of me. But I was a child and I can’t blame myself for not looking past his abusive behaviour to see the childhood trauma, the alcoholism, the mental illness.

It was only after my own diagnosis that I was told he most likely had bipolar disorder too. I didn’t know him well enough, or long enough, to notice this.

From the moment he died, I was certain that would be how I go as well. It was the moments I was the most suicidal in my 20s that made me feel closer to him, experiencing first-hand the suffering and desperation that pushes a person to that point in a way I couldn’t fully understand in my teens, despite already having suicidal thoughts.

I would never justify any of the bad things he did, or convince myself it was inevitable for him to end up that way because of his upbringing, or that he had no choice in doing the things he did. But as many people with mental health issues and addiction do, he never had appropriate support or help to move towards more positive and healthier behaviours.

I wish I could go back and talk to him, try to have a relationship with him. The people he hurt forgave him, it’s not up to me to carry that resentment when it wasn’t mine in the first place. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I really think there was a potential for him to move past his bad actions and become a better person. For him to be happy.

He left no note for me. I have very few memories with him, and so many of them are negative. I only have two pictures of him from when I was very little. I knew him, but I didn’t know him. At times it felt like I hadn’t lost anyone at all. Can you lose someone who wasn’t there?

I now hold on to the good memories I have, and I let the negative ones remind me of who I don’t want to become. I may have inherited this dysfunctional, self-destructive brain, but I don’t have to become the same person. I hold on to the knowledge that he was ill just as I have been, that just as I was emotionally neglected as a child, he had a probably even worse childhood. It just so happened that life took us down different paths through our illness.

I still have frequent dreams where it turns out he’s been alive all along. But the past is what it is, and I can’t go back and fix it. I don’t know if I can miss someone who wasn’t that present in my life, or if I just miss the ideal of him, or the ideal of a father.

I just wish things could have been better for him. Not just for me to have a father, but for him to have a good life. And I hope that he went in peace, that he didn’t regret his choice once it was too late to do anything, that he just felt the relief of going to sleep one last time. It’s not so much resting in peace as it is going in peace that matters.