I Wanted to Die: A Personal Journey from Suicide Attempt to Recovery
My name is Aja. I am a mom, a construction financial manager, and a community volunteer. And, I am alive today because I survived my suicide attempt. This account of my own failed suicide attempt and recovery will provide insight into the mind of someone experiencing suicidal thoughts because, unless you’ve experienced it personally, there are things that you can’t understand about what it means to be suicidal. By sharing this very personal experience, my hope is that you will be better able to detect and help others who are suffering from suicidal states.
Progression of Symptoms
When my son was nearly a year old, I had just escaped an abusive relationship and was living with my parents until I could get back on my feet. I don’t remember exactly when the symptoms started, because I didn’t even have the presence of mind to realize something was wrong.
At some point, I began having strong physical reactions while at work. I would suddenly, and with no apparent cause, break out in a cold sweat and begin shaking. Sometimes it would progress to uncontrollable crying and hyperventilating. I either worked through it, or would excuse myself until it was over. At the time, these episodes seemed emotionless, and I only saw them as inconvenient. A boss noticed and recommended that I see a doctor.
Now, this is important: I was unconcerned with what I was experiencing because I couldn’t feel anything. I was incapable of realizing that something was wrong with me because the triggers (i.e., neurotransmitters) that usually spur us into action and signal pain were not functioning properly for me. I felt nothing – no happiness or sadness. I persevered in an emotionless vacuum.
Since I worked at the same company as my mom and carpooled with her every day, it was easy to get by in this manner. My parents were my safety net and I was lying in it, operating in only the basest of functions necessary to get by.
Soon, however, my neurotransmitters began to sink below the threshold of no emotion and I began to experience what are known as “suicidal thoughts.” I put quotes around this phrase because this is an almost laughable oversimplification.
When I was in that emotionless vacuum, they weren’t just “thoughts” – they were auditory hallucinations. They were my evil twin from a parallel world wearing an invisibility cloak. They were my rational mind and will to live locked in a tower, looking down on the soulless shell of my body, acting and reacting.
These “thoughts” began as a small voice, quietly whispering to me, “You’re the worst,” “You don’t deserve any of this,” “Your family would be better off without you,” “You should kill yourself.” As these thoughts progressed, the voice got louder and I began to believe what it was saying. I started looking for a way to escape by suicide. Before long, I was thinking about it constantly.
Sometimes, the “thoughts” caused me intense shame and pain, but a lot of the time I lacked the energy or emotional capacity to feel anything other than resigned agreement.
One day, I mentioned to my mom that I felt like killing myself. Due to the lack of pain in my voice, my mom misunderstood the severity of my confession and remarked, “We all feel that way sometimes.” I simply did not have the energy to convince her that I was serious and took her lack of concern as evidence that the voice was correct – that I wasn’t important to my family.
It was a Wednesday. I had thought of seeking help, but then realized that I didn’t have any money until payday on Friday. I became so desperate to escape by ending my life that I couldn’t even wait two days. I was at work and running through plans in my mind, considering different lethal means that I could use.
I had decided on a method, but the will to live in me reached out one more time for help. I gathered the last shreds of strength I had to tell a co-worker as he was on his way out to lunch, “I’m seriously thinking about killing myself.” He looked concerned and caught off guard, and said, “Don’t do anything, okay?”
It’s important to understand that when a person reaches the point that they are ready to end their life, breaking through the void of darkness to reach out for help takes an immense amount of strength and energy. In fact, it takes more energy to reach out for help than it does to attempt suicide.
I don’t know how long I waited after that, but it felt like eternity. I used the last wisp of energy I had to walk to the bathroom, down two huge handfuls of Tylenol, and go out to the car to close my eyes for what I hoped would be the last time. Luckily, I wasn’t working at a desk and smart phones didn’t exist back then, so I wasn’t able to research this method. Only later did I discover that it is not fatal, but can potentially lead to liver poisoning.
I had further luck when I woke up at some point in the night and expelled whatever had not yet been digested. Thankfully, I have not suffered any long-term effects from this failed attempt, but if I had access to a more lethal means that day, I would not be here now.
Survival & Recovery
Two days later, I told my mom about what had happened. She helped me get into counseling and I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. Within a few days of starting medication, I was nearly 100% better.
The solution to my condition was quick, effective, and painless, yet I was convinced that death was my only option. The timeline of these events – from the onset of physical manifestations of PTSD to my suicide attempt – occurred over the course of two months. Time passes differently for people suffering from depression; what felt like a couple of months to my mother felt like a year to me.
Months after, I was still working for the same company, but had moved to the accounting department. I was recovering from my mental illness and on medication. Life was relatively good, if not challenging in all of the normal ways.
Then, one day, I was making inventory adjustments on index cards and nodded off briefly. When I came to a moment later, I had written “I WANT TO DIE” on the line that I was adjusting.
It didn’t look like me, it didn’t feel like me, but my hand was in the writing position at the end of the sentence. It reminded me that I am not the illness that is affecting me and that recovery lasts long past feeling normal again.
It’s important to realize that people are brought to this desperate place for many reasons, and no one has the same internal experience. However, what we all have in common is that, in these dark moments, we are completely and utterly alone without the strength to search for and grasp a lifeline. In these moments, we need you – our family, friends, and co-workers – to reach out for our sinking hand and, with your strength, pull us back to the surface.
Lifesaving Points to Remember
- An affected person may not realize they are at risk because they don’t experience emotions. Look for a lack of appropriate emotional response or disassociated behavior.
- Feeling suicidal can onset and become lethal very quickly.Don’t dismiss changes in someone’s behavior or decide to observe for a little while before saying something. Ask them immediately, using open questions and good listening skills.
- The depression that comes with suicidal thoughts can make it nearly impossible to ask for help. If you sense that someone is not acting like themselves, or is experiencing depression, reach out and offer to help. Ask specifically if you can help them get counseling or get to an appointment. And be sure to follow through!
- Avoid trying to “inspire” someone with depression. Most inspirational talk operates on the assumption that change and positivity are within a person’s power. Depression is a malfunction of the nervous system and removes the ability for a person to choose positivity or motivation. What may inspire you is a source of pain and alienation to a person with depression.
Practical Steps for Suicide Intervention
It is important to acknowledge that not everyone is fully equipped to help someone who is battling depression and suicidal thoughts. But, everyone can be a first lifeline by helping to identify there is an issue and assisting on the road to recovery.
If you are concerned that someone may be suffering from depression, suicidal thoughts, etc., here is some practical guidance to help you. If you feel unsuited to help someone who may be suffering with suicidal thoughts, let your safety manager or HR manager know and they can take over.
First, warm up with questions like, “How are you doing?”
And don’t let a positive answer deter you from digging deeper if it is contrary to your intuition. Follow up with something like, “You don’t seem like yourself lately. How is life treating you?” If they insist they are fine, let them know that you’re there if they ever need to talk and that you care about how they are doing.
If they remark that things have been bad, ask them how they are coping, what they need, and follow through with a question about if they’ve experienced suicidal thoughts. Any suicidal thoughts or thoughts about self-harm are a potential precursor to suicide completion and an indicator of the need for professional intervention.
Perhaps a co-worker who you suspected was having a hard time has just confided in you that they are having suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self-harm. What next?
Get as many details as they are comfortable sharing so that you can intervene more effectively.
Ask what kinds of thoughts they’ve been having. Ask how often they think about it. Ask what kind of plan plays out when they think about it.
If the plan involves them being alone, make sure they aren’t alone. Call their partner, or if they live alone, invite them to stay with you or invite yourself over.
If the plan involves a lethal means available at work, inform the safety manager or HR to prevent that employee from accessing any lethal means.
Being there for a person with severe depression requires that you abandon all judgement.
All conversation must be devoid of “shoulds” and assertions of what the suffering person is capable of doing. We must listen, affirm, and hold space. Holding space means to save a place in your life where that person can exist in your orbit, free of judgement, and receive whatever it is they need in that moment – whether it is reassurance, silent comradery, or intervention. It’s a placeholder at the table of your life.
Relate to them how important they are to you personally. Depending on your knowledge of the person, be wary of mentioning their family or the importance of family, as that may be a prime source of stress for them. Tell them you want to help because you value them and want to see them experience success and happiness.
Put them in touch with HR or the safety manager to access mental health services.
Make sure they have the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) saved in their contacts and send the first message to the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741) for them so that they have it saved, making it easier for them to start up a conversation.
Ask them who else they have to talk to and write down a list with them. Help form an action plan of who to contact when things get bad.
Remain in Touch
Check in frequently with them, ask how they are doing, and make sure that all of their contacts are working out and that they are getting the help they need.
Friend them on Facebook to keep apprised of status updates and offer support. If their illness begins to improve and the urgency fades, set reminders on your phone for a couple months out to check in on them.
AJA SCHINDLER is Controller at Current Electrical Co. in Portland, OR, where she manages all accounting, human resources, and safety program administration duties. Aja also participates on the safety committee for Independent Electrical Contractors and volunteers as the marketing chair for CFMA’s Portland Chapter. She is also the Vice Chairman of the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention Task Force.
Copyright © 2018 by the Construction Financial Management Association (CFMA). All rights reserved. This article first appeared in CFMA Building Profits and is reprinted with permission. CFMA Building Profits is a member-only benefit; join CFMA to receive the magazine.
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