how to keep breathing, no matter how much things suck
In the last ten days, four people have reached out to me via email to express being suicidal, multiple twitter followers have commented that there’s only one reason they’re staying alive (usually their kids), and two people have taken me up on my offer to buy a certain anti-suicide book for anyone who can’t afford it (or just doesn’t want it in their Amazon history).
And while I am not suicidal—I know where that demon lives, and it’s only within shouting distance, not close enough to be dangerous—I am depressed.
What follows is a slightly expanded and edited version of an essay I published a year ago about suicide. It contains plain, blunt, honest discussion of what it actually means to make, and follow through, on the decision to terminate oneself.
This issue discusses suicidal ideation, depression, and self-harm. It also graphically discusses the reality of suicide and the carnage it leaves behind.
Call 1-800-273-TALK or connect to Lifeline chat if you are struggling with suicide.
How to Keep Breathing
no matter how much things suck
Because I am, simultaneously: impossible to shock; highly skilled in hypervigilance and worst-case-scenario management; the owner of a dark past; and quiet enough that my college nickname was “Gibbs” (for the ‘functional mute’ character from NCIS), my role in my group of real-life friends is twofold.
I am the friend of whom you ask advice if and only if you actually want to hear the truth, and I am the friend you call when “shit’s getting real,” and you worry your other friends can’t handle it.
From approximately November 2020 until the early summer of 2021, I did somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen “don’t kill yourself” pep talks. Since Christmas, I have done about eight more.
This issue of my Substack is a more complete, snarkier version of the pep talk I give my friends (or occasionally, myself). Depending on how low they are, some get different parts of it. It is rare for someone to get all of it, but I’m putting all of it here. If you are struggling, I hope it’s helpful to you.
Extremely important note: this talk is given as part of a conversation with lots and lots and lots of open-ended questions and during which I mostly listen. I am not a therapist. I am writing this mostly for myself, but also for people who don’t have a friend in their life who can do that for them; for people who need to give themselves the pep talk.
In other words: for the love of God, don’t take the tone of this and use it on anyone but yourself.
First: I Get It. Really.
I tried to kill myself in my teens and spent most of the next six months furious and self-pitying at how stupid I was, that I couldn’t even manage to do that correctly. Then, during a later bout with depression, the abyss consumed me to the point that I can tell you exactly what gun oil tastes like. I only didn’t pull the trigger because of what comes in the next section.
Over time, realizing that I had some power to make things better changed how I regarded both my attempt and my near-attempt. Even so, I have never forgotten the horror at waking up in the ER the first time, nor the desperation that drove me the second time.
All that to say—if you are in the depths of despair, I really do understand. I hope you will keep reading, because some of my thoughts might help.
Worst case scenario, you’ll waste the next ten minutes. And if you’re ready to die anyway, what’s ten minutes more, yeah?
How Did You Get To This Point?
The first thing to consider, is that depression is a rational response to depressing circumstances. Imagine a time machine allowed you to go back in time to World War 2 and walk around Auschwitz. Would your conclusion be, “Gosh, these people need Zoloft! Look at all this clinical depression!” Or would it be that they needed to be rescued from the hell they were living in?
If lockdown (or unemployment, or profound loneliness, the implosion of western civilization, or other terrible circumstances) is depressing you, as it is me, congratulations! You’re having a rational response to a depressing circumstance. Your emotional algorithms are working correctly.
Now we just have to get you to the point where you can recognize your power to do something about how you feel—something that doesn’t involve ending your life. This is not nearly as hard as it seems, I promise.
Ah, but you’re not convinced? You think you’ve considered all your options? Let me make my case, then.
Real Talk: Survivors Don’t Get Over It.
Graphic as fuck discussion of the results of suicide follows. Skip to the next bold heading if you wish to avoid that part.
One reason not to do it is that the person who finds you will never get over it. How do I know? I found someone I loved after he committed suicide. Many years later, I occasionally go as long as two days without thinking about it. (Six hours is probably more typical.)
Here is part of something I wrote about it:
The first thing I noticed wasn’t the smell—that hit me later, a good five seconds after the sight. I’ve never understood that. Blood has a distinctive coppery smell in large quantities, something mostly indescribable but undeniable. Dead bodies release both bladder and bowels, and the smell of those contents mixes with the blood to create something powerfully foul…
I realized that I was looking at his brain, and my life, my heart, my sense of myself, my identity—everything split into Before and After that instant.
I was completely aware of what I would see when I looked over the desk. It never occurred to me not to look anyway. It was not a conscious decision to look. Maybe I had already understood the Before and After, and in the After, you are required to accept reality.
You are required to know, to see, to smell, to be in the world where this is real, and this is what really happened.
In the After, you forfeit your ability to pretend that you do not know the things you know.
I slowly walked to the side of the desk, leaned, and looked. His eyes were closed, which was a blessing. He had bled from the eyes, nose, and mouth. He must have done it as soon as we left for dinner, since some of it was dried. The angle allowed me to see just a part of the back of his head, which was missing.
Something inside me broke that had not been broken before, even though I’d been through plenty of hell by that point, and I’m not sure it’s fixable.
Am I trying to make you feel guilty? Yes, actually. Not as manipulation. As a test. If this is enough to make you feel guilty, you care about at least one person. Even if that person is only yourself, and the lasting legacy you would leave in another person’s broken (by you) heart and mind — that’s enough. Caring about one person enough to feel guilty is enough to live for.
I promise. It really is.
It’s Not Murder if You’re Only Killing Yourself? Wrong.
The biggest risk factor I know of for suicide? Having a family member (particularly a parent) or close friend commit suicide. We have multitudes of data that suicide is contagious. Every completed suicide death causes suicide to be more likely in others, more normalized in the minds of those who knew, or even heard, about the death.
Suicide is absolutely a form of murder on a time delay. Be an adult and face that cold, hard fact.
Peaceful Drifting Off? Doubtful.
It’s actually pretty damn difficult to kill yourself. If you don’t have immediate access to a firearm or a tenth story balcony, you stand an excellent chance of fucking it up. (Even then, it’s easy to fuck up — a twitch at the wrong moment, a wind current that makes you land slightly off where you expected — and create a scenario of draining family finances in a vegetative state or merely breaking every bone in your body and never walking again after two years of painful physical therapy.)
A boy I grew up with put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He lived for months on a ventilator, torturing his family and friends.
A lifetime of wearing scarves in August because you have noose scars around your neck, or paralyzed because you don’t know enough about overdosing so you end up comatose in an awkward position and cutting off circulation to a limb — I have personally known, either directly or at no more than one remove (i.e. family members of friends but no farther away than that), at least one person in each of these situations.
What Comes After?
I don’t have any idea what comes after death, and neither do you. It is possible that some form of consciousness survives, and post-death will be better. It is more likely, in my view, that one of two things happens: nothingness, or some form of consciousness survives, and the failure that suicide represents results in something worse. I don’t mean a punishment, some sadistic hell designed by a Christian-style god. I mean some awareness of how small your problems actually were, the wasted potential, the children you would have had, the joy you would have experienced, the clever plot twist in chapter forty of the novel you would have written, the layout of the mansion you would have bought with the lottery win after you bought a ticket on a lark, clarity about the distorted view that resulted in effecting your own death—when it’s too late to do a thing about any of it.
As to nothingness, that would not actually give you what you want. You are in terrible pain, and you want relief.
Relief is a feeling. You probably think you want to feel nothing, but think for a minute. You want that because it would be relief from what you’re feeling right now.
I repeat, relief is a feeling.
Gotta be alive to feel relief, champ.
I’m Not Convinced.
Fair enough. Then I have news for you: you are totally free. If you are truly in a position where you have no compelling reason to stay alive, then every shackle is gone. Walk away. Get in your car and leave all your problems behind. Drive to Washington and tell your least favorite politician off to his or her face. Get online and figure out where the celebrity you most want to bed lives, head there, and give it your best shot. No money to get these things done? Go knock off a liquor store, or take a wallet from an asshole in the rich section of town. Your family would rather bail you out than bury you.
If you immediately object to this because you have responsibilities, a reputation, a legacy? You care about something. Figure out what that thing is, and use it to fix some of the problems that have you in this much pain.
So What Do I Do, Smartass?
Glad you asked.
1) Give your suffering some meaning.
It can mean whatever you decide it means. If you love anyone, start with this: I am suffering so that I will not radically increase the odds that the people I love, such as (name them), die by suicide. My pain will be helpful to them in the long run and maybe even save their lives.
2) Figure out how to meet more of your needs.
This can be hard during lockdown, COVID vax-related restrictions, or just plain winter (the high today is -4 where I live). If it’s impossible, return to step one. Here’s an example: I went from March 6, 2020 to July 6, 2021 experiencing absolutely nothing in the way of non-medical human touch. There were days when it was depressing to the point that I had to consciously remind myself that I was still human. As I live alone, this lack in my life continues to contribute seriously to my depression. I have the blessing of a really awful childhood, so I remind myself that I didn’t get hugs when I was a little kid and needed them more. And now I have the rational capacity to understand that it’s not a reflection on my personal worth. It’s my share of the worldwide bad luck, nothing more. (Most of the time, I believe this.)
Thus I choose its meaning, which is a power that nobody can take away from me.
3) Remember that you are going to die.
Memento mori, the stoics say, and I have found this to be helpful. The instant that sperm met egg, we were all sentenced to death. I am going to die eventually, and while I do believe there are honorable reasons to bring that about early—I would certainly consider it if I got a terminal disease, was in serious danger of abusing children, or found myself in one of a few other extreme situations—being in a lot of psychological pain right now is almost never a good enough reason when I’m being rational. Why would it become such when I’m depressed? By definition, depression is a distortion of reality.
4) Ask for help.
I’m not a believer in long term medication for me, but it’s an option worth at least exploring for most people. Your doctor is a good place to start. Ask for their take on antidepressants AND a referral to a therapist.
5) Learn how your mind works, and fools you.
Here’s an experiment. Pick a future date you will never live to see, perhaps Christmas 2177. Go spend a few minutes closing your eyes and focusing on that date. Imagine a wall calendar that says 2177, and crossing off the dates in December. Promise yourself that you will end your life on December 25, 2177. You will feel a little better. Why? You quietly focused on an end to the suffering. It’s totally irrational, but it will work, because you’re not operating in rationality. So use that fact.
Finally, anything you can do to change how you feel will help.
Exercise creates endorphins, and often so does fasting. Music helps. Put on a happy song (I like the 90s song “Stacy’s Mom” for this) and put it on auto-repeat. Chris Rock’s Netflix special, Tambourine, is pretty good. Explore something you enjoy in a new way. Trekkies, did you know there are hundreds of Star Trek novels?
You made it almost all the way to the end of this post. That, dear reader, puts you in an august category: you are one of the few people who still has an attention span, whose intellectual faculties are still in good shape. We need more people like you, not fewer.
Head over to Amazon and get the Kindle version of Stay, by Jennifer Michael Hecht (you don’t need a Kindle to read it; they have an app for your phone or computer). It makes the non-religious case against suicide, and it’s fabulous. I’ve read it twelve or thirteen times and bought at least thirty copies for people in trouble. If you want to read it but can’t afford it or don’t want it in your Amazon history, send an email to hollymathnerd at gmail.com with either your email address (for the Kindle version) or your mailing address (for a hard copy) and I will buy it for you.
Stick around. I’m trailer trash who was literally dropped on my head as a kid, and I’m still here. If I can do it, anybody can.
I believe in you. Believe that until you can believe in yourself again.
Here is a picture of a grown man in a Santa hat turning himself on by playing with his nipples. Why? Because when you’re depressed, your brain convinces you that you can accurately predict a bleak and hopeless future.
You didn’t even predict the end of this post.