By DeQuincy Lezine —
(Editor’s note: Dr. Lezine attempted suicide during college, then turned his personal despair into advocacy by forming the first student-led college mental health and suicide prevention group. Here is the story of his suicidal crisis.)
Normally I tell people that you don’t just wake up one day and say, “Hey, I’m suicidal today.” No one moment, no single event, is enough by itself to create a suicidal crisis. Instead, multiple events or situations, known as risk factors, combine to increase the chances that a person will consider and attempt suicide. But one of the paradoxes of suicide is that sometimes it can seem as though it happens for a single reason. Sometimes bad things seem to happen all at once, and as the risk factors pile up, there is a moment when a person’s mental state suddenly crosses a certain threshold and the scales tilt in favor of death. I’ve always thought of my suicidal crisis as a tsunami. The colossal wave probably started as a tiny ripple somewhere miles off the coast, but that didn’t really matter during the awful moment when the sea came rushing in, engulfing my world. When my suicidal crisis finally hit, I realized that I could not outrun it and I could not hide from it, and that terrified me.
It was October 1st, and I was in my freshman year at college. On that night, I crossed the line from being a person “at risk for suicide” to one who was “suicidal.” Before that, I had made a practice of not thinking about stressful circumstances. I numbed out. There were so many feelings and memories from my childhood, both bad and good, that I had swept under my mental rug. I had squished them into a jar. I guess it was inevitable that the jar would eventually break. When it did break that night, all of the painful emotions of my past rushed in to torment me; everything came barreling down on me at once. I didn’t have the words to describe all these feelings at the time. Instead, I called them all anger. That was just a convenient label, a stereotypical male emotional response. My emotional pain was built on more than rage alone. I was also experiencing an unhealthy onslaught of disappointment, anxiety, and shame.
For starters, I felt alone. I was afraid that I would never fit in with a group of peers, that the peer rejection of my childhood would revisit me constantly-that I’d always feel that I didn’t belong. I “grew up on the fringes” socially and I benefited from that experience. But at the time, I didn’t see it that way. Instead, I felt like an outcast as a child — hurt, lonely, abandoned. I felt the same way in college and worried about not being able to cut it. Just a poor kid from inner-city Los Angeles, I’d been accepted to a prestigious Ivy League university where my classmates were the valedictorians, magna cum laudes, and “with honors” crowd. Even with good grades, I felt like a pathetic failure, absolutely worthless. The sheer weight of this inexplicable despair crushed my soul, burdening me with heartache, misery, and anguish. I couldn’t figure it all out, and that frustrated me — I prided myself on being able to figure things out. How could I be so confused?
I couldn’t think straight. Strange yet familiar thoughts were whipping through my mind.
I can’t take this shit anymore . . .
I don’t want to live anymore . . .
Death is the only way out . . .
I want to die . . .
Of course, I kept all of this to myself as much as possible — in the beginning, at least. I faked the smiles and laughs, trying my best to look like what I thought college students were supposed to look like.
The college years were supposed to be the best years of my life. I was supposed to reward my family for the sacrifices they’d made to send me to college, and become a role model for the kids back at home. Everybody had looked so proud when they’d sent me off. I couldn’t let everybody down. And anyhow, what would people think about me if I told them about my thoughts and feelings? I know what I would have thought, had I been in their shoes: I would have thought, This guy is crazy. What could be worse than that? This line of thinking amplified the loneliness. Not only did I feel terrible, but I was convinced no one could ever possibly empathize with the pain I was feeling. Nobody can understand this, I thought. They will all think that I have lost my mind. I was certain that I was alone in thinking about suicide.
Death on the Mind
Death had branded me. It was as if it had taken a blazing firebrand and scorched its dark mark into the base of my skull. At first, I believed the suicidal thoughts were a passing phase, something that I would wake up from or be able to shake off. But I soon found that the idea of dying just wouldn’t go away. The suicidal urge became a constant and unwanted companion, slowly but surely wearing down my will to live. Death sounded peaceful, like a welcome relief. I idealized it and put it up on a pedestal. I just wanted all the pain of living, all of those negative emotions, negative thoughts, and negative experiences, to cease and desist. On the worst days, my thoughts as I walked to class would go something like this:
I stop to cross the street. I see a police officer helping to direct traffic. What if he shot me? Oh yeah. Security officers at the university don’t carry sidearms. What if I got hit by a car, or maybe that tan minivan? The red hand of the crossing signal disappears, replaced by a little white walking man and a “chirp chirp” that says that for now I am safe to cross the street. Closing my eyes, I step off the curb, imagining that I am stepping off a building, but the fall is short. I look around, wondering if anybody noticed me. Of course not, they are all too busy being happy. Happy? What does that feel like? Shit. I can’t even remember. I pass a tree and think about hanging. I muse that the tree is probably taunting me, saying, “My branches will break before I let you hang from me, you freak.” The thought lingers as I enter class and attempt to concentrate on the lecture. It is difficult. Thoughts of suicide try to crowd out the course material. Come on, Quix. Concentrate, dammit. Focus. But death sounds so good.
Warning Signs for Suicide
You might wonder what signs indicate that a person may be considering suicide. Here are some that suicide prevention experts seem to agree on. The person is:
_ Experiencing dramatic mood changes (e.g., increased turbulence vs. sudden calm)
_ Expressing anger and rage
_ Feeling anxiety or agitation
_ Having a lack of purpose in life or no reason for living
_ Feeling trapped
_ Withdrawing from friends and family
_ Feeling hopeless
_ Abusing substances, including alcohol, illegal drugs, and prescription medications
_ Engaging in reckless behavior
_ Talking or thinking about suicide
Even without a degree in psychology, I knew that this was a bad sign. I looked up information on the Internet and found the Web site for a group called Suicide Awareness Voices for Education (SAVE). They listed suicide “warning signs,” thoughts and behaviors that indicate suicidal danger, including frequent suicidal ideation (the term that mental health professionals use to describe thoughts about suicide). This new information left me feeling like I wasn’t so alone — others had developed the same patterns. Yet I was despondent when I recognized the danger I was in.
I couldn’t shake the explosive cocktail of depression and rage from the night that I snapped and intentionally risked my life by running across a busy highway. More and more, over the next several weeks, my thoughts turned to suicide. In many scenarios that I imagined, I would die in a way that would make other people “sorry for screwing up my life.” I loved my family and friends, but I also wanted them to understand the depth of my pain. Killing myself would surely tell them just how deep it was.
I even fantasized about going out in some kind of a blaze of glory, and started collecting materials for a firebomb. They sat in my closet unassembled, and when a friend asked about them, I said they were for a physics project, then got rid of everything. I guess I was ambivalent. Suicide sounded so good, but part of me really did not want to go that route. I wanted things to work out, I wanted to live, but I did not want to live with that kind of pain anymore. And in fact, nearly everyone who considers suicide has this same internal struggle between the desire to live and the desire to die. Our goal must be to tip the scales in favor of life: Solve the problems we’re facing (decrease the reasons for dying), and live a happy and meaningful life (increase the reasons for living).
Reprinted from Eight Stories Up: An Adolescent Chooses Hope Over Suicide http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Medicine/PsychiatryPsychology/?view=usa&ci=9780195325577 by DeQuincy Lezine and David Brent published by Oxford University Press, Inc. DeQuincy Lezine and David Brent, 2008. Visit Oxford press to learn more.Tags: grief, hope