Thoughts on Suicide

I am fine. This isn't a cry for help. "Hey, Ada", you might be thinking "I'm not so sure about that. Maybe this is actually a cry for help and you are just trying to play it off. Or, maybe, you consciously feel fine, but actually you aren't! Why would you share this if you didn't want or need support. The dismissal you are offering in this paragraph is unconvincing.". That's a very thematically appropriate observation, reader! I know that there is no brief statement I can put here that will deter you from your concern. I don't blame you. Even demonstrating that I am fully aware of how this dance works by acknowledging that I understand the futility of the effort won't stop you from being afraid of what you might find in an essay on suicide coming from a person with a history of depression. No matter what I say, no matter how throughly I try to reassure you, I think a part of you won't trust me. Maybe you think you know better than me. After all, no one talks about this topic unless there is a problem. Anyone who talks about this topic is a problem.

Its hard to talk about what it was like to be suicidal. Everything surrounding suicide is extremely taboo. We don't talk about it because we fear that talking about it will make it real. If someone is struggling and we discuss suicide, it could give them the final nudge required to go through with it. I believe this is a real danger inherent in discussing my experience publicly. I know that in the first couple years after my near-miss with suicide, any mention of the topic could throw my mind back into very unpleasant memories. I do not wish to inflict that on people, but I also feel that I can do some good by sharing my experience. The issues with discussing suicidal experiences go deeper than potential harm to others, though.

Being depressed is a very lonely experience. The world proceeds normally around you when things feel so very abnormal within you. People who have known me for years, upon learning I had severe depression, expressed surprise. They had no idea, they tell me. "I had no idea". That phrase tends to gets a lot of use when someone commits suicide. People can't understand how the deceased could have been struggling so much without any outward signs. They run through memory after memory of the person looking for any sort of tell-tale sign of depression. Eventually they exclaim "they seemed fine!". If you also can't understand how those tragedies happen, don't worry. I can tell you from my own experience.

After my close call with suicide, I went to work the next day. I held meetings. I joked with coworkers. I made small talk. I did my work. To all external appearances, it was a perfectly normal day. In my head, I was dying. I put on the performance of a normal day because I was ashamed that I was so depressed. I didn't want other people to know that my life was crashing down around me. It was a perfectly normal day for everyone in my life, but, for me, every moment felt like my brain was melting. Pretending it was a typical day felt utterly pointless. If I wasn't sure how many more days I could take, why should I keep up appearances? I just didn't know what else to do. So I acted. I chose to seem fine, but every moment I wasn't being observed, I felt like I was about to start crying. The happier my surroundings were, the worse I felt. Despite all that, I made it through the day unnoticed. Its really not that hard to put on the performance of normality when you need to. Does the word "need" catch your eye? What "need" could motivate masking pain so thoroughly? Its a bit of a journey, but stick with me. We'll get there.

Depression, sadly, is not a fully "past-tense" thing for me. I still experience it to varying degrees. Some times are worse than others, but on average things are fine. What I find interesting is that even during periods of time when I feel relatively happy, I find myself thinking about suicide.

"Thinking about suicide". What a vague phrase with so much baggage and presumption attached to it. Take a moment and reflect. What sorts of thoughts did you immediately assume I was exploring? There are many ways you can "think about suicide". For example, a psychiatrist might think about how to help those who feel suicidal. A person could think about a loved one who had commit suicide. A sociologist could think about why the suicide rate is higher in one demographic compared to another. I can think about ways to die or I can think about what I learned from my period of being suicidal. There is a wide and rich spectrum of ways to think about suicide. We will get to my recent thoughts in time. For now, I want to focus on you. What are you thinking about now? Are you back to worrying about my safety? The fact that I told you I have previously dealt with intense suicidal urges has likely biased you that way. How could you not feel that fear? As I said at the start, I am fine. I am a bit more depressed than I was in the recent past, perhaps, but, overall, fine. Regardless, if you have some sort of close relationship with me, you likely felt an urge to tell me how you care and are always available to talk. Just in case.

I've experienced this profession of support from many different people in my life. I know its coming from a good place, and it probably even helped me when I was feeling down. However, the way people lock up and assume the worst makes it hard for me to tell them where I'm actually at. There is a wide spectrum between having dangerous suicidal thoughts and simply "thinking about suicide". If I know people will assume the worst, it discourages honesty. This naturally results in isolation that is functionally very similar to what I experienced when I was at peak depression. I pretend everything is fine because people will not understand. As a result, I have to deal with the burden alone. Worse, I feel like I have to manage the feelings of people who want to help in addition to my own. Depression has many vicious cycles. This is one of them. It is frustrating to be caught in such a cycle; to see the pattern and understand how it works but be unable to stop it.1

Let's see if we can. I have already been forced to lay bare one lifelong deep secret and shame – my relationship with gender. What's one more? Let's talk some more about suicide.

Here's the truth. I have had varying levels of suicidal thoughts for most of my adult life. I remember that, at the age of 16, I was quite happy with life. I was perhaps a bit overwhelmed with school, but not so much that it was a problem. Despite that, I remember sitting in class one day and having this realization about myself that felt very true to me at the time. I realized the most likely way for me to die would be suicide. I didn't see it as a sad thing. I think I was imagining myself at an old age and seeking a way to die on my own terms.

As I got closer to graduating from college, my mental health started to decline. I knew that if I didn't set up the next stage of my life right, I was likely to commit suicide. I made specific choices that I felt would minimize the chances of that happening. I chose a job in the San Francisco Bay Area because I knew I had friends that were moving there. I felt that living near them would give me the best chance of surviving the change. My 16 year old self's realization was no longer just a weird-but-plausible prediction of the distant future. It haunted me and the choices I made.

This fear of suicide never really went away. I dealt with depression off-and-on (mostly on) for several years. I wouldn't describe myself at the time as suicidal. Instead, I think its more accurate to say that my life was ruled by the fear of becoming suicidal. I was depressed, but I was trying my best to stop it from getting worse. Then, in 2016, I figured out I was trans. The extra stress that added to my life didn't help things. My mental health steadily declined.

In 2019, I only chose to take the step to transition because I felt that familiar fear. I felt that if I didn't transition, I would kill myself within one year. I chose to transition to stave off my growing suicidal inclination.

I will not describe the details of my close call with suicide. I will say around that time, nearly any time I had a quiet moment I would be imagining ways to die. There came a day when I stopped fighting it. I arranged a situation such that the part of my brain that called for suicide could make it happen. It didn't happen, of course. Unsurprisingly, the years since have involved a lot of work on improving my mental health. I am sure I don't have to say it, but, of course, thoughts about suicide tinged and imprinted themselves on that process.

That brings us to today. The history I laid out above may make it sound like my life has been ruled by suicidal thoughts or the abstract fear of suicidal thoughts. I believe that is only an artifact of the compression of 17 years (over half of my life!) into a few paragraphs. We squeezed out so much and only kept the worst parts. There were stretches of years at a time where I would forget I ever had a relationship with the idea of suicide. For most of my life, it lies dormant and only seems to rise to the surface when things become… rocky? Difficult? Uncertain? These words feel inadequate to describe the depth of the feelings and circumstances that lead me to dredge up the idea of suicide.

I told you that I have been "thinking about suicide". I hope that you are beginning to understand that I do not mean thoughts of causing my own death. Even if I had opened the essay by saying that, you likely would have still had the same fear. Nobody talks about suicide unless there is a problem, remember? Anyway, I have been reflecting on the concept itself and how my life has interacted and intersected with it. Until quite recently, I'm not sure if I ever stopped to step back and observe the big picture. I was so busy trying to keep my head above water or trying to forget that I missed some obvious and, in my opinion at least, extremely interesting details. It never ceases to amaze me how powerful the modifier "meta" can be. Whenever I take the time to think about things on the "meta" level, I always seem to discover something interesting. Today, I will be using "meta" to practice metacognition on the theme of suicide.

I think I can now share some of the thoughts I have had about suicide.

First, prior to my recent reflections, I had not previously realized that by refusing to discuss my relationship with suicide I was once again flirting with the pernicious cycle of pretending things are fine when they are in fact not. This is a particularly useful observation for my own health and well being, but I do not think I am the only one that can benefit from it. The fact that "they seemed fine" is so strongly associated with suicide speaks to this fact.

How many people have found themself struggling but remained alone in their suffering because they feared being judged, looked down upon, or had their autonomy taken away? I am not just referring to involuntary detention, here. I am also referring to the small interactions. Once someone is deemed to be incapable of making decisions for themself, people are less likely to believe they are capable in other ways, too. They become infantalized. If we always treat any signs of suicidal ideation with extreme intensity, we train people to assume any warning sign is an urgent issue. In that environment, how can we blame people for assuming anyone desperate enough admit to having suicidal thoughts must be fundamentally incapable? Should we really be surprised that this would make people hesitant to be the one that wakes the beast by asking for help?

I have already mentioned involuntary detention, but I feel I must elaborate on the thought. Consider that I have lived for 17 years with varying levels of suicidal thought, but I only actually found myself having a true desire for death in a moment where I was recovering from traumatic events, living alone, had few friends to spend time with (and even fewer that I could see in person due to a raging global pandemic), was experiencing a second puberty, all while watching the political climate increasingly treat trans people such as myself like we are monsters. If it takes circumstances that extreme to take me from background levels of suicidal thought to something actionable, then I feel quite comfortable saying that when I have a stray suicidal thought it is not a crisis. It is something worth taking seriously, to be sure, but it is not a crisis. Yet, if I want to discuss that thought with my psychiatrist, I am opening myself up to the risk of involuntary detention. Is it worth the risk? Is the problem severe enough to warrant rolling those dice? Again, we have a system that selects only for the most extreme cases, and people with less extreme cases are driven away to fester until their condition worsens. This is fundamentally broken.

When we try so hard to discourage people from asking for help when their mental health is only beginning its decline, we must not act surprised that "they seemed fine" when suicide does finally happen. It is our fault when people take their own lives without seeking help. We work so hard to create every incentive for people to mask the depths of their depression. For this reason, I cannot blame my past self for keeping her thoughts to herself even as her conditions worsened. I think she made a reasonable choice given the system she was dealing with. She could not have known how close she really was to disaster, and she had few incentives to talk honestly about her experience. Maybe you think I am blaming everyone else for my own failing. I can see how you would read it that way, but I think that perspective is myopic.

I'm an engineer. It is my job to identify and fix the root cause of issues. It is my job to anticipate points of failure and create designs that are hardened against those. When a peer introduces a bug, I do not blame my peer for being a poor programmer. I do not lecture them and then pat myself on the back for solving the problem. I ask myself "What can we do to prevent another person from making this mistake? How did our processes lead us to miss this issue?". If your instinct is to blame the fallible human while ignoring the system that encouraged the mistake to occur, you will never reduce the number of mistakes that are made. Blame me for not asking for help if you like, but if you refuse to acknowledge the systemic issues that influenced me then you must accept that there will be others like me. Maybe they won't be so lucky.

Second, the tone of my thoughts surrounding suicide has changed in a very interesting way. Its a bit hard to articulate precisely what I mean, but the idea of suicide sits very differently in my mind than it used to.

Have you seen the movie "A Beautiful Mind"? In the movie, John Nash has schizophrenic hallucinations. There are 3 characters in the movie that are ultimately revealed to be products of his mind: his lifelong friend, his friend's daughter, and a government agent that tasked him with finding communists. After being hospitalized and taking medication, his hallucinations disappear. Unfortunately, finds he cannot do math while taking the medication. When he stops taking it, he has a brief relapse into his paranoid schizophrenia. In a particularly dramatic moment of lucidity, he realizes that the 3 people I listed earlier can't be real. "They never age", he explains. After that, the hallucinations remain in the movie, but Nash simply starts to ignores them. After that, we see the 3 of them standing in the background of scenes. They follow him everywhere he goes, but are otherwise completely inert.

When I look for words to explain how I feel, my mind immediately presents the image of Nash's hallucinations silently watching him.2 In a similar way, thoughts about suicide still follow me, but they feel somehow like they have lost part of their power. Maybe I am just being optimistic. Even so, I think I deserve some hopeful optimism on this subject in particular. Since The Bad Times ended, there have been occasions when I have had some form of suicidal thought. These were much more intense than what I had ever experience prior to The Bad Times. For example, I have imagined my own death on a few occasions. As far as I can recall, that didn't really happen before The Bad Times. As an outsider to my brain, this fact can only really sound like a bad thing. To me, those events have actually been quite reassuring. Compared to The Bad Times, I am having a much easier time navigating the thoughts. My metacognition is active and can successfully steer the narrative. I recently had a moment where, after experiencing some suicidal thoughts, I found the thing that truly upset me was the fact that I had had the thought at all. It felt like I had regressed in some way. This sounds like a doom spiral that can only end in metadepression, but it is actually what led me to write this essay (more on that later). Unlike The Bad Times, I am not swept away in the feeling. Instead, I am critically analyzing things and dissecting the thoughts.

That brings me to my third point. One of the most fascinating parts of being suicidal was the way normal thought processes break down. I could not appreciate it at the time, but my brain just worked differently. I remember having the experience of feeling like there was physical pressure on my brain. I could do my job that involves lots of thinky-brain-time, talk to people, play games, read stuff, and all that normal human stuff that requires a functioning brain. Yet, I couldn't use my brain to make sense of what I was feeling. When it came to the things pertaining to my depression, I felt helpless – in several different ways! When things got bad, my only option was to try to wait for the storm to pass. I would lie in the middle of my living room (safely away from any objects) while trying and failing to fight to stop my brain from thinking about means of self harm. It took me years to untangle what I was feeling and why. I do not think it took that long because the answers were that complicated (though they were not simple, either). I believe my inability to really think clearly about it was a large part of why it took years. It was difficult for me to even put my feelings into words. In fact, that's why I started writing essays like this one. With time, I was eventually able to pick out and study enough ideas that I started to feel like I knew why I was feeling what I was.

This may sound strange, but I wish I could experience that brain state again for a moment. With so much time separating me from that moment and such slow, gradual progress, it is hard for me to really cast my mind back and remember what it felt like. I obviously do not want to spend any significant amount of time experiencing it again. That time period – that day in particular – was fucking awful. I simply want to be able to validate that the story I am telling you is true. Is this wishful back projection? Maybe its an elaborate excuse I am creating so I can believe that things are better now? There's no way to know for sure at this point. The descriptions I have offered are true to my memories, but when the memory in question is about one's brain working differently we should be cautious in trusting it.

Our brains are hard wired to fear death. We can thank evolution for that one – gotta live long enough to pass on those genes! This fear originates from a part of the brain named the amygdala. I am probably massively oversimplifying here (anything involving the brain is so, so complicated), but my understanding is that the amygdala is old. The development of the amygdala predates humanity achieving consciousness by a long, long, long time. As a result, the amygdala influences our thoughts on a much more primal level. Fear is hard to reason with. When we watch a scary movie, we fully understand it is just pictures on a screen, but it still scares us. Despite there being no real need to either fight or run, our heart pumps faster to oxygenate muscles in preparation for either activity. We can't stop our heart from beating faster when scary things happen on the screen. The drive to survive positively overwhelms conscious thought and reason. Which, I think, is why suicidal thoughts are so interesting and worth analyzing.

The amygdala is usually absurdly effective at steering us away from preventable death. Imagine what wild, twisted contortions a brain must experience to be willing to actually kill itself! Its a bit funny that I say that as though I am an outside observer. The whole point of this essay is that I experience suicidal ideation and have even found myself looking over the brink with a strong desire to let go. That brain pretzel was mine at one point! Unfortunately, I do not think this is something that I am likely to understand through introspection alone. My firsthand experience proves to me that when my brain was "in state", it wasn't in the necessary condition to even begin analyzing the experience. Its a shame. I suppose I could see what research has been done on the subject.

One thing I believe I confidently learned during my near-miss was that it takes an immense amount of pressure to make suicide an act that I would actually be willing or able to perform. I also believe I can confidently say that my mental state is far, far more stable than it was back then. So, then, that raises an interesting question. If things are better, why am I still occasionally having suicide-themed thoughts? If my brain isn't contorted to the point where suicide is a serious consideration, why does the idea still come up?

My therapist offered an interesting perspective that ultimately led to me writing this essay. He said that it is possible that my brain has picked up suicidal thoughts as a multi-purpose way to respond to things. He likened it to extending the vocabulary of thoughts. That initially seemed rather grim to me. If that model is accurate, it would mean that I will likely continue to have these thoughts for some time. If we take every single suicidal thought as an EXTREMELY BAD ISSUE TO BE ADDRESSED IMMEDIATELY, that means I am supposed to panic and feel awful every time my brain uses its new favorite word for distress. I don't know about you, but I think it is far more productive and comforting to understand that my brain isn't actually calling for death when such a thought arises. It is an unpleasant word for my brain to use, but at least I understand the real meaning behind it. As I laid out earlier, my brain has been swimming in thoughts surrounding the topic of suicide for quite some time. It shouldn't be too surprising that it could become a part of how my brain understands and expresses distress. In this framework, I have a lot less reason to experience the metadepression doom spiral I mentioned earlier. Continued thoughts touching on suicide are an expected result, and I will need to do more than just pursue happiness if I wish to eliminate them.

Of course, the root cause could be something else, too. Only time and additional metacognition have a hope of figuring out whether that framework is truthy or not. If I did not feel like I had people I could safely discuss this with, I would have been forced to try to figure it out alone. Instead of achieving a deeper and deeper understanding of how and why my brain uses the idea of suicide, I would likely be beating myself up for "relapsing". My mental health would likely have worsened again. I am very thankful I have people that I can trust to listen, understand, and react appropriately. It is a tragedy that so many suffering people do not have access to the same luxury. It is a tragedy that back when I was genuinely suicidal, I did not feel like I had people I could talk to without risking an adverse reaction. It is a tragedy that I felt I needed to mask it.

Earlier today I heard some coworkers talking about mental health issues. One person complained about how their depressed roommate was just using depression as an excuse to be rude. Someone else concurred by saying you can be depressed without being an asshole. A third person chimed in and talked about how with increasing acceptance of mental health issues, people have begun to wield the label of mental illness like a shield or a fashion accessory. I was present for the whole exchange. I wanted to tell them that they were contributing to a culture that drives people to not seek help when they need to. I wanted to tell them that by defining how a mentally ill person should act, they had become blind to the realities of what mental illness actually looks like. I wanted to demonstrate how severe their misunderstanding was by revealing that during the time they had known me, I had nearly attempted suicide at one point. I said nothing because I knew that I had so much to lose by being honest and so little to gain. It was easier to simply let them imagine they know what depression looks like. It was easier to pretend. They have no idea.




This is not dissimilar to what I experienced after coming out. After someone misgendered me, they would often offer a long apology and then say how difficult it is and that they're really trying. People knew that using my chosen pronouns was important to me and that its very rude to misgender a trans person. So, they would over-react when they made mistakes, erring on the side of profuse support. I found myself looking for ways to manage the feelings of the people who were genuinely trying to be supportive and do the right thing. Their big, apologetic reactions made me not want to share how I actually felt.


I am fully aware that comparing oneself to John Nash in an essay that orbits around the issue of mental health is a rather spicy choice.