In the wake of Robin Williams’ death, I’ve been talking with a lot of my friends about the topic of suicide.
Suicidal Thinking: I know a little about it…
The first time I tried to kill myself, I was very young. I want to say I was 8. I might have been 9. I was in 3rd grade. I had been through some shit. I took double the adult dosage of some cough syrup. (What can I say? As a kid, I didn’t understand how it worked.) To my surprise, I didn’t die. I did, however, faint, and get to deal with EMTs. I actually was glad I lived, but I never stopped thinking about it. Any time I was down on myself or dealing with bullies, it seemed like the natural, appropriate answer to the situation. It wasn’t.
In early 2003, at the age of 22, I walked into Lakeside and said, “I need help. I can’t stop thinking about killing myself.” The week that followed was horrifying, but helpful. They put me in a room with an anorexic lady who stole my down jacket so that she could sweat off more weight, and I actually had to spend a significant amount of time in group therapy with the very woman who had abused me as a kid at child care and convinced me that I was nothing more than a burden to my parents.
In a very everything-happens-for-a-reason sort of way, I learned all about the abuse she suffered as a child and her messed up reasoning for abusing me. Turns out, I was actually her favorite child from day care, ever. At the time, she was unmedicated, undiagnosed, and suffering from schizophrenia. She genuinely believed that she was trying to teach me necessary life skills and the reality of the world we are living in. Abusers often don’t understand that what they’re doing is harmful because they’re repeating a cycle from their own lives. So, I had to forgive her, in front of a group of strangers, so she could begin to forgive herself. She had been red-banded (a red wrist band told hospital workers not to allow her outside or near anything she could use to harm herself) for more than 6 months. In contrast, I was red-banded for 2 of my 5 days.
The second time I was hospitalized thanks to suicide was 7 years later. Even after going through EMDR therapy to help stop seizures and deal with trauma from earlier in life (much of which I have intentionally kept off this blog), I genuinely believed that I was nothing more than a burden to my family and friends. In the course of 2 years, I had gone from being a socially adventurous academic overachiever to someone who had seizures almost all day long, every day, who couldn’t work and spent all of her days either on the couch or in bed.
When my parents suddenly let me know that they could no longer help us with rent, Adam and I faced an immediate choice between heading to a homeless shelter and leaving the Los Angeles area to move in with his brother in Romeoville, IL. Either way, we would lose most of our possessions and pride. I felt entirely responsible for our situation, regardless of the facts that Adam had been unemployed for 2 years thanks to the recession and I had no control over having MS or a seizure disorder. I simply wasn’t willing to pull Adam down any further, and I could no longer handle my shame.
I was put on a 72-hour mandatory hold at Glendale Adventist after he called the police because I walked directly into traffic on a busy street. It was the most loving thing anyone has ever done for me, and it helped transform my life. It was there that I learned the truthful phrase, “Suicide is a liar demon.”
I wish I could say that my fight against suicidal thinking ended in that hospital, but it didn’t. It did, however, jump-start some better behaviors, like using aromatherapy to help keep you in the present moment. Unfortunately, I still couldn’t cope with the fact that I’d failed the CA bar exam twice (and wasted $20,000 in the process) or that I still couldn’t magically make myself better enough to be able to work.
It wasn’t until January of 2013, when I started working with a cognitive behavioral therapist to really break the cycle of suicide addiction, that I learned how to stop suicidal thinking in its tracks. It’s probably the most valuable set of rituals I’ve ever learned.
How I Kick Suicidal Thinking’s Sorry Ass Every Single Day
The best advice I got from CBT was to keep busy. My therapist often said, “An idle mind is the devil’s playground.” But just keeping busy doesn’t get the job done. It only helps distract you from your thoughts so you can get a word in edgewise with your thoughts. You still have to be pro-active. You still have to recognize when you have irrational thoughts and fight them. And any suicidal thought is irrational. Trust me on this one.
Here’s what I do to keep suicidal thoughts at bay:
1.) Every morning, I list 3 Great Things About Yesterday to remember the good that happened in the past and trick my brain into forgetting about or at least not focusing on the bad. Sometimes I write it here. Sometimes I write it on Facebook. Sometimes, I write in a real paper journal.
2.) Daily gratitude rampages help me focus on what’s good in the moment. Most of mine are in the journal, but sometimes I do them here or on Facebook.
3.) Daily meditation helps me focus my intentions. Right now, Chopra Center has a free 21-day meditation challenge going on, if you want some guidance to start your practice.
4.) I am constantly examining my thoughts for truth to figure out what’s real and what’s an ANT (automatic negative thought). If I find out that a thought is an ANT, I challenge it. It’s like running virus protection for your mind.
5.) Move! Even if you only take a 5-10 minute walk a day or do a few minutes of chair yoga because your legs don’t want to cooperate, getting your body in motion makes a huge difference in your ability to be happy.
When I started these practices, they were very difficult and a constant pain in the ass, but so was enduring life! Nowadays, they’re usually easy, quick, and enjoyable.
Rest In Peace, Mr. Williams.
I have to say though, that I wouldn’t have written any of this if not for the fact that Robin Williams choked himself to death with a belt.
This guy — this actor/comedian whose roles were so intensely life-affirming that I watched many of them (especially Robots, Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, and Hook) multiple times while fighting suicidal ideation — he did the world a horrible favor by dying this way. He brought suicide into popular consciousness in the worst imaginable way — by being the very last person anyone would have expected to do it. The irony is not lost on me.
Robin Williams got us talking about how international fame, ludicrous amounts money, and talent-without-match are absolutely fucking meaningless when you’re dealing with addiction and suicidal thoughts. He reminded us that just because someone is smiling doesn’t mean they’re okay. He reminded us that actors can completely miss the messages for which they’re so loved. It’s profoundly sad.
Here are my favorite quotes from his incredible body of work:
Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting: “You’ll have bad times, but it’ll always wake you up to the good stuff you weren’t paying attention to.”
Armand Goldman in The Birdcage: “So what? The important thing to remember is not to go to pieces when that happens. You have to react like a man, calmly. You have to say to yourself, ‘Albert, you pierced the toast, so what? It’s not the end of your life.’”
Fender in Robots: “You know Rodney, even if you know you had an discouraging day, remember. There is another one coming tomorrow!”
Genie in Aladdin: “To be my own master. Such a thing would be greater than all the magic and all the treasures in all the world.”
Peter Banning in Hook: “To live… to live would be an awfully big adventure.”
John Keating in Dead Poets Society: “They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? – – Carpe – – hear it? – – Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”
The fact that I posted a “Carpe Diem” graphic yesterday felt like a kick in the gut. It deserves repeating.