[Content warning: Discussion of suicidal thoughts]
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Depression is characterized by depressed or sad mood, diminished interest in activities which used to be pleasurable, weight gain or loss… fatigue, inappropriate guilt, difficulties concentrating, as well as recurrent thoughts of death.”
My depression took a stranglehold on my life during my 7th grade year of middle school. I was 13. Although it coincided with my mind subconsciously accepting what I had always consciously known — my queerness — it was no relief to finally be able to name this numb feeling constant in my chest. As one would expect, my interest in the things that I’d loved diminished — singing, writing, friends — as they transitioned from places of safety into constant reminders of the persistent physical and verbal abuse I experienced at home and in school for being just too damn fabulous.
Life is hell for many, but particularly terrifying for burgeoning Black Fat Non-Binary Queer Femmes in middle school. I was too many “nots.” Not skinny. Not masc. Not popular. And never quite enough. And unfortunately, my attempts at shrinking myself, either literally through disordered eating or figuratively through being quiet and immensely amiable, proved to be useless in shifting the unwanted attention.
Recurrent thoughts of death
When the emotions, the pain, became too much, thoughts of death and dying found their home. Suicide dreams of sharp blades, tall bridges, and houses on fire, sublime in keeping with my wondrous imagination, became never ending.
My first therapist forced me to speak my pain in front of my mother, who at the time was a major source of my emotional decline. One can imagine the suffering of a then little Black pretending-to-be-boy person having to betray blood in a doctor’s office. Even as an adult, I have trouble vocalizing the trauma I experienced in that house. That little Black pretending-to-be-boy person never had a shot in hell.
After one appointment, my “therapist” prescribed me medication for depression and insomnia — a catchall cure that did more to move me closer to my zombie, walking-dead fantasies than to calm the voices constantly making requests to fly too close to the sun. I vetoed this plan and stowed the drugs away in my sock drawer for a rainy day. While medication might work for some, I had the unfortunate experience of having state-based health insurance and a therapist more concerned with getting me out the door than sifting through the intricacies of my trauma. The drugs remained there until my senior year of high school, a safety net of sorts, and that was the end of that.
Eventually, I learned ways to cope — which is to say that, eventually, I pushed down the pain, learned how to “shut down” my emotions, and left my hometown for college.
Not knowing at the time that emotions can’t be contained any more than lightning in a storm, I reached a crisis a few summers later in the form of failed collegiate dreams, a draining dead-end job, the accidental death of a bastard kitten, breakups, and too much damn time with my mind for my already aching heart to handle.
I called a suicide-prevention hotline, not quite realizing that sometimes “suicide prevention” looks like emergency vehicles and mandatory hospital stays when all you want, all you need, is to talk. Making mostly false promises of personal safety, I ended the phone call and learned to shut up about wanting to die.
It was in these moments, of reassuring the worried but somehow robotic voice of the agent on the end of the line, I learned that while some folks might want to know what troubles keep you awake at night, they are not always prepared to deal with your desire to die. Furthermore, on many suicide hotlines, systems exist that necessitate emergency interventions when you mention any thought of planning or desire for absolution in murky bathtub waters and long falls. These systems were designed for people in crisis, but not my kind of crisis. While the thoughts remained, my desire to ask for help had been locked deep inside.
My next and final attempt at therapy fizzled out when, once again, the threat of hospitalization was put on the table. At this point in my life, wanting to die had become a routine thought, and I needed to talk about anything but that. I had long acknowledged that perhaps my brain is just more aligned to the gloomy. My therapist didn’t agree. One missed appointment turned to severance of patient-provider relationship emails, and once again, I was alone with no support.
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What happens to people like me?
While I have had many conversations and been able to build community with people whose experiences mirror my own — shitty therapists, over-medication, inability to discuss persistent thoughts of suicide without fear of hospitalization — I haven’t been able to find many notable or mainstream depictions. With so many calls to celebrate diversity in all its forms, why do we shy away from the diversity of those living with mental illness?
In my years of struggling, what I have so desperately needed to see were more images and more media narratives of people too afraid of medical providers to speak the truth of the pain we’re experiencing, but in desperate need of resources to help manage our longing for death. I’m sure others feel the same.
We need more conversations that acknowledge the experiences of people who live with persistent suicidal thoughts. We need more thought pieces that reveal the ways in which our identities oftentimes form an injustice league of disparities that decrease our likelihood of finding culturally competent therapists or of being connected to affordable quality care — while, at the same time, intensifying the ways in which medical institutions often traumatize those of us living on the margins. And, perhaps more importantly, we need more providers who can hold these truths with us.
I have become an expert in harm reduction and learning to thrive with a brain that rebuffs the norm. It manifests its vulnerability through a chronic illness that terrifies me in its darkness. But somehow, my beauty still manifests through its thorns. Not only must we challenge the stigma associated with depression, but we must also begin to acknowledge that many of us will never be the poster child for recovery. And that’s okay. Because at the end of the day, it’s not the depression that threatens to kill us. It’s the never getting to talk about it and release the emotions that build up inside.
Sometimes, recovery isn’t no longer being depressed. Sometimes, recovery isn’t no longer wanting to die. Sometimes, recovery is binge watching shitty television, getting lost in fantasy, fucking and eating way too damn much, painting your room in the middle of the night, 4AM Waffle House trips, and forcing yourself to go out to another boring ass party.
Sometimes, recovery is simply finding enough ways to cope and enough beauty in this world to motivate you to live despite every thought telling you otherwise.
I may never recover, but I have found hope. Right now, that’s enough liberation for me.
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[Headline image: The photograph shows a black person with their eyes closed and their hand in front of their face.]