Guest Post: Suicide and Self-Harm

This guest post was authored by Kendra Dawson. We were in a ward together our freshman year of college. One day, I saw that she had written a Facebook post about her experiences with suicide attempts and self-harm. I was blown away by her candor as I read through the post, and extremely grateful for her willingness to be so open about something so taboo. Suicide and self-harm aren't things I necessarily have experience with, so I reached out to her and aske if she would be willing to share a post for my blog. I am grateful that she accepted, and for her post. I've learned a lot more about these topics from her, and I hope you will too. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please talk to someone you trust or call the national suicide hotline at: 1-800-273-8255

Imagine, if you will, that you’re catching up with an acquaintance and they tell you they’re a little tired because they were sick all weekend. You would ask how they’re doing and might inquire about some of their symptoms: does their throat hurt? Is their nosed stuffed? How does their stomach feel? Did they throw up at all? The one symptom of being sick you’re not as likely to ask about, however, is diarrhea because it’s an uncomfortable topic, you wouldn’t know how to react if they started talking about it, and you know it’s not a constant symptom of common illnesses. Well folks, suicide and self-harm are kind of like the diarrhea of the mental health world. We can address the other aspects of mental illness but the truth is these two topics seem to remain uncomfortable to talk about, hard to empathize and react to, and not everybody who struggles with mental illness will attempt suicide or hurt themselves so maybe it would be better if we just ignored them.

To quote a popular character from The Office: FALSE. 

It’s incredibly important talk about suicide and self-harm ESPECIALLY for those reasons. As I start talking about some of my own personal experiences with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Depressive Disorder NOS, and Borderline Personality Disorder,  I just want to clarify that this post isn’t a feel-good and leave inspired post (although maybe you will), it’s just a post that shares my story in order to raise awareness. Additionally, please keep in mind that everyone has individual experiences and I am in no way the spokesperson for all mental illness, I’m a spokesperson for myself...and even then it’s a little questionable on how good of a job I’m doing. 

For context, here’s a super long excerpt from a post I wrote a few weeks ago on my life-long struggle:

“As a wee child, I controlled my emotions by throwing outrageous tantrums and around first grade, my parents started noticing definite signs that something might not be right. When I was six, my mom took me for a drive as I threw a tantrum and I told her there was something inside of me that I couldn’t control no matter how hard I tried (AKA hey parents, I sound like I’m possessed). Around 8 or 9 I remember threatening to light myself on fire when my sister was babysitting me (nobody else remembers this so maybe it didn’t happen, idk) which just goes to show that even as a child, I wanted to die. At age 9 I was diagnosed with Dysthymia which “is defined as a low mood occurring for at least two years, along with at least two other symptoms of depression” …thanks, Google search and Mayo Clinic for that definition. At age 10 I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety. I’m 23 right now which means I’ve been trying multiple med combinations and attending therapy for 14 years with no lift in my mood (if anything, a steady decline)…*understanding of course, that meds and therapy wouldn’t do everything for me but we have yet to find a place that I can function well enough to do the rest myself.* *Anyone can benefit from therapy and if you have the slightest inkling that you should go, please, please, please do. It doesn’t matter how you’re categorizing your struggle, your pain is valid. * Around the age of 12 I remember laying in my bed in the middle of winter with the window open and fan on, hoping I would freeze to death. At age 15 I spent my first week in a mental hospital. In high school, I occasionally cut and found solace in writing suicide notes, imagining how nice it would be to go. I was outgoing and appeared confident but would go to the nurse’s office to cry in between classes. Some days I would stay home because, although the phrase hadn’t been popularized yet, I couldn’t even. During my teenage years, therapists played around with the idea of BPD but everybody seemed hesitant to come out and diagnose me. There were considerations of having me go to a residential high school. College seemed pretty out of reach.

My freshman year of college I coped with my pain by sleeping…ALL THE TIME. In 2015 I spent a week in a mental hospital after a suicide attempt. A month later, I spent 4 weeks in a different hospital as they shocked my brain 13 times (ECT). Not only did this method (often very helpful for treatment-resistant mental illness) not help, but I lost a lot of my memory, especially of my college years. Memory loss isn’t fun but I’m grateful bits and pieces have come back. After this, a doctor finally diagnosed me with BPD. Later that year I tried to kill myself again but after it failed, I didn’t tell anybody and moved on. For a bit, I got by knowing that I was graduating soon (this summer…woo!) and that this would be the perfect chapter to close (proving to myself and others that I could do it) before killing myself. In January (this year), waiting for graduation seemed less and less important and on January 31st I was admitted to another mental hospital. I stayed there for 9 days where I was put on one-on-one watch practically the entire stay (AKA someone had to be within arm’s reach of me at all times) after they found I had snuck a knife and was using it to scratch. They then transferred me to a different hospital where I stayed until February 23rd. I couldn’t contract to keep myself safe so I was put on the acute unit. What an experience. After getting out, I received Ketamine treatments (this pic is before they started it!) which the doctors told me probably wouldn’t work but that it might keep me from killing myself at least for a little bit. Not only did these treatments do nothing for me, I also had a terrible reaction. Normally recipients sleep and relax but I screamed and I cried and I laughed SO LOUD. They had to move me to my own room. I was awake the whole time and quite honestly, it was like living a comedy, drama, and horror movie all in one. As they would flush it out of my system, they had to call extra staff to come and hold my arms and legs down, the second time they had to tie me to the bed because I wouldn’t stop trying to get away.

There have been so many other times I should have ended up in the hospital; although I open up and share a lot of things with close friends and family, there are some things only I know. I self-harm fairly regularly, mostly on my stomach and upper legs where I know very few people will see. I see no problem with it. I dissociate; I don’t think I’m Kendra Dawson, I don’t think my body is mine, I feel like an empty space traveling through a world where real people are, but I’m not one of them. It’s hard to explain dissociation but it’s not super fun or anything. There’s a kind of therapy called DBT that is supposedly very helpful and I’ve done bits and pieces here and there and am currently working through it but the other week the thought came very strongly to me that therapy and my support system may help, but ultimately it is up to me (with help from Christ and Heavenly Father) to stay alive. It’s a frightening thing to realize that you’re the one who has to keep yourself alive but you’re also the only one who wants you dead. Sometimes I pray, begging and pleading for my life to be taken. I think about and picture suicide every day but obviously, none of my attempts have worked and for some reason, I’m supposed to be here. So I live, every single day making the decision not to go through with the thoughts that constantly haunt me. Imagine being allergic to peanut butter (maybe you don’t have to imagine and you are in which case I’m super sorry) but being forced to eat it 24/7…it’s a little like that. I live in a lot of fear and most of that fear is fear of myself and not knowing what directions my mood swings will take. I don’t just wish I didn’t exist or wish I didn’t wake up each day, I want to kill myself. I do. And it’s okay that I feel that way because I’m doing all that I can- I go to class, I take care of myself physically, I do the spiritual/religious things that are important to me, I go to two different therapies every week, I take my meds. And it’s frustrating that no matter what I do, nothing changes but that’s the way the cookie crumbles (sorry if you want cookies now, my bad). My mind is constantly foggy and I feel like I’m losing control of it…I don’t think it’s my own brain and I feel like I can’t think. I am always one move away from ceasing to exist. I cannot fathom liking myself because I never have. I cannot fathom not wanting to die because that’s all I remember. I cannot fathom a life not feeling how I do because it’s gone on for so long.”

My brain has worked this way for such a long time that it’s almost become a comfort. I get through the day because I know I can go home and cut if I need to or I start to calm down emotionally when I picture killing myself. It’s not a healthy way to live but right now, it’s the only way I know how. 

These thoughts and actions come because I hate myself, because I’m fed up and frustrated with not seeing results, because I’m not even sure I’m alive right now in the first place, because I don’t think anybody cares, because I feel like (despite the fact that I used to be a lifeguard) I’m drowning, because etc etc. For me, it’s not always the idea that dying would be easier than living but it’s just the only logical response to how I’m feeling. Honestly it’s kind of hard to explain why I want to kill myself as much as I do.

Suicidality is a little like puberty. It’s apparent that it’s happening so you get braces (meds) and go see the Dermatologist (therapist) and do everything else in your power to soften the blow but it still comes and wreaks constant havoc in your life (if you knew me in high school, you’ll know this puberty thing is true). The only difference is that puberty stopped for me at some point. And who knows, maybe this will too. But the fact remains that I don’t know when that will be. So I’m just going to keep doing what I can until it does. And if it doesn’t, that’s okay too. 

There’s not a huge part of me that can understand what it would be like to want to continue living so I’d imagine it’s just as hard for people to wrap their minds around the idea of wanting to take action against yourself. I wish I had more answers and better explanations so we could all gather around the campfire of life, sing “Kumbaya,” and be able to perfectly empathize with one another. But I don’t so we can’t. I do, however, have the ability to share my individual story in hopes of spreading just a little bit of knowledge on the topic. And the cool thing is, no matter what’s happened in your life, you have that very same ability. Mental illness or not, the more we share, the more we open doors for greater understanding. I believe Schoolhouse Rock! sums it up best when telling us that “knowledge is power.”

I've learned that the best thing for me to do is make attainable but challenging goals and promise myself and others I'll do them. I told myself when I came to college that I would graduate and now that I have I have moved onto my next goal of getting work. I've learned to focus on my relationships with those who truly care for me. I've learned that asking for help and being vulnerable is okay and does not make me an unwanted burden on those who love me. Growing closer to my Savior has helped me give my struggles to Him and realize it's okay to feel how I do. I'm far from the perfect example of staying completely safe but I'm doing my best. Above all, I believe that there is no shame in checking yourself into a hospital if you believe you are a danger to yourself. If a physical illness put your health at risk, nobody would blame you for going to the ER and  although some people might not understand this, the same is true of mental illnesses.

So yes, I want to and have tried to kill myself. Yes, I self-harm. It’s not fun but it’s nothing I should be afraid of talking about. It means nothing about myself as a person. It means nothing about decisions I’ve made. It means I’ve been dealt these cards and I’m going to continue learning how to best play them. No matter your cards, you can too.