how not to kill yourself

“Everything Everywhere All at Once” is now playing in theaters.

The first time I heard that someone I knew killed themselves was during my freshman year of college. Someone I knew from my hometown stopped me as I was walking across campus one day. “Did you hear?” I remember the moment after she told me, feeling a little dizzy, realizing the gravity of it. All three of us had gone to summer camp together long ago, with hundreds of other children.

The second time was a few years later. He had been one year older than me. When I was a junior and he was a senior in high school, we took AP Calculus together. He was incredible at physics and friendly to boot, and the last thing I remembered of him was that he had gone off to school in California. It was only after his death that I learned that his older brother had also taken his own life, leaving him and his mom behind. I had never known him that well. It’s possible that no one really had, and that was the problem.

By the time I went off to college, I had already passed the most dangerous part of my life – the two or three years of high school that I actually felt like kiling myself. For much of my freshman year, I woke up every day and wished I was dead. My parents were stressed at their jobs; they fought; I fought with them. I had a few friends, but it wasn’t enough to stop my burgeoning depression. I felt trapped in my life of tension at home, boredom and stress at school, and loneliness in between. 

During this time, if someone had showed up at my side and handed me cyanide pills, I would have taken all of them in a heartbeat. Sadly, no one did. And so, I made it my whole life to get into an “elite” college: it would be my escape. Maybe I would always be a socially anxious, depressed, lonely person, but in that case I may as well be one with an Ivy League degree. Every day I got home from school, studied, and did extracuricculars. I rarely went out with friends, and I resented going on vacation with my family because I was neither resting nor doing something productive towards my escape plan.

On paper, my story is a straightforward testimonial to working your way out of a bad situation. I studied hard, took leadership roles in school clubs, and won a bunch of awards for being good at playing an instrument. I ended up getting into Brown. My grades were stellar, I made a lot of friends, and my relationship with my parents even got better. I fell in love and had my heart broken and moved on. I interned on both coasts, and took a job in a city I’d never lived in. I graduated. I traded moderate to severe depression for mild to moderate anxiety, and despite the pandemic derailing my senior year of college and new grad work years, I was the happiest I’d ever been.

But my lived experience was more complicated. I didn’t stop feeling suicidal after I got into university; in fact, I didn’t stop feeling suicidal until college was almost over – well into my senior year. In my junior year of college, I had a nervous breakdown so severe that I had heart palpitations, night sweats, and intense emotional pain for weeks. There was at least a month of time during which I was managing a staff of 10 teaching assistants for a 300 person class, studying for exams, bombing internship interviews, and sobbing myself to sleep after ending an almost two year relationship with someone who accounted for half of my social life. It felt like I would never learn how to stay out of bad situations, and had simply run from one in my hometown just to find myself in another one here.

In hindsight, it is not so hard to see how I ended up trapped yet again. Leaving high school, I knew what my problems were—perfectionism, low self-worth, depression—but that was not the same as knowing how to solve them. Instead of slowly reinforcing positive behavior that would minimize all three issues, I plunged into a sink-or-swim academic environment that rewarded extreme behavior: all-nighters, 12 hour work days every day, reckless partying. There were hundreds of other students with the same problems as me. And we were all fiercely lonely. If the best way to make fast friends was to feed your most self-destructive instincts, do you ever have a good reason to learn?

I got scared that I was only one small catastrophe from having my emotional stability dashed to pieces for real. The way I was living left no margin for self-care, or being a source of support in case my family had a crisis. Between sophomore year and senior year, I’m not confident I flossed more than 20 times – what the hell would I do if either of my parents had had a health scare? What if something serious happened to my mental or physical health? I would have gone careening right back into a pit of depression.

Somehow, I made it to graduation without such a catastrophe. I never got wheeled out of the computing building on a stretcher like two of my classmates, and I never had to take a leave of absence for my depression like some others. I did develop some kind of fatigue issue though. Throughout my senior year, about once a month I’d suddenly lose so much energy for the day that I’d have to cancel all of my social and academic plans for the evening, instead spending the time lying in bed, distracting myself from the body aches by being on my phone. In 2021, I used up all 10 of my sick days at work recovering from these kinds of crashes. It is only now, two years later, that I’ve managed to stop having these episodes by conserving my energy throughout the week. 

I feel lucky to have gotten off so easy, because there’s nothing fundamentally different between me and someone who doesn’t make it out of the depression pit. We both feel the same pull to let go and give up, to cut our losses and choose to die. But while the circumstances of other people’s lives tore them off their handholds, I never weathered more than a slight breeze. My parents were and have always been employed. My brother, thank god, has always been more emotionally healthy than me. We’ve always had enough money. And we’ve somehow always had enough love to give to each other.

Getting out of depression is not rewarding. It’s not gratifying. It is dragging yourself out of bed every day, making an effort every day, and believing in something you don’t think exists: life being worth it. During the worst moments of my life, the only good reason I could think of not to kill myself was that it was unfair to my family. The one time I’ve talked to my dad about contemplating suicide, he told me that it would end my parents’ marriage and that they would never get over it. It would ruin their lives. …I cannot tell you how much I resented this being the one thing between me and eternal bliss. But it was what I needed, because it kept me alive. The more I was alive, the more I found in my life that was worth living for.

And so I stand today, miles away from the pit, on solid ground. Let’s be honest: I will always be at risk of feeling suicidal again. It would only take a catastrophe or two to send me right back into feeling that life is just not worth it, and that I was right all along. But I will remember that I have beaten this before, and that will perhaps give me the strength to beat it again.