A couple of times a day, every day, I consider whether life is worth it. An action or an inaction — some monumental and some minuscule — an observation, or sometimes a realization causes me to consider the world, my place in it, and whether or not I even want one.
I call it my daily internal dialogue about suicide.
I don't ever like having these conversations. But there are other people out there who may feel this way and think they're alone, and my story may help.
Some 9.3 million American adults (3.9 percent of the population) seriously contemplated suicide in 2013, according to a US Department of Health and Human Services study.
Dr. Alison Radcliffe, a practicing psychologist at Boise State University, told me that one in three of her clients has considered suicide at some point in their lives. And even these numbers are probably low-end estimates, said Sarah Victor, a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of British Columbia focusing on nonsuicidal self-injury and suicide.
“In psychology research, we always try to be aware of reporting biases — how we ask questions impacting the answers,” she said. “Some people might have thought ‘yes’ but said ‘no’ for social desirability reasons, or thought ‘no’ but forgot about some brief experience they had years ago.”
The upshot, according to Victor: “How common is suicidal ideation in adults? Really common.”
This did make me feel better.
It's not like I walk around all day teetering on the brink of killing myself. But I do think, more often than I like to admit, that the world would be a better place if I weren't here. Or that the world is like a shitty book or movie I'm in the middle of, and I just need to remove myself from it, not for the good of the world but for myself: that I deserve better than this world is willing to offer me.
The moments that make me think about ending my life
One morning, I left my house to run errands and pick up some breakfast tacos. As I approached the taqueria, a man asked me if I had any money to give him. I purchase almost everything with my debit card. When I responded that I didn’t have any cash, and even apologized for not being able to help, he looked at me and said blankly and coldly:
"Fuck you, nigger!"
That seemed a particularly hateful response to what must be a fairly common occurrence. And it hurt me. Most days, my Anti-Blackness Force Field is on point, close to impenetrable. But on this day, from this person, at this time, in this framing, for this reason, it shook me to my core. I went home broken and thought about why it's even worth it to live in a world where that happens.
Back in October, I read this quote in the New York Times. It was from a Donald Trump supporter defending Trump from the women who had come forward with sexual assault allegations.
"It’s baloney to come out now," the supporter said. "They’re opportunists. Listen, no man attacks a woman unless she’s looking like she’s asking for it."
I think about the people I know, and it seems every one of them has a story: about somebody taking liberties, the aggressor who "thought you were kidding" when you said “stop” and “no.” Or "you wore that skirt and got drunk, so you must have wanted it." Or "she said no at the beginning but stopped, so it was cool." And I wonder how in the world, in the 21st century, we have all these problems.
I grew up in a time when a lot of fathers told their sons that "girls are supposed to say no" and that "no is really maybe" — that message is the fuel for thousands of rapes. We should have learned from those rapes and those victims and those aggressors. We should have recognized that without changing this mindset in the home, there's really no hope. A world this shitty, with no real hope for change.
These are only two snapshots of the millions of examples that make me wonder: Why is this worth it?
How worried should I be about these thoughts?
I need to figure out if these thoughts I’ve been having are a problem.
Dr. Radcliffe told me: “In my experience, the people who have chronic thoughts of self-harm tend to find it to be a sort of coping tool they use. I listen to music, play Candy Crush, or visit with friends when stressed. These people tend to go to a place that says, ‘Well, you have a place where you cannot hurt and it will be quiet, if you choose to go there.’ They can think about it all they want, and it becomes a safe place.”
She said the distance between thinking about suicide and actually going through with it is “pretty large.”
Victor observes similar patterns in her patients.
“Clinically, when I work with someone who has suicidal ideation, I often see it as an index of ‘this person is suffering really greatly, and they don’t feel like they have many other options,’” she said.
Her approach is to: “a) identify some of the costs of suicide, b) provide them with some hope that things can improve (and then actually help them improve those things!), and c) identify reasons for living.”
This indicates to me that my feelings, at their base, are not as concerning as I had assumed — that merely thinking about suicide is a relatively normal occurrence, driven by many common factors running through everyday people. But the concern should start when you begin thinking about ways to execute your ideation. To summarize: Thinking about it is relatively normal, but thinking about going through with it should be a cause for pause.
This all makes a fair amount of sense to me: Sometimes you’re just looking for a place where you don’t have to deal with anyone or anything, and sometimes ideation can play that role. And thinking of reasons to live can help alleviate the desire.
Why my suicidal thoughts never lead to action
I never go further than thinking about suicide for a couple of reasons: my connection with others and my personal experience from loss.
I have very important people in my life. It seems like when I’m at my worst, in the lowest points my psyche will allow me to descend into, I’ll get a phone call from my friend Steve, whom I talk to not as frequently as I should but who always seems to call at the right times. Or I’ll get a text or chat message from Jay, just to check in on me.
Then there’s my wife, who reminds me she loves me so much it makes me want to show generosity and compassion to others, just as a way to pay it forward for the fortune of being blessed in the marriage lottery. And it’s obvious with these things in my favor, I should never question my worth or value in the world.
But that’s the thing about depression: It cares not about any of that. Depression is going to do what depression does, which is make you doubt all the things in your life that should be obvious. But when depression does sap my will to continue driving on, I have my wife, family, and friends who have been there for me even in times where I wish they'd left me alone, making sure I couldn't forget I was loved despite the effort I make to push them away. I recognize the great deal of good fortune I have.
Even more important are the unexpected losses of people close to me, one from an overdose and another from suicide. In both instances, I was one of the last people to speak with them, and in both instances, I feel like I was placed at that crossroads for a reason, to help my friends in their direst time of need.
I feel like I failed both of them.
I’ve had hundreds of hours of therapy with a doctor telling me: You can’t hold yourself responsible. The friends and family members I’ve talked to about this say the same thing. And I don’t think I'm responsible as much as I was irresponsible in my inaction, which is different, but not as different as I’d like it to be.
I went to the funerals and saw the pain and confusion I felt magnified on the faces of the parents, family, and friends with way more history, knowledge, and expectations than I'd ever had of those dear lost friends. Every time I think about my own death, I find myself working to make sure I never do that to someone, to leave them unexpectedly, with the pain expanded exponentially based on my choice to leave. Their memories, despite the pain they cause me, are always a driving force to keep moving forward, the best I can, and to remember the Maya Angelou quote:
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.”
The person who first shared that quote with me was my therapist. I need to state that because therapy is the only way I could have lived through a variety of experiences that would have otherwise broken me.
It took people who care about me, not wanting to hurt others, and therapy to get me to the point where I am now — where the ideation of suicide and the execution of suicide are not two sides of the same coin.
Doug Dennis is the president of the educational consulting company DCSP Consulting, a former high school teacher, a writer, a debater, and an avid poker player. He is on Twitter @blackdebateguy.