For The Mentally Ill Folks Who Didn’t Think They’d Make It This Year

The year had only just begun when I heard my psychiatrist, his voice quiet on the other end of the phone, telling me to go to the emergency room. “Will you go?” he asked me.

And I remember in that moment feeling like my cells were crawling and clawing in my body. The mere state of “being” was painful. I wanted to ask that doctor if he knew what he was asking me to do. How could he ask me to stay when everything hurt this much?

Last January, I couldn’t think of one good reason not to jump in front of the next train.

It’s December.

There were a million reasons not to.

Here’s what I would have missed: Trying my first veggie burger at Burger King. Learning I had obsessive-compulsive disorder. Eating sushi for the first time. Getting the first job that I’ve ever loved. Finding the best therapist I’ve ever had. Adopting a cat named Pancake that makes my heart so much fuller. Discovering how much I love yoga and learning more about astrology.

Buying the best pair of boots I’ve ever owned. Listening to Lorde’s best album and witnessing Kesha’s… everything.

Holding a dear friend’s hand while they waited for an ambulance. Crying with my partner when their father died. Learning a best friend’s new name. Trying out the word “no” for the first time. Looking in the mirror at my body and feeling gender euphoria for the first time. Figuring out (finally) that I actually am an introvert. Remembering what it feels like to believe in magic (and making a little magic of my own).

All the times I picked up the phone when someone needed me. All the times I said the right thing to someone that needed to hear it. All the times my being here made someone else feel like they should stay. All the times I said “I love you” and had the honor of hearing back, “I love you, too.”

All of the many, many moments this year when I woke up and thought, “I’m so glad I’m still here.”

It wasn’t easy. I relapsed spectacularly. I had to leave (what I thought was) my dream job. I almost lost my apartment along with it, and came within inch of losing everything else. I had to watch Trump celebrate his inauguration on a flickering screen in a psych ward, next to a poster from 1995 with “stress-busting” tips like, “Stop worrying so much.”

I was in that hospital for a week. In the last two days, it rained so hard that my ceiling leaked, drenching my group therapy handouts on the shelf below. You know, the handouts that were supposed to teach me how to be well again. And for a moment, I remember being flustered, thinking that maybe I should just throw them away.

I laid them out carefully to dry.

When I was discharged, I brought them home with me. And I started to rebuild, day by day.

If you’re reading this, it’s probably safe to say it wasn’t easy for you this year, either. I won’t presume to know why and I won’t tell you how to feel. But from one survivor to another, there were a couple things I wanted to shout out into the big internet void, hoping maybe the right person will read them.

Because you and I? We got through it. And the mere act of being here is a tremendous thing.

1. You are remarkably strong.

How do I know that? I guess I don’t exactly. But I have a hunch. Because it takes real strength to keep yourself alive, especially when your brain isn’t cooperating. You’ve had years now to throw in the towel, and yet, here we both are.

And yes, I suspect there were setbacks and close calls and tantrums, even, and all of that is valid. There was rage and grief, because if life is anything, it’s definitely not fair. I don’t doubt that it took everything in you, maybe even things you aren’t proud of, to keep going. And looking at where you are now, you may feel scared that you don’t have what it takes to rebuild.

But you’re here. Holy shit. You’re still here. And of all the jobs you have, staying alive is the most important one. You had the guts and resilience it took to survive this year. That was you.

Sometimes it was recklessly running into battle because, fuck it, what do I have to lose? Sometimes it was having an impulse, and choosing the less destructive one instead. And sometimes it was swallowing the pills you didn’t want to take, dragging yourself out of the bed you didn’t want to leave, or slowly sipping that nutritional shake to make sure your body had something, anything to sustain itself.

Whatever you had to do, you did it. And you should be so, so proud of that.

2. You belong here.

There have been more moments than I can count when I wondered if I ever should’ve been born. If there was really a place for me in this world. If someone like me could exist someplace like this.

That’s been an open wound from the moment I realized I wasn’t like most people (though, to be truthful, I have to wonder if there was ever a time I didn’t feel that way). I was queer, I was transgender, I was traumatized, I was sensitive, and by most accounts, I was crazy.

I certainly wasn’t the kid my parents were expecting. And I was never going to be the kind of person this world was built for.

I was lucky to find people, though, who taught me that while this world wasn’t built for us, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for us here.

And we might be a little rough around the edges. We might be a little wild, a little unsteady, and a little weird. But we find ways to grow no matter where we’re planted. Some of us make art, create zines, speak in poems. Some of us throw our bodies on the line for shit that matters. We speak truth to power, we stare down our fears and our demons, we exist despite everything that tells us we should not.

We show up for one another. We take up space. And we keep trying, knowing that there are kids like us growing up in the world that are going to need us to look up to.

We keep trying for them, the way we wished someone had been there for us.

…one of them was probably born, just now. (Let’s hope they find themselves a little faster than it took for us to find ourselves.)

This is the legacy we’re here to build, the legacy we’ll someday hand down to them.

3. Please be gentle with yourself.

Be gentle. Be soft.

There is an inner child within all of us, I think. Someone who’s doing their best in a scary world they were never prepared to enter. Someone who, every day, is hanging on tight as life does what it does best — changes.

And just when we think it’s settled, it changes some more. Sometimes for the best, but often for the hell of it, and almost never in the ways that we expect.

You are allowed to make mistakes. You are allowed to be messy, emotional, unsure. You are allowed to be afraid (in fact, I’d be surprised if you weren’t). And being human in all of these ways? That doesn’t make you “too much,” no matter what anyone else says.

You deserve compassion. You deserve patience, understanding. You deserve all the space and support you require to grow.

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It’s easy to ruminate on what you wish you’d done, or the ways in which you disappointed yourself or someone else. That’s a feeling I know all too well; I think everyone, especially folks with mental health struggles, knows how that feels (which isn’t exactly comforting, but hey, at least you’re in good company).

I hope that when you find yourself going there, you remember what I’m telling you now: You are worthy of kindness and care. And whenever you can, I hope you’ll give yourself permission to receive it.

4. You aren’t alone.

I don’t say this to you as an empty platitude or promise. I say this because it’s the truth.

Mental illness and trauma can so easily cut us off from our connection to the outside world, making everything and everyone feel like it’s a million miles away.

But feeling lonely is not the same as being alone. And I can almost guarantee you that someone out there has walked in those same shoes before — or at least wears the same size.

This year, I was finally diagnosed with “pure obsessional,” a very difficult form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I spent a lot of years with painful and confusing obsessions that I couldn’t control — and it convinced me that I was some kind of monster, the sort of monster that no one could ever understand.

When I got my diagnosis, a whole new world slowly opened up to me. I started to learn just how many people in the world were a lot like me, even people that I knew and talked to every day.

Shame and stigma are like a fog sometimes. We can see ourselves and our struggles so clearly, but it’s difficult to see anybody else. But that doesn’t mean other folks aren’t out there.

And if you keep searching, keep reaching out, the figures in the distance will become clearer. There is someone that’s been waiting for your story.

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I know it’s terrifying to venture out into that fog, not knowing who’s out there. I know it’s scary to be vulnerable, to ask for help, or to share a piece of yourself with someone else. More than once, I’ve wished I could gather up the words I just said and shove them all back into my mouth.

But then someone says those words — “I thought I was the only one,” “You feel that way, too?” or my personal favorite, “YES!” with a bunch of frantic hand motions or snapping — and it suddenly feels worth it. Or at the very least, it gives us just enough courage to keep venturing out.

So here’s to this year and everything it took for us to survive it.

And the next one, too, whatever it may bring. Here’s to another year of stumbling through the fog. Here’s to all the people who waved their flashlights, giving us something to follow; here’s to all the shoulders we cried on, and the right words that came at the right time.

For what it’s worth — and I really hope it’s worth something — some very tender boy in California (hello, that’s me!) sends his love. You survived. And I, for one, am so glad that you did.

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What I Wish My Loved Ones Understood When I’m Suicidal

My mother hit the nail on the head when she said that I didn’t come with an instruction manual.

If I did, I’d request that it include at least one chapter on suicide – because none of us, including me, were prepared for how to deal with suicidal thoughts and actions. As it turns out, mental illness would drive me to the end of my rope on more than one occasion.

The truth is that no one prepares you for that phone call, the one when your loved one is on the other end of the line saying, “I just can’t do this anymore.”

No one prepares you for that moment when they hang up abruptly, and you have to make a quick decision that might save their life.

I’ve been the person who both got the call and made the call – suicidee and suicidal, if you will – and I know what it feels like to be both on the ledge and the one trying to talk someone down.

But if you’ve only ever been the one on the ground, you might not understand what it looks like from way up there. It’s difficult to understand and even more difficult to empathize with a person who is suicidal, having never been there before.

And while I can’t give you an instruction manual, I can tell you what it feels like to be there.

Here’s what I wish you knew:

1. Please don’t pretend to understand what it’s like if you don’t actually get it.

I know that you’re just trying to connect with me, but I can see through the nonsense from a mile away. I know when you can’t actually relate to what I’m going through. I know when you’re just pretending.

In this moment, I just want you to be here for me. I want you to hold space for me to be vulnerable, to feel pain, to be afraid. Let me know that you’re here with me. Remind me that I have options, and ask me if I want to talk through them. Give me the chance to unpack what’s been hurting me. Remind me that you’re here.

Listen and don’t judge.

If you haven’t been suicidal before or if you haven’t experienced depression like this, that’s okay. I don’t actually need you to have some kind of insider knowledge. I don’t need you to be able to relate to everything I’m saying and feeling.

I just need you to be here with me right now. I called you, of all the people I could’ve called, for a reason.

2. I don’t need you to fix this.

If I’m at rock bottom, the reality is that my situation is one that won’t be fixed in a single night. Crises like these aren’t about fixing things – it’s about being my support, helping me to hang in there when it seems like there’s nothing worth holding on for.

By all means, offer resources and coping strategies with me, and be sure to ask if that’s helpful for me. But if you enter into this conversation with the expectation that you can fix all of my problems, it’s just going to create a whole lot of stress for us both.

If there were some kind of immediate solution to my crisis, believe me, I would’ve chosen that before I ever considered suicide. The reality is, it’s going to take a lot to pull through.

Rather than promising a solution, promise me that I won’t have to go through this alone — and mean that when you say it.

3. The fact that I told you what I’m feeling is a really huge deal.

Being suicidal is one of the most vulnerable positions a human being can be in. It’s also one of the most difficult things you can endure. It took a lot of courage to talk about what I’m going through. Honor that courage.

And remember: I chose you. Of all the people I could call in this moment, I trusted you. That means something.

Instead of ending my life, I called on you. You mattered enough to be the person that I picked up the phone for. You mattered enough to be the face that I looked for in my darkest hour. You mattered enough to be the voice that I wanted to hear.

Being suicidal doesn’t mean I don’t care enough about you to stay — the fact that I’m including you now means that I care very deeply about you. Please don’t forget that.

4. Take me seriously.

I wish I didn’t have to say this, but you need to take everything I’m saying very seriously. I need you to operate from a place of belief — believe that I’m in pain, believe that I’m in danger, and believe that this is urgent and requires your attention.

I say this for a few reasons.

For one, suicidal people can sound detached. They can sound resigned. There isn’t always desperation or urgency in their voice. We don’t always respond emotionally in the ways you might expect. That doesn’t mean this experience is less real or sincere.

Instead, ask questions, and pay attention to these factors: Is there a plan? Are there means to carry out that plan? Is there an intended time to carry out that plan? And do they intend to take their own life?

(This guide is a pretty important resource for understanding how to respond to someone who is suicidal. I wish all my loved ones had read it before I made that call.)

The other reason that I ask that you take me seriously is because, sadly, many people assume that when someone shares that they’re suicidal, they’re only doing so for attention. But the reality is, a person in this much pain needs attention.

When the mere suggestion of someone taking their own life comes into play, there’s no question of how seriously you should take them. Take me seriously, because this is serious.

5. Telling me that there’s hope when I feel hopeless isn’t always helpful.

Do tell me about concrete alternatives, resources, and options that I have in my position. But don’t give me empty promises of how beautiful life is or other poetic ideas that you think will inspire me to keep on living.

If I could comprehend that kind of optimism right now, I probably wouldn’t be in this position.

Remember: My depression doesn’t just affect my mood — it affects my thoughts. Sometimes, I’m just not capable of seeing the big picture, or I’m in too much pain for that big picture to matter.

I don’t want to hear about how great life is. Because for me, in this moment, it’s anything but. And you reminding me of what I can’t feel and understand will only make me feel more alienated and more alone.

6. My feeling this way isn’t your fault.

Please, please, please don’t blame yourself for how I’m feeling in this moment. Could’ve, should’ve, and would’ve scenarios will only make us both feel worse. Instead, focus on the here and now, and how to get us through this.

7. My pain is valid.

You may not understand my pain, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid. Don’t tell me that I don’t have a reason to be depressed or suicidal. Don’t tell me my life is too good to throw away. Don’t tell me that there are people out there with worse problems than mine.

I don’t deserve to be punished or made to feel guilty just because I’m having a difficult time in my life.

Validate my pain. Acknowledge my suffering. And know that, for me, it’s very real. Real enough to make me contemplate suicide.

8. I may not be ready for what you have to say (right now), but it could mean everything to me later on.

Talking to a suicidal person can sometimes feel like talking to a brick wall. The truth is, I’m not always ready to hear what you have to say. Your messages of support, love, and warmth may go right over my head. I’m in a dark place and I can’t always see the light from where I’m at.

But I’ll tell you what: I remember the people who talked me off the ledge years and years ago. I remember what they said to me to this day. And even though, in that moment, I couldn’t really grasp what they told me, it came back to me.

I remembered it in therapy. I remembered it the next time I was hurting. I remembered it in recovery. And those words that, at first, meant nothing to me eventually came to mean everything.

What you’re saying to me is never in vain. Because while it may not resonate at the time, it could be the affirmation that I cling to weeks, months, years down the line. Sometimes it takes a while before the message really sinks in.

Give me time. I’ll thank you later.

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Have a suicidal loved one and not sure what to do? Read this guide from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or, if you need immediate assistance, give them a call at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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A much shorter version of this piece that I wrote originally appeared at Ravishly.

As a Suicide Attempt Survivor, I’m Still Waiting For Stories of Resilience On TV

Approximately 92-95% of suicide attempts end in survival.

I didn’t know this, though, when I tried to end my life almost eight years ago. I’d only ever heard of stories that ended in death or in hospital beds. I’d only ever seen them as a plot twist on a television program or tragedy porn in the news. To me, people who attempted suicide overwhelmingly ended up in the ground, or on occasion in psych wards, but there was never any life to be lived afterward.

There was never a single story that said to me, “You can survive. And then you can truly live.”

Imagine my surprise, then, when I woke up alone, head pounding, room spinning. There was no point of reference. What do you do when you survive? Where do you go? Later that night, I googled “suicide survivor,” but back then everything I found was for people who’d lost someone – never for someone who’d nearly lost themselves.

I went to bed. I got up the next morning, went to class. When I saw my therapist a few days later, I mentioned it in passing, ashamed of my failure, trying to remain casual and unaffected and distant. She asked me how I felt now and I said I felt nothing. 92-95% failure rate – I know that years later – but in that moment I thought I must be the only one who could fuck up something that should be so straightforward.

Stop your own heart. There must be a thousand different ways to do it. I’ve seen this on television a million times, I told my therapist, teenagers like me who dramatically and precisely erase themselves. She asked me how I did it, and I told her just like a teenager I saw on Dateline. It was supposed to be quick. It was supposed to be simple.

“I don’t know how I messed this up.” My hands curled into two perfect fists.

She asked me if I was going to try again and I told her, “What’s the use?” I was embarrassed. And you can’t 5150 someone who’s too embarrassed to try, who’s treating the whole ordeal like nothing more than a terrible faux pas, something to be forgotten. Someone who isn’t dangerous anymore, just humiliated.

Television, with its drama and sensationalism, didn’t prepare me to live. It didn’t prepare me for the next morning, when my life was still the same as I’d left it.

Television only prepared me for trying. It allowed me to imagine the vindication and justice of succeeding – portraying suicide as triumph, suicide as revenge, suicide as release, suicide as justified, suicide as beautiful tragedy, suicide as an art form, even, as the answer – but it never prepared me to survive, for everything after.

No one told me how to rebuild my life. No one told me how to take the fragmented pieces of myself and thread them back together. I was only taught how to die, and never how to live.

Find me a story of a survivor who’s glad to be one. Give me a survivor who gets their own damn show, where suicide isn’t just a plot twist for shock value but the genuine truth of their struggle.

Give me the 13 Reasons Why of the 92-95% of people who wake up and have to face a world they weren’t expecting to see again, see a reflection they’d already parted ways with.

Give me the stories of teenagers like me whose lives aren’t sensational because of how they died, but instead tremendous because of how they survived, how they lived. Give me more than trauma porn. Give me more than triggers that exploit their traumas – more than the blood in the bathtub, the wailing of the ambulance, the walls of the psych ward.

Give me their full humanity. Give me recovery, give me relapse, give me resilience.

Give me back my humanity. 

There are youth like me who wake up to a spinning room, posed with the question of how they will rebuild. They’re looking for stories like theirs to help them engage with trauma and reimagine their lives – and they’re only finding this in the form of tragedy, revenge, descent.

If the overwhelming majority of us will survive, why do our only representations confine us to madness or death?

Every single day, people like me survive. People like me live, and along the way, discover something worth living for. We grow up, we get older. We find ways to become whole. We’re so much more than our proximity to death and the pain that we’ve held in our bones. And our singular trauma doesn’t exist for the sole purpose of entertaining you, nor is it designed for your consumption.

We’re more than this. We’re larger than this.

When will I get to see a story like mine on the screen? Show me someone who lives. Show me someone who survives and goes on to truly live.

We’re still here. We’re still waiting.

We need you. You need you. If you ever need support, please consider the following crisis resources:

The National Suicide Prevention Helpline: 1-800-273-8255
The Trevor Lifeline for LGBTQIA+ youth: 1-866-488-7386
Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860

Or check out my favorite mental health apps at this resource list.

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I Had Everything I Wanted – And I Still Wanted To Die

I’ve spent an hour, give or take, furiously pacing the floor of my apartment. They call this “psychomotor agitation,” though I don’t know it yet.

I feel like I can’t stand to be in my skin another second, like I’m completely wired and simultaneously the most depressed I’ve ever been. They call this a “mixed episode,” though I haven’t realized that yet.

My apartment is my sanctuary. I remember when I moved into the place – the joy I felt to be downtown, to be in the heart of things. It was full of 1920s charm. It felt surreal to be in a place so nice. I put a lot of thought into how I decorated the place, down to the candles and the twinkle lights and the succulents.

It was my safe place – was, up until that moment, when suddenly the train was coming off the rails.

I abruptly stop pacing. I know what I need to do.

I grab a pad of paper and a pen, and begin to write.

I’m sorry…

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“But nothing was actually wrong,” I say quietly. “I wouldn’t have changed anything about my life – just how I felt.”

I’m in group therapy for the second time that day. We all sit in a circle, wearing pajamas and hospital gowns.

Bipolar disorder doesn’t give a shit about my ‘perfect’ life,” I continue. “I had everything I wanted and I still wanted to die.”

My body trembles ever so slightly.

“It can be hard to accept that these illnesses are not always within our control,” the group facilitator says. “We can feel very vulnerable when we realize this.”

Vulnerable. Vulnerable doesn’t even begin to describe the fears that have overtaken me since my breakdown.

Was it really possible that, no matter how I arranged my life – no matter what the circumstances were and how meticulously I controlled them – I could lose my mind anyway?

I could have a career that I loved, a community of friends and partners that brought me joy, and yes, the charming little apartment, but as soon as the chemicals in my brain turned on me, all of these things were irrelevant at best.

“I thought building my perfect life could keep my illness away, could keep me safe,” I tell the group. I look down at my hospital band around my wrist, a painful reminder.

I was sorely mistaken.

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I’ve gotten too drunk. Again.

This is a new habit of mine. I’ve taken to drinking in the middle of the day, drinking alone, which everyone tells me is a bad sign.

They all tell me to sober up, and I don’t listen. I don’t listen because it’s better to be drunk than to be restless, the kind of restlessness that feels like thousands of insects crawling underneath your skin.

I glance at my phone.

“We found your note, Sam,” a message reads.

The panic begins to settle in. No one was supposed to find it until after I jumped in front of the train.

“Just tell us where you are,” another message reads. “Please.”

“Almost everyone who has jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived said they regretted it immediately,” someone else says.

I already know what that regret feels like.

Seven years ago, the closest I’ve ever come to death, I felt that regret after the seizure and before I blacked out.

And in that moment, the memory of that regret scares me.

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The answer is horrifyingly simple: Lithium.

The answer is not an apartment, or a relationship, or my job – the answer is lithium, and three days into my hospitalization, the chaos in my mind begins to subside.

“How are you feeling?” the psychiatrist asks me.

“I’m getting better.”

“That’s good news,” he says. “What about the voices? Are you hearing any?”

“No,” I reply. “My head is a lot clearer now.”

I should be overjoyed that the tides are turning. But I am in shock – was this really all that it took? Was it really just brain chemicals?

I don’t know whether to be glad that the answer was so simple or fearful that it was beyond my control.

Or both.

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In outpatient, I sit in a support group and listen to people talking about what led to their crisis.

“I lost my job.”
“I had a terrible accident and the recovery was difficult.”
“I lost my brother and mother within six months.”
“I was in a coma.”

It’s my turn.

“I was in denial about my mental illness.”

Denial, like when you ignore all the warning signs because you don’t believe you’re sick. Denial, like when you think that if you control every element of your life, it won’t affect you. Denial, like when you’re convinced that if you take your pills every day, you’re cured.

Or when you believe that if you have everything, you won’t break down.

But the truth is, you can have everything and still want to die.

Because mental illness doesn’t care about the life you’ve built. It’s only interested in what it can take away.

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To Be Transgender, Mentally Ill, And Still Alive

Content Note: Mentions of suicide, trans/homophobia, saneism

Nearly every day for the past five months, give or take, I’ve had a moment when I glance out the window onto my street and think to myself, “I was never supposed to be here.”

This feeling isn’t new to me – I’ve dealt with “survivor’s guilt” in some form for years now – but the feeling intensified when I moved to my new apartment.

You know, the apartment that I feel like I don’t deserve for some reason or another.

Here’s the honest truth: People like me? Mentally ill queer kids, the ones that get their homophobia or transphobia with a side of psychosis? The ones whose trauma isn’t just a meal but comes with an appetizer and a fucking dessert?

This world isn’t made for us.

How would I know that? I’ve lived it.

And I don’t think I would have been so persistent about ending my life all those years ago if this were a world that saw me, validated me, affirmed me. If this were a world that had a place for me. If this were a world that held space for me.

I know this because it took me years to sit beside the window instead of dangling out of it, held in place only by someone’s hand clinging desperately to my shirt collar, because to be queer was one thing but to be queer and crazy was another thing entirely.

There has never been a moment when I’ve forgotten that I am both. I’m not allowed to forget.

I remember it when the psychiatrist advises that I not pursue hormones because I could just be manic and not trans; I remember it when another trans person says to me, “I’m glad that gender identity disorder is no longer in the DSM. It’s not like trans people are crazy.”

But I am.

I remember it when I recall the mere inch that came between myself and my own death.

The names of those I knew and could’ve known that ended their lives still swirl around my brain, and all I can think about is how I’m here and they aren’t, and how senseless all of this feels.

Yes, I’m here. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

Sometimes the guilt is so painful that I’m convinced that some part of me is fractured – that if you peered inside, it’s almost certain that something in me is irreparably broken. That being a survivor that has watched people like me die, over and over, has left me in a permanent state of grief.

I am in a permanent state of grief.

When I have flashbacks to the moment I woke up, realizing I was still here, I find myself trembling and shaken, wondering why the world steals the light of so many queers but somehow left mine intact.

Why, after making self-annihilation my hobby for a time, should I be rendered whole in a world that despises our wholeness?

Why did I survive?

And it’s not that I believe that my life wasn’t worth sparing. It’s just that, when you watch your comrades, your community, your friends dying all around you, you can’t help but wonder why it was them and not you.

Well-meaning friends tell me, “Remember to be grateful, too.”

But what they don’t understand is that there will always be another mentally ill trans kid like me, ready to follow through on what I failed to finish.

And I can’t just feel grateful when I know, in the back of my mind, that that kid is still out there.

Maybe I feel guilty for being alive because I’m conditioned to believe that people like me aren’t meant to exist in the first place.

Every day since my attempt there’s a scene that plays out in my head, where I’m banging on the closet door, trying to stop that kid from repeating my mistakes, begging them to let me in, begging them to stay, knowing that I can’t promise them that it will get better but I can do everything in my power to create a space for us.

Just one space.

Well-meaning friends say, “Yes, it’s horrifying, but you can’t dwell on that.”

Why can’t I dwell on that?

Do you know the overwhelming trauma of existing in a world that teaches you, from day one, to resist everything that you are?

And why should they act horrified when we destroy ourselves – why should they act surprised – as if that’s not what the world was asking of us all along?

They ask me not to dwell on this as if trauma is a garment you wear, as if we can forget who we are. Please listen when I say this: I can’t forget.

Well-meaning friends ask me, “Why do you write?”

But the better question is why I stayed.

And I stayed for the same reason that I write: Because so long as this world isn’t made for us, I have to keep fighting for a better world.

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A Psychiatrist Endangered My Life and I Was Afraid to Speak Out

A sad stock photo until Jessica's illustration is finished.

A very sad stock photo until Jessica’s illustration is finished.

Folks who have never struggled with their mental health seem to think of psychiatry as a quick and easy fix. Pop some happy pills and ta-daaaa! Your struggles will magically dissolve.

What these folks fail to understand (other than, like, how psychiatric medications actually work) is that, for many of us who are in the midst of mental illness or crisis, sometimes a psychiatrist’s office can be the most dangerous place for us to be.

When I was 18 years old, my therapist told me it was time to start thinking about medication to manage my bipolar disorder. I was suicidal, experiencing severe dissociation, and was dangerously depressed. I had experienced bipolar symptoms for most of my life, and we knew that medication to help regulate moods could be a game changer.

I went to a clinic that my insurance covered, and saw the first psychiatrist that I could. I knew the situation was urgent, and I was fortunate enough to find an opening sooner rather than later. I filled out the necessary forms, came in for my appointment, and waited for what I assumed was going to be the first miraculous step in my recovery and healing.

When we think about mental health professionals, we hope and even assume that they will be compassionate, encouraging, and at the very least, competent. But the woman that I met at this clinic was none of these things.

Her first question for me was to ask why I was depressed. When I told her I didn’t know, and that I had been depressed on and off for a long time, she didn’t believe me. She accused me of exaggerating my symptoms, telling me that I was “just a teenager” and that I couldn’t possibly be as depressed as I claimed to be.

She tried to shame me for seeing a psychiatrist. She said to me, “You know, I have children, and they’re around your age. I’d be pretty skeptical if they decided to seek out pills to solve their problems.”

Not once in our appointment did she ask if I was suicidal (I was). She didn’t ask about my history with self-harm (long and complicated). She seemed completely uninterested in my past, and instead, spent a lot of time asking about where my parents were, and why I would see a psychiatrist if I was “getting good grades in school.”

When I handed her a list of symptoms that my therapist had helped me to write, she looked at me and said, “Did you just read a psychology book recently and decide you were sick?”

I wish I could say that this was the worst thing that she did. But it only went downhill from there.

After she could see that I wasn’t leaving without some kind of help, she sighed, rolled her eyes, and asked me, “What pills do you want?”

I was completely baffled. What pills do I want? Wasn’t it her job to prescribe a medication that made sense based on my experiences? Wasn’t it her job to make an educated decision on how to manage my symptoms?

“I don’t know. My aunt takes Prozac,” I said quietly. “Should I be taking Prozac?”

“If it worked for her, maybe it’ll help you,” she told me, completely apathetic.

She wrote me the prescription and told me to leave.

This psychiatrist had confirmed that I did, indeed, have bipolar disorder. There was no confusion there. And yet she prescribed me an antidepressant without telling me that antidepressants can increase the risk of mania or rapid cycling in folks who have bipolar. Most psychiatrists will prescribe them with a mood stabilizer rather than prescribing an antidepressant alone because of this risk.

(Of course, I learned all of this from my next psychiatrist who, upon learning that I had taken Prozac by itself, looked at me and said, “I don’t understand why any trained psychiatrist would’ve done this.”)

Instead of prescribing a medication that took into account my diagnoses of anxiety and bipolar, she let me choose my own medication – as if I had gone to medical school and had a background that made me at all qualified to prescribe meds to myself.

Let me say that again: A so-called medical professional let a teenager prescribe their own drugs.

I was so very young, and in no way equipped to deal with the very serious disorder I was diagnosed with. I came to her for help – in arguably the most vulnerable place a person can be – and I was shamed for it, invalidated, re-traumatized, and worst of all, prescribed a medication that endangered me.

I trusted her, and she failed me.

And yes, of course, I began rapid cycling. I experienced volatile mood swings, vivid suicidal ideation, mania like I’d never seen before, complete breaks from reality. I scared everyone around me, including my parents, who at that point didn’t have much knowledge about bipolar and thus often missed the red flags with my episodes.

It was pretty exceptional stuff if my parents were taking note.

At my mother’s urging, I called the psychiatrist. I assumed that, perhaps, it was an honest mistake. But to my complete shock, despite several urgent voicemails, she did not call me back.

Not only did she endanger me with the wrong medicine, but when I called her in crisis, she made no attempt to help me.

My gut said that this psychiatrist had no right to invalidate my pain or shame me for asking for help. My gut said that asking a patient to choose their own pills was not how psychiatry was supposed to work. And my gut said that she had given me the wrong medicine, and that she should be held accountable for irresponsibly ignoring all of my calls.

But I was a teenager, and I was afraid. She was well-respected at this clinic – one of the best, I was told. It was my first time ever seeing a psychiatrist, and I thought that maybe this was just how psychiatry worked. Maybe it really was just quick and abrasive. Maybe I was being too sensitive.

Looking back, I deeply regret not making noise for the very clear wrongs that happened here. While I am in no way to blame for what happened, I fear for all the patients that came after me, especially the younger ones who are in many ways the easiest targets for this kind of abuse because we are placing our trust in adults that we are told are there to help us.

The sad part about it is that these psychiatric horror stories are not at all rare. We often come into these offices very vulnerable, even afraid, and are expected to somehow advocate for ourselves. We are asking for help, which is the most difficult thing in the fucking world to do, and when a professional preys on that vulnerability, it can be disastrous.

I share my story not to scare folks who are considering psychiatric interventions or discourage them from seeking help. Because as terrible as this was for me, and as long as it took to get past it, psychiatry as a whole has still helped me immensely. I’ve had the great privilege of having doctors that I can honestly say are my heroes, who modeled the kind of compassionate and competent care that we all deserve.

But people need to know that psychiatry is not infallible. That doctors and psychiatrists, too, are not infallible. In fact, in my experience as an advocate, I can tell you that abuse, intimidation, shaming, and endangerment by so-called professionals is not exceptional. In fact, tragically, it’s all too common.

Folks who are seeking out a psychiatrist need to know that they are entitled to the best possible care. If something feels wrong, if the experience was traumatic, or if there is an issue of trust, you are not obligated to continue seeing this person. I’ll repeat that: You are not obligated to stay. You’re not even obligated to be “nice” or polite, especially if you feel unsafe.

You can leave at any time, or call them out if you feel like you’re in a position to do that. You can seek out local mental health organizations if you feel you might have been the victim of abuse, and of course, any feedback you can give the clinic, even if it’s anonymous, is vital.

Well-intentioned loved ones who push us to seek out psychiatrists need to understand that this is not an easy bake oven, where you hand us over to a psychiatrist and we emerge on the other side perfectly composed and healed.

If you are invested in our well-being, I would encourage you to keep an open line of communication with us. Ask us about our psychiatrist. Don’t pry about the details of what we shared, but do ask us questions about the experience as a whole. “Did you feel safe? Did you feel validated? Did anything feel off or wrong? Do they seem trustworthy?”

Those questions can actually be life-saving.

While it’s clear that reform is needed to address the lack of quality psychiatric care and the dire inaccessibility of that care, it is crucial that we advocate for our loved ones to ensure that they are receiving treatment that does not hinder their healing, but rather, facilitates it.

I walked away from my first visit with a psychiatrist feeling like an imposter. Maybe I was a liar. Maybe I was wrong to ask for help. Maybe I was selfish. I walked away confused, more fearful than ever, and convinced that nothing could get better.

This should go without saying: No one should walk away from a medical professional feeling ashamed, afraid, and traumatized.

It took me years before I could write about this experience, but it’s my hope that sharing this story can give insight into the kinds of struggles we face not only as folks with mental illnesses, but as people trying to navigate a failing system.

I am not the first person to encounter abuse in the office of a psychiatrist, and I will certainly not be the last.

So when you gently suggest to a friend that they “just see a psychiatrist” as if it’s a walk in the park, let me remind you that it’s more like a bath with piranhas, or slathering on some honey and slow dancing with a bear.

You should probably, you know, adjust your sympathy accordingly.

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Why Aren’t We Talking About Suicide Attempt Survivors? Here Are 7 Ways to Support Them.

When we talk about suicide, we tend to focus on prevention – or mourning those that we have lost to suicide.

And while these are worthy and important causes, they sometimes make invisible a very real and important group of people.

We forget, too often, that some of us are on the other side – that not everyone who attempts suicide will die.

When I attempted suicide as a young teenager, I found myself set adrift.

I couldn’t find support or resources because those resources focused exclusively on either family members who have lost a loved one or preventing suicide attempts – neither of which applied to me at that time.

Confused and alone, I was unable to find a single website or article that acknowledged that sometimes, suicide doesn’t go the way we planned – sometimes, we live to tell the tale.

I went to school the next day, resuming business as usual, because I didn’t know what else to do.

Six years later, more resources are being created, and amazing projects are unfolding. I’m grateful, as an attempt survivor, to know that other survivors will have more of a safety net than I did.

However, I still believe that there are things we all can do to support suicide attempt survivors – and to create a culture in which these survivors do not feel invisible.

As feminists, I believe that this work is especially important and relevant – the stigma around mental health and suicide is a hurdle for folks in every community, and is most often shouldered by folks who are already marginalized in significant ways.

Here’s a list of seven ways we can all do right by attempt survivors.

1. Include Attempt Survivors in Your Conversations About Suicide

In any conversation about suicide – whether it’s a formal panel, a public policy discussion, or a casual conversation – it should never be assumed that survivors don’t exist.

And many of us are not only surviving, but also thriving. Others survive and continue to struggle.

If you’re doing work in prevention, for example, it’s important to remember that folks who have attempted suicide before are at even greater risk to attempt again.

In fact, one-third of people who attempt suicide will try again within one year.

Regardless, attempt survivors are an important demographic when we’re talking about prevention.

When organizing panels or conferences around mental health and suicide, there should be a concentrated effort to include survivors not just as attendees, but as speakers and organizers.

If you already support a particular mental health organization, you can also inquire about what they are doing to support attempt survivors.

And in everyday conversation, remember that attempting suicide is not synonymous with dying.

Including attempt survivors in conversations that impact our lives is an important part of making survivors visible.

2. Stop Treating Suicide Like a Taboo Topic

I know that suicide sounds really scary. I know that it can be hard to have conversations about it.

However, when we treat suicide like a hush-hush topic, we’re not only hurting people who may be suicidal and need help, we’re also hurting people who have been through an attempt and need a safe space to talk about it.

When we don’t have healthy, compassionate conversations about suicide and survival, we ultimately discourage survivors from seeking out support.

After my attempt, there was no script on how to talk about what I’d been through. I just knew in my gut that it wasn’t something that people talked about.

If I had felt safer or more encouraged to open up, I might have been able to cope more effectively and get help sooner.

In fact, if it hadn’t been so taboo, I might have talked about my suicidal thoughts before I acted, and my attempt might have never happened.

We need to stop treating suicide and suicidal thoughts as taboo.

Instead, we need to foster conversations that can help survivors feel safe enough to disclose their experiences and seek help when it’s needed.

3. Stop Shaming Survivors

Part of my decision to keep what had happened to me a secret for so many years was because I had heard, over and over again, that suicide was a selfish decision.

I was afraid that if I opened up to someone, I would be met with shaming and criticism instead of compassion.

Put simply: We need to stop shaming people who have attempted suicide.

The decision to end our lives is not a decision we ever take lightly – and it’s not indicative of a character flaw, but rather of immense pain that we have carried for too long.

Attempt survivors face enormous amounts of discrimination – and it’s compounded because we not only face the stigma of being suicide attempt survivors, but often that which goes with struggling with our mental health.

We’re not only “selfish”, but we’re “crazy“, we’re “unstable”, we’re “unhinged”; in other words, we’re worthless.

A culture that either pretends we don’t exist or treats us as selfish and subhuman is a culture that ultimately perpetuates the cycle of suicide.

If we are encouraged to keep silent and told we are less than human, we are far more likely to attempt suicide again.

If we want to support attempt survivors, we need to stop shaming them into silence.

4. Don’t Assume That Suicide Attempts Are a Universal Experience

Some of us are traumatized by our experience. Some of us don’t have strong feelings about what happened. Some of us consider our attempts life-changing. Some of us view them as one terrible event in our lives. Some of us feel regret about our attempt. Some of us feel no regret at all.

Some of us feel all of these things at different times in our lives – sometimes even at different points in a single day.

There is no universal narrative that fits for every suicide attempt survivor.

All of our experiences are valid, all of our experiences are important, and all of our experiences are unique.

When we talk about suicide attempts, we need to be careful not to generalize about those experiences or about survivors.

By acknowledging the complexity and diversity of our experiences, we support all survivors, instead of just those who fit into our preconceived ideas of what a survivor should be.

If we want to be supportive, we need to be supportive of everyone, regardless of what their journey looks like.

5. Tune In When Survivors Are Sharing Their Stories

There are many survivors that are already sharing their stories, and you may someday encounter someone who trusts you with their story. The most important thing is to listen – and to let them take the lead.

I’ve found that when I share my story with folks, people have a lot of questions and don’t always know how to respectfully engage.

To this, I would suggest that people should actively listen when survivors are sharing their stories. Don’t interrupt, don’t interrogate, don’t ask invasive questions.

Let survivors decide how much to share, when to share, and how their stories will be told.

I know that suicide is a topic we don’t often hear about, and when someone is willing to open up, there’s a lot that we want to know.

However, a person’s attempt story is not about you – this is a story about them, by them, for them.

If there is an opportunity to ask questions, be sure to ask in a way that allows this person to opt out if they aren’t ready to answer.

Survivors deserve to disclose their stories in an environment that makes them feel safe, validated, and respected.

You can facilitate this by listening, first and foremost.

6. Realize That We Are Everywhere

It’s gut wrenching when an acquaintance, not knowing my history, says something terrible like, “Ugh! If I have to go to work on Saturday, I’ll kill myself.”

We, as a culture, need to recognize that attempt survivors are in every community – and then we need to behave accordingly.

We need to speak compassionately about suicide not only because it’s the right thing to do (suicide jokes are never funny, especially when they aren’t coming from folks who have lived it), but because triggering survivors is another way that we both invisibilize and marginalize them.

We assume that survivors aren’t around, and thus we say things that we wouldn’t otherwise say to someone who has been through it.

There are many microaggressions that survivors face, by virtue of the assumption that we do not exist or that we only exist in certain communities.

Suicide should always be discussed in a way that is sensitive, inclusive, and does not uphold discrimination or shame, so that survivors in every community can feel safe and respected.

7. Get Behind the Amazing Organizations, Resources, and Projects That Support Attempt Survivors

Suicide attempt survivors need resources, too. This is why supporting the organizations, resources, and projects that advocate and assist attempt survivors is absolutely vital.

Unlike six years ago when I had my attempt, Googling “suicide attempt survivor” lists a number of resources that now exist for survivors – some of which are quite fantastic.

One essential resource can be found over at Grief Speaks. The guide, found here, gives a comprehensive run-down of ways we can assist someone in the aftermath of a suicide attempt. If those close to me had had something like this, it would have made all the difference.

One of my favorite projects is called Live Through This, the amazing work of attempt survivor Dese’Rae L. Stage. She photographs and documents the stories of attempt survivors from all walks of life.

It’s the only known project of its kind, bringing a human face to a struggle that is too often anonymous.

When I first saw this project, I was struck by how whole it made me feel. To know that there were others like me, living through this and telling their stories, gave me the courage to keep telling my story, too.

Supporting the work of survivors and advocates like Stage is a way of both bringing visibility to survivors, as well as creating a greater safety net for future survivors who need to know that they are cared for, seen, and – most of all – not alone.

* * *

My suicide attempt was not the worst thing that had ever happened to me.

I think what was worse was the loneliness I felt when I realized I didn’t know how to talk about it, and I didn’t have a safe space to have that conversation.

As an adult, I know that I’m not alone in my experience. There are so many attempt survivors worldwide, and many feel unsupported, isolated, and shamed into silence.

However, there’s so much we can all do to make attempt survivors feel more supported.

This list is a place to start, and should be part of an ongoing conversation about how to make survivors feel safer, respected, and visible.

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If you’re feeling suicidal, please reach out to someone. If you’re in the US you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255. If you’re not in the US, click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.

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Cross-posted from Everyday Feminism