(I wrote How to Kill Yourself Slowly when I was in college. Initially, it lived on my blog, Bipolar Swirl, until it was published by Denver Syntax. Over the years, I probably received hundreds of emails from people who related to it. After talking to so many suicidal people and continuing in my own recovery, I felt like I needed to document what happened after, what came after the suicide failed. So I wrote the second half to this piece, How to Survive Surviving. For a while I looked for a place to publish the pair, to get it out into the world, but ultimately, I think it might belong right here, on a blog like where it began.
Suicide and self-destruction are familiar topics in my life. I tried to kill myself when I was young and followed that up with a barrage of indirect, self-destructive attempts. I have lost two people in my life to suicide and know more than that who have attempted. If you relate to this piece, please do not hesitate to reach out. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. I am not a professional; I cannot fix you. I cannot promise to respond immediately or that I will say the right thing. But I will listen, and I will respond. None of us need to be alone in this darkness.)
How to Survive Killing Yourself
Part One: How to Kill Yourself Slowly
There are so many ways to kill yourself without taking a razor to your wrist or tightening the noose around your neck. The secret beauty lies in the indirect methods. You want to savor your pain, taste your own decay, and kill yourself slowly.
The process should be started when you are young and weak, ignorant. A preexisting mental disorder or a trauma is helpful, but the twisting dance of both intertwining together is best. Maybe crazy is in your blood, passed down the line from a great-grandmother that spent her adult life tied down and shocked senseless in a mental hospital. The legacy of mental illness snakes silently through your genes, only visible in the awkward interactions at family get-togethers. Insanity is painted in the wrinkles of all of their repressed faces.
Never say crazy. You can never say the word crazy.
Their swirling disease now pounds through your mind, taints your world. But you don’t discover this sickness until your world has abruptly been ripped apart. Maybe your entire childhood was a jumble of shifting illusions teetering on a framework of lies that suddenly crashes down in one breath to expose an ugly reality. The life you thought you had vanishes. It did not exist. Your parents never loved each other; they thought kids would make it better. You were born to save a failing marriage. You find out from your mother’s journal two weeks before she moves out.
You can use your mother’s nervous breakdowns as an example. Hear the slamming door and the stifled sobs from the other side. Watch her tiny body tremble, face turn deep red, small hands clench until the knuckles are a ghastly white. Listen to the tones of her incoherent babblings to herself, up and down, screeching, moaning. See her crumble on the stairs or the kitchen floor in a frantic fit of tears. Her body convulses. This is a good path to follow, an easy plummet to the bottom.
A failed suicide attempt at the age of twelve with your mother and sister arguing in the other room will get you closer to death than you could imagine. You need to nurture a blind hatred of your life and everything in it, blot out the sun with the thick, warm pessimism that nothing will ever get better. Embrace your own darkness and depression. A morbid fascination is comforting.
You want to turn yourself completely over to your disease. Trust the distorted and deformed thoughts that seize your mind. Yes, you are worthless. Yes, no one gives a shit about you. Yes, you want to die. Let the black emotions that taint your veins consume you. Curl up with hatred and sadness. Make sure any flicker of hope is snuffed out.
Your mind is no longer your own. You look into the mirror and see a stranger behind the glass, laughing and tormenting you. Her voice lacerates your mind. You begin to hallucinate sober. See your own slashed arms held before your eyes. Watch the walls bleed.
People can ruin this plan. Support from others can weaken your conviction. You cannot want to be helped or saved. Start by developing a horrible relationship with your father who you loved so dearly in childhood. He is the man who coached your elementary school softball team, who watched your first horror movie with you, who even would play Barbies if no one was looking. But he will become unrecognizable to you—a stranger in the shell of your dad.
Perhaps begin by fighting with him about moving his girlfriend in. He lied about her for months. She has the biggest ass you have ever seen; she tries to be your mother but is scared of you, as she should be. Scrape and claw for your lost father and a glimmer of the relationship you once had until he is telling you at least once a week how worthless you are and how you are fucking up his life. He watches stone-faced as you cry and again try to convince him to care about you. You pick at the gray comforter on your bed and beg him to please, just once, tell you that he loves you. He looks at you and walks out. No emotion; he must never show emotion, just like his father. Only you bring out the hidden temper and a stinging backhand from him.
Maybe also get disowned by his family twice—for having a party at his house while he is out of town and for being a horrible daughter and person to him, their golden boy. Make sure your family devalues and ignores you and your problems.
You should also get close to friends who will abandon you. They will leave you for boyfriends, girlfriends, new people, anything to get away from you. They say that you are too fucked up and need to get over yourself. Become dependent on one person who will tell you she can’t deal with this when you finally ask for help. She cannot even say this to your face; she writes it down in her illegible handwriting during class. You can barely make out the words with the tears blinding you. You actually trusted her; you thought you could. She was the only person you had cried out to. You were fucking up her life too.
Take this as proof that you should never ask for help. Instead, surround yourself with people who do not care about or notice you—except for a few shining individuals who will stop you from taking a swan dive into the asphalt but will overlook a few destructive behaviors. Your disease goes unnoticed here. They joke about it with you. You are not too much for them to deal with; you are nothing to them.
You need to have sex with assholes. This is vital. Lay down for the kind of man your father has become. They don’t want you. They are drunk, and your more attractive friends are already taken. High school dropouts with bullshit jobs who only drink constantly or peddle their drugs: baggy clothes, disheveled hair beneath a hat, glazed over eyes, tattoos, calloused hands, the smell of hours of laying carpet or tossing beer cases. Taste the alcohol and cigarettes on their tongues and follow them into the room. You pretend to fall for their pathetic lines, a blur of syllables you only know to be false, but you are just using them too. Dragging you into the bathroom in the middle of a case of beer. Phone calls at 2 a.m. telling you to come over when they are already trashed. A motel room you barely remember. Let them ignore you afterwards; let them treat you like shit. Have sex that makes you hate yourself. You feel nothing anyways.
Live in dangerous distractions. Find the joy in destructive behaviors. Drinking will poison your liver and amplify your disease. Dark depression will become overwhelming as the balancing cycles of mania are repressed by the alcohol. Any rational thought is washed away, and your control dissolves. You are perpetually lost and disoriented in a rotating world of the same faces and anonymous parties. There is no reality.
You will also need a healthy addiction to smoking. About a half of a pack of menthol lights a day should blacken your lungs nicely and get the cancer going. You use smoking as a crutch – angry, smoke; sad, smoke; bored, smoke. Painkillers also nibble at your liver and bring a distortion to your mind. You convince multiple doctors to prescribe them to you until you are red-flagged for Vicoden, or you get them from people at parties. It is a quiet addiction where having a curved spine and uneven legs are a perfect explanation. You must even eat fatty and salty food in excess and refuse exercise. Five packets of salt on your fries. Tell people that you are trying to kill yourself slowly in as many ways as possible. Jokes dispel concern.
But most importantly, you have to discover self-mutilation as a way to cope with the controlling, overpowering pain inside you. You feel the tingling below your flesh, are saturated by the screaming thoughts in your mind, listen to your strange reflection’s persuasive words. Do it. Just once. It will make it all go away. It will make you feel better. Burns at first because you are too terrified by what you are doing to yourself. A curling iron, a lighter, cigarettes. Your trembling hand then the bite of the heat and goosebumps racing over your skin.
Then you embrace the behavior and move on to cutting. It is a beautiful transition, as if you had been a cutter all your life. Your hands quiver until you fall into that heavy trance. The world falls silent except for your thumping heart. The sharp knife twitches in your hand. An awkward, tentative cut then another—deeper, deeper, always in a line. Your body disappears; you feel nothing but the slice and the thick tranquility to follow, letting the blood escape in front of the other in the mirror. She always smiles.
You need to lie to disguise all of these distractions. Tell your parents you’re working or staying at a friend’s house when you are out drinking or having meaningless sex. The cigarettes and the smell are your friend’s, not yours. The burns are from the popcorn popper at work. You convince yourself that your lies are true in front of your parents. If they question you, you get so enraged that they simply believe you. You learn to lie fluently; it becomes easier than the truth.
Cradle all the consequences of your destructive behaviors close to you. You need to dwell on every one, turn it on yourself, blame yourself completely. Make decisions that you can torture yourself over for years. They are excuses to hate yourself, reasons to be fucked up. You go back to bed with the same men or always the same type of men. They don’t care about you, and you feel dead inside. It must be because you’re worthless; it must be because you’re not good enough for better. You miscarry a child before you know you are pregnant. You must have drank it to death; it must have rejected your body. You take the wrong drink from a guy and are too drunk to fight back when he pushes himself on you. You must have drank too much; you must have let him. It all has to be your fault. Perpetuate your self-loathing, and dive deeper into your disease.
Above all, you must resist help in any form. You need to distance the few who care about you. Shove them away. Isolate yourself, and wrap yourself up in your pain. Refuse therapy of any kind even when your mother forces you to go as a child and attempts to bribe you with $50 as an adolescent. Don’t trust the friends who swear they won’t leave, promise they aren’t scared off by your insanity, and tell you that you really do matter. You must never talk or cry out no matter how desperately the words of a thousand expressions press on your teeth and try to escape off your tongue. Restrain your tongue; bar your mouth. Let it all fester and grow silently like a cancer inside you, killing you slowly.
Part Two: How to Survive Surviving
Well that didn’t work. You’re still here. Still drawing a breath. Still shambling like a zombie through the day to day. Still “alive.”
You couldn’t quite press that razor through your wrist, couldn’t quite drink past your body’s preserving instincts, woke up spared from the cost your risks should have collected. All that was there to greet you was a suicide hangover and consequences. So many consequences.
All of your cowardly attempts failed—the tall and the small, the passive and the direct—just to leave you here, wearing the scars of self-mutilation like a roadmap to your abandoned quest. Yet another failure. Those ravenous emotions have left you a hollow shell; the denial of your destination has left you meaningless.
You never told anyone as you were sweetly courting Death, hoping to charm him into snatching you up and saving you from this life. Yet now, they all know. There is no more suffering in secret or keeping that devious little adventure to yourself. You can see it in their eyes when they look at you, look down at you with the condescension of “I told you so.” Your mother tilts her head and looks at you longer, searching for more warning signs she missed. Your father smirks when he asks you about therapy, pleased to have been proven so right. Your friend constantly brings up that stupid shit you did when you were so trashed, forcing you to remember even when alcohol was kind enough to let you forget. What an embarrassing mess you were; don’t you forget it. It’s so glaring back in a social life, so exposed out in their light.
Nothing about this is easier.
They said suicide was the easy way out; who knew they were so right? You thought if you endured and clawed over to the other side of survival, it would surely all be downhill from there. It never crossed your mind that if you did in fact persevere, you would be neck deep in the wake of your termination inadequacy, still hearing the echo of your moaned laments.
Welcome to a whole new hell.
You tell everyone you’re so happy to be better. Those words just roll around sour in your mouth, threatening to choke you behind a thin smile. There was such a seductive freedom in having no responsibility, liberation in having nothing to lose. Victimhood, in all its glory. No expectations were hanging above you out of reach; no risk was there to slip around your neck and hold you back. In the darkness alone, you felt like yourself, your truest self. Suffering made you authentic; it made you something. It was the only way you’ve truly been special. Pain was honest while recovery just feels like a lie.
And what’s worse, you want to go back. You were given the gift of second chance, and you desperately want to return it. You want to run screaming back to your cell. You catch yourself fantasizing about curling up in your darkness. It felt so eloquent to be dying, so poetic to be tortured. It felt safe at the bottom with only a gentle trajectory to the end ahead of you. You knew where you were going, and the journey to get there was irrelevant. There are no repercussions if you skip out on Death’s arm.
Like the addict feeling the sweet, tempting caress of your vice, you feel yourself nuzzling the memories of waking up drunk and bleeding. Who is that beside you? You don’t care because he made you forget who you are. Hearing yourself cry for help takes on a nostalgic tone. That bitch in the mirror was laughing at you for good reason. She knew better. Didn’t you know yourself best there, at the bottom, through her eyes? Raw and honest and weak. It would just be so easy to cut once more. You could bleed just a little, just to ease the pressure. You could just dip a toe back into that dark pool. That would feel better.
It’s too much of a contradiction. How could learning yourself prove so difficult? You’ve been trapped in this skull with her your entire life. You thought you knew the broken self so intimately. How can she be such stranger, conducting covert operations throughout your emotions and sabotaging you in plain sight? All the alcohol in your underage years didn’t drown her; all the smoke you sucked down didn’t choke her. No seedy stranger took your irresponsible invitations to snuff you both out for stupidity alone. She persists like an infectious disease.
In the end, you can’t escape yourself—any of them.
After what it took to dig out of that hole, when the fuck does it get easy? You sacrificed your escape and your self-important pain; where’s your reward, your pat on the back? Instead, you are greeted with condescending comfort and empty offers for help. As if they could crawl into your cage and save you now.
How are you supposed to forsake that version of you that still feels so true? How are you supposed to drink without wanting to drown? How are you supposed to fuck without hating yourself? You have flirted with the other side, let it swipe an icy finger across your heart; how could you ever just live like one of them now?
There has to be a death. All of the fixating and striving must be sated. You must ultimately make a sacrifice to those gods of destruction you have been worshipping for so long.
The old you. You slaughter that self, offer her up, leave her behind in memory. You feel the void at first, an aching hole in your very center that begs you to crawl back down and fill it. You are dragged across the broken glass of mourning as you let her go and all infectiously awful devices she used. Like any other death. Then you make the choice to move on.
In short, you are forced to wake the hell up.
Giving up on being a wobbling sack of victim, you prop yourself up on atrophied legs and stagger away from your suicidal life. One sloppy and pathetic step at a time. You made the choice not to consummate that fate, or in the least, you made the choice not to try and die again—slowly or otherwise. Now, do something.
Choice is a new concept. You curl your fingers lazily around the idea of a shiny new circumstance, yet unfortunately, you find no one else is going to conjure it for you. You are left there in the wake of survival, twiddling your thumbs and waiting for your spirit guide until the silence and solitude teach you that you actually have to pay for what you want. And everything in life has its price.
You reluctantly accept this idea that you are responsible for your life. Not your parents who didn’t bother to notice your pain, not the friends who didn’t want to deal with you when you were so depressing, not the strangers who mocked you with easier and better lives. Only you. Ultimately, you’re still alone. Time to redirect the depth of all the energy you used to dig your grave.
Other people do still exist though. You should know by now; you can’t survive without them. It was so easy to forget them buried in your own mind with your own torture blotting out the sun. While you were busy dying, they were busy trying to live around you. Your best friend gave up on you and fled into her relationship with her boyfriend. Friends turn into acquaintances or cast members in your flashback sequences. Your mother spills her guilt about the traumas she didn’t know you were suffering all over dinner, year after year. Your scars gave her scars. The flames you set to yourself spread, burned all of your bridges, singed anyone close to you. You were just too busy choking on your own smoke to notice. They were running around trying to douse the collateral damage, and you just saw them running away.
It is so arduous to just open your damn eyes. It feels so safe with your eyelids squeezed shut and reality hidden in the dark on the other side. You don’t get to survive as the victim. You don’t get to be at the mercy of your life anymore. You have to actually stand up and face how crazy you were thinking in that place and how crazy it is to want to go running back there.
Making decisions, taking responsibility, being in control is hard. You poured alcoholic accelerant on your own bipolar fire and plunged headlong into the crash; you put yourself vulnerable in a house where you could watch the crack heads climb the walls; you blamed your pain and used it as an excuse to not leave and start a new life. You enticed all the consequences with each cowardly choice. Of course, you want to cower down and scamper back into Self-Destruction’s welcoming arms. Her love is rough, but at least she doesn’t make you do anything but suffer. Break out of that Stockholm Syndrome and see her for the paralyzing bitch she always has been.
The tipping point in your recovery ambushes you from between huge paintings of male erotic art. An unexpected sanctuary for the key to your brain. Resistance is the root of all suffering. So simple, printed in the pages of the book penned by your gay boy’s eccentric sugar daddy. When he hands you the self-published book between drags on a cigarette, a nude and erect statue behind him, you never fathomed it would change your life. Yet the idea splits your consciousness at the seams. No amount of crying will heal the fracture in your diseased brain. No amount of regret will erase that hazy night you don’t remember saying yes. No amount of wishing will make any of them love you. Life is what it is, and all the shaking laments you can muster will not influence it one iota.
After this one catastrophic realization, its children start assaulting you in an avalanche. Acceptance is a slippery slope and skids you right into other secrets that have been laughing in your face all along. It’s all in your head. And your head is one manipulative bitch. You learn the words perception and perspective; then you learn the word distortion. Then you put them all together and start filtering every raging emotion of yours through the concept.
Of course it all really happened, but reality stops at the perimeter of your cell membranes. One interaction with your nerves and it’s all a wash of perception thereafter. Suddenly, the depth of choice makes sense. You see that every single thing you do is a choice. The stimuli hits you; then it becomes how to react to it, how to process your emotions and responses to it, what actions to take to change or influence it—all choices. You find your fraction of control in the uncontrollable.
You seize that power and stop blindly allowing your circumstances and blurry emotions to lead you. Instead, you start deciding how to react to the information coming in and the feelings awakened in response. Responsibility attaches.
You’re crazy. The sweet marriage of tainted genes and traumatic life highlights have damned you. Railing against the gods at the injustice only solicited crushing silence. Defying the cruelty of it by trying to escape into suicide left you in a puddle of failure. None of it made you magically sane; none of it made some creator decide to reconsider. Deciding to deal with it, on the other hand, embracing its reality and finality and learning to dance with it could just allow you to live through it.
Just this idea of ownership has the breath of panic tickling your lungs; you feel the manacles clipping around your wrists and ankles already. Your heart palpitates against the idea of sacrificing a free ride under the exemption title of victim. Yet, at the same time, could you be free? No more being tormented by outside forces, no more being trapped, no more being at the mercy of something or someone else. Your life can be yours, and you can change it.
Another secret: it all changes. Nothing in this life is permanent. Absolutely nothing. As quickly as your reflection shifted into a stranger and laughed in your face as you cried, you find yourself working as a contractor in Iraq, getting a glimpse of what real pain could look like and learning to appreciate the life you wanted to forfeit. You get slammed in the brain stem by the realization of how much you would have missed had your direct methods succeeded at 12 or your indirect methods from 17 into your 20s, how much your life has consistently and quietly remade itself.
That death you were so anxious chasing is the only permanence. Everything short of that is negotiable, variable, evolving. You could have opened up your jugular one day to miss finding utter perfection in a moment watching your daughter and her father marching and banging cymbals in the basement. You could have lived every day optimistic and hopeful to continually and relentlessly be shoved to the dirt by the Fates, like your mother. There is no telling.
That is the catch. You have to pay to play. Let that curiosity motivate you. Let the guarantee of some kind of change and realm of possibility keep you gambling on life. You never saw the fuck buddy who confirmed your lack of self-worth and left you in tears advancing into a violent love. You never predicted a lost pregnancy paving the way for a child you hadn’t dared fathom. You never conceived of finding yourself in such moments of happiness that those demons inside you could feel dead and decaying.
Bite the bullet. Belly up your pound of flesh. Maybe you finally try therapy—yet again. Only this time you don’t ramble on from the couch to validate your pain. It’s not about confirming your defect or excusing your sympathy. You actually let her words break upon your brain, apply to your life. Disease is not damnation. Symptoms can be wrangled and ridden, even without the numbing and neutering of medication. Maybe the work is worth it; maybe change is possible.
Expectations will be your downfall. Every time. Standards and daydreams of what your life is supposed to be; masochistic little ideas that only serve to mock you down in reality; delusions spawned from an inundation of media where it all gets tied up in a neat little package, birthed from the lies they have told you to comfort you. Your mind resists this silly notion that things do not always work out, that you aren’t somehow guaranteed what you desire. The good does not always win; the hero does not always live; the wicked are not always punished. Life is a cold and unfair bitch, doling out randomness that leaves you wanting for that to which you feel you are entitled.
You expected your father, your family to love you unconditionally, to forgive and cradle all your weakness. You could not deal when their human limitations and emotional reactions corrupted your relationships from the ideal. You were going to be published and successful by now. Romance was going to easily sweep you off your feet and procreate a happy little family for you. Expectations, goals without striving.
Wash those ideas out of the scar tissue of your mind. You learn to stop and identify all this as mental idealizing and migrate it instead to physical actions. It feels foreign to reach inside your own head, pluck out an idea or feeling, hold it out in front of you and inspect it. You turn it over and over in your hands, letting your eyes discover the origin, the depth, the color. You divorce yourself from those gooey emotional strings struggling to keep it inside and actually see it for what it is. Then you plop it back in and make the choice of how to respond, learning to follow the flow of life and abandon those silly archetypes and ideas.
They will call you a pessimist, but pessimism is a survival technique. Liberated from expectations, disappointment cannot find you so easily; things can only turn out better than you thought. It does not mean you have discarded dreams, goals, or pursuit. It only means that you embrace the reality that none of it may happen, and that that reality is survivable.
Amidst the shards of your dark mind, squinting against this strange alternative understanding, you sit reeling. You don’t know how to think as this person. You don’t know how to be ok. All you know is to do something. Time to start making sacrifices. Yes, you have to sit with your pain, be uncomfortable in rigid sobriety against it. Yes, you have to embrace the consequences for your victimhood and everything surrounding it. Yes, you have to risk; tie your heart on a string and dangle it above the lions in hopes of luring something worthwhile. Consider your bet on the table.
Most importantly, you start to appreciate your pain. You feel yourself begin to wear your survival like a badge of fucking honor. You made it. Crippled and limping as you may be now, you earned that. You have been educated by torment. Lessons in the cold dank of the bottom. Your mind has been cracked wide open to see a whole dark and shifting side of life, another depth and degree of yourself. You were bestowed with a rare perspective, and now you allow it to guide you through the black and out into appreciation.
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