The Scariest Thing

One of my first memories is of a translucent woman in our basement. She stood eerily still, looking across the room at nothing in particular. Something in my preschool brain knew she shouldn’t be there. I fled up the stairs and never went back down there alone.

Cara Mujer by Cesar Tort, Wikimedia Commons

But that wasn’t the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me.

As a punk rock hooligan teenager, I had a number of deeply frightening experiences. At fourteen I was raped. At fifteen people I knew, around my age, started dying—from accidents or disease or really bad choices. There was a tangible sense in our scene that “you could be next.”

Twice I was the passenger of a driver with a death wish, flying through city streets. A twitch in the wrong direction would have killed us.

Twice I was the object of stalkers.

But none of those experiences come close to being as scary as planning my own death.

For as long as I can remember, a few times a year I’ve had the thought, “I could just kill myself.” It shows up as a solution to all-consuming emptiness or to being intolerably overwhelmed. But I could always ignore it, trusting I would feel better soon—maybe not tomorrow, but soon.

A few years ago, I had what I thought was a nervous breakdown. Really, it was a mixed bipolar episode. Since then, my bipolar has been pretty intense. I have the rapid cycling kind, getting whiplash going from disco party highs to wallowing lows and back again.

The lack of any kind of control or predictability is scary, and, scarier, the intrusive “I could just kill myself” thoughts increased from a couple times a year to several times a month. My therapist had me make a list of things to do when I thought about killing myself: tell somebody, distract myself, get out of the house, be around people, and if nothing else works, knock myself out with (prescription) barbiturates.

For a long time, these things worked. In fact, the process became normal to me. Think about killing myself–> tell my husband or my mom–> find a distraction, preferably outside of the house if the impulse is really tenacious. It became so normal that maybe I didn’t worry about it as much as I should have. And then one early morning, from the bottom of a deep, deep low . . . “I could just kill myself.”

“You can’t do that to your son, to your husband,” I “self-talked.” This was on script; thoughts about my family were always a strong tether. But then I had a new thought, “You wouldn’t want them to find your dead body in the house. It would ruin the house for them.”

Irrational? You betcha. But this is mental illness we’re talking about, and I love my house. It’s not big or fancy. It’s just exactly what I want it to be: a livable piece of 1950s Americana. The kitchen floor is red and white checked. The bathrooms have the original four inch tiles. In that moment, it became okay for me to die, as long as it wasn’t in the house.

I didn’t follow the plan. I didn’t let someone know or distract myself. I went through my day determining the logistics of my death. Where would I do it? How would I do it?

I looked up the drug interactions of everything in my medicine cabinet. And for me, as for a lot of us, that’s a whole bunch of drugs.

I thought about whether to do it in a hotel or outdoors. “A hotel,” I thought, “because I don’t want my family to think I’ve run out on them. I want them to be able to find me.” I decided on somewhere swank, because, you know, fuck the rich. Plus, a nice joint could afford the cleanup costs if it got messy. I didn’t want some struggling local franchise to have to deal with a hazardous waste bill on my account.

There was an awareness in the back of my mind, suffocating under a lead blanket, that I needed to stop thinking like this. But I couldn’t.

I couldn’t stop planning my own death.

It was energizing. After days of debilitating depression, I was up and moving around. I brushed my teeth and drove my car while debating the nuances: Should I take my phone with me to the hotel? Could I stomach enough hard alcohol and pills to knock myself out before throwing everything up? Figuring out the minutia of the plan gave me purpose, even if that purpose was my own end.

I spent the better part of the day like this—jazzed on my own demise. I had settled on a hotel but hadn’t bought the alcohol when, fortuitously, I was due at an appointment with my therapist. I went. To not go would have raised flags.

As I sat there mindlessly chatting the hour away, the muffled voice in the back of my mind began to work its way free. The careful words were out of my mouth before I knew it: “My suicidal ideations are becoming more concrete.”

Staying vague enough to not end up in the hospital, I told her a little of what I’d been doing that day, and the look on her face made it real. For the first time it dawned on me that I had been planning a murder.

Not everyone has the good luck I had. If I didn’t have a therapy appointment that day, I might not be here to tell this story. Since that episode, I take that thought—I could just kill myself—as a serious warning every time. I know I have to get on top of it before it takes over.

Having a mental illness is the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me.

I’m on a new combination of meds that seems to be helping, but I have no delusions about my future. There is no cure for bipolar. And even though I’ve only had a few fleeting thoughts about suicide over the last couple months, the list of what to do when I think “I could just kill myself” is right here next to my desk, just in case.


This post developed from a prompt asking “What’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you?” As always, my hope is to open the conversation and encourage people to talk about these hard topics with the people in their life. Suicide, I think, can be especially difficult to understand for people who’ve never felt the urge.

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