I Have Called A Suicide Hotline.
WARNING: I discuss my own personal experience with suicide in GREAT DETAIL in this blog post. PLEASE DO NOT READ THIS if it might be triggering. Instead, watch the trailer for QUEER EYE SEASON 2. I watched it 11 times yesterday.
There’s a lot of good advice going on in the wake of two celebrity suicides, advice other than sharing suicide hotline numbers or telling people to reach out…which are two of my Go-To moves. And while a lot of that advise was given out in the, “I was too depressed to make a phone call…” frame of reference (and holy SHIT, I get that, I can not tell you how the angels sang they day you could TEXT a suicide hotline) most of the advice depended on clued-in family and friends. And while my clued-in family and friends have saved me time and time again, there have been points where I had no clued-in family and ABSOLUTELY NO friends…and those phone numbers saved me. So I want to tell my story to encourage you to keep sharing them.
Let’s be honest…we need to take a multi-faceted approach to normalizing mental health care, practicing radical empathy, and connecting with people. We need to take care of each other. See the signs. If you are worried that someone has been withdrawn? Reach out. You don’t have to reach out and say, “Are you going to kill yourself? I’m worried.” But you can reach out and try to get the person face-to-face where they can talk to someone who cares. Maybe ask them to coffee or to go for a walk. Tell them you are worried about them and you just want to make sure they’re okay. Give someone your therapist’s number. Ask if they’d like you to call for them. Tell them you are great with online research and would love the job of find a list of locals who would be a good fit. Ask them if they’ve told their GP about how they’re feeling? Tell them your own story of survival. All of these things are great actions and often more effective in personal relationships than offering a suicide hotline number.
But that doesn’t mean hotlines are useless. Sometimes they are the only voice in the darkness to guide you.
The most extreme time a hotline saved me was when I was 18. I was far away from home at college with no real friends close by and my casual friends were all messes and they were dragging me down with them. No one who really loved me knew that I was suffering and would have never “checked in” because there was no easy way to keep in touch back before email and texting. When I kept seeing people yesterday talk about how sharing suicide hotline numbers pales in comparison to reaching out and helping people in need, I kept thinking back to 18-year old Kim who no one knew was suffering so they didn’t know to reach out. I called the hotline from my dorm room and I 100% believe that woman on the other end of the line saved my life. So, yeah, sometimes you’re too depressed to call and sometimes you have friends and family who will notice you’ve withdrawn and so that hotline number is useless, or at least not the most effective way to help someone.
But other times people have fallen so deep and they’re so scared and they want to die but they also are terrified of the feeling of wanting to die and sad and just want to hear the voice of someone who is interested in their pain in that moment. And that’s what 18-year old me got that day, and 18-year old me was in a very dark place and had a plan and was ready to execute that plan and that woman at that phone number literally talked me off the ledge.
But let me back up and tell you about how a hotline got me through my dark middle school years.
I was in 6th grade when I first saw the suicide hotline number in an issue of Seventeen magazine. I remember committing it to memory (It might have even been 1-800-273TALK, I know it was sorta easy, but it did require some thought) because I had been thinking about suicide often. AND NO ONE KNEW. There was no part of any way I acted that would have clued ANYONE in. Nothing. I got good grades, I was fun and had friends and talked a lot about a lot of things. I wasn’t quiet or reclusive or antisocial. I wasn’t weird or goth or obsessed with death. I was just really anxious about everything and my worries created a desperate sadness and I often felt like it was too much. I thought about it daily…suicide. So finding a phone number where I could talk to someone about it? Maybe? Was life-changing.
I remember starting to notice pay phones in places. I would have never called the hotline from my house, so I started looking at usable pay phones. The daycare I went to in the summer took us to places like Showbiz Pizza and Dollywood and Water Parks and because this was the era before cell phones, pay phones were EVERYWHERE. I actually called a LOT of times before talking to the person on the other end of the line. Once I called from ShowBiz pizza just to see what would happen and someone answered and I hung up. Then I started calling basically from every pay phone I could find, but most of the time I got freaked out by the people walking around me and could not talk. Once I sat and listened while the person on the other end of the line told me that people loved me and would be sad if I gave up. (That was the token talking point about suicide back in the 80s, how painful it would be to the people left behind.) I remember it actually really helped to be reminded of that, but I still couldn’t brave talking to them.
Middle school sucked. The daycare I went to during the summer and after school was full of strangers and I only had one friend and her family traveled a lot so when I was alone I was miserable and the rest of the kids loved to pick on me for my acne and my frizzy hair and the fact that I always had my nose in a book and the fact that I went to a church school…and…well, typical middle school in the 80s type of crap. School was usually a reprieve but in 7th grade it got significantly harder and my Dad took grades REALLY seriously and I had my first of many hidden panic attacks. No one would have ever known but I can still feel them very vividly and feeling like I was going crazy and I was stuck in what I now know were anxiety spirals and it was just a year full of fear of failure, fear of my Dad, fear of puberty and fear of a future that would never be balanced with more joy than fear. I had plenty of joyful moments and good times with friends, but nothing to counterbalance the severe anxiety I was suffering under the weight of my first research papers and talks about transcripts and the importance of them in college and…suddenly I felt like my future weighed on my every test.
And it was too much.
Honestly? I did not know how people killed themselves without guns. My Dad kept his guns inaccessible and I think about that every day and how that 100% saved my life. If my Dad had taken them out and regularly showed me how to use them and where he kept them in an emergency? I believe I would not have survived middle school. I say this with 100% honesty. Some of my darkest moments were so dark that if I had a quick and easy option to end it all, I fear I would have.
But I didn’t know about much else and there was no internet.
I remember one time hearing about a girl who took a bunch of pills so on one particular bad day I took like 10 headache pills with caffeine in them. I took them at school and felt this lightness of euphoria like, “Oh, thank you, it will finally be over now.” And of course nothing happened but feeling SUPER STUPID WIRED and then SUPER STUPID NAUSEOUS and then that wave of anxiety passed and I remember being torn about surviving. I was a little disappointed, but I remember also laughing a lot at school that day and kinda being glad it didn’t work.
On one particular bad day, when I had finally survived one research paper only to be assigned another one, I decided I could not handle the stress anymore. I had just heard of someone dying from internal bleeding so I cut up pieces of a few safety pins and balled it up in a piece of bread and swallowed it. I was counting on the pieces of the safety pin cutting up my internal organs and I would die that way. That time I remember being particularly frustrated that nothing happened. I was feeling very overwhelmed.
I started thinking about the BIG things like jumping off of buildings but I didn’t have good access to any tall buildings on foot. I remember looking up in a book at the book library about tying nots so I could learn how to tie a noose but then I just started thinking about how painful of a way to die that would be, and I was very scared of pain.
And then, one day, on a weekend with my mom, we went to this place to hang out with her friends and they had a payphone in the hall by the bathrooms. Totally out of the line of sight of anyone else and this time I called the number and it was a MAN on the other line, all of the other times it had been women. I immediately felt like I was going to start crying, probably because my anxiety was so rooted in disappointing my Dad, and I was suddenly weirdly connected to this man’s voice. I told him that school was so hard and that I was so scared I was going to fail and that my Dad would yell at me and that I just wanted to die. I never used the word “suicide” in talking to him, but I probably said variations of “I wish I was dead” at least 15 times. He was calming and assessed my seriousness by asking me if I had ever tried to kill myself. He talked about how my Dad loved me and that is why he was worried about my grades but his love would not change with a bad grade. (I wasn’t so sure of that.) He reminded me the yelling would pass and asked me to talk about all the good things I had going on. He wanted to hear about the last time I laughed. I told him about a new joke my friends and I had made where we said “BFF” should be “BFFF” because if you’re real friends you can fart around each other so it should be “Best Farting Friends Forever” and I have NO IDEA why I told him about that but it did remind me how hard we had laughed over that and how sad I’d be to not laugh that hard again.
I stopped trying to think of ways to die that day. I often reflect on that man and how he broke my cycle of suicidal ideations. I still had severe anxiety (I know that now, did not then) and I definitely could have used some medication or therapy if society had openly discussed those type of things, but I wasn’t constantly trying to figure out how to kill myself under the burden of it all. If I had not talked to him, I’m certain I would have tried something more serious. I had already considered things like jumping in front of cars, so my brain was moving on to less faulty methods.
I just want us all to be aware of the many ways you can save someone’s life. You can make them an appointment with your therapist. You can take them to lunch and remind them you are there for them. You can reach out if they’ve become withdrawn. You can check in if you haven’t heard from them. But you can also share out suicide hotline numbers because many people do not exhibit signs of mental illness and many people do not have friends or family close enough to reach out and many people have never discussed their anxiety or depression and so no one knows to keep an eye out and many people just do not have close family and friends. And those people? Those people need hotlines. I know I did.