How Therapy Changed My Relationship with Suicidal Ideation

How Therapy Changed My Relationship with Suicidal Ideation

trigger warning:

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Suicidal ideation (SI) refers to a broad spectrum of thoughts about death, from the hypothetical to planning your own. I am sure most people have experienced some form of SI in their lives but may not relate to my lifelong impulse to die. A busy day is full of this constant tugging, which seeks to isolate me and plunge me into graphic daydreams of leaving this world. Alone in my bed, the nagging thoughts become so unbearable that suicide becomes the only way to escape them. It was not a matter of whether I would kill myself, but when. I reached my twentieth birthday, and my breaking point—I mourned the years that I had suffered and failed to end my life.

I decided to tell others about my experience. When I admitted wanting to die to my friends, I met with feelings of concern, disturbance, and fear. To my surprise, even people who had struggled with mental health issues cringed when I spoke about how I considered my suicidal ideation, at times, comforting and familiar. The idea that suicide/self-harm can be normalised is frightening. The widespread fear of loss and the glorification of self-harm to young people stimulate caution regarding suicide in our culture. This makes it more challenging to seek treatment, especially if you believe these feelings would be a burden to others.

I had tried therapy before, without much success. Ironically, I had a long history of feeling unheard. I walked into my university’s counselling centre with little hope and a long waiting line. Apparently, anything suicide-adjacent leads to the front of the queue! I laughed about this news with my counsellor, an easy-going man working towards his PhD. He was young, but had experienced heavy trauma, both in his personal life and his practice in Chicago’s inner city. He didn’t flinch when I shared the gory details of my SI. He never seemed uncomfortable. I felt safe. I realised that I did have a problem, but there were tools and people that could help me overcome it. 

The school year ended. My counsellor graduated and moved across the country. I stopped going to therapy for six months and quickly fell back into bad habits. I found a new therapist. I took back control.

My second breakthrough happened in our second session when she asked why I believed that I had to kill myself. I had never questioned whether suicide was inevitable or why. Obviously, it blew my mind. Every following session revolved around working on healing the damage that my mental illness had caused me emotionally. The question was no longer whether I would live, but how I wanted to live.

Therapy helped to develop my mental health vocabulary: I learned to articulate my feelings in ways that myself and others could understand. I learned how to distinguish real thoughts from fake thoughts: byproducts of my mental illness that feed my symptoms further, and what triggered them. I learned to tell those thoughts to fuck off. I learned to ask for help when I didn’t feel I deserved it.

Typing it out, it sounds so easy. It took time and continual, consistent choices to maintain liveable levels of symptoms. I cannot change the fact that I have a mental illness or how I feel, but I choose to not harm myself and ask for help. It hasn’t been all bad; I have had so much luck and privilege. I have a support system of friends, family, and a devoted life partner, medications that alleviate the cause of my illness, and the financial means to pursue treatment. Each of these things have proved necessary for my recovery, and therapy (happily) remains a key feature in maintaining my mental health.