Warning: This story discusses suicide attempts and ideation. Please take care when reading.
In February, I was struck by the realization that it had been 10 years since my suicide attempt.
I usually feel low around the time of that anniversary. But this year, the date came and went and I didn’t even notice until the significance hit me days later. I wouldn’t say that I was finally over it because something changes within you once you try to end your life. But I no longer felt the grief that moved me to my decision. I felt free of the guilt that I had put myself, my friends and my family through something so traumatic.
So I decided to write about it. And here it is. This is a love letter to all of us who have hit rock bottom, whether once or repeatedly. We’re going to be okay.
It’s surprising, isn’t it? When we hear about suicide, it is usually after someone ends their life. But for every person who has died by suicide, there are about nine who have attempted and survived.
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We find our way. My hope for all of us who have attempted is that one day, five or 10 years down the road, you won’t even remember why you felt that low. You’ll randomly think, “Has it been that long?” while in bed with your cat or dog or best friend or the love of your life that you would never have met if you weren’t here.
I wish I’d known that all those years ago.
Talking about suicide, whether it’s an attempt or ideation, is taboo. It makes people uncomfortable. I bet you’re a little uncomfortable even reading about it right now. But a lot of people still want to talk about it. Gen Z, for instance, has come up with terms like “unalive” to get around content moderators on TikTok. So here goes.
My first brush with suicidal ideation came at 12 or 13 years old. I wrote a note telling my family what to do with my Barbies and my dresses after I ended my life. I didn’t really plan how I would do it. I just had the overwhelming feeling that everyone would be better off without me.
Those feelings were something I would continue to struggle with in my late teens. By 18, when I was in my second semester at university, I tried to end my life. It had only been a few months since the death of my beloved grandmother and a little over a year since my disastrous attempt at coming out to my family. When I told them I thought I might be bisexual, I was met with anger and scorn. The sting of that propelled me further into a dark depression.
The stresses of school were piling up. I was missing more classes than I was attending and failing the rest. I could only eat and sleep if I smoked a copious amount of weed. When I finally sought help, I encountered racism and homophobia. If the adults in my life couldn’t help me, then who would? By February 2013, I felt that everything was too much, and I could think of only one way to fix it.
One of the overwhelming feelings you get with suicidal ideation is that you’re completely alone in the experience. This is often not true. According to Statistics Canada, three percent of the population has attempted suicide in their lifetime and 12 percent have thought about it.
Although I felt isolated in my experience, I’m now aware that many people were going through the same thing. I wanted to know how some of our stories intersected, so I interviewed two others. Our stories played out in different parts of Canada, running a similar course without our knowledge. All of us are still here.
When I spoke to Sarah Liu,* 29, I was surprised by how much I could relate to her story. Like me, Liu started feeling depressed while she was trying to navigate her sexuality.
She, too, was 18 when she first attempted suicide. In her second year of university she hit rock bottom multiple times. “I felt a little bit hopeless because of the cycle I was stuck in,” she says. “It was hard to see a way out.”
After her attempt in 2012, Liu received a diagnosis of major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She says her friends and family knew she was struggling. Some even came to visit when she was in the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto.
Being able to laugh and cry with friends made a real difference for Liu during the more difficult times. She’s especially thankful to one friend who helped her deal with emails, mostly school-related, that she had been avoiding for months. “They visited me in my home and read some emails out to me when I was too afraid to look at them.” Liu also relied on her sister, describing her as a key part of her emotional support.
Friendship was also a huge part of how I got help. My friends sprang into action on the night of my attempt. They literally picked me up off the ground, made my dorm room safe and tucked me into bed. One of them cleared the room of all the medications and alcohol. When I finally tried to check myself into CAMH, another stayed with me for hours in the waiting room.
Nowadays, most of us aren’t as close as we once were. But their kindness has always stayed with me. They showed up for me when I needed them the most. Even though it has been years, I know they wouldn’t turn me away now if I reached out.
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In her lowest period, Sugandhi del Canto, 44, also relied on the help of her community. “My friends had been a constant source of support. They’re probably a large reason why I have made it this far.”
I could see a lot of similarities between del Canto’s story and mine. Like me, del Canto was diagnosed with bipolar II. Formerly known as manic depression, bipolar II is characterized by high highs and low lows. These mood swings can happen often or infrequently. For me, the mood swings were ever-present before my treatment. Thankfully, they are much less common nowadays. My depression sometimes still looms, but it is nowhere as bad as it once was.
Also like me, del Canto started feeling depressed in her early teens. She was 13 at the time of her first attempt. It landed her in the hospital.
“It was this idea that everyone would be better off without me; that I made everyone’s life harder,” she explains. “I [thought I] was almost doing people a favour.”
Another unfortunate similarity? The treatment she received when seeking care. “The hospital staff were kind of assholes. Because they were like, ‘We’ll see you again for the next attempt.’”
That happened five years later when she was 18. “That’s when they start taking it seriously.” Del Canto was finally assigned a social worker, Ray, who was amazing. “He was the first person who sort of validated my feelings,” she says.
She was also prescribed medication by her first psychiatrist but quit taking it abruptly because it made her feel like a robot. This led her to her third attempt, during her second year of university. “I was like, ‘This is bullshit. I don’t want to do this anymore,’” she recalls. “If this is how I’m going to feel for the rest of my life…I want out.”
The feeling of wanting out was something that led me to my attempt as well. A lot of the time, I didn’t even want to be dead. I just wanted everything to stop being so overwhelming. I wanted to feel hungry without needing to smoke weed. I wanted to get a good night’s sleep for once. I would regularly go days without any rest. It would be years before I knew this was mania.
I wanted to feel as if I had a purpose. I wanted — well, needed — a reason to continue living.
Everyone who has attempted suicide has different reasons for why they stayed. When I first felt suicidal at 13, I thought of a younger girl at school who really looked up to me. She was like the little sister I always wanted. I wondered what her mom, with whom I was also very close, would have to say to her if I were gone. I decided I would stick it out so she wouldn’t have to go through that.
Over the years, my list of reasons for staying grew longer. I wanted to experience my first love. I wanted to be a published writer and author. I wanted to see my brother grow up. A lot of my wanting to stay had to do with an inkling that the future would be a little better and brighter eventually. It had to be. I felt life owed me for putting me through the wringer at such a young age.
Liu’s reason for staying was curiosity about what could be. “I just wanted to see what I could do with my life.” She was about to take the law school admission test and wanted to see what her score would be. So she stayed alive for a couple more months. “Then I was like, ‘Okay, we did that, maybe we can do something else.’ And so it was just a little nudge I needed to get into this next phase of exploring what I wanted to do.”
For del Canto, it was raw grit. “It was just me trying to, year by year, stay alive,” she says. “Partly because I was also like, ‘Fuck you, world. I’m gonna stay alive just out of spite.’”
My list of reasons contained elements of both del Canto’s and Liu’s. Like Liu, I wanted to see who I could become if I gave myself a chance. Like del Canto, I pressed on out of sheer vindictiveness against a society that tried to push me out.
If you had asked me 10 years ago where I saw my future self, my answer would be “dead.” And yet, here I am, allowing myself to age. In a year or so, I will be turning 30. It was hard to imagine for many years, but I finally reached a point where I can embrace aging.
Del Canto’s final attempt was at 31. Now in her 40s, she, too, is delighted that she is allowing herself to age.
“When I turned 40, I was like, ‘Holy shit, I’m still here.’ There was a time where I’d never thought I’d make it to 40,” she says. “Once you hit 40, birthdays become less and less of a big deal. Most of my friends are like, ‘Ah, it’s another year.’ But for me, I’m like, ‘Fuck yeah, it’s another year!’ So it’s this quiet celebration of feeling proud.”
Liu’s journey toward celebrating life went hand in hand with accepting her sexuality.
“It wasn’t until I really explored queerness…that I was happy every year that I lived another year,” she says. The joy of her first queer relationship assuaged some of the pain she had felt leading up to her attempts. “I’m very grateful that God didn’t let me die,” Liu says.
I’m not sure what kept me here, be it God, the universe or just sheer luck. I remember texting my friends as I lay on the floor, though I’m not sure what I told them. I remember thinking, “Why didn’t it work?” and being mad at myself for failing at yet another thing. I failed classes, I failed at wanting to live and I had failed at trying to die. There were days when I was angry that fate had intervened.
As time went by, I became grateful. I was able to be a safe grown-up for my younger cousins. I learned how to drive. I got my first, second, third article published. And then even more.
Liu, too, had a list of things she was grateful she accomplished in the years after her attempt. She danced for different audiences. She is proud that she made her mother happy and that her mother doesn’t have to worry about her. She even won a prestigious Canadian research grant. “I wrote a little dream in my passion planner that I wanted to get SSHRC [Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council funding]. I tried multiple times and finally got it.”
For del Canto, the gratitude is linked to her move to Saskatoon and spending time with new friends and relatives. “I love being an auntie because I get to hang out with kids,” she says. “I’m probably their same level of maturity. It’s super fun.”
South Asian by heritage, she feels lucky to be able to learn about the importance of the land from Indigenous friends.
“It was this new appreciation of the energy in the Earth, the air, the water — all of these things. And really understanding that those are our relatives,” she says. “They’re not just resources to extract. They’re not just this thing that we have to cohabitate with somehow, but they’re actually family. Understanding that also made a big difference.”
Maybe most thrilling of all, del Canto has a house with an office. “I never felt fully settled in a space until moving [to Saskatoon]. Now, we rent a house and it’s so much space. I have an office with a door. That is one of the greatest joys in my life, because I’ve never had that before. So my 13-year-old self, if she knew that this would be my life now…she’d be tripping. And she’d be like, ‘Well, maybe we have to hang on for 20 more years.’”
While Liu took up dancing and del Canto learned about the land, I had to decide what I would do with all this new-found time I had. I needed to create a plan for all the years I hadn’t intended to be here.
I became serious about taking care of my mental health. I got my first full-time job and used the benefits to see a therapist biweekly and to take medication. I moved out of my parents’ house and used that freedom to start dating seriously. Like Liu, being able to express my queerness brought me joy I never thought I’d experience. I became the adult that younger me so desperately needed.
If I could, I’d tell my younger self to wait it out. Just wait and see what will come next. My teens and early 20s were marred by depression and mania, but that changed. Now I know that I deserved to see myself and my circumstances get better. If I had ended it all at 13, 18 or 19, I wouldn’t be around to see things work out in my favour.
Liu’s advice to her younger self is to persevere. “It’s hard to be patient. But still keep going. Embrace what failure might be teaching at that point. I think it is so hard to tell people to keep going when they’re in a very dark place. But I think there’s something to be said about what human perseverance is.”
Del Canto finished her PhD in epidemiology, got sober from alcohol and found medication that actually worked for her.
“How you feel then is not how you’re going to feel forever,” she says. “And sometimes it’s hard to see that. But it won’t always be this way. Nothing lasts forever, right? The good or the bad.” The route to feeling better isn’t linear.
“If something is shitty right now, you don’t have to try and minimize your feelings or push it down,” del Canto says. “Feel it. Feel the feelings and use that as motivation to feel joy. And if none of that works, then do it out of spite for your enemies,” she jokes. “Whatever it takes.”
Sometimes, it might take wanting to meet an internet friend you’ve never seen in real life. Or something silly like just wanting to know how the Marvel Cinematic Universe will end, if it ever does. It doesn’t matter what your reason for persevering is. “Whatever it takes” means you have hope that your situation will change. If you’re reading this and wondering “What’s next?” I hope you give yourself time to receive the answer.
If you are struggling or know someone who is, here’s where to get help:
Talk Suicide Canada: Call 1-833-456- 4566, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, or text 45645 between 4 p.m. and midnight Eastern time. Starting Nov. 30, Canada will have a free nation-wide, bilingual calling and texting crisis hotline, 9-8-8, available 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
Kids Help Phone: Call 1-800-668-6868 for phone counselling, or chat with a crisis responder by texting CONNECT to 686868. Available for any issue, big or small, for people 18 and under. Indigenous responders available.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention website has a directory of support services by province.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has a wealth of information, including a guide on what to do if a family member is in distress.
Ashleigh-Rae Thomas is a writer and journalist in Toronto.
This story first appeared in Broadview’s October/November 2023 issue with the title “Reasons to stay.”
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