Surviving Suicidality
by Elizabeth Young, Psychology Today
September 27, 2017

Today is my birthday.

Thinking back over my life, I remember that twenty years ago, on September 27, 1997, I was settling into a small seaside cottage in Long Beach, California. The tiny bungalow, one of a group of six located four blocks from the shore, had been built for young movie actresses—starlets—breaking into the new industry in the 1930s. I hoped to absorb some starlet energy from my new home, having been through three very difficult years.

My father had died in 1994. One of my first responses to his death was a whirlwind courtship with a man who, like my father, was an academic, and was 24 years my senior. He also had been married four times, had shot and killed a local police officer, and owed thousands of dollars in child support. It would take a lot of blog posts to explain why I married him, but one of the reasons was a ridiculously misguided effort to regain my father (who was, I hasten to add, married once, didn’t own a gun, had no debts, and was a responsible and loving husband and father). I believed my husband’s circumstantial explanations for his lurid history, and persuaded myself that I wanted to help him re-establish his life. A common myth, but one I had not read.

The marriage blew up immediately. I gave it time, in an effort to stave off the disillusionment and failure from a super-big mistake. I stayed so we could have his three youngest daughters live with us that first summer—to save on child support. He thwarted my efforts to protect the girls from alcohol and STDs by telling me that he was their parent, and I wasn’t, and that he thought it was fine for them to spend each day at the beach unsupervised. When the youngest threw up in the back seat of his car the first weekend they were with us, he expressed disgust but no concern. When we were camping and a park ranger came to our site at midnight to report that the girls had been found drinking and smoking pot with a group of boys in the woods, he angrily silenced me and charmed the ranger with his “kids will be kids” speech. After the ranger left, and the girls were asleep, he ranted: “Don’t you know that I can’t get in any trouble with authorities? I could lose my parole! I’ll handle it!”

The need to keep secrets — his felony record for manslaughter, his bankruptcy, his 4 previous marriages, his 6 children, his back child-support, his dangerous "parenting", his abnormally vast sexual history — made me very anxious. I managed the bills. I tracked the girls. I used my savings to pay the child support debt. I had a test for HIV. And I gradually felt trapped.

And I was: trapped in a life with a Teflon-coated man so damaged that he couldn’t care for anyone except himself. Nothing touched him. When he told me that he wouldn’t go to my family’s Christmas celebration “because I feel unsafe there, they don’t like me,” I swallowed hard and agreed that we’d stay home. But Christmas Eve, when he kept his back to me and focused on his computer after I invited him to go see the Christmas lights at the shore, I was lost: invisible to my husband, isolated from my family, unrecognizable to myself.

I allowed myself to contemplate suicide. Surely he would react to that! I went into the kitchen and got a knife. I neatly cut myself, a half-inch slice, and stood bleeding in the living room while he continued at the computer. Still no response from him. I called my sister. Calm and loving, she was very specific, very clear: “You have to go to the Emergency Room now. Right now. I love you.”

My husband almost refused to take me but—I could see his brain working — judged that it would be too big a risk for his parole officer if he let his bleeding wife make her own way to the ER, and so he took me. “Why are you doing this to me?” he said in the waiting room. I shook my head, too alone to even attempt to explain. And so he left me there, driving home as soon as I was taken into the triage area.

I ended up spending a week in the psychiatric hospital exactly one month after our wedding. I was admitted two more times for severe depression and anxiety before I concluded that I really did need to end that marriage.

Thanks to the ministrations of my family, friends, and a steadying, humorous psychiatrist, I slowly worked my way out of the chasm of grief and depression. And so there I was, on my birthday 20 years ago, standing in the middle of my starlet cottage. I thought about my father and my husband, and my reactions to losing each of them. Both losses had devastated me: I had seriously contemplated ending my life multiple times in that phase of my life. But I also had experienced so much loving care from people I barely knew, as well as from my dearest ones. I had learned so much about myself, my personality and self-image, tendencies and needs. I had weathered a very threatening transition, which I would later see in Ericksonian terms as the challenge of young adulthood, by wrangling with the conflict between intimacy and isolation. I ultimately had come through safe: deeply connected to intimates and aware of the complexities of relationship.

Standing in the living room, I looked at my hands, fingers spread. They were unadorned: bare, my fingernails unpainted. Our hands symbolize so much: our capacity to touch and hold and do things, and also our ability to map the way forward. They are the part of ourselves that we see the most, our most concrete contact with the world. “I survived,” I said aloud. “I’m 35. I’m alive at 35.”

Looking again at my hands, the skin still young but the veins and a few scars showing, I felt the rush that accompanies a zap of spiritual wisdom. “I’ll get a ring,” I told my hands. “A symbol to mark this day, commemorate the importance that I’m alive at 35. I’ll wear it to remind myself of what I have come through, of how strong I am, of what it means to live.”

I’m wearing that ring now, twenty years later. I slip it on whenever life feels tough: when I’m lonely or frightened or realize I’ve made a mistake. Seeing it shine on my finger, I remember those sad, scary years in my early 30s, and other bad times I have waded through. The ring also reminds me of the life I have had in the past twenty years: a gift I wouldn’t have had if I had completed suicide, all the adventures, the growth, the connections, the happiness.

But mostly the ring reminds me how my circumstances changed, how hope gradually returned. Things do change. Hope does return. I’m so grateful to be alive at 55.