Do you know anyone who has attempted suicide? If you do, you’re not alone. What are these suicide attempters like? What problems did they face? Was there a final straw that pushed them over the edge?
Talking to young people who have attempted suicide is one good way to begin answering these questions. While they may be unsure of themselves and confused, they can help shed some light on why suicide has become an accepted “way out” for so many young people.
Kate was hospitalized the first time because her family therapist was sure that she was going to take her own life. The following interview was recorded toward the end of her second hospitalization. She was nineteen.
INTERVIEWER: Tell me about your hospitalizations.
KATE: I was in the hospital the first time from May 27 to October 5 of last year. After ten months at home, I came back again.
INTERVIEWER: What led to your coming into the hospital the first time?
KATE: My family and I were seeing a family therapist. The more I talked about the things that were bothering me, the more depressed I got. I decided that after I graduated from high school, I was going to kill myself. I was going to graduate because my parents wanted me to. Then I was going to kill myself. I had a lot of problems. I wasn’t getting along with my dad. I wanted his approval and wasn’t getting it. And I broke up with my boyfriend. I couldn’t handle that at all. I was totally lost without him. I was also scared about going to college. I didn’t feel I was made for college. And then I started thinking about my abortion. I felt real guilty about that.
INTERVIEWER: When did you have the abortion?
KATE: I had it the year before I decided to kill myself. But I had totally put it out of my mind. I tried not to think about it.
INTERVIEWER: And the breakup with your boyfriend and the therapy stirred it up again?
INTERVIEWER: Did you talk to any of your friends about your feelings?
KATE: Yes, I talked to three or four friends. They didn’t believe me. They thought I was joking when I said I wanted to kill myself. To them, it looked like I was having a good time. That’s because I was drinking a lot. But I was using the drinking to cover up my feelings. So my friends didn’t take me seriously.
INTERVIEWER: How were you going to take your own life?
KATE: I was going to graduate, which I did, and then that Sunday at a graduation party I was going to tell all my family good-bye. And then that Monday I was going to kill myself by carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage with the car. That’s how I was going to do it.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever know anybody who had taken her own life in that way?
KATE: No. I think I read it in the newspaper.
INTERVIEWER: If you hadn’t come to the hospital, do you think you would have done it?
KATE: Yes, because I had tried before. I had taken pills, like speed, and then drank a lot. I was real sick many times.
INTERVIEWER: Did you talk to anybody at school? A teacher? A guidance counselor?
KATE: I talked to one of my teachers and to my counselor. She was the one who recommended this counseling place for my whole family.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think she knew you were going to take your own life?
KATE: I don’t think so. I think she thought I was really sad and depressed, that I needed time away from people.
INTERVIEWER: And you never told her that you wanted to die?
KATE: No. I did tell some of my friends but not the counselor or the teacher.
INTERVIEWER: What did you accomplish during your first stay in the hospital?
KATE: The first month I was happy and everything, trying to make everybody think I was fine. And then I got real depressed. I started talking about a lot of my secrets that I had kept inside.
INTERVIEWER: Like the abortion?
KATE: Like being molested when I was seven and raped twice when I was in eighth grade. And that I was still angry at my father.
INTERVIEWER: Your father wasn’t the one who molested you, was he?
KATE: No, it was a friend’s father.
INTERVIEWER: And the rapes? Were those people you knew?
KATE: Yeah, I knew them in grade school. I was so scared of them after it happened that I went to a different high school. I was terrified.
INTERVIEWER: Did your family know about these things?
KATE: No, not until I got into the hospital. I finally told my parents everything.
INTERVIEWER: What was their reaction?
KATE: They felt real badly for me. At first, they didn’t know how to feel or what to say. My dad was real angry, especially about my abortion. And they were real upset that I didn’t feel I could go to them and talk to them. But I felt they had certain values, beliefs. I didn’t feel they would like me if I went and told them this stuff. They would really hate my guts and wouldn’t want me as a daughter.
INTERVIEWER: And you started to feel like taking your own life again after letting all this out?
KATE: Yeah. I just didn’t want to feel any more pain.
INTERVIEWER: Where would you be if you weren’t in the hospital right now?
KATE: In my grave.
INTERVIEWER: You would be dead?
INTERVIEWER: You would have succeeded in taking your own life?
INTERVIEWER: Other young people who read this might think you’re just a regular kid who doesn’t really sound that depressed. How do you do that? How do you appear so together when you’re actually so desperate inside?
KATE: It’s my cover. I always smile and look real happy when I’m depressed. I make everybody think that I’m just fine. That way, they’ll leave me alone.
INTERVIEWER: But people here aren’t leaving you alone. Does it help that they’re taking you so seriously?
KATE: At first, I wished they didn’t take me so seriously. I was obsessed with killing myself. But after a few weeks, I was told that I had to start working on my anger and letting negative feelings out. I started feeling less tense or something. I don’t know exactly what.
INTERVIEWER: You let it out?
KATE: Yeah, I started to do that. But I have a whole lot more to do.
INTERVIEWER: So, before you would cover up the anger with a smile?
KATE: I still do that sometimes. But now I can tell when I’m doing it and try to change it.
INTERVIEWER: Are you learning how to turn things around so that you’re not feeling so depressed?
KATE: No, I haven’t learned how to do that yet, but I’ve learned how to tell people that I’m feeling a certain way.
INTERVIEWER: What happened after you left the hospital the first time?
KATE: I went home, and things were going fine for the first three months. Then I started drinking more and taking speed. I felt I was too fat. I still think that. Then it seemed like I was seeing less and less of my friends. I’d call them up, and they didn’t have much desire to talk to me or to go out. They knew I’d been in a psychiatric hospital, and that scared them away. It was real hard for me because some of the friends I thought were really close to me and cared about me deserted me when I got home. I couldn’t take that.
INTERVIEWER: What were they afraid of?
KATE: I think they were scared of the fact that I was in a psychiatric hospital with crazy people. They didn’t know how I was going to act and didn’t want the burden of me going nuts on them or killing myself while I was with them. It was really hard. In a lot of ways, I felt I knew more than they did. I felt more grown up. I found out a lot more about myself and other people at the same time.
INTERVIEWER: So you started to feel lonely, not having your old friends. Was that the primary thing that was getting you depressed?
KATE: That was the start of it.
INTERVIEWER: You were in counseling as an outpatient, weren’t you?
INTERVIEWER: And were you able to talk about these feelings in counseling?
KATE: Some of them. But I wanted everyone to think that I was doing well. When I left the hospital, I was this great patient, someone that people would remember as real positive. I didn’t want anyone to see that inside I was starting to fall apart again.
INTERVIEWER: What else was going on that got you more and more depressed at home?
KATE: I had just started college and was having a hard time. I didn’t know how to make new friends. All my old friends had just left me, and I was supposed to make new ones. I started a job at a nursery school and had a real hard time working with little kids because of my abortion. And then my father and I started getting along worse and worse. We started arguing and got to the point where we didn’t even speak anymore.
INTERVIEWER: Did you try to take your own life when you were home between hospitalizations
KATE: I got to the point where I wasn’t feeling anything. It was like I pushed all the pain away. I just didn’t want to deal with it anymore. Then I started thinking about killing myself. But I wasn’t feeling anything so I tried to feel pain. I burned myself with an iron a couple of times.
INTERVIEWER: Were you alone when you did that?
KATE: Yes, I was alone. I knew what I was doing but I did it, anyway. And then I did real risky things, like use the hair dryer with the water running. If I got electrocuted, I got electrocuted. And I started driving like a maniac when I was alone in the car.
INTERVIEWER: If you had died, people would have thought it was accidental.
KATE: That way, my parents wouldn’t have felt so guilty.
INTERVIEWER: How do you think they would feel if you died?
KATE: Pretty sad, I guess. I don’t know. If I did it intentionally, they would feel they didn’t do enough for me or they weren’t around when I needed them. But it’s not that way. That’s why I thought about writing a letter and telling them it wasn’t their fault. It was just me. I couldn’t find something that kept me happy, something I wanted to live for. I had given myself eight weeks to see if I could be happier. If I couldn’t do that, I told the counselor that I was going to quit seeing him. Then I started talking about doing things like the hair dryer stuff. I mentioned writing a will and a letter explaining why I wanted to die.
INTERVIEWER: How did you feel when your counselor said you had to go back into the hospital?
KATE: I was shocked. And I couldn’t change his mind. He said I could sign myself in or he would do something to put me into the hospital. I signed myself in.
INTERVIEWER: What have you done in the hospital this time?
KATE: I learned how to be assertive. I’m working on my anger and trying to find new ways of dealing with my problems.
INTERVIEWER: How do you feel right now about hurting yourself or taking your own life?
KATE: I think about it, usually when something is real hard for me to handle. I get impulsive and feel like strangling myself or something like that. Last night, I was drawing pictures and I drew a picture of a hanging man and a broken heart. I wasn’t doing it consciously. I was just drawing. But that’s a side I have to deal with. Maybe once or twice a week I feel really good. But it’s rare, and it seems like those times only last for a little bit. The bad times last so much longer.
INTERVIEWER: What do you think your chances of surviving are?
KATE: I think they’re better now than a month ago.
INTERVIEWER: What do you think of death?
KATE: I drew a picture of death once. I picture it as peaceful and happy and content.
INTERVIEWER: You don’t see it as painful?
KATE: I think life is painful.
INTERVIEWER: What do you think your funeral would be like?
KATE: I don’t picture many people coming . . . just my parents, grandparents, a few other relatives, and some friends I grew up with. But I do picture the dress I’ll wear. And I know that I want one yellow rose with me. That’s my favorite flower.
INTERVIEWER: It’s almost like someone visualizes a wedding.
KATE: I always get yellow roses on good occasions. My funeral would be a good occasion.
INTERVIEWER: Are you worried that you have to be in a hospital all the time in order not to hurt yourself?
KATE: It scares me. I wonder whether I’m always going to be like this or whether there’s going to be a time when I’ll finally be able to be independent and on my own . . . to have good times and enjoy them.
INTERVIEWER: Does talking help? Does talking about your feelings help?
KATE: It hurts a lot, but it helps.
Yes, Kate is confused. But she sheds light on how it feels when friends don’t take you seriously or when they abandon you. She was sexually abused and raped. She suffers from depression and talks about not feeling anything in order to escape her pain. She took all kinds of risky behaviors like driving way too fast. She wrote a will. And her view of death is a romantic one—“peaceful, happy, and content.” Yet underneath all her pain is a willingness—albeit erratic—to work on her anger, to feel happy, and to regain (or maybe gain for the first time) self-confidence and a sense of direction. What do you think of her chances?
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