Content note: This essay was originally delivered as the keynote speech at the 2022 Out of the Darkness Walk, an annual event designed to engage young adults in the fight to prevent suicide. It discusses suicidal feelings and attempted suicide.
Life has no guarantees. I was not guaranteed to be alive to this day to share my story but after many years where the will to live eluded me and the road to recovery seemed uncertain, I can finally say I am happy to be alive.
I remember the darkness quite well because at times, it is still with me. The heaviness of the darkness is like a palpable presence. In the past, the darkness was a constant assault on my peace and my character. Life was unsteady and unsafe, happiness was fleeting, and I was never good enough.
I would wake up and wonder why.
Why did I wake up, why did I have to wake up, why did I have to exist.
During these times, the question of how much longer I could endure was constantly on my mind. My body felt heavy with the weight of depression and every interaction took an immense amount of effort that increasingly did not seem worth it.
I wondered if people could see how perilously close to the edge I was, how close I was to shattering. Sometimes there were waves of sadness and pain so great that they threatened to drown me. Other times there was an emptiness so profound I wondered if I was even real. I wondered, if people can’t see this all-consuming pain that’s crushing me, then can they even see me at all?
This was my darkness.
My darkness was with me when I smiled. It was with me when I laughed, when I pretended to be okay. The darkness was there on bright sunny days and evenings spent with friends and family. The darkness was with me while I maintained my GPA, participated in extracurriculars, worked, and volunteered. It stayed with me through different types of therapy and through various medication trials. It was with me when I counseled friends with relationship advice. My darkness stayed with me whether I was trying or not, whether I got sun or not, whether I exercised or stayed in, or whether I was social or isolated. This was the pervasiveness of the darkness.
My darkness told me to be isolated was to be strong. Crying was a sign of weakness. Asking for help was attention-seeking. And that without an appropriate justification it wasn’t real. The darkness persisted until I could not take it, until I broke, until it seemed like the only way to be free was to stop being and I tried to take my own life.
Waking up in the hospital was not a relief. I remember the shame, the embarrassment, and the judgment. I was an adult, I was supposed to have my life together. But being surrounded by other adults, from all walks of life, who also supposedly were meant to have their lives “together” helped me realize that no one is as put together as we pretend to be. The standards we set for ourselves can be so unattainable that they leave many of us feeling worthless. During my time in the hospital I met teachers, dentists, and mothers. And I learned that pain is real no matter what mask it hides beneath. Suffering demands an intervention no matter what roles we occupy. And we must take care of ourselves no matter what responsibilities we have.
My recovery was not completed in a hospital but in all the little moments that followed.
The smallest amount of light can drive out the deepest layers of darkness. And I found my light. My light was the smell of my dog when I could hold him again. My light was getting lost in a book until I lost track of time. My light was realizing that my worth is not what I produce but that just from being human I have a uniqueness only I can offer to the world. My light was understanding that in surviving my pain, I could offer what I’ve learned to others so that less people would hurt so bad, less people would struggle alone, and fewer lives would be lost.
Now when the dark thoughts come I tell them, not today.
I remember that the darkness, however profound, is not impenetrable and then I allow in the things that light up my life. Sometimes it’s all I can do to simply look forward to my favorite meal. Sometimes my body demands that I rest and my task becomes acceptance of the fact that production does not equate to value and that all humans require and deserve rest. Sometimes I have to hug someone close to me and allow myself to feel connected in that instance to another human. Most times, I think of all the lives I will touch by demonstrating that recovery is possible even when darkness does not subside completely.
So how do we help light drive out the darkness?
Having gone through my share of difficult moments I know that empty words of encouragement and even well-intentioned but ineffective advice, can make the isolation feel worse. So let me offer the truth I’ve lived.
There is always hope as long as you’re here.
No matter how complete the darkness, no matter how deep the depression, no matter how lonely the isolation, there is always the hope that things will get better, the pain will subside, the light will come back–but you have to remain.
So, if you’re experiencing a time of profound pain or emptiness, or if you do in the future, remember that there is always light, there is always hope.
Even if you cannot see it.
And if you cannot see it, please allow those of us who have been through those dark times to encourage you to hold on until the light overcomes the darkness because on the other side of hardship is strength and wisdom.
If you are struggling, know that it is okay to not be okay. It is okay to hurt. It is okay to feel lost. It is okay to feel pain. Because as enduring as these emotions may be, they will not always last, you will come through the other side. Even if you can’t believe it in the moment, allow those who have lived it to believe it for you until you can see it for yourself.
If you are wondering how to support someone with these thoughts then I’m going to encourage you to listen and be kind. We have tens and tens of interactions everyday and any person you meet may be fighting a battle that you can’t imagine, may be fighting a battle for their life. Don’t underestimate the value of a kind word, of asking someone how they’re doing and then taking the time to listen. Asking questions to understand their response. Diving further into what’s going on in their life. So often, people who struggle with these thoughts feel like a burden and don’t want to trouble others with their worries. Reassure the people in your life that they matter, that you have time for them, that you love all parts of them not just the happy, producing, funny sides but even the sides that need help sometimes.
I hope to share this as a call to be more human. To both each other, and ourselves. Especially for those battling suicidal thoughts, but also because we, as humans, deserve it.
So when you hurt, cry.
When you’re weary, rest.
When you feel heavy, remember you don’t have to do it alone.
And when the darkness comes, remember there is always light.