Content note: This essay was originally delivered as the keynote speech at the 2023 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.
Hi! Thank you so much for the opportunity to be here today and to share a piece of my story. Suicide and suicide prevention have touched my life in a variety of ways over the past ten years. I am an emerging researcher and mental health advocate. I have supported people in an acute suicide crisis. People very close to me have attempted suicide. I have lost people to suicide. And I myself have seriously considered taking my own life. I imagine if you are here at this walk, you also have one or more than one relationship to suicide.
I was first exposed to suicide ten years ago as a junior in high school when my mom’s best friend lost her son to suicide. He was my age. We grew up going to family summer BBQs and gatherings together over the years. The loss of such an amazing young person impacted the entire community and surrounding high schools. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people.
As an undergrad in college, I was drawn to public health and psychology. During my four years, I worked and researched within these fields at the University of Rochester.
By my senior year of college, I thought I was beginning to understand suicide.
After college, I worked with incredibly talented clinicians and researchers in the field at one of the best psychiatric hospitals in the country. I provided DBT [dialectical behavior therapy] skills coaching to adolescents and did research with Harvard medical school about suicide and emotion dysregulation. I thought I was beginning to understand suicide.
In August 2020, I published a book about college student mental health and suicide from a student perspective that include an extensive amount of research, time, interviews, etc. I thought I was beginning to understand suicide.
And then, I experienced my own acute mental health crisis. And I realized there was so much more to understand.
My book came out on August 6th, 2020. 17 days later, I stepped foot into the emergency room in a state of full-blown mania and psychosis. I was hallucinating (hearing voices, seeing images), incredibly paranoid, and fully convinced my delusions were real. When my psychosis hit, it completely took over and made me think and act in ways that make my present-day self shake. It was horrific. My world flipped completely upside down, as I turned from a counselor working in a psychiatric hospital to a patient living in a psychiatric hospital.
For months after the episode, I swam in thick puddles of shame and guilt. My mind was convinced that the world would be better off without me in it. And I fell into a deep hole of depression.
Living in this state after the hospital, it felt like I just woke up from a terrifying nightmare. It felt like someone had come up behind me and completely pulled the rug out from underneath my feet. Then when I looked behind me and turned around to see who it was who pulled the rug, it was just a different version of me. Mental illness can rob you of yourself.
It took me a long time to process and realize that it wasn’t my fault. People don’t choose to have bipolar disorder. People don’t choose to have psychosis. People don’t choose to have a mental illness.
But for a long time, it felt like it was my fault and I went from the highest high to the lowest low. So, two years ago this month, I entered a second inpatient facility.
I didn’t want to go. But standing here today, I’m so glad I did. I found a new therapist. I found a new psychiatrist, who changed my medication. I started to have more energy. The fog eventually lifted. And I felt like myself, something that I will never take for granted again.
I am here because treatment exists and because of my support system. I think about the things I would have missed in the past two years had I not sought treatment, like running the L.A. marathon last month, starting dance, or attending graduate school in Baltimore. All of these experiences have greatly impacted my life. A life that I see now as being worth living.
In August, I chose to open up to my two roommates about my experiences. I was so nervous; I was shaking. After I shared my diagnosis, one of my roommates looked at me and was like: “Why would that change anything? You’re still Em.” I had so much fear, but my friends didn’t look at me differently. In fact, today they are two of my closest friends.
It’s empowering to acknowledge that yes, I live with bipolar and PTSD and OCD and an eating disorder AND I am not defined by a diagnosis.
Time brings perspective. Acceptance has been and continues to be a large piece of my recovery. One of my favorite quotes by John Kabot Zinn states: “You cannot control the waves, but you can learn how to surf.”
I share my personal experiences to say: it is okay to not be okay. Recovery is not always linear. I can know how to teach coping skills inside and out and still experience moments of deep suffering. I can have published a book about suicide prevention and still be vulnerable to experiencing a crisis. Often when experiencing a crisis, we feel as though we are the only ones on the planet who have had these experiences. Common humanity is one of the three principles of self-compassion that touches on the idea that we are all connected. Common humanity helps to recognize that we are all navigating the challenges of life itself.
If there is only one thing that you take away from my story today and words I would tell to my younger self are to stay, to continue holding on. Pain is temporary, the only constant in life is change, and the moment you are in will not last forever.