This last week I descended into the most severe anxiety-induced depressive episode of my life. I’ve experienced two similar, though less severe, episodes since I began teaching. As I descended, I made a life altering choice. I want to explain this period and what I was going through. My goal is those who know me a closer look at what I experienced. A secondary goal of this post is to offer solidarity and to make a space for these kinds of feelings and discussions. We don’t talk about this stuff enough, and a lot of us are suffering through feelings and impulses that we keep to ourselves.
[content warning: suicidal ideation]
If the content warning didn’t give it away, let’s just get this right out in the open: I spent Monday through Thursday of this last week resolving to, then planning to, then preparing to kill myself. I’ve dealt with suicidal impulses ever since adolescence. This is a part of me. Sometimes the impulse will hit me right in the middle of a great day in a period where I’ve felt content for weeks. It’s not triggered by anxiety or depression, at least not anymore. I’ve done a lot of work with the support of my therapist to understand the impulse and to weaken it.
Over the last couple of weeks, though, my defenses had been eroded by more and more severe panic attacks starting in the morning and sometimes continuing all day long. This has been my experience since I started teaching, and so I didn’t really think anything of it. I just told myself to get through the day so that I could get to the end of the school year.
Last weekend did not provide relief like time off usually does. The anxiety persisted as a buzzing in my knuckles, a tightness in my chest, and a dull ache in my head. Over the weekend the suicidal thoughts surfaced. They were not thoughts about how I wanted to or should kill myself, but rather about the different ways that I could.
I went to bed anxious Sunday night, and woke up with the anxiety Monday morning. At that point a depression had settled in. I had no energy. I had to force myself through a well-practiced morning routine. I kept finding myself just stuck, staring. As I was putting on my shoes to leave the house, I ended up just sitting, staring for a couple of minutes. I had to keep refocusing to drive myself forward. At the end of that day was a regularly scheduled game night with some friends that I so very badly wanted to back out of.
When I got home that night, I was exhausted from pushing myself through the day. Tuesday morning came. I was disappointed. At this point, a narrative was starting to take shape in my mind. I always end up here: depressed and wanting to kill myself. Why fight just to end up back here?
I do not remember getting to school on Tuesday. I had trouble engaging with anyone. At one point the school counselor came in and told me that a student would like to have lunch in my room. I said that was fine. The counselor left and I began to sob. I felt weak for not being strong enough to endure for these students who felt connected to me. I spent most of my prep time looking up information about suicide methods. I dug through the chemicals that came with my science curriculum. There wasn’t a sufficient quantity of anything to do more than make me ill.
Over the weekend, one of the ideas that had occurred to me was dehydration. I looked it up. I found a lot of information about dying by refusing water and food, all aimed at death with dignity, end of life patients. That would be perfect. It wouldn’t be immediate, so I could have some time to make arrangements, to go out the way I want to.
I was not mentally present on Tuesday. I remember the end of the day and thinking about what I needed to take home. It occurred to me that it didn’t matter. I wasn’t coming back; I had decided during the day that I wasn’t going to spend my last days suffering through the misery that I felt teaching each day. I grabbed my teaching journal and left everything else, feeling no attachment to any of my possessions.
Somewhere along the lines Tuesday night, I made plans for Emily to come over on Wednesday. It wasn’t ideal, but it was going to be the last chance for me to see her for a while, and I didn’t want to wait. I also had standing plans for Nicole to stay the night with me on Wednesdays, so it was going to be socially busy.
I spent some time that night planning out what the next days would be like. I wrote a document explaining my choice. I decided I also wanted to write personal messages to each of the important people in my life. I had some prep work I needed to do.
I woke up Wednesday and felt a bit relieved. I made breakfast. I spent a fair bit of time thinking about what I needed to do. I realized that I couldn’t actually start dehydrating myself until next week. I had promised my friend, Jess, that I’d accompany her to Anaheim and help her run a booth at a convention. It was a commitment I cared about that was supporting someone I cared about. After that, though, I had no other real commitments. I could even switch to a liquid only diet during the last couple days of that trip. I had read that that was a good idea before starting a dehydration/starvation process.
For most of Wednesday morning, I just waited. No one would even notice I was gone until about 11:00am when there would be students locked out of my classroom for 4th period. There are a lot of reasons I didn’t give any sort of warning that I’d be absent. Partially, I wanted them to feel some version of the panic I had been feeling everyday. I was also committed to killing myself and I felt like it didn’t matter. Mostly, though, just the thought of dealing with the school at all made my anxiety spike and I just wanted to be done.
11:00am rolled around. I received a call. I ignored it. A voicemail. Voicemail already makes me anxious, so I just deleted it. Then a text from one of the office administrators. I ignored it too. Suddenly, a knock on my door. I froze, then dove into my bedroom. I definitely didn’t want to talk to anyone. I watched out my bedroom window and saw the office admin and the assistant principal walk back toward the parking lot. Then they came back and knocked again. They texted me again. Finally, I decided I needed to respond to get them to go away.
“I’m done being miserable. I’m just trying to have a few happy moments. Thank you for checking on me, but please leave me alone.”
“We need to know that you are safe-[we are] here at your door”
“I’m not hurt and I’m not hurting myself.”
A perk of choosing dehydration was that I wasn’t hurting myself, I just wasn’t taking care of myself. The euphemism of choice for suicide, though, is “hurting yourself” and I could deny that with honesty.
At some point my mom was called. She’s my emergency contact. I didn’t think this out very well. I had to assure her in the same way. That sucked, though. I try to avoid lying as much as possible. Especially to people I care about.
At this point, I was resolved. I had just paid my rent. I had at least 31 days where I could spend my time as I saw fit and prepare my exit. I could create personal messages for people. I could write out some explanations and even some final wishes. I decided I would pack up as much of my apartment as I could, to make it easier for my family after I was gone. I could spend the few days before I started my dying process having good moments, free of worry. The narrative persisted: Happiness doesn’t last. The good times do not offset the bad. This will keep happening. I will kill myself eventually. I should do it now while I have the momentum, while I have the opportunity to be thoughtful and methodical about it. Everyone would get over it. I watched everyone, including myself, get over the death of my grandma and she was the center of our family.
Emily came over. I found it hard to engage with her. I was stuck thinking about what I still needed to do. We took a nap together. That helped, but I was not yet in a good place to be social, at least not while sober. That’s why Nicole and I went to a pub. We had food and I got pleasantly drunk. It was a happy moment.
Thursday I had to myself after Nicole left for work. I spent some time further planning. I made a task list of all the things I wanted to take care of. I made a list of all of the people I wanted to leave personal messages for. I looked up information about how debt is passed on from someone who dies. Fortunately, student loan and credit card debt cannot be passed on to anyone else after you die.
There was a knock at my door while I was in the bathroom. I had a missed call from a restricted number on my phone. I ignored the door. I did not want to talk to anyone. Then a voicemail from an unknown number and a text message from my mom came in. My mom said she had been contacted by the police trying to conduct a wellness check. I needed to get rid of that attention. I told my mom I’d take care of it.
I checked the voicemail and returned the call of the officer who had left it. They mentioned that they had also contacted my uncle–my local emergency contact. Great. So, once I got off the phone with the officer, I reassured my mom. Then I had to call my uncle to reassure him. I didn’t want to talk, I just wanted to assure him that I had talked to the officer and that I was taking care of things. At one point he said that I should “lighten up” so I just hung up.
Do not tell people suffering in any way that they need to just get over it. It alienates them. It makes it clear that you are not willing to listen to them. It communicates that their suffering is a bummer for you and that they should stop making you feel that way. Their suffering is not about you, so don’t make it about you.
At this point I resolved to email the district HR office and CC my principal a statement of resignation. It was just that, a statement: I did not plan to return to the building. I resigned. I was done. Hopefully that would stop people from calling and coming to my apartment.
Except in those moments where uninvited people were at my door, my anxiety abated. I had a plan, a direction. It was liberating.
Friday morning. I had breakfast. I sat down to keep working on items on the task list I had made. A new thought began to intrude, breaking my focus: Was my situation hopeless? Part of the reason I didn’t care about leaving my job was because I didn’t plan to be alive long enough for it to be a problem. What if I was alive longer, though?
I did some quick math. Huh. If I returned to tutoring and consulting, I’d be able to make enough money to survive by charging my standard rate and working about 25 hours per week.
It didn’t matter, though. That may have been the plan once upon a time, but I scrapped that plan. Even if I tried to pursue some other way of getting by, I’d just end up back where I was, right? Eventually, I’d be unhappy. Eventually, I’d want to kill myself.
I wasn’t as convinced anymore. That narrative didn’t ring as true that day.
I turned my focus from writing goodbye messages to sending out feeler messages to old tutoring and consulting contacts. I began to see how a life I could enjoy might be pieced together. Friday was a back and forth between just wanting to end things once and for all and spending time looking forward and moving further from the plan I’d been laying out over the previous few days.
That brings us to today. I have a consulting gig scheduled for Sunday. I’m going to meet with someone about tutoring on Monday. I’m getting the pieces back together.
There are a few truths I am taking out of this. First, I don’t feel like I was “saved” or otherwise prevented from making a mistake. When I was in it the deepest, I was resolved to kill myself and I took steps to keep people from interfering with that plan. I’m not relieved, really, that on Friday the anxious depression broke and I began to contemplate other options. I have not escaped anything. There was some truth to that narrative I’d been focused on: the suicidal thoughts and impulses would happen again. This will hopefully give me an experience to draw from where I moved past the focus on suicide by giving myself time. It will also be a good lesson in trying to better bad situations earlier rather than let them fester until I break down.
That leads me into the second truth, a personal weakness that I must acknowledge: I have not developed sufficient endurance for difficult life situations. I become hopeless quickly. There was an end to teaching, just a few months out, but I became unable to focus on it. Instead, I let myself become overwhelmed with the present. Knowing this about myself means I can work to improve this shortcoming and that I can also be honest with myself and others if I see myself headed into such a situation.
Finally, I have some apologies to make. I will. I need to continue processing this for myself. There’s some embarassment to get over; I feel shame about my emotions controlling my behavior to such an extent. I’m going to accept that and keep moving. This will become part of my story, and I’m sure I’ll reflect on it for years.