I still remember where I was the first time I thought about killing myself. I was sitting in gym class as we were about to run the mile. This was seventh grade, and I laid sprawled out on the cold gymnasium floor, wishing I could be anywhere but here and anything but alive. I looked at the boy in front of me, one of the prizes of our middle school class. His name was Steve, and he had just developed a mustache on his upper lip, while the other boys struggled with peach fuzz. He had muscles (while the other boys still ate Lunchables) and wore a gold chain to show he’d made it.
I watched the muscles gently tense in the back of his neck as he breathed, preparing for what we were all about to do. He would glide while the rest of us struggled behind him.
When I looked at him, I wanted to die. I thought about my funeral and the people who would miss me, the other students who would admit that they always loved me and wanted to be my friend; they just didn’t know how to reach out. I was the kid who sat by himself at lunch with my headphones reading a book. I disappeared into Agatha Christie’s baroque mysteries as a way to be invisible, hoping no one would notice how alone I was or that I cried sometimes while I thought no one was looking. Books taught me how to disappear.
One day a classmate of mine interrupted a girl in a lower grade who had struck up a conversation with me; she didn’t know who I was when we began to talk about books and what she’d been reading lately, and he felt the need to inform her. “Why are you talking to him?” he asked her, seemingly out of genuine concern. “He’s the biggest loser in school.” Some young queer kids were worried about being outed as gay; I was worried about being outed as a loser. I wanted to debate him or proclaim my innocence from nerdom, but he had a point. I couldn’t argue the facts.
The kid with duct tape glasses who did Trigonometry for fun had more friends than I did. I was envious of him. He had mystery. He was going places. The only place I went was into the toilet.
When I would come home with bruises, I would tell my grandparents that it was roughhousing at school. I was having too much fun. I knew somewhere that they would miss me when I died (at that point, it was a definite “when”), but based on my experience, I had no empirical proof. I learned to believe I couldn’t be loved, like a one-legged puppy or a tree struck by lightning. I felt hopeless.
Suicide went from a passive interest, where I pictured death but not actually dying, to an actual one — a puzzle that I diligently tried to figure out. While we learned about mitosis in Biology, I was picturing myself being beaten to death with a sledgehammer. I doodled myself being decapitated, stabbed, quartered and dissected to death — because during that part of the course I identified with the frog. I felt what it was to have other people see you as less than real, something to be picked apart.
My favorite death was having my brains blown out. I pictured sitting in the passenger’s seat of a car as someone pulled out a shotgun barrel behind me, a shapeless thing of a person. I saw my brains hitting the windshield and I imagined that the wipers would spread them across the glass. I don’t know how they made it through to the other side, but it was an imaginary situation and in this case, I had the power. I got to make my own rules.
I want to say that I got better, but I would be lying to you. Suicide is like a scar you can’t get rid of, and you’re reminded it’s there, the tiny cut that’s like a tattoo. Last week I had to do intake for therapy, which I’ve spent my entire life in and out of, and they asked me if I ever thought about killing myself. I didn’t know what to tell them. On the 0 to 5 scale, I listed a “1,” which alarmed my therapist. She asked why I didn’t put down a zero. I told her because it would be a lie. Suicide will always be a part of me and on my worst days, I can still picture it.
I often describe suicide now as like looking through a refrigerator for what item you might choose. It’s a fruitcake that doesn’t spoil, sitting between the cheese and the milk. I could pick it up and eat it if I wanted to, but I don’t. Most of my worst days are behind me, but suicide is still very real. Last month, my roommate’s friend fell out the window while looking at the sunrise; he was drunk and being reckless, and the ambulance medics had to scrape his body off the pavement. I can still see his sidewalk stains in my head, and if I’m being honest with myself, they look like how I picture mine. The image hasn’t faded, after all these years.
However, I’m not ashamed to call myself a survivor of suicide or tell people I live with these thoughts every day, ones that are just as real and valid as my love or my joy. I’ve spent a lifetime reclaiming them — because I’ve felt like my story could help others. In being brutally honest about my experiences, I take the power back. It helps me live. But I know I’m not alone, and sometimes when I see a barista with a tattoo covering up the marks she’ll never hide, I want to walk up to her and say, “I know and I love you. You are strong. You lived.” But I don’t because those scars are hers to claim and confronting that pain isn’t my right. I can only sit with her in solidarity.
This is why a recent piece on Thought Catalog so upsets me. Entitled “Being So Offended You Kill Yourself,” it’s a response to Vice Magazine’s much-criticized fashion spread on the suicides of female writers, in which the deaths of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf were being used to hock clothes. This was placed in the “Women in Fiction” issue. However, Benito less takes an issue with the spread than with Alicia Swiz’s critique of it — in an article called “An Open Letter to Vice Magazine.”
I don’t want to beat a dead horse, especially after Swiz so elegantly stated my feelings on the spread, but I’m deeply troubled by Benito’s assertions. In one sentence, he states, “What’s so wrong about glamorizing suicide in art?” As someone who has been through it, I can put it simply: Suicide isn’t glamorous. Sylvia Plath didn’t die for romance; Plath died because she fought a mental illness she couldn’t beat. Plath suffered not just through death but in life, and anyone who has read The Bell Jar knows there’s no transformation in her suicide, which is one of the reasons the novel skirts her descent. It’s about her own ability to reclaim her experiences and give others hope. Plath knew her suffering could help others live.
However, what Benito is talking about isn’t art. It’s voyeurism, shamelessly capitalizing off of her own life and work. No one else gets to claim Plath’s suicide for themselves, just as no one else gets ownership of my experiences. My suicide wasn’t fashionable, and if others find light through my darkness, it’s because I (as an artist) have the ability to transform my experiences. I have the right to give others my light, not to have it taken from me in a vain attempt to capitalize on death. To me, Virginia Woolf isn’t an icon because she died; Woolf means so much to me because of what she left behind. When I was at my worst, I looked to her words for inspiration — not the image of her corpse. We should be inspired by these women’s lives and learn from them, and seeing a noose around someone’s neck takes that power away. We are denying victims the ability to speak.
Benito says that discussing suicide in this way has the ability to open a dialogue and to an extent, I agree. However, we just need to be careful about who we are silencing and what we saying and promote the right dialogue. Suicide means something, especially to those who have been through it and deal with it every day. It’s not just art. It’s my life.