The Teenage Suicide That Could Have Been

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I was fifteen when I tried to take my own life.

It was the Ides of March, the day sixty co-conspirators famously assassinated Julius Caesar. Among them was Marcus Brutus, Caesar’s trusted friend and contemporary. You don’t forget these things.

I was a full-blown teenage girl back then. I cared a lot about how, when my mother and I would buy clothes, the Abercrombies and Hollisters were always off limits. We sales-rack shopped. Anything I owned with a brand name stitched onto its label was shoplifted or borrowed. I spent my weekends with friends and in perpetual pursuit of alcohol, paying off the sole twenty-one-year-old in our group to procure a handle of fruity Bacardi something or other. And when I was sad, I cut myself. Lots of cutters say it makes them feel like they’re in control, like they’re redistributing their pain—but truth be told, I don’t recall any therapeutic value to cutting. It was just practical; another thing to do like wandering the mall or waiting for the bus.

My friends cut, too. We all did it the wrong way, which I learned from The Craft. It was a trend, or it felt like one. I couldn’t afford to partake in most trends, but this one was inclusive, didn’t come with price tags or limits. And anyway, I knew I had depression in my blood. Whether I was trying to let it out or just get a glimpse of it was inconsequential.

It’s hard to remember why everything felt so dark back then. I’d moved from the city to a suburb two years earlier and had a hard time forgiving my parents for it, despite adjusting and making friends. I guess I felt cheated out of the life I’d built, and then things kept piling on from there. They were little: like, my mother would read notes meant for my friends and punish me for the things I’d written in them. But those incidents resurrected the helplessness I felt when I moved. I was in control of nothing.

My journals from that time detail all the feelings but not the causes. Sometimes I wrote about depression the way lots of teens do—the whole “I wish I were dead” sort of thing—but other times I would talk about my brain not working, wanting a new one. I used phrases like something chemical and not normal often. I talked about needing medication, though I never brought it up outside the confines of my journal. On bad days, my handwriting was nearly illegible and spelled out pleas to God: just make my fucking brain work.

But if you’ve read anything about the teenage suicides cropping up in every corner of the country lately, you know it’s not just about depression. It’s a combination of things—bullying, loneliness, the feeling that your life will forever be a storm of text messages punctuated by the word slut. Lots of stories feature some element of sex (and worse, sexual assault). My attempt was prefaced by a buffet of those things. The perfect suicide storm.

On an unusually warm March morning, I sat on a curb down the block from my house and chain-smoked, calling a couple friends to tell them I’d lost my virginity. I had deep feelings for the boy who’d taken it, but I’d waited months before acting on them. Despite an ongoing mutual flirtation, the timing was never right—he had a queue of girls waiting to date him; when one was out of the picture, a new one would appear in her place. So we remained friends who liked each other; we smoked pot and drove around in his hatchback listening to pop punk. And then one night, when he was finally single, we spiraled into something more. I was the first in my crew to swipe her V-card, so I imagined I’d spend most of my Saturday recapping the evening to my friends, ruminating on the pros and cons, all loud giggles and whispered secrets behind closed doors.

My friends were predictably excited, one even demanded she pick me up from my house to hear all about it. But another had the opposite reaction. She was on a school trip, so I called to tell her the news from my friend’s house later that afternoon. First, she hung up on me; then she called back to bluntly inform me that my paramour had a girlfriend who went to another school. She called me an idiot, then a slut—anything but my name. When I stopped answering her barrage of abrasive phone calls, she resorted to calling the friend I was with to do her dirty work for her. Following this, she announced my big (private) news to everyone in earshot. I know this, because another friend who was on the same school trip told me people were taking my side. I didn’t know I had one.

The news that the guy I’d just lost my virginity to had a secret girlfriend was surprising and shitty, but it was the incessant calls from my friend and the sudden slut moniker that really shook me. She’d been unpredictable in the past, but this was a new level of madness, of meanness. The friend I was with that Saturday kept telling me it would blow over in a week, that she’d get over it. And while I knew it was true, I couldn’t fathom what it was that she needed to get over. My crush on this guy was common knowledge to the point of pathetic. Plus, she and I were not competitive; we were—in the ways that count when you’re a teenager—best friends. Is it possible to feel more alienated than the moment your best friend calls you a fucking slut?

“All for You” by Sister Hazel was playing on the radio when I decided to kill myself. It was my favorite song because the year I moved to the suburbs, I watched the cast of The Real World/Road Rules Challenge sing it together at karaoke. They all looked so … in love with each other, like they’d discovered the way to live. Watching them, I felt a warm reassurance about friendship and about growing up, like it was something to look forward to—like the pain of moving away from my old life wouldn’t last forever; like one day, I’d have my own drunken adventures with my adult friends at karaoke, maybe even on TV. So as my friend and I drove around on the Ides of March, I took hearing “All for You” on the radio as a sign. I still believed in some sort of nebulous God back then, and I thought my favorite song playing for me “one last time” was a sort of permission. For the first time that day, I smiled. I felt calm. I wouldn’t have to spend another day worrying about the bullshit anymore: the gossip, the fickle friends, the malfunctioning brain. I was going to make it all go away. Finally content, I asked my friend to take me home.

My parents were both looking at something in the pantry. They were surprised to see me on a Saturday afternoon; I was never home on weekends. I got a glass of water from the kitchen and went upstairs, to the bathroom, where we kept our Advil and Tylenol and what-have-you. I took all the coated red pills in my bedroom with me. I played Enema of the State, “Adam’s Song,” on repeat. I listened to it whenever I was depressed; I imagine a lot of kids did in 2002. I wanted that song playing when they found me. I cut, the right way this time. I wrote a letter pointing fingers and tucked it into my pillowcase. I knew my parents and friends would be upset, but ultimately felt everyone would be better off without me, eventually. I took the pills and cried until I fell asleep. It was around five p.m. I woke at noon the next day, facing a splitting white ceiling. And I just kept living after that.

I’d love to tell you how I just kept living. How I went from swallowing a bunch of pills and cutting regularly to wanting to live. For starters, some days I didn’t want to live. I saw a therapist once, but we never discussed this incident (which I’ve largely kept secret from the people who knew me then, including my family and some of my closest friends). I’ve gone through depressive spells in the past twelve years, so it’s not that all my problems were solved after that day. I attempted to change schools, but it wasn’t possible, so it wasn’t an environmental change.

The one thing that gave me hope was the outpouring of support I received from my classmates (including the guy I’d slept with) when they heard that my personal business had been broadcast to everyone with ears. I didn’t take phone calls or attend school for a few days, but people reached out. My parents, who had no idea what was going on at the time, allowed me to stay home even though I wouldn’t tell them what was wrong. They fielded phone calls for me and kept me safe. Friends called my cell and left voicemails when I didn’t respond, making sure I was okay. When I went into school with my parents to talk to my guidance counselor about transferring out, people looked at me with sympathy, not disgust. I realized that people—strangers, even!—were acknowledging that what happened to me was not all right, that people were taking it seriously.

There’s a point in my story—when I tell it aloud—where I begin to laugh. It usually starts when I talk about hearing Sister Hazel in the car; it worsens when I mention playing “Adam’s Song” on loop, and by the time I realize I’m still alive, I feel silly for having told the story in the first place. It feels harmless now, because I’m so safe and far away from it. Just another teenage folly that I was lucky to survive.

But as I was writing this, I stopped laughing. If I can’t talk about my own lived experience seriously, if I can’t empathize with my teenage self, who can? How can we — as a society with a very fucked-up suicide problem right now — help girls (and boys) who are bullied, or depressed, or alone when the privilege of distance from those difficult years blinds us? When adults write off abhorrent behavior as “kids being kids” or assume that teens will just “grow out of it”?

You know what? Teenagers can “grow out of” impulsive behavior—if they choose to live through what’s happening to them in the first place. Don’t take for granted that every kid will. Teenagers are people, and to think that their actions will never have irreversible consequences is wildly ignorant, as recent history proves. It doesn’t matter if teens have brains that are still forming, or if they’re hormonal; those are not excuses to not take them seriously. They are capable of harming themselves, and they’re capable of harming others.

It’s pretty clear that everyone needs to do better. I don’t have a solution for this problem, but I do have a suggestion, which I’ll reiterate here: take teenagers seriously. Law enforcement and the legal system should take rapes—and the threats against the victim that follow—seriously. Teachers and school administrators should take bullying and violence and rape seriously. Parents—whether their kids display signs of depression or signs of antisocial behavior—should take their children seriously and get them help.

As for adults who aren’t directly involved with teenagers, I don’t know where to begin other than to suggest we let these issues live outside the shadows. Tell your own story. Tell the stories of others. Stop pretending that depression, and bullying, and suicide can’t happen to just anyone. They can. They do.

There’s a reason I’m writing this now, after so much time. I won’t say I read a teen suicide story in the news every day, but close. And it breaks me to learn of yet another mishandled rape case, yet another untimely suicide, yet another unchecked bully torturing people. I don’t know if it’s because these stories are trending in the news, or because the Internet makes it easier for teens to succeed at hurting themselves, or if social media has increased bullying. I don’t know, and I don’t care. All I care about is telling teenagers that—just as I discovered twelve years ago—people don’t have to know you that well (or at all) to care about you. I care about you, and what happens to you. I don’t care how many people you’ve fucked, or what clothes you wear, or why your friends suddenly decided you’re not worthy anymore. You are worthy, and there are millions of people who break just like me when something cruel happens to you and nothing is done about it. We might live outside the bubble of your hometown; you might only encounter us on the Internet. But we exist, and we all acknowledge that what is happening to you is not all right.

So, to the girl whose best friend turns on her suddenly; to the girl with a broken heart; to the girl who can’t tell her parents what she’s afraid to face on Monday morning. To the girl who fears the entire school’s talking about her; to the girl they call “slut,” and also to the boys who need to hear it, for reasons I may not have listed but can certainly empathize with:

Live.

That’s all you have to do. When you’re persecuted for your sexuality, when your phone delivers words that urge you to kill yourself, when it feels like your brain isn’t working correctly, live. You don’t have to do anything else but make it through your youth. You can be depressed. You can feel misunderstood. You can cry and writhe and listen to whatever crappy music makes you feel okay. But don’t give up just yet.

If I could’ve seen just a glimpse of the life I have now, I would’ve never considered ending it at fifteen. If I would’ve known, for example, that I’d only remain friends with two people from my graduating class (but find plenty of others in college and beyond); that I wouldn’t experience real love or good sex until my twenties; that I would go on to have the career I always wanted and a relationship with my parents that allows me to be this open about my life, I would’ve never felt so desperate. I’m not saying my life is perfect or that my depression was a fad. But my life is good. It’s better than I expected. Obviously, you don’t know what’s in store for you, not any more than I did. But what I’m sure of is this: you’ll never know what you’ll miss if you cut your life short.

As proof, I’ll tell you two truths about my life that I never anticipated twelve years ago, but that make me glad to be alive today. The first: I feel such a distance from the person I was. Remembering that day is like watching a movie my mind created; its characters don’t exist in the real world anymore. That isn’t to downplay the seriousness of what happened; but the fact that I don’t recognize myself in my own actions proves that, if you let it do its job, time can distort almost any reality.

The second truth: I’ve had many drunken adventures singing karaoke with my adult friends. Nights when I knew the way to live. And I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

This post was originally published on Medium.

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Steph is a former editor at Thought Catalog. Her work has appeared on Glamour, Medium, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, ... Read more articles from Stephanie on Thought Catalog.
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