For most of my early 20s, I knew that one day I would end my life. I knew that it was only a matter of time before I downed a bottle of pills, let the life spill out of my wrists, or swerved my car into a river. It was not chaotic or poetic, just a quiet reality sitting in the back of my mind, waiting for the right moment.
What do you do when you feel like the effort of living isn’t worth it anymore and your fucked-up brain chemistry is basically out to kill you?
Step 1: Medicate
Diagnosed with depression at the age of 12, I hopped from medication to medication without success. Years went by where I could not remember what it felt like to be happy. Aside from running my family broke with medical bills, the side effects ravaged my body. I threw up, I ate too much, or I stopped eating entirely. I slept my life away or I spent days at a time staring at the cracks in the ceiling from my bed. By the time I was an adult, I had spent more of my life on medication than off it and I wasn’t sure what parts of myself were even the real me.
Step 2: Cope poorly
After being cheated on by my partner of several years and almost losing my best friend to suicide for the second time, I developed an eating disorder. In two months, I lost more than 30 pounds. Although I never dropped below a healthy weight, I stopped having a period and started losing my hair. I wanted to scream when people told me how good I looked. Being the gatekeeper of my body was the only sense of control I had, and no one could take it away from me. I became a ghost of myself, seeing how long I could go without putting anything into my body before my stomach knotted itself in protest, bringing me to tears in public, or before I felt so weak I crumpled under the weight of my own skin. It was killing me, but I needed it to survive.
Step 3: Cope poorly again
By my sophomore year of college, I was self-harming on a regular basis. Unlike starving myself, it was not about control. It was a way to release the emotions that crashed through my skull. Sadness, hopelessness and fear filled my body day after day, creating an unbearable pressure. After a few weeks the only way I could let it out was by taking a pair of scissors to my thighs. When I felt the sting of metal on my skin for the first time, it was absolute elation—the pressure dissipated immediately. Even if just for a night, I could finally feel something close to relief, curling into bed with puffy red eyes, a face sticky with dried tears, and a neat collection of little red lines.
4. Lose all hope
I had always been an excellent student and I took pride in my grades. Despite my mental health, I was on the dean’s list at my 60K-a-year liberal arts school. I had a social life. I was even the president of a few clubs. From outward appearances, I had it all together. This is something mentally unwell people learn to do very quickly—hiding your illness is crucial to your survival. Not only does it keep concerned friends and family members (who are often more harmful than helpful) off your back, it allows you to convince yourself that you are OK. If I can finish this paper, if I can make it through this semester, if I can go to this party, I must be OK. I must be.
Still, I wanted to die most of the time. At first it was an escape, a thought that comforted me when I felt my worst. If things get bad, really bad, I have a way out. No one can keep me here. If I can’t take it anymore, I can go. Over time, it took up more and more space in my mind. What would it be like? How would I do it? When should I do it? It is hard to describe the seductiveness of suicide to someone who has not been pushed to the edge of hopelessness. People who attempt it know true agony — they are so lost in feelings of worthlessness and pain that they would readily discard any chance of it getting better just to escape. It is different for everyone, but for me it could take several forms.
Sometimes it was a burning, tearing agony, a dark sickness so deep within you that you feel a frantic, immediate need to escape your body at any cost. Other times it was a slow, tingling numbness — catatonic but desperate, cloudy and quiet, wishing you’d fade away, but nothing within reach. Often these two were combined with a feeling of sickening unease, a sharp poke in the gut, the urge to vomit or sob or both, and an unshakable desire for love.
In my senior year of college, I found myself closer to death than ever. Nothing motivated me. I didn’t leave my room for days. I missed deadlines, meals and dates with friends. I had no hope for my future and no motivation to do anything about it. The thought of graduating in a few months with no job and no place to live terrified me. School had given me something to do, something to work toward. Without it, I was aimless. One day, without ceremony, I made a plan. After graduation, instead of going home, I would kill myself.
I felt largely apathetic about the whole thing. I knew how I was going to die and when it would happen. Yet nothing changed. I didn’t feel relieved or at peace and I continued my life as normal. After all, there was still a chance, however slim, that I would get a job I loved, move in with a friend, adopt a dog, and have the ideal life I’d been waiting for. I still made attempts to do my schoolwork, but I couldn’t push myself to get anything done. My senior thesis, which I needed to complete to graduate, was several chapters behind. Even basic tasks like showering and eating were beyond me. Simply being alive was a challenge that was not worth the effort.
Step 5: Self-medicate
Then I took Adderall for the first time. Slipped to me by a concerned friend who saw that, at this rate, I would no longer be able to walk across the stage in May, I accepted the little pink tablets skeptically. I’d been down this road before. Pills did nothing but make me hate my brain for being so damn dysfunctional and always out to kill me. One morning, I took 10mg along with my normal useless cocktail of meds and waited to be disappointed.
I was wrong. I caught up on months’ worth of thesis work I had been too ill to even look at. I wrote cover letter after cover letter, met with a career counselor, and got an interview with a company I admired. I finished my homework before it was due and even did the extra credit. And the best part was, I loved doing it all. After months of stalled productivity, the cogs in my brain finally started turning again. I was productive, hell I was even vibrant. I thought to myself, is this what normal people feel like all the time?
For the first time I could remember, I felt happy. My life was moving forward and it felt worth living. I loved my friends, my family and myself. The future seemed like a glowing thing to run toward with bounding enthusiasm rather than a dark pit to be pushed into. My plan to end my life felt so far away from me now that I cried when I thought about how close I came. After feeling like I was going crazy for so long, I was finally able to function.
In some ways, Adderall saved my life. It was what I needed at the time and it pushed me into a state of being where I was capable of climbing a little further out of the hole I’d gotten stuck in. But it is by no means a miracle drug or a solution for everyone, or even me. My journey is not over.
Step 6: Do whatever the fuck you need
It is with caution that I write this piece, knowing that mental illness is a lifelong battle. It is not my goal to construct a narrative where I suffered, I overcame, and lived the rest of my life happily ever after, nor am I interested in telling the world that Adderall or any medication can turn them into a mentally sound person. On the contrary, I am sure that one day, I will again feel that searing urge to escape my body, that one day I might give in to the pressure and take a blade to myself again, even if it’s been years since I last succumbed.
I know that recovery is a process that stops and starts, goes up and down, and sometimes spits you back out right where you started. And I know that all of this is OK. It may seem counterproductive to tell someone that their desire to cut themselves to ribbons or throw themselves into traffic is all right, but as someone who has been there and back again more times than I can count, there is nothing more important. These feelings are OK and you aren’t crazy for having them. As I struggle to write something inspiring to the people like me, desperately hoping for a way out of their illness, I can only say that you will not feel this way forever. There will be a time, even if only for a little while, when you feel happy. Whether it’s an Adderall-fueled binge of productivity, a medication that works for you, falling in love, getting a dog, finding a therapist who isn’t shit, making a new friend, or going on an adventure, you will be happy again. You will remember what it feels like to want to be alive. And those times are worth it.