CONTENT WARNING: This post discusses suicide, trauma, and mental illness.

“Joni, you have a phone call.”

I looked up from the book I was reading on the plastic recliner at the boy with cuts all over his arms and face holding up the phone in the common area for me. He had an easy smile. It was his birthday and he was 19. On the other end of the line was my concerned best friend, Angela, telling me I won Salesforce MVP.

Ironic because when I took that call, I was on the psych ward after having a complete breakdown – emotionally, physically, and mentally…

This summer (I might have mentioned) has been less than stellar. On that Saturday night, I was desperate to escape the suffocating darkness, desperate to live outside of my skin, desperate to FEEL something other than the shattered splinters that had taken up residence in my chest where my heart used to be.
I had spent 2 months riding a roller coaster of emotion – high and low, high and lower, high and lowest. Sometimes with the lows come thoughts of death. It seems like death would be better. Every time those thoughts come, I battle them back, forcing retreat. But over months of the battle, my methods of beating back the suicidal thoughts were becoming less than effective. People think that suicidal people fantasize about killing themselves. For me, that’s not true.

Don’t think of a red penguin.
When I am suicidal, it feels like an impulse. Like the impulse to go get ice cream out of the freezer. It can go something like this:
(Driving down the road):Don’t forget to send that email to Matt. Add chicken to the grocery list. I wonder how O’s slumber party went? I should call Angela. Watch out for that jackass changing lanes without using his blinker. Drive into that bridge so this can be over.

Say it out loud. Now say it twice as fast. My inner dialogue speeds up and the thoughts of taking myself out increase. They aren’t conscious decisions, they are impulses for me.

After a couple of days, it gets tiring. Like trying not to think of smoking when you’re quitting. Eventually, you want to trust your brain to just be on auto-pilot for a while, but you can’t. You can’t ever put your brain on auto-pilot because without thinking, you find yourself starting to obey your brain. When the phone rings, my brain auto-pilot says to pick it up. When I change lanes, my auto-pilot says to turn on my blinker. When I think of driving into a bridge… WAIT. STOP.

Thinking about every single message my brain is sending me and categorizing it as rational or irrational is exhausting. Try it. Think about every impulse and message your brain sends as you read this, as you hear notifications on facebook, as you pick up a conversation on the television. Then, analyze and categorize everything. Ask why.
After a couple of weeks, it is maddening. Usually the depression begins and the mania is already there and even sleep is impossible with my thoughts bombarding me. Falling asleep is not restful because the nightmares start.

Throw in PTSD. Your body reacts and remembers things your mind hasn’t brought to the forefront in a while. Old traumas emerge. When people touch you, you are thrown back into that place where the trauma happened and suddenly you are there again, being hurt, being a victim and all of the feelings that you felt that day emerge and wash over you like a thousand gallons of sprite – igniting all of your nerves with sensation that soon feels like too much to bear.

After a couple of months, I was exhausted. The thoughts didn’t stop, the feelings persisted.

That night, I was dancing carefree in a bar one moment and the next, it seemed, I was screaming at my partner, we were leaving, I was crying and then I couldn’t stop. I cried for the entire night, not sleeping, just throwing up and crying and trying hard not to follow the impulses that were telling me to finish this.

I wasn’t suicidal because I wanted to die. I don’t want to die. Let’s make that clear now: I have children, and friends and a lot to live for. I don’t want to die. But the message my brain was giving me – like those old records that play in your head sometimes – were “You are worthless. You are finished. This is it. Give up now.”

A game of cat and mouse. Don’t think of a red penguin.

The penguin was ALL I could think of, the more I tried not to think of it, the more I couldn’t stop thinking of it. The replacement thoughts that I had pushed in over red penguins were becoming harder and harder to conjure up. My body ached, I was exhausted from lack of sleep, and I just wanted to switch my brain back to auto-pilot so I could survive this thing. Only I couldn’t. Because auto-pilot was flying me into a canyon.
After crying and throwing up for 24 hours, my mom told me in a quiet voice that we were going to the hospital. I knew this was something I could trust, but I didn’t want to go. I tried a feeble argument, then followed her to the car where she drove me to the hospital and I stayed awake for another night waiting to be processed in.

At 5:30 in the morning, I had not slept in two nights and I was finally checked in to my room in the mental hospital. At the mental hospital, there are a lot of superheroes.

There are people like me, who can’t keep out the thoughts anymore.
There are people like me, who have painful pasts and PTSD and look at me with sad eyes and half smiles.
There are people like me, who have been afraid that they would finish it once and for all (and also knew they weren’t ready to die).

In the mental hospital, you take off your cape.

There are snacks and there are people in uniforms who direct your steps and order your life and allow you to stop thinking. And of course, there are medications that slow your brain to a place where you can actually process thoughts one at a time.
They let you sleep there.
They talk to you about the scars.
They help you heal.
You become less afraid to heal.

My shattered heart was mended up a bit, my brain was chemically adjusted, and that raging kidney infection I didn’t realize I had was delivered a heavy dose of antibiotics.

I didn’t try to kill myself.
I think that’s important to say.
But I was suicidal.
Equally important.

I didn’t try to kill myself, but my body wanted to just stop treading water and sink and sink and sink into the murky blackness and let it fill my lungs. But I didn’t. Partly because of my mom, forcing me to take refuge in the plastic-covered haven also known as the psych ward. In the psych ward, they are really asking you only one question: do you want to live?

Do you want to live?
Take this medication.
Do you want to live?
Do you want to live?
Go to group. Listen to other people’s pain, even if tears are running down your cheeks the entire time.
Do you want to live?
Dance with the schizophrenic lady. Laugh and forget for a moment.
Do you want to live??
These moments are life. You are ok. You are worthwhile. You are more than your trauma, more than your pain.

I want to live.
I hope you do, too.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, remember that they might want to live. It might just be a battle that is too hard to fight right now. Call the suicide prevention hotline any time of night or day at 800-273-TALK. Or call me. Or go to the ER. People want to help you live and sometimes we just can’t do it on our own. 


5 thoughts on “red penguins, murky waters

  1. This is a great story, Joni. Being able to share your thoughts and feelings with others who will understand and share their own is really the best medicine. You might check into DBSA or NAMI support groups in your area. Your hospital might offer out-patient services as well. Keep writing if you can for the benefit of others as well as yourself. You have a real gift.

  2. Joni, you are my hero! For many many reasons. Thank you for putting this out there, I know it can’t be easy. This is helping me. Thank you.

  3. So for me, suicide is a process by which the logical decision of ending my life overrides every other consideration. It occurs under two conditions:

    1) The always-present, interjecting thought that happens when I’m depressed, along these lines: “I’m having a hard moment with this person/experience/etc., the way to make it better right now is to kill myself tonight.” It’s how I know I’m depression-triggered – this comes up in response to the most mundane (and difficult) life circumstances with equal frequency and potency. It fucking sucks, because then I become at combat with my own mind beating the impulse down, understanding it for what it really is, and containing it. It’s exhausting.

    2) When I finally give in to the impulse, it overrides my natural self-defense mechanisms. This has happened twice in my life. I’m an extraordinarily logical and intelligent person, and when a logical analysis leads again and again to the conclusion that I must end my own life, I stop asking for help, I become extraordinarily peaceful, and then I just make a plan for execution. The two times in my life where I was “caught in the act,” so to speak, just about everyone in my world thought I was at the top of my game. I was happy, calm, and focused, and deeply at peace with the thought that there was an ending approaching.

    Your courage to speak out on this much less anonymously than I do never ceases to amaze me. Thank you.

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