Unexpected trends and more ruminations
I returned from my trip to New Mexico (sponsored by Waking Up Alive and the New Mexico Suicide Prevention Coalition), Land of Enchantment—or Entrapment, depending on who you’re talking to, apparently—on Saturday. I collected another four stories out there, which means I’ve now officially met, interviewed, and photographed 109 suicide attempt survivors in 12 cities across the US.
And I’ve started to notice an interesting trend that’s got me thinking. I’ll sit down with an attempt survivor and, right out of the gate, they’ll say, “I don’t know if my story is what you’re looking for. It’s not very [interesting/outrageous/gory/extreme/insert your own colorful adjective here].”
I can’t tell you how much this hurts my heart. As attempt survivors, we’ve already got plenty of experience with self-hatred. To further internalize it in such a way that we berate ourselves over the adequacy of the methods with which we tried to kill ourselves cuts to the quick.
The more conversations I have like this, the more struck I am, and I wonder what must be going on behind the scenes to result in such a mindset.
As a society, we assess the seriousness of a suicide attempt based on the severity of the method. If you didn’t use one of the more lethal methods, you didn’t really mean it. You weren’t committed to it (see what I did there?), you were just seeking attention.
In short: your pain is not valid.
This is a perspective rooted in ignorance, and it further perpetuates discrimination against those of us who struggle with minds that sabotage us into believing that we’d be better off dead.
Often, when the media does choose to report on suicide, they seek out the people with most extreme stories they can find (the suicide prevention field is equally guilty of this). They use the cliche ‘life-threatening struggle to absolute recovery’ story arc. They focus on the sensational: the blood, the gore, a hospital scene, a broken relationship (and if these are things you don’t want to discuss, many outlets won’t print your story at all). Then they skip over the meaty, difficult content to get to the part with the rainbows and butterflies, and another poster child for hope through adversity is born.
They tell the same handful of these stories over and over, until the telling becomes so sterilized that all we see is a Shining Beacon of Hope smiling at us from the page or the podium. They reframe the stories into empty fairy tales that only allow for black and white, dichotomous thinking, with no room for the grey areas in between. They happily violate recommendations (set out by the major suicide prevention organizations) that we avoid sensationalistic headlines and discussion of methods.
As a result, we readers don’t hear the whole story, so we don’t think about the struggle. We forget that the struggle is okay, that it’s normal. We forget that suicidal thoughts don’t always go away forever, if they do at all, and that recovery isn’t linear. When we get lost in these contrived plots, we forget that humans are complex and interesting and terrifying and scared and, ultimately, worthy of loving and finding compassion for. We forget to teach readers about warning signs and resources, ways to cope, how to listen, what to say.
What’s most interesting to me is that these stories are meant to instill hope—and we all love a little dose of hope on a bad day—but based on what I’m seeing, they have the power to ostracize others with lived experience of these struggles into thinking that even their attempts to die are inadequate or mundane. Stories like these, spun as such, can do more harm than good if they’re not balanced out by other stories that mirror a more common experience.
What we need here is a shift in understanding, a shift in perspective. All of our experiences are valid and worth talking about. No one story is more important than another. Each of them is borne of great pain, and we are all, every one of us, survivors.
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