I recently read an alarming article about how the new Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” has been linked to a recent rise in the teen suicide rate. While I tend to take sweeping generalizations like this with a grain of salt (like when video games are blamed for violence and heavy metal music is blamed for satanism) I was astounded to see that a doctor with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) authored the study. The study says that NIMH as an organization is not responsible for the findings of this one doctor, but nevertheless, they still urge caution in regards to exposing teens to this hugely popular TV series.
That’s terrifying to me, but not surprising. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen suicide glamorized. Ian Curtis of the band Joy Division and the poet Sylvia Plath are worshipped as heroes. Their suicides are seen as proof of their artistic genius; evidence that they were tormented to death by their own immense talent and pain. Their suicides have added to their mystery and intrigue as famous figures. Mistakenly, people who kill themselves are elevated to a false status of nobility. Celebrities who die by suicide often gain more notoriety. And the danger doesn’t stop there. By elevating the people who take their own lives, suicide itself as a notion is romanticized. And I shouldn’t have to tell you how horribly wrong that is.
What really scares me is this isn’t just limited to influenceable teenagers with brains that are still forming and identities that haven’t yet solidified. Many adults who should otherwise know better often glamorize suicide. I did it too.
Back in 2012, I was struggling with a bipolar mixed episode, which is a combination of depression and mania. My mind was racing with uncontrollable, compulsive thoughts and urges, and at the same time, I felt hopeless and empty inside.
Mixed episodes are one of the most dangerous risk factors for suicidal behavior. Because I was depressed, I had the desire to end my own life, and because I was manic, I had the energy to act on my ideations.
I had a frenzy of intrusive thoughts swimming around in my brain, drowning me. And among my overwhelming compulsions was the false notion that it would be noble to end my own life. I pulled out my Joy Division records and played them on repeat while I wallowed in the toxicity of my own morbid ruminations. I felt like I’d become some mystical figure like Sylvia Plath, who I was wrongly worshipping in the midst of my suicidal ideations. I imagined myself nestled in the camp of tortured, talented artists who’d been immortalized by their own tragic deaths. It was like somehow—because of my biased (and wrong) adoration for famous people who’d died by suicide—I felt more special.
And I, like many people who’ve been suicidal, mistakenly believed that everyone would be better off without me. My self-esteem was so low that I’d convinced myself I’d be doing everyone a favor by removing myself from the world. I now know that couldn’t have been more wrong. And I—of all people—should really have known better. My dad died by suicide in 1998. His death tore my mom apart, and it forever scarred me. Even though he and I were never close, his suicide was still the most traumatic thing to ever happen to me. So how could I have thought ending my own life would be honorable? I know how: because I have a mental illness that skews my notion of reality, and it’s exacerbated when I’m in the middle of a manic, depressed, or mixed episode. And the flames were fueled by my sentimentalization of suicide, and famous artists who’d ended their own lives.
In 2012, I took pills in an attempt to die. I ended up in an emergency room, strapped to a gurney, having seizures for 24 hours. No, that’s not a typo. 24 hours. It was torture. I didn’t recognize anyone (even my own mother) and I hallucinated as I was violently thrust into and out of reality. I saw monsters trying to kill me. I felt myself leave my own body, and trust me, that’s not a good feeling. And because I was on suicide watch, the nurses wouldn’t unstrap me from my restraints to use the bathroom, so I had to pee all over myself and the bed. It was awful, humiliating, disgusting, terrifying and nothing I’d ever want to go through again. Not even for a million dollars. There was nothing dignified or angelic about it. I’d been reduced to a frightened wild animal fighting for my life.
When I’m stable I can see suicide for what it truly is: a permanent “solution” to a temporary problem. It’s not noble or beautiful. It’s messy, scary, selfish, and what’s even scarier: FOREVER. There’s no turning back, there’s no changing your mind. Leaving behind grieving friends and family members is the farthest thing from conscientious. And for everyone who dies by suicide, there are thousands of others who attempt suicide and survive, only to suffer long-term brain damage or everlasting physical damage. There’s nothing glamorous about that.
I haven’t watched “13 Reasons Why” because I know it would be triggering. One of the ways I stay in recovery is by avoiding triggers. If you struggle like I do, I recommend that you skip it too. Even though I know suicide is the worst mistake I could make, even though I know how devastating it is to lose a family member to suicide, even though I’m stable right now, I’m still vulnerable to a distorted notion of suicide. And the media’s glamorization of it is destructive and harmful to my well-being.
I hope that instead of shows like “13 Reasons Why,” we see more shows about the reality of suicide with real survivor’s stories like my cautionary tale. Maybe if more young (and old) people knew the reality, they wouldn’t be seduced into thinking suicide is virtuous, glamorous, or an easy way out.