All of my friends kind of want to die. I learned this when I stumbled across this piece by adrienne maree brown, one of my favorite writers of all time. She says,
i have ideated suicide in the past, thought it didn’t much matter if i was here or not, and so it didn’t much matter how i treated myself or others. when i was in that phase of ambiguous commitment to life, i took risks with my mind and body that i couldn’t imagine taking now.
I read this, and it made perfect sense to me because I have spent most of my life kind-of wanting to die and some of my life really wanting to die, and I had never heard someone explain it so eloquently before that moment.
So I posted adrienne maree brown’s quote on my Instagram like one does when they’re inspired and lonely, and it’s late at night. And the same few friends who always respond to things I post on social media (grateful to you guys) started responding, and we got to talking. We talked about a lot of things like how much it sucks to be alive during a pandemic and how that “it sucks to be alive” feeling isn’t really that new or pandemic-dependent.
We talked about being sad, and we talked about our childhoods. I had never really shared about the wanting-to-kill-myself-thing with others before until I got a really, really good therapist, and my therapist was like… “yeah, we should discuss that.” I never really thought about that as something that was weird or uncommon. I kind of forgot about it until a few years ago, my mom cleared out her old storage unit and brought me a cardboard box with all of my old stuff in it, things I hadn’t seen in years. There were tons of old journals in that box and I started reading through them. They were front to back suicide letters: letters apologizing to my mom for having to leave her, detailed lists of who to notify when I was gone, extensive plans of how I would end things. There was even a joint letter in there, co-written by my best friend and I at the time, leaving our final words for the mean girls at school. It wasn’t actually that I had forgotten about these letters, but I think I had just brushed it off as middle school girl stuff until 20 years old me was reading them out loud.
In therapy, I learned that it’s really uncommon to want to die basically your entire childhood, or maybe it’s not so uncommon, it’s just not healthy. I say perhaps it’s not so uncommon because I posted that quote on my Instagram, and suddenly all these people I love are telling me how they’ve wanted to die sometimes too.
It’s a weird thing to talk about. Even alone in my room right now, I feel funny writing about it. It’s like as a culture, we’re constantly oscillating between anti-suicide campaigns, plastering that hotline number everywhere (1–800–273–8255), and suicide being a meme (uwu I want to jump in front of a truck). It feels weird to talk about it non-theoretically and non-meme-like.
When I was 12, I also kept a journal that wasn’t suicide notes, and I would write to my hypothetical 20-year-old self. I thought I would be married by 20 and I could imagine the tall, beautiful, smile of the man I was going to love forever. I was sure I’d have a few kids too, and I can still remember the names I had picked out for them (Nathan, Juliett, Katarzyna, and Michigan). I thought I’d own a house; I wanted to live in San Francisco. Most of all, I was sure I would be living as a famous writer. So far, none of this is true.
It’s just funny because when I was 12 and writing concurrent suicide letters and letters to my future 20-year-old self, I never saw the irony in that. I fully wanted a chance at that smiling man, four kids with weird, weird names, famous author, San Francisco life. I wanted it so bad that I could imagine every facet of it, but I also was in so much pain that I didn’t feel like I could give it a chance. And other times, the pain wasn’t acute, but a slow burn, and I didn’t want to jump off a building so much as I just wanted to slip into the air and cease to exist at all.
The problem is, 20 years old came rather quickly and I still wanted to die. Only this time, the wish for death was less of an active feeling, and more of a backdrop to everything else. I wasn’t at risk of jumping off of a building anymore, and I was also enjoying my life like you do in college, going to bed at 5 am, trying drugs, waking up with your carpet smelling like vodka, and two random people sleeping on your couch. And I’m glad I got to have that experience because I always wanted it. And I’m glad I tried the drugs I did because I always wanted that too. And I’m glad I got kicked out of that one sorority party, and I’m also glad I tried having an open relationship, and that I went to lots of raves in the forest… I’m glad because these are all things I imagined for myself when I was in high school when I never got invited to parties, and so I would watch movies on the weekends with my mom about other high school kids doing it.
But I’m also sad for my 12-year-old self and my teenage self because I thought when I was 20, the pain would stop. I was sure if I made it that long, it would be because I had figured out a way to stop hurting. I didn’t know that survival sometimes means getting really good at tolerating. And when I was 20, and in college, I thought for sure life would hurt less when I was in my mid-twenties and “real life” had started and again I was so wrong. Actually, when I graduated college, the pain became more active, and the passive backdrop of wishing to disappear took hold in a more serious, potent way. Life hurts a lot more now, and I think I know why. I think I know why all my friends want to die, actually:
The thing you don’t realize in college is that your world doesn’t start or end in that tiny institution. And so while I’m glad I had those experiences, they did not save me from the immense amount of unpacking I would have to do and am still doing now. It’s like, in college, my whole world was within three feet of me, including the unbearable. My best friend and I were roommates, my college boyfriend and I took all the same classes, my professors and I shopped at the same Trader Joes, and every weekend I ran into people from my classes at parties and the bars. Sometimes that was really annoying, like when my boyfriend cheated on me and then I had to see him in class every day… But it also meant that my trauma and pain were all within a three-foot grasp, and I interpreted my pain in the way that it was handed to me: untouched, and decontextualized, insular, perfect… The pain was pain that was rooted in and of itself, not part of something greater and ever unbound.
Like when that boyfriend cheated on me senior year: I was completely blindsided. The pain was hot, cruel iron, and I knew nothing but it. It stood erect on its own, holding me only at that moment, the betrayal so all consuming that for whole minutes after I discovered it, I could not move. I had a midterm the next day (yay Society and Democracy in American Political Development), and I was worried I would fail it. Everyone was worried about me. I felt my own conception of love crack inside of itself and break open. But the pain was still exactly what it appeared to be. It did not knock at the door of my childhood assaults. It did not mask itself in the present while really being that of my teenage pain years before. That night I dreamt of him surrounded by women I knew, not foreign hands and unknown tongues and the crushing weight of unidentified objects.
Fast forward to now and in my dreams I am eaten alive. The pain no longer stands alone. For example, recently, I’ve been grieving the end of a long-term relationship. It is brutal, painful, soul-destructing. Perfect heartbreak is a kind of grief I wish on no one. But the pain is a quality so different from that of college years. The pain is coated in my childhood, underscored by my teenage heartbreaks, roped around in words my parents used to yell at me, tripping in things I wished my friends had noticed and skimming off the backs of all of the people whose hearts I once broke. The quality of this pain is rooted and infinite. I cry for him, and I cry for all of the pain I have ever felt and all of the pain I wish I had never known. The grief knows no boundaries, leaves no stone unturned.
I want to be mourning my breakup, so why am I on the floor remembering the time my kindergarten teacher wouldn’t let me pee before an assembly, and I peed my pants in front of 300 kids and all my teachers? I remember my mom picked me up, and I was soaked. She was really mad. I want to mourn the loss of the man I thought was the love of my life, so why am I lying in bed remembering things that happened when I was five years old?
The loss of a soulmate pours grief into me. I hold on tightly, sure that it will never end. The grief leaves me in unrecognizable form. The loss of my soulmate turns into the loss of my childhood: why couldn’t he grow with me? Why was my childhood robbed from me? The grief of his refusal morphs into grief over the death of my childhood best friend. He died at 13, and I was so confused.
Now I’m 24-year-old, and I still want to die sometimes, as do lots of my friends. 12-year-old me would be absolutely devastated if she knew. Healing sucks because no one tells you that when you first start getting better, everything sucks more than it did before. So much of healing is remembering, and so much of remembering is learning how much your own mind failed you (protected you) by forgetting, or changing what really happened.
When I was in my late teens, I would lie with men in their 30s, 40s, 50s. These old men with families and children, and sometimes wives would tell me all their secrets and cry in my arms. Afterward, they would tell me how special I was and that I was a great listener, and that they had never been this open with anyone before. I got to be this young girl that was super in touch with my feelings and on the speedway to health and recovery. I felt transcendent. But the truth was, I wasn’t in touch with my feelings at all. I got to glide through my emotions and catapult into a version of survival that looked nicer than theirs because I didn’t have to address the muck yet. And the 40-year-old men got to pretend they weren’t being wildly inappropriate because I was so mature for a 16, 17, 18-year-old. At that time, my mom yelling at me on the phone could still be just that: an annoyance or a guilty feeling that was remedied by her calling me back and apologizing, and getting my heart broken was singularly focused on the person doing the breaking.
Now my mom yells at me, and suddenly I’m five and eight and 14 all at the same time, and when she calls back to apologize, I can barely speak. Or a guy isn’t interested in me anymore and it becomes about how my dad hasn’t picked up the phone and called me first in eleven months. I tell my therapist these things, and she nods and smiles. She likes to talk about the uncomfortable feelings crawling up my stomach as a response to my childhood. My childhood?!?! If 12 year old me knew I was still processing all of this 12 years later, she would have given up completely. And maybe that’s the point: maybe that’s why we can’t know how hard it’s going to be until we’re going through it: survival.
This might make it seem like life is easier if you don’t process all your childhood trauma and just live in the illusion, but it’s not. The trauma comes out in different ways, and it will force you to contend with it whether you call it trauma or something else. The goal is to recognize it so you can deal with it in healthier ways. For example, 24-year-old me cries a lot, but she doesn’t sleep with men that have families. 24-year-old me wants to disappear into nothingness quite often, but she doesn’t write suicide letters. I have healthy relationships now, I sleep at night, I talk about the bad things that happened to me, and I learn why I spent so much of my life in intolerable pain. I promise the knowing is better.
So me and a lot of my friends want to die sometimes. And for a lot of of us, that feeling is not new. For a lot of us, that feeling is taking on new values and morphing into strange realities now that we’re out in the real world and suddenly our trauma is infinite. When people talk about graduating from college, they talk about losing friends, community, resources — they don’t talk so much about losing the safety of the limits of your own pain.
All my friends want to die because the world is uncontestedly a cruel, mean place, especially right now. And being 24 kind of sucks because suddenly, you’re too old to be ignoring your trauma and too young to have recovered from it. And we remember that this pain isn’t new; it’s just different. And we realize getting older doesn’t mean the pain just evaporates. I wish I could take the pain away or make healing hurt less. I can’t. I wish I could raise children in a way where they don’t grow up wanting to die. I hope I can, but I’m not sure.
Here’s what adrienne marie brown has to say about it:
i then had to choose life from deep within me. that’s why i’m still here. i want to live. i want to want to live. i think everyone chooses to move towards life or away from it, though some don’t realize that they are making the choice.
I had an old therapist tell me that elderly people are the least afraid to die. At the time, it brought me immense relief. I used to be really terrified of death. Maybe that’s what has kept me here so long: the fear of the unknown pushing up against and canceling out my desire to escape. But afraid or not, everyone has to come to terms with death, and I think I’m at the age right before people start getting engaged and right after people start contemplating their own mortality. And maybe the longer you contemplate it, and the more you face it head-on, the less afraid you become. It’s like the old people my therapist was talking about: they watch all their friends die, and all their family dies, and they’ve walked right up to the edge of it so many times that they’re just not scared anymore.
My friends and I aren’t old people yet, but we’ve encountered death more than we should. Mass shootings, friends overdosing, war, and an incessant desire to kill ourselves growing up; Couple that with the pandemic and you’d make an exposure therapist very proud. So if we aren’t so afraid of death anymore, and the world really sucks right now, and we’re in the stage of healing that feels worse, not better, and the trauma is more alive than ever… can you blame us?