This post is part of a Suicide Prevention Month blog series. Read the other blogs here.
According to the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide (Van Orden et al., 2010), desires for suicide arise from a combination of perceived burdensomeness (i.e. “the world would be better off without me”) and thwarted belongingness (i.e. “no one will ever truly love or understand me”).
The capability for suicide is a separate, yet crucial factor that interacts with these desires. Where capability is present, there is the most acute, immediate, and serious risk for suicide. However, many people experience persistent desires for suicide without capability for it. That was the case for me for most of my life.
I’ve almost always felt like a burden –which makes sense considering that my father, frustrated that I didn’t have the attributes he had wanted in a child, frequently said I was a burden.
When I cried, he reminded me that unlike many children in the world I wasn’t being beaten, wasn’t impoverished, had both my legs, etc. He taught me to see my depression as another sign of my selfishness, and he did his best to prevent me from getting help.
Thwarted belongingness has been a longstanding problem for me too. Growing up, I felt as though no one in the world could accept or understand me, and this made me vulnerable to putting up with rather rotten behavior on the part of friends and romantic partners who had once thrown me a few crumbs of kindness.
Repeatedly, after a friend or partner started to bully me, threaten me, use me, cheat on me, abandon me, or otherwise treat me badly, I assumed I somehow deserved it (for being too boring, too needy, insufficiently giving, and so on). I would then spend several years mourning the loss of what we’d once had, just hoping that somehow they’d come back and care about me again that tiny, little bit.
Of course, interpersonal problems – such as feeling like a burden and feeling alone — go hand in hand with depression, which I’ve had since childhood.
Often interpersonal problems are the stressor that makes someone with a vulnerability to depression begin to have far worse symptoms than before. Depression also has a way of exacerbating interpersonal problems and separating us from others.
Some people become frustrated with our depressive behavior and reject us, and because we fear this happening, many of us pre-emptively back away from people who might have been accepting if we had let them.
It’s a vicious cycle.
I’ve had several severe depressive episodes, but the only time I ever tried to kill myself was in college, because it was then that I felt most alone. Everyone I knew was facing their own changes, going in different directions. I felt that no one could stand to be around me, and I couldn’t stand to be with myself either. I felt sure that I was a burden and that my death wouldn’t matter much to anyone.
I quietly survived my attempt and just went on as if nothing happened.
Though I continued to have very strong suicidal wishes, I never made another suicide attempt because I started to worry that killing myself might make me more of a burden, rather than less.
First, I thought that I couldn’t kill myself because I didn’t want other people to have to clean up the messy state in which I keep my personal belongings.
Then, I told myself that I couldn’t do it because my cats needed me.
Finally, I started believing that it would cause other people emotional pain if I killed myself, and I resolved never to do it–no matter how much I didn’t want to live.
Despite this resolution, my depression and isolation were still quite severe, and I remained very tempted to kill myself. During my third year of college I began to fear I would break that resolution and admitted myself to the hospital. After that, I went to live in a residential treatment center. From there, I resumed college classes and applied to graduate school in psychology.
Today I am a college professor. I work hard to manage my mental illness with ongoing treatment and making healthy lifestyle choices (including carefully choosing caring people for companionship).
Without depression clouding my vision, my long-held assumption that I am a burden no longer seems indisputable, because I think I do make a difference for my students and other people close to me. I’m not just waiting to die but instead trying to make the rest of my life one worth living.