Though I never derived much from Christianity, one verse always stood out to me. Isaiah 54:17 says “No weapon formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn.” But what if the weapon is faith, turned inside out? What if it prospers? What if it shakes, shocks, and savages you to the point of spiritual emergency?
I carry two psychiatric diagnoses: bipolar disorder and C-PTSD. Occasionally, I see and hear things others cannot. I am also one of many people who live with chronic suicidal ideation.
Listening to neurotypicals discuss suicide is like listening white people discuss racism. Librarian, writer, poet, and critic Scott Woods asserts, “If we have to keep reminding you racism exists, you’re not fighting racism. If we have to keep sharing basic information for you to get motivated, you’re not fighting racism. If we have to be anything other than what we are to get you to help us fight racism, you’re not fighting racism.” Except replace “racism” with “suicide.”
The extent to which people pretend not to know about suicide beggars belief. To many, suicide is supposedly unfathomable. Hot take: like a broken elevator, sometimes help simply does not come when you call. Someone once observed, “you wear your trauma like a coat.” I would never claim it was a perfect coping mechanism, but it was a perfectly valid coping mechanism given the circumstances.
I started thinking about suicide at ten years old. My parents became involved in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. After my baptism, I discovered their sordid history of racial discrimination. Even so, I’m ashamed to admit I might have been prepared to overlook it provided the Church had delivered on the missionaries’ shimmering promise of instant family. I should have known better. The cliques crossed from church to school, where I was bullied mercilessly. I was an animal, an “it,” a monstrous de-sexed freak. I violently repressed my sexual orientation, afraid to give the bullies any more ammunition. My grades were perfect; my self-esteem was in tatters. Before bed each night, I prayed the Lord would take me in my sleep. Every weekday morning I’d get ready for school as if nothing happened.
One of my high school classmates died by suicide in our freshman year. When her death was announced over the loudspeaker, several classmates performed a dramatic reenactment of her ingesting toxic household chemicals. The teacher, of course, did nothing. The following year I attempted to end my own life. My parents drove me to a nearby hospital. A male nurse informed me in a bored, sing-song voice I either could drink charcoal or the doctor would pump my stomach. People prayed over me as I lied between heaves about it being my first and final attempt. I was unceremoniously discharged that same evening and back in my usual seat on Monday once the weekend was over. The minute I turned eighteen the hospital that “treated” me sent me a bill.
Many people believe there is no value in the content of hallucinations, but I have been analyzing mine for a long time to better align myself with my identity and purpose. During my last hospitalization, the hallucinations dislodged something in me. I was all alone in the dark in one of the sleeping rooms on the inpatient psychiatric ward. “I am transgender” was the first sentence I said out loud. Unfortunately, it was that stay in which I joined the ranks of people who were sexually assaulted in “care.” I found my voice for a moment and then lost it again.
I am grateful the hallucinations also led me to my current spiritual practice. I doubt it was coincidence. By the time I sat for my first reading, I was angry, withdrawn, and hopeless. The relationships I developed as a result are an amazing lifeline, and yet there is something so tentative about being a mad person who is reaching for spiritual connection. I have been ambivalent. I have been deeply depressed and unable to do anything except cry. I have been afraid to admit that I am headed towards a breakdown. I have opened my mouth to pray and choked. Sometimes it’s a long walk to the egun table. Some days I don’t make it. How could they truly know me and love me? The struggle is real. The struggle is today. Little more than a month ago I found myself looking — really looking at my cleaning products. I swallowed my pride, pushed down the feeling that I was disappointing my ancestors, and checked myself into a crisis respite center.
One of my acquaintances always says “I believe in calling a thing a thing.” Suicide is not the emergency here; I am not emerging from the shadows to tell my story. I have taken these issues to therapy, but the healing I need must occur within my relationships. I have been failed horribly. You all are guests in my guts. I am telling you that suicidal thoughts are, in mental health activist Aisha Mirza’s words, “where [I am] holding the grief of being considered disgusting.” It is easier to problematize those who contemplate, attempt, or complete suicide than it is to acknowledge the systemic factors that drive up suicide rates. I am proud of my sick and crip siblings. Our dance of survival is beautiful, and frequently under appreciated. The most powerful ministries I have seen are born from intimacy with suicide. We are artists and healers and educators and organizers. You need us as much as we need you although you wouldn’t know it judging by the conversations we have about mental health in this country. Listen to us.
Dominic Bradley is a Brooklyn based multimedia artist.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.