Monday, October 15, 2018
Opinion

Column: I survived a suicide attempt and here’s what you should know

Twenty-five years ago, I was a reporter at WTSP-TV, out in the field covering Tampa Bay’s Independence Day celebrations. I expected an easy assignment talking about families and fireworks. Then the newsroom called with an urgent message: I needed to get to the hospital right away. My mother had overdosed on prescription medication and was in the emergency room. It wasn’t the first time she had tried suicide, and it wouldn’t be the last.

Why any human being would want to end her life is, for many people, simply incomprehensible. But the recent deaths by suicide of two celebrities and a national report about rising suicide statistics has us talking, tweeting and posting. And, importantly, asking, "Why?"

I have a different understanding of suicide than most, both as survivor of an attempt at age 15 to take my own life and as a survivor of my mother’s death. So, when people ask me, instead of staying silent, I share my story.

•••

The night I planned my death I was a 15-year-old sophomore living in Brandon. I remember feeling like an empty shell, feeling ... nothing ... as if I didn’t really exist with anything to tie me to this world.

I injected myself with a full syringe of my diabetic brother’s insulin, lay down on my bed and waited for the end. But, a strange thing happened: A screen opened in my mind and a movie of my life began to play out. I saw in my mind’s eye all the things I’d seen and experienced, and all the people I loved. I realized life was worth living. It wasn’t my time to go, so I told my terrified mother what I’d done, and she took me to the hospital.

Fast-forward to 2009, when I received another urgent phone call. This time it was my brother, confirming my worst fears about Mom. A lifetime of fighting the exhilarating mood swings and crushing depressions of bipolar disorder had finally overwhelmed her. I remember my feet giving way, a pit of icy agony opening in my stomach as I slid down the wall, wondering, "What? What? Why?"

Thousands of Americans are dying by suicide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the suicide rate has risen 25 percent since 1999. It’s 22 percent higher for military veterans than for civilians. Last year, more people died by suicide than from car crashes or opioid overdoses. Too many of us, fearing judgment and discrimination because of the terrible stigma surrounding mental illness, are suffering in silence.

Living with mental illness is not easy. After all, there’s no blood test to confirm depression or any brain scan to prove an anxiety disorder. More than once, when Mom’s bipolar disorder sent her into an exhausting manic episode, even I wanted to yell at her to "just get over it!"

I should have known better. After all, I had spent years in therapy dealing with my own depression, anxiety and bulimia. I eventually became so sick, I ended my career in television news to escape the glaring spotlight. It would take years until I felt strong enough to tell our story.

As suicide rates continue to rise, now is the time to look beyond negative stereotypes about mental illness. This requires empathy, the kind of understanding that starts when we withhold judgment and look beyond what we can’t objectively understand to change society’s perspective on diseases of the mind and how we talk about them.

For instance, I don’t say my mom committed suicide. Criminals commit armed robbery or homicide. My mother died by suicide. The bipolar disorder she fought for so many years had finally twisted her reasoning to the point that she actually believed we would be better off without her. The depths of my mother’s despair must have been unbearable.

We must also remember that mental illness is a chronic disease, like cancer or diabetes. If a friend were having an asthma attack or chest pains because of heart disease, would you tell that friend to tough it out?

Finally, we must be bold and step out of our comfort zones to actively assist people who are struggling. The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late." If you’re reading this and considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at toll-free 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or chat with someone by texting CONNECT to 741741.

You’re not alone. I’ve been there, and I know the darkness doesn’t have to last.

Lisa Foronda Harper is a former anchor/reporter at WTSP-TV and a mental health advocate.

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