when everything external is gone, what do we really live for?
Trigger Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of suicidal thoughts and self-injurious behavior.
Something happens to you at the end of your freshman year. What happens is not important. What matters is that it triggers a chain of events that slowly and inevitably takes over your entire life.
You go through the five stages of grief like clockwork. After the initial denial, you spend the summer in a state of blind rage. You go out every night and walk up and down the streets hoping to get into a fistfight with someone. When you see a group of loud drunken men you cross the street and walk towards them, glaring at them and silently daring them to attack you. You’re begging for an excuse to unleash your anger at someone. You scream at your family a lot. You say horrible, cruel things to people you care about.
The bargaining starts as soon as you’re back to college. Administrators serve you platitudes about how you’re holding up. You give them a shrug and a platitude back. You arrange meetings, talk to counsellors, do sensible things to minimise the impact you can feel creeping in on you. The depression hits you slowly. That should be an oxymoron, but it genuinely feels like a slow-motion punch in the stomach. The meetings are done, the deans have been informed. There is nothing left to do but take it. The anger has already left you, and now everything else is leaving too.
You gradually stop going to classes. In the beginning, you feel a soul-crushing despair when you fail at something. Then you feel nothing. You stop eating. Eating requires a conscious action. You aren’t particularly concerned about your weight, but the energy and initiative you’d have to muster up to eat seems insurmountable. It helps that you’re never hungry. You discover a strange drowsiness that kicks in after 24 hours without food. The constant ache in your stomach becomes a comfort.
At one point, you realise that you’ve spent 48 hours in bed without eating, drinking or going to the bathroom. A few days later, you do it again. It only bothers you if you think about it for too long, so you don’t.
You sometimes tell your friends that you don’t eat, but you make it sound like a joke. Haha, college stress, you know? I just forget all the time. When they ask if you’ve eaten today, you lie and say yes. You do the same when your roommate asks if you’ve been to classes. You tell people you feel ill and that’s why you’re not eating. It’s almost true at this point.
You know—with a fatalistic certainty—that you should be dead.
You stay in bed.
You stop paying your bills. People who are going to die don’t need to pay bills.
You stop brushing your teeth. People who are going to die don’t care about cavities. You’re rotting from the inside out and if you just stay completely still, you’ll rot through the mattress and disappear.
You go a week, sometimes more, without showering. It feels like making your outside match your insides. You cover up how dirty you are in baggy hoodies. Someone compliments the scarf you’ve tied around your greasy bangs. You haven’t washed your hair in nine days. You feel like you’re already dead and just prematurely decaying.
You binge-watch things on Netflix and can’t remember a single thing you saw afterwards.
People ask if you’re doing okay. You usually reply with a “yes.” What else is there to say?
You’ve had an anxiety-management strategy for as long as you can remember: You sing to yourself, silly little comforting phrases over and over. It’s gonna be okay, it’s gonna be okay, it’s gonna be okay to a cheerful tune, just like calming down a scared child. It evens out your breathing. It’s November when you realise that you’ve changed the lyrics to gonna shoot myself in the head, gonna shoot myself in the head, gonna shoot myself in the head, fourteen times in the head, fourteen times and you didn’t notice when it happened. It sounds even better in Norwegian. “Fourteen times” in particular has a nice ring to it, so you say it as often as you need to: fjorten ganger, fjorten ganger.
From the outside, it might look like your world is contracting down to your room, then to your bed. You know it’s really the other way around. You’re shrinking until the bed is so large and you are so small you couldn’t even get off it if you wanted to. You are slowly and peacefully ceasing to exist. You’re not certain anyone notices. You have three different plans to end yourself, but you lack the energy to implement them.
You begin philosophising over what taking your life would mean. You still understand that if you were to cause your own death, it would be a horrible experience for your friends and family. You can distance yourself from your friends (you’re already doing it) but you can’t escape your family. You owe them something for having been born. I didn’t ask to be born, you think. You feel that there is something unfair about being brought into the world already tied down by these obligations. The most fundamental question—to be or not to be—and we aren’t even allowed to answer it without concerns for others.
Like a draft with everything superfluous edited out, you’re left with just yourself. You’ve isolated yourself from everyone around you. Your physical needs have been cut. Your academics are gone. You have dropped out of every extracurricular you ever cared about. When it becomes too hard to think, you use your neck as a stress ball. It’s warm and solid under your hand. You squeeze until your vision flickers and you wonder: Is whatever’s left something you want to live as? Is there anything in you worth saving?
Miriam Langmoen works with the Brown chapter of Active Minds, a group committed to opening the conversation about mental health on college campuses. Join them on Facebook to learn more.