I’ve been trying to come up with a way to explain not wanting to die but having suicidal thoughts. Saying only that baffles concerned loved ones: if you don’t want to die, if you don’t want to take your own life, why are you thinking about it? I worry that the contradiction makes me sound melodramatic, that I’m crying out for attention despite my life lacking any real terrors. I am financially secure, I am healthy enough, no one ever yells at me at work. “You’ve had a hard year,” people say as they pat me on the shoulder, their mouths dipping in concern. It’s normal to feel sad or overwhelmed when two of your friends die suddenly within a few months of each other. But suicide is a bit extreme, no? A bit childish? To the mentally well, the phrase “suicidal ideation” suggests panic and white jackets and blood, probably. It’s difficult to talk about how I feel right now when the reaction I get is either alarmed confusion or annoyance.
The only way I can explain it is suicide radio. When I feel like this, it’s like there’s a radio in my head, the dials turning themselves on too slowly for me to notice. The radio starts suggesting things, little murmurs from a familiar frequency, the host’s voice similar enough to be mistaken for my own: What if you were just dead? If you were dead, you wouldn’t have to answer this email. You wouldn’t have to show up to that social obligation. Dead people don’t have to RSVP or approve these Google Doc margin notes. No one asks a dead person what happened to that book proposal.
The frequency is the same as a daydream, as a curiosity. You should talk to your parents about your will. Maybe they’d put your name on a bench at Wesleyan. Would you trend locally on Twitter? Suicide radio plays all the greatest hits. It’s more like a curated Spotify playlist than an FM station.
I have an anxiety disorder. It’s not a sexy one: as far as I know, it’s generalized anxiety that crops up when I’m feeling taxed, or at no time in particular just to mess with me. When you’re a kid, people label you a “worrier,” a conscientious soul, nervous. I was afraid to order for myself at McDonalds until I was thirteen or so. I cried when teachers used stern voices. My high school years were marked with frequent sinus infections until I was considered a truancy concern. Undiagnosed anxiety runs in my family of New England WASPs, dismissed as a personality quirk rather than a treatable condition. The women in my family are quiet and over-worked. We bicker and carry grudges, we cry and we deal.
Anxiety disorders flirt with depression, the relationship between them a spectrum rather than a straight line. The medication I currently take, Effexor, is an anti-depressant. I always assumed only depressed people commit suicide—a misunderstanding most likely the influence of pop culture and mental health stigma—so when I was diagnosed with anxiety, I didn’t consider myself at risk of more. When I first heard suicide radio, I was disturbed and unprepared. I was waiting for the L train, days or weeks into an anxiety spiral, and there it was: If the subway hit you, you wouldn’t have to answer your text messages. You should jump.
I didn’t know what to do with the thought. I loved being alive. I had no desire to be dead. I just wanted to be gone for a while. The thought freaked me out so much that I went to a doctor and finally got treatment, first Lexapro and eventually my current medication. I started talking about anxiety online and off. But suicide radio stayed a dark joke or a dirty little secret. I genuinely do not think I am at risk of hurting myself. I do not want to hurt myself, even when the radio is on. It’s easier to keep the radio secret than freak out people in my life unnecessarily. I don’t want to scare my parents or be marked as an unreliable flight-risk at work. Even in New York City, stigma is really, really real. When I finally wrote publicly about my anxiety in 2016, I didn’t mention suicidal ideation at all.
I want to write about it now for two reasons. The first is that my second friend who died last year took his own life. The rumor is that he jumped in front of the L train. I wasn’t as close to him as I was to Tahlia, the first death, but his funeral freaked me out so much that I didn’t even go inside, instead chatting for hours on the sidewalk with high school friends until everyone left for the reception. It stuck with me for months, this glimpse into a parallel universe where I had listened to the radio. He was a month younger than I was. We made out in the front seat of my car when I drove him home after rehearsal. I saw his ruddy red cheeks at age twelve. He heard the same radio. The duality haunted me for months until a patient friend pointed out that I was mourning both of us.
The second reason is that “suicide radio” is the first way I’ve been able to help my friends understand how I feel. When I tweeted about it, it seemed useful to other people too.
So here’s the best way I can explain it: The challenge of suicide radio isn’t not obeying it. The challenge of suicide radio is identifying it for what it is: an impostor. These thoughts aren’t yours. They’re not coming from your soul, from your self. They’re the suggestions of brain chemistry, the influence of illness. Suicide radio is a symptom of a disease. It isn’t a death wish, it’s a caution flag that something is seriously wrong. Being okay is figuring it out and yelling, “You’re not me! I’m not the one thinking that! Get out of here, suicide radio!!”
To our friends and loved ones, we can say: I hear suicide radio, and I need your help turning the volume down.