Those five words have the power to make my entire body freeze, and my heart begin to pound against my chest with an almost painful force. These are the words I have had the complete and utter displeasure of reading through a text or hearing fall out of the mouth of one of my friends more times than I wish to say.
They are the five words that send me back to a scene when I was only nine-years-old and heard the four words, “Uncle Steve killed himself.” They are the words that leave me petrified, yet floundering, at the same time, rushing to say or do something in order to make sure the person I care about never has the desire to say those five words ever again.
I was only nine when the idea of suicide burst through the door of my life, not even bothering to knock or give me some warning to prepare for its arrival. Being so young, I didn’t quite understand much other than the fact that my uncle, and godfather, died because he wanted to and chose to.
I didn’t know the words “depression” or “refusal to get help” and, frankly, I did not care to know them. Because at that point the only thing that mattered was that my uncle was dead, my dad was angry, and my mom could not find the correct words to make my sister and I understand exactly what was happening. I understood when she explained that he chose to die, but I could not grasp the words she said when I asked why.
As I grew up, the word “suicide” began to become less abstract and more concrete in meaning. I also started to grasp the concepts of “depression” and “refusal to get help.” When I was 12, I could definitely say that I could comprehend the why. He was lonely, as his wife and child left him, he was depressed, as the brain is an imperfect thing and chemicals get imbalanced, and he felt there was no other way to end his suffering. I still could not explain away the last one. It was also when I was 12 that I started to fear losing someone else to chosen death.
This fear was one that I’m sure I had ever since I began to grasp the concept of suicide, but one that did not become apparent until I was flipping through a book I borrowed from my sister. In between two of the pages, I found a razor blade with dried blood on the end.
At 12, I knew that meant she was cutting herself. I also knew that cutting yourself was something many people who ended up killing themselves did. My stomach dropped to the floor and my heart began to beat with such fervor that my ears began to pound with each beat.
It was at that moment that I realized how terrified I was of every hearing the words, “This person you love killed themselves.” I rushed to her and begged her to tell me that this wasn’t hers, that she wasn’t hurting herself, that she wouldn’t kill herself. She told me she borrowed the book from her friend and that her friend was the one who was doing this, not her. I believed her because I wanted to. Because I didn’t want to think of hearing that my sister killed herself.
It was from my sister that I first heard the words, “I just can’t do this.” It was months after this incident and my parents were worried for her. She was acting out, she would spend days in bed quickly followed by days without ever sleeping. They found a razor. At first it was a fight, but the kind that only happens because worry and fear often make a person anxious, and anxiousness leads to wanting to know for sure whether their worry is warranted and thus is often said in a yelling manner. Mom was crying, Dad was screaming, and my sister finally shouted, “I just can’t do this!” I sat at the top of the stairs, palms sweating, heart racing and all I remember thinking was, “This is it. I’m going to lose her.”
I didn’t, though. Instead my parents got her the help she needed and, though it took many years and cycles of relapses, my sister is alive. More than that, she took what happened to her and decided that she wanted to be someone to help people, make a difference in their lives. Now she’s a nurse who loves her job. She still gets depressed, but she knows how to cope with it and she knows not to let it drown her like she did back then.
Throughout middle school and high school, there were many more moments when I heard the words “I just can’t do this” come from the mouths of friends. My best friend, who struggled with anorexia and depression, felt she had no ability to cope with what life gave her. A friend, who struggled with his sexuality and anxiety, felt no one would miss him if he was suddenly gone.
I have called a close friend right as they were staring at a piece of rope twisted into a loop to talk them down. In each one of those moments, all I could think of was how was I going to keep them safe and get them to realize that this is not what they have to do. I can only imagine that was how my parents felt when they heard my Uncle Steve say five similar words.
I can thankfully say that I have yet to have my fear of losing another person realized. All of my friends who have uttered “I just can’t do this” are still here today. They are because they got the help they needed and learned how to cope with what they were feeling. Most of them do still feel depressed or anxious from time to time. But now they know how to keep their heads bobbing above the swirling ocean of anxiety and depression. And they continue doing that until the waters calm and they can finally let themselves just float on top of it once again.
It gets better. That’s the advice that is given to people who think of killing themselves. It seems so simple and so completely untrue at the time, but ask my sister or any one of my friends and that is what they will say. As for myself, what I can say to anyone who thinks no one will care if they die, I can tell you that isn’t true.
I think about my Uncle Steve constantly, about how much I miss him and how much I love him. I know my parents think about him every time they go back home to Canada or call their family, because they are thinking that they should be able to see or talk to him. For those who think life will just move on without them - exactly how it was before they died - I can also say that isn’t true. The death of my Uncle Steve changed everything. It changed the dynamic of my family, it changed the way my dad reacts to hardship, and it changed me into a person who is in constant fear of hearing the five words, “I just can’t do this.”
When suicide bursts through the door of a person’s life, there is a very distinct ‘before’ and ‘after’ feeling. Because when suicide happens, it tilts your world off of its axis. And your world never goes back onto its axis, even 10 years after it has happened. Instead, you just learn how to go on in a world that’s more tilted than it should be, knowing the entire time that something is still missing.
Kassidy Manness is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org