This summer I had a flash of hurting myself. It wasn’t a specific narrative or plan, but a visceral sense of mutilation.
I recoiled from the image, shocked it somehow got into my head. It had been years since I had this kind of intrusive thought, but I’m very familiar with its progression if unchecked.
When I was 17 I was experimenting heavily with drugs, and in between LSD trips in particular I began to have these suicidal flashes. They started a small glimpse into a foreign mind – “Who’s thought was that?” – and evolved into a detailed narrative where I was supposed to shoot myself with a shotgun I inherited from my grandpa. As the mental images persisted, no matter how much I didn’t want them, my actions started to align with them. I began doing practice runs with the unloaded shotgun under my chin, pulling the trigger, and breaking into tears after I heard the click of the trigger.
It felt like someone else’s will was forcing itself into my brain. I battled it as much as I could, but the fight wore me down. I would only feel relief when I’d give in, but also weep in devastation that I was losing the battle. To keep fighting it felt like madness. To give in meant to die. It felt impossible to escape.
I got as far as the parking lot of a hunting goods store. Each step was small. I told myself that if I get the ammo, I don’t have to use it. However, with each step, I took forward into self-destruction, it would ask me to take another step.
I was reluctant to ask for help for several reasons. Fundamentally, I didn’t knowhow. Asking for help is a skill and one I had very little practice at. I also felt incredible shame. I can’t recall being shamed for needing help earlier in life, but I saw self-reliance modeled. Family members would hunker down and muscle through their tough times, and I had adopted the same approach. And lastly, I was afraid. I was just starting my drug adventures and the highs were incredible. So I was afraid that asking for help would mean that I would lose these experiences, lose my new friends, and get in trouble.
But when I was sitting in that parking lot, thinking about buying ammo, and I realizing I couldn’t stop, I decided to ask for help. I made an appointment with a psychiatrist. In a bad dance with the doctor, half-truths, and self-medicating with street drugs, I somehow got the help I needed and this suicide plot disappeared.
When I was 8 years old, a few friends and I were playing with matches and accidentally burned down a small forest. We began by lighting and stomping out small fires near the base of a pine tree. First was a Playboy magazine we found by the creek. Next were pieces of cardboard. Then dried pine needles started to catch on the forest floor, then the closest tree. It got out of our control and we ran. The fire spread through the forest and towards the open, dry prairie when the fire department arrived and put it out.
This became the pattern throughout my teens and twenties. With drinking, drug use, cravings, obsessions, thoughts of self-harm: What began as a small form of play – a thought, an image, a secret – would smolder, catch, and burn out of control until there was so much destruction that an outside force had to intervene.
My recovery process hasn’t been about building the strength to put out these fires once they’re raging. It’s about noticing them early, asking for help early, and putting it out early. It’s a lot easier to put out a burning magazine than a raging forest fire.
I wasn’t alone in this pattern. Particularly during my heavy drug use, I was surrounded by incredibly smart, and strong people whose overconfidence in their ability to control their lives lead to their deaths. Eric, a best friend from high school, was trying to get sober on his own again when he relapsed and died on cocaine and heroin cut with fentanyl. Naomi, one of my first girlfriends, killed in a late-night car accident while on alcohol and pills. And Matt, one of my closest drug partners, who died last year of heart failure related to long-term meth abuse.
I spent more hours doing drugs with Matt than anyone else. We experimented and plotted on how to stay high the longest with the least crash. We sold drugs in order to get cheaper access. We talked high for days about everything, but mostly about using drugs and how to make them work better.
After I got sober at 21, I felt a special obligation to help him, at least by letting him know the stopping was possible. I met him for dinner in Iowa City, a college town where we had done a lot of our drug use. Despite all the time we spent together using, he seemed like a stranger.
I shared with him my experience of losing control and asking for help. He shared he had begun prostitution and had contracted HIV, but told me he still had things under control and would consider getting sober “if his t-cell count got too low.”
Each step he took into self-destruction, would ask him for another step.
From then on I mostly received updates from his sister, who had gotten help after a year in prison for drug possession. Over and over, throughout the years, she kept trying to help him. In a cycle only family members of addicts can understand: hope, devastation, defeat, acceptance, then hope again. Matt began to disappear for long periods of time. For months, then years.
It’s like everyone suffering from addiction or mental illness has two selves trying to live in one body. A bright and big-hearted versus withdrawn and destructive. It seems impossible to recognize the people we love even though it’s their face and voice spewing vicious words. That is the heartbreak of it: the pain is worse because we know what they could have been.
But this process does not happen instantly. It starts as a quiet, intrusive thought. It starts with the fresh crack of a beer. It starts with an intriguing look that lingers. These are the sparks the catch, burn, and eventually rage out of control, burning away everything that once was healthy and good.
This summer when I had a flash of hurting myself, I told someone. I simply said, “I had a flash of hurting myself.” Then I told someone else. And someone else. One friend replied that she’d been having flashes of driving into oncoming traffic with her family in the car. It scared her so she’s getting help. Almost all my friends are struggling through this winter, this year. Feeling suicidal with the burdens of work and isolation of the pandemic. Feeling past depressions sink back into their lives. Feeling overwhelming stress from changes to their relationships, housing, and careers.
Since this summer, I’ve been talking about it. I’m sharing more with friends and my recovery communities. I’d been mostly quiet at the beginning of the pandemic, treating zoom like a TV in the background. But that wasn’t enough. Now I connect and share honestly a few times a week so I’m not holding the weight of my isolation alone. I started an anti-depressant that worked in the past during hard times, and this qualifies as a hard time. I bought extra layers of thermals so I can continue to go outside and see people during this winter and not pretend I can muscle through this alone until spring. I’m having a hard time and but I have the skills to ask for help early. There are a lot of sparks floating down to the forest floor, but I can keep them from catching if I keep asking for help.