By Soumya John May. 01, 2020
Covid-19 and the accompanying nation-wide lockdowns across the world, have worsened things for those with mental health issues. I’ve been diagnosed with multiple mental health disorders, and news about my classmate’s suicide made the encroaching darkness of this pandemic more opaque.
The questions I keep asking myself are – Why was no one there? Did people around him give up or is there just no hope left sometimes? A month into the United Nations declaring us amidst a Covid-19 pandemic and a few weeks into the lockdown, I learnt something devastating. An old classmate had died by suicide earlier this year.
When we first went under lockdown, I began calling my friends to check in on them. Some of their situations were far from ideal and worsening in quarantine. Parallelly, the news started becoming a whirlpool of death tolls and suffering. As death shifted from a possibility to a probability, my calls started extending from friends to old friends to colleagues. That’s when I heard about my classmate’s suicide.
My friend struggled to recall our classmate’s name while telling me of his death. Neither of us was close to him in college. But I’d always been drawn to him in a way that those of us familiar with mental illness are to our clan.
I scrolled through his Facebook timeline looking for a trail that would lead me to his decision.
“You may have heard, I dropped out of college too,” he inboxed me early in 2016.
“Good for you!” I replied. “You know I play on that team.”
It was one of our last conversations.
We both spent a good portion of our time in college battling the urge to end it all. Neither of us completed the course. While hopelessness is something that continues to visit and leave my life, there must have come a point for him where it would not leave.
“He was always depressed,” another friend said to me when I asked if she knew what his tipping point was. “I’m not sure if he was medically diagnosed.”
I scrolled through his Facebook timeline looking for a trail that would lead me to his decision. His last few posts were asking people to pay attention to those with anxiety and depression, requesting them to show up for those in their lives who were suffering.
I come from a bloodline of mental illnesses and a family history of suicide. I’ve been diagnosed with multiple mental health disorders, many of which leave me in utter despair from time to time. I’ve always come out the other end with a decorative badge of honour – I survived, here is how and this is why.
But the news about my classmate’s suicide made the encroaching darkness of this pandemic more opaque. The answers I held so dearly seemed like nothing but survivorship bias. When the threats of loss and devastation loomed so tangibly above me, I knew I needed more.
Death shifted from a possibility to a probability.
I found it hard to sleep in the days that followed. I did everything to silence my thoughts – meditate, journal, not engage with the voices – but they only got worse. One night, I sat up at 3 am and started to sob violently.
I wanted to pinpoint a reason, the specific knot that undid me, that I could tie back to get myself together. But I was unable to find it amidst the hurricane I was caught up in. I needed to speak to someone.
I thought of all the friends I’d just spent weeks calling. I knew they loved me but I wasn’t certain who would be able to watch me come undone in the middle of the night during a pandemic. I thought of my classmate who must have, in a moment like this, retreated into himself and given up.
There was a part of me almost relieved that he didn’t make it to where we are at. I am not certain how his impossible concoction of profound empathy, acute distress, and piercing insight would have handled this mess. It is a mess, isn’t it?
People are stuck at home with abusive partners, parents, and minds. Calls to suicide hotlines in the US have increased by 800 per cent. My own illnesses were triggered by the constant stories of suffering and the news of my classmate’s suicide. And there was nowhere to be but my mind.
People are stuck at home with abusive partners, parents, and minds.
Over the next few days, I fell into a reverie of quarantine activities – baking, cooking, and working until I had no energy left to think. But there wasn’t enough busyness that could drown the bloody warcry in my mind.
So I started calling my people, hoping to tell them what the darkness of that night had sucked me into. But each time I tried, I’d start sobbing again. The time of the day didn’t matter, pain has solid vitals even at 3 pm in the afternoon.
Most people were afraid to see me in so much pain. I felt guilty about alarming them. So I let them make small talk, assured them I had a therapist appointment in tow, and a few people on speed dial I could speak to. I said that I was not suicidal, praying that if I chanted it enough, I’d convince myself it was true.
It made me wonder if this is why people stop reaching out. Do we convince ourselves that we aren’t doing so bad because people who love us can’t look our pain in the eye? Does the guilt of needing what they can’t give strip us of our right to feel what we do?
Two paths vivified in my mind like a scene from Robert Frost’s most famous poem. My classmate walked one way and I walked the other. I wanted to drag him back from the path he took and tell him something that would change his decision. But when I looked at the image for too long, I found myself frightened if there’d be a day when like him, I think – maybe for some of us, there isn’t enough hope.
Nearly 8,00,000 people globally die of suicide each year. We’re losing one person to this every 40 seconds. While mental illnesses can be the cause of such potent pain, so can common human conditions such as loneliness, heartbreak, and stress.
Two paths vivified in my mind like a scene from Robert Frost’s most famous poem.
We cannot predict when someone will withdraw into themselves so we have to stop gate-keeping pain for only the suicidal or doctor-attested. We have to learn to lock eyes with people’s darkness without a vexing urge to look away so those we love can show us they are hurting.
I realised that we need access to each other’s hope and strength. So I decided to not stop reaching out. Eventually, I found a couple of friends who weren’t intimidated by my suffering and were willing to hold me as I came apart.
I woke up again at 3 am a few nights ago and wrote my classmate a letter. And apologised for not looking at his suffering long enough. For assuming he was someone else’s responsibility, that someone must be checking on him. I promised him that I’d always hold people whose truth I can see and never look away from their distress.
I realised that we need access to each other’s hope and strength.
The worst of this pandemic may soon be over but everything we’ve experienced here will change us forever. Mental health professionals say that there’s a mental health pandemic right around the corner. How do we shoulder this?
It isn’t one individual’s responsibility to keep another alive but it is our collective duty to hold each other up, billions of us latticed in a safety net that no one can slip through. Let’s ask ourselves what we can give, who we can show up for and how we can hold those we love.
Most importantly, let’s give ourselves permission to reach out as many times as it takes because we are all worthy of being saved. Even if some of the best ones couldn’t find it, I want to believe that there is enough hope around to make us all pick the choice to stay.
Soumya John writes about relationships, mental health, and identity. When not writing essays or endless love letters, she can be found perched in a corner, consuming copious amounts of caffeine and creating words she thinks should exist.