There’s A Person Under Here

Trigger Warning: Suicide

Mom called me last week to ask my opinion about something: she’d been approached by some friends whose son, about my age, recently attempted suicide. The parents needed to leave the house but didn’t want to leave him alone, and asked my mom if she’d be willing to step in for a few hours.

My dad and grandma, she explained, were less than thrilled about the prospect. As a skinny person currently in a walking boot for a foot injury, they feared that she was susceptible to danger. They didn’t know this young man, but they believed that he might have an inclination towards violence to others after he harmed himself.

This is a misconception I’ve heard a lot about people with suicidal thoughts or who have made attempts. Research states - and I can agree after my own crisis several years ago - that the desire to end one’s life is not about trying to be harmful or destructive to other people. It’s about trying to end the constant pain in your head, a pain that takes over absolutely everything until you can’t eat or sleep or drink or have a single uninterrupted thought. In fact, I was so absorbed in my own world that I barely noticed other people, let alone wanted to harm them.

Mom turned to me, she said, because as someone who has a great deal of personal experience with mental illness both with myself and my friends, some of whom have also had suicidal thoughts, she thought I’d know which side was right. I couldn’t say for sure - I’ve never met this guy and don’t even know his name - but I thought of myself in a similar situation and told her to agree to the parents’ request.

I won’t lie and say I wasn’t a little nervous during the day, especially since I felt responsible for her safety when she left the decision to me. We had safety measures in place that I’d advise for going to anyone’s house if you don’t know them well - telling other people the address and having a certain word to text if you need help - but I was happy (and not surprised) to hear she didn’t need them.

She called me, tired but completely fine, a few hours later. She told me about the sweet, chatty young man who told her all about the things he’s interested in and asked her what she likes. He was a kind host who offered to make her lunch when he made some for himself and spent almost three hours talking to her. On the way out, she told his parents that he seems like a sweet boy who will get through this. They hugged her with tears in their eyes.

She told me that her time there reminded her of my interaction with the rabbi at my college, years ago. When I told her I was having suicidal thoughts - even though I clarified that I had no means to end my life nor did I plan or want to harm myself or anyone else - she became afraid of me. She went from someone happy to invite me over for Shabbat dinner and let me babysit her kids to someone unwilling to talk to me one-on-one or let me see her family.

When I tried to broach the subject to my rabbi and she was afraid, I felt like I’d done something wrong, perhaps even ungodly. And when my crisis was over and I saw her on campus the following year - even when I explicitly told her that “I’m fine now” - she was unwilling to interact with me. The relationship we’d built over two and a half years meant nothing anymore, and I felt like it was my fault.

I can’t say for sure what this guy was feeling, but I know if it was me, I would have loved to find kindness instead of fear and acceptance instead of rejection. By giving him the gift of a few hours of distraction and not feeling like a freak, she likely helped him immeasurably, as she helped me.

I couldn’t be prouder of her for making the right choice, even though it was hard and maybe even scary, and I can only hope that others will step in like she did. Whether it’s someone you’ve known for years or a stranger, people in a mental health crisis deserve the same love and respect as everyone else, and I appreciate that her impulse was to look for a way to be kind rather than a way to get out of the situation.

She admitted to me that she was afraid - she didn’t know this guy, and there is still that small chance he could have decided to hurt her - but she chose to trust him, unlike the rabbi who shunned me. Inside the scary story of a suicide attempt, she found a human where others were afraid to look. And that can make all the difference.

Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.