Oh, where to begin with the content/trigger warnings?
Seriously, just an open, graphic recounting and examination of some pretty rough stuff ahead. The title should imply it all: talk of suicide, psychological issues, hospitalization… You can’t read this sort of thing without having some feelings about it, so feel free to walk away now.
Still with me? K, so at 14, I decided to end my life. I don’t remember being depressed or withdrawn; rather I was just flirting with the idea that the world wasn’t a great fit for me, or I a great fit for it. Other people seemed to do just fine. It was 1988, when things like feelings and struggles weren’t discussed publicly or privately, so if you had feelings or struggles you dealt with them on your own or it was scandalous. And of course, we had zero clue autism was even a thing. While I knew I was different from most people, I saw most of that as a positive, so I’m not quite sure what my feelings or struggles were. I was a good student. I had friends. I wasn’t the last one picked in gym class. I was funny and cute enough and had the right body type to wear the right clothes to be accepted. I had no idea that I was a fragile, meticulous construction of what I felt I needed to be.
As I’ve written before, I masked and masked well, without knowing that’s what I was doing. I had no clue that I was myself a house of cards, and it’s only now that I’ve been studying the autism spectrum that I understand that’s what I was. Of course no one could see it, not my family or friends or teachers. Those warning signs they talk about in suicide awareness campaigns? I didn’t have any of those. I was one of the kids who “had it all.” Of course no one could have helped me. And that’s fine. Spoiler alert: By any standards I care about, I’ve turned out pretty okay.
So what happened? I got a D on a math test.
No kidding. High school freshman honors algebra was the first class to really challenge me. Sure, in reading classes I was bad at comprehension, but teachers overlooked the fact that I couldn’t nail motives and themes and whatnot because I could recite the text back to you and spell all the words and tell you what all the individual words meant. So my grades never took a hit. But in algebra, it’s all about learning formulas and showing your work, and I had my own way of doing things. The numbers spoke to me in a different way, and I could not twist my brain in the way that very “this is the only right way to do things” math homework–or the teachers behind that homework–wanted me to be. This is the part where your knee knocks the table leg or you sneeze and the house of cards goes from impressive to just a mess in an instant.
The decision to not live my life anymore was a simple one. Life took a lot of work. It was a lot of energy out, but what it gave back was just not worth it. Most importantly, I had been one thing as long as I could remember, and then suddenly I wasn’t that thing. The very core of me was gone, so how could whatever was left be part of the world? Suddenly, the relationships I’d crafted felt empty. The jokes I’d laughed at weren’t funny. The clothes I wore weren’t comfortable. If the one thing that felt natural and elemental and I never had to work at (yep, still talking about being a little mathemagician) wasn’t real, then what was left that was worth going through the motions for?
So that’s the why. The how was harder.
I didn’t want anyone else to suffer for me, so I thought a lot about the body that would be found. No blood, no bloated corpse in a lake–that sort of thing. But I also didn’t want my family to feel bad or guilty, so I created a mythology. And this was a shitty move–I knew it then as I do now–but I was 14 and in crisis. I chose a shifting friendship/acquaintance with some people I assumed wouldn’t take it to heart and tarted it up to seem dramatic enough to be sad about. I wrote letters to people, and I can’t remember all of what I wrote or to whom because I’d begun tossing back the codeine at this point.
My parent had painkillers in the house, and since my mom worked with a doctor we had stock bottles of everything, from drug reps, I think. So I read all I could about the effects and warnings. You could definitely overdose on codeine. That would leave my body just a peaceful, neutral thing. As simple and painless as can be. And it was February–cold and flu season–so I stayed home sick to be alone in my room. Nobody questioned it. I began eating pills carefully so that I wouldn’t just vomit them up. I knew it would take a while, so I let them build up over the course of the day, taking a few more pills every couple of hours.
Turns out, this was not an ideal strategy. You can’t just take a bunch of codeine without getting pretty effed up. So instead of ingesting enough fast enough to kill me, I just got super loopy. Day one was a bust. I was still “sick,” so I got another shot the next day. Oh, I kept eating the pills, but I also started to panic that I would survive and end up with brain damage–I would be even less smart. Not an option. So I did everything I could think of: I huffed hairspray, tried choking myself in the bathtub, really haphazardly hacked away at my wrist–I don’t know if I just found the dullest razor blade in existence or had zero coordination at this point, but I ended up not doing anything more than making a scratchy mess of my wrist with very little bloodflow…and then I passed out for a really long time.
And then I woke up. What do these details have to do with autism? Nothing, but I think it is important to understand that I really wanted to die. It wasn’t just an instant that it takes to pull a trigger or jump off a building. It was a sustained intention. But as I woke up, having come however close to not doing so, I gave up on the idea of actively seeking death.
I knew I was still pretty messed up, that I still had chemicals doing some not-okay things in my body, so I told my parents that I thought I needed to go to the hospital. I think I remember saying, “I don’t want to die,” and it being kind of funny because I was overreacting about being sick, so I had to explain what I did. Well, I gave them the short and not completely accurate version. Not wanting my stomach pumped, I lied about how many pills I took. I slapped my watch on, face side in, to cover the carved-up bit on my wrist, and kept schtum about the rest of it.
We went to the hospital, where I stuck to my story and, to my surprise, they decided to keep me in the adolescent psych unit, behind airlock-style double doors that had to be buzzed open and without belts or shoelaces or even contact lens cleaning solution. (When my parents sent me roses, they were kept in the office where I could visit them but for some reason I wasn’t even allowed to have them in my room.) I knew then and still believe that I did not belong there. The other kids were abused, addicted, or otherwise better off protected from the world. I was there because I was a kid with good insurance who had wanted to end herself.
My first day there was spent doing puzzles and other tests and meeting with various specialists, and they worked up an assessment of me. I was told that I was very intelligent and also a ticking timebomb. Awesome combo.
I was missing more school than I’d have liked. It would take time for my parents to coordinate with my teachers so I didn’t fall even further behind (further behind than my “sick” days). This was my primary concern. How would group therapy and one-on-one therapy and art therapy and movement therapy help if they sabotaged my education? And how would I explain disappearing for three weeks? I decided I would not be there that long. Now, it was obvious by the kinds of questions they asked and activities we performed what they needed you to be so that you could graduate through their levels and re-enter society. In my daily allowed phone calls and the very minimal “family time” visits, my parents also quickly understood that I didn’t belong there. They were, as always, on my side.
There was no way this was easy for them. They were 37 years old and their already challenging firstborn was divorced enough from this plane that she actively tried to leave it. They did not want to act foolishly and do further harm. The experts keeping me in this facility made it clear that this was the only way to keep me safe, to isolate me. No visits from anyone other than family, no outside time until at least Level 3 or whatever the advanced, less ticky timebomb level was. And if my parents tried to act against my best interests and pull me out too soon, you know, the state could simply take custody of me.
So all the cheers to my parents for listening to me and each other, I guess, and being strong and stubborn, making all the right arguments to the right people while I played the game and manipulated the system from behind the double doors. After one week I had made “such remarkable progress” that I was ready to leave and continue my therapy on an outpatient basis, which was also completely useless except as an exercise in manipulating authority figures.
I returned to life without any huge, obvious shift. Most people just thought I was out sick. I did drop honors algebra, transferring to normal-people math, where I was again bored out of my gourd, but whatcha gonna do? I was still friends with my friends, I still did what I did…for a while. I did begin to shift to a more genuine-me life. A couple of punk mix tapes, some army surplus boots, and by the summer I was spending most of my time at my new friend’s backyard halfpipe. I couldn’t skate well at all, but that didn’t matter. I felt at ease with this group of kids who also saw the world a little differently–and differently from each other. We didn’t all have the same beliefs, but we were open to each other’s beliefs and that was new. We were weirdos and celebrated our weirdness. We weren’t depressed kids, just open to the idea that most of the world isn’t great, that most of it is a game not worth playing.
Most punks or weirdos or artists probably didn’t have to try to kill themselves to figure this stuff out. It is what I needed to do, though–and that is not to glorify the idea or practice. It is the thing that this collection of particles that was me did to become the thing that I am. It’s part of the story of me, and I am not me without my story. Is that clear? It wasn’t a cry for help. I’m not relieved or grateful that I survived. I just am. The experience was my Chapel Perilous, or a crossroads, to put it mildly. I placed myself in this trial/adventure/rite of passage, and I am me because of it.
I came out with a general agnosticism and ambivalence to my existence. In a broad sense, I grew more critical of the world and chose what was important and what was frivolous. I chose which games I wanted to play, putting less energy into areas I didn’t think would be helpful to myself or others. I’m comfortable with my impermanence and don’t expect anything extraordinary from myself. Ambition? Not for this guy. I do try to do as little damage as possible and, in a very Girl Scout way, leave this campsite nicer and cleaner than I found it.
Over the decades, I’ve tried to talk as openly as possible about my experience because the stigma around suicide–while so much better than it was–is still harmful. My narrative, like the actual physical facts behind it, has always been easy for me to handle, and even my trigger was obvious. But I didn’t quite understand what was behind the trigger. I thought it was because I believed I was perfect and this one D on a math test meant that I wasn’t perfect. That’s close, but, to reference the house of cards again, nobody, not even me, knew that I was working with some off-spec cards. No way was my impressive structure going to hold forever. I was always going to fall.
If neurodivergence had been better understood at the time, maybe the support that my family and teachers gave me to climb higher and be wonderful could have come with some temperance. I could have maybe understood that I was going to have different kinds of relationships and different interactions with the world in general. I wouldn’t have rejected the things (like the piano and gymnastics) that I couldn’t master instantly or masked my way through them (like fashion and performance), so the few aspects of my life where I excelled so naturally and effortlessly wouldn’t have been so important that they were literally a matter of life or death.
The world is a generation and a half out–almost two–from my adolescence. Kids are being diagnosed/discovered as autistic or otherwise neurodivergent better and earlier, and that’s encouraging. Hopefully, the support they’re getting is better than the ol’ ABA “just mask better” nonsense, because the suicide rate for autistics, particularly female, is abysmal, and as I’ve tried to make clear, I now trace the origin of my breakdown to the misread strengths and weaknesses and the particular traits of my autism.
I imagine that other undiagnosed/undiscovered folks like me–those who as young children were verbal, easily taught, and not prone to meltdowns–they’re able and therefore expected to mask and blend in and operate like “normal human beings.” And even for those who aren’t driven to attempt their own end, trying to operate as a “normal human being” is exhausting and ultimately not useful. It all adds up and it’s not healthy.