Tl;dr version – We do not talk about suicide and mental health nearly as much as we should. It is critically important to speak up about this – so to that aim I am telling my story 10 years later and ways I’ve learned to stay sane.
Suffering is one very long moment
A decade ago I was “happy”. I put on a veneer that everything was going well when just below the surface I was raging like Mount Vesuvius and as stable as the San Andreas fault. I didn’t have an outlet for that pressure, it broke me and I tried to kill myself.
In the past I’ve been vague and skimmed the surface about this because it is painful, deep, and emotional and honestly, because I still feel ashamed about it to this day. I’d allude to it as “about to give the ultimate sacrifice” or “in the past I went as far to create a suicide plan”. The only other time I’ve written about this it was clinical. Only 5 short crisp sentences stating what had happened with a link to the Trevor Project.
The fact that I tried to kill myself is a dark secret I carry with me and don’t talk about because I’m partially afraid of how much one night nearly destroyed everything. I don’t focus enough on the fact that I’ve had 10 years that by all rights I shouldn’t have had.
It is important that we speak uncomfortable truths and secrets and so today I will. Reading through my story it is amazing to see the power of hindsight. Things I thought were the end of the world seem trivial now but when I was in the midst of this darkness my view was distorted and it is only with a decade of time that I am able to see more objectively. Please forgive any typos as this was painful to write and harder to revise.
- It was the fall senior year at the University of Utah – 2008 I was in DC for an internship and hadn’t met anyone else in the program
- I’d transferred to the University of Utah after being kicked out of BYU for “struggling with my sexuality”. I hadn’t yet admitted to myself I was gay. I’d lied to my parents and literally everyone about why I wasn’t at BYU anymore.
- On the flight to DC I finally said the words “Maybe I’m gay” to myself. In that moment every question I’d had over the years clicked into place. I’d felt incongruous with the world around me and finally I had an answer as to “why”
- 30 seconds later I realized “Shit I’m also Mormon” – hence the major conflict
- I spent the next semester figuring out what being gay & Mormon actually meant. I came out to the other gay kid in the program and he introduced me to my first gay bar which incidentally I have now outlived (RIP Town Danceboutique!). I went on my first dates, learned how fleeting yet fantastically meaningful a relationship could be, went to my first gay-friendly bookshop and realized that it is just another bookshop albeit with larger self-help & fiction sections and a flag out front.
- I also dove headlong into researching everything biblical and clinical on homosexuality. From the original Greek version of the Bible that Paul’s epistles would have referenced to the latest research on twins where researchers were looking for the “gay gene”.
- On any given week I would go from looking for a “cure” to my problem to instead looking for religious text that said I was normal and loved. I researched conversion therapy and the only reason I didn’t sign myself up for electroshock aversion therapy was because y research showed it was effective only 5% of the time and even then the effects of the “cure” lasted less than 5 years.
- I did all this because I felt like my soul was being split in two. Saying that doesn’t do it justice and I lack the talent to describe it myself. The closest I’ve found to how I felt can be found in the play Angels in America when the Mormon housewife is having a mental break because her husband is gay. She is told:
“God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can’t even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It’s up to you to do the stitching.”
- This is how I felt as a gay Mormon. My entire life had been ripped apart and I was left to do the stitching up and in the process had to decide what I kept and what was left behind. Would I keep the gay bits or the Mormon bits.
- This is how I thought, in a binary. I couldn’t do both and so I had to pick one. Faced with the choice to leave all you’ve ever known and throw it aside for all eternity or reject this new thing that for the first time made your life make sense. Two roads diverged in front of me and I had to choose. But my thinking was almost always on what I’d be giving up. On the negative. Rejecting family and eternal life with them or rejecting happiness. Even in that time of choosing I could only see the negative of those choices, not the positive and definitely not a possibility that there was more than just a binary.
- So it was with this constant question in my mind that every day during my lunch break I’d take a walk through the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery & American Art Museum just a couple of blocks away. I’d wander through oblivious to most of the art because I couldn’t see the beauty or the happiness in any of it. I was going to find a quiet place to think and work through this problem. I felt so weak for not being able to “just fix this” that I told no one. I just put on a smiling face, wrote my thoughts in journals, and kept white knuckling through it.
- That meant the cycle between “I’m going to be gay” or “I’m going to be Mormon” went from a 10-day cycle to a 7 day to a 4 day to a 2 day cycle. I started flip-flopping my position on everything so much that I couldn’t do anything but get myself to work, get through the day, and then focus on this. It consumed everything I did. Finally I “broke down” and started looking for help from other people.
- I started participating in online forums for other gay Mormons working through this on both sides of the coin. I reached out to YouTubers who had told their coming out stories. I went so far as to break down and tell my Dad when he was in town and then a month later just a few days after the bitter-sweet election of 2008 where Obama won and Prop 8 passed I told my Mom I was gay.
- Let me tell you that it is not easy telling Mom that her baby wasn’t everything she thought I was going to be. After I told her I thought things were going to get better. I went from having no support network to having a couple of people I could lean on. Or so I thought.
- Just 2 weeks later I still faced with this binary choice of which half of me had to die so that the other could live. This morning I reviewed my journals from that time and this quote stood out
“I feel as if I’m in an endless cycle that will keep me depressed then happy the depressed, etc until one side either the Church or gay breaks and gives UP. If this continues I will break and kill myself, I can see it coming … … If I can’t break this cycle before next year I will need to commit myself to a psych ward”.
- That’s where my head was at and one day things clicked into place in my brain and this seemed like the answer I’d been struggling to get to. Why be the one to choose when I could let Jesus take the wheel and have God tell me what I needed to do on the other side of the veil.
- It was in that moment that I really had decided to do it but I was so mad at myself for making that choice that I decided to vent my frustration and blow off some steam by practicing some of my fencing kata. I didn’t have my swords so I took an old broomstick, went outside, and started through the motions to try and calm myself but they didn’t work. So instead I started to fight the imaginary foe that was a big tree nearby but it wouldn’t budge.
- I hit the tree again & again & again & again until I had destroyed the broomstick and my hands were stinging and numb from all of the reverberations.
- I picked up the pieces, threw them away, went upstairs, and cleaned up my hands not feeling any relief. In the bathroom I opened up the medicine cabinet and noticed the bottle of Lortab leftover from my wisdom teeth removal. So I took one for the pain.
- I tried calling Mom but couldn’t get ahold of her so I reached out to my online community and posted about how I was feeling. I don’t remember if it was a goodbye note or just an obvious cry for help. After writing that I tried calling Mom again and this time left a voicemail.
- In it I asked her to call me back, told her I loved her and needed to chat, and that “If you don’t hear from me, it’s not your fault”. Then I hung up and emptied the rest of the bottle of pills down my throat.
- I got a call from one of the guys in the online group and he did everything you are supposed to do in that situation. He tried to get my address by claiming “he wanted to send me a postcard” but I told him no he’d want to send an ambulance.
- I remember lying in bed trying to forget about this world protesting against this guy’s attempts to get me help and something I was saying on the phone triggered my roommate into action.
- My roommate came over and asked me what was going on. I stumbled my way through it without really telling him much except about some of the pills. He went to ask our other roommate for help.
- In that moment I ran out of the apartment, took to the stairwell and went up a few flights of stairs and hid in the laundry room just wanting to die.
- The police were called and they searched the building until they found me and took me to the hospital. It just so happens that I was found by one of the gay cops on the force who, on the way over, shared his story with me and telling me I’d be okay, that it gets better … he didn’t understand.
- In the hospital bed I remember the nurses saying I was having issues with my sexual identity and me internally raging that they didn’t get it. I knew I was gay that wasn’t the problem. It was that I was also Mormon and no-one understood what was going on.
- They took me to the psych ward for observation and counselling. I remember they wouldn’t let me have my headphones to listen to music for fear I’d use them to hang myself. I met with a shrink who wanted to talk to me about how it was okay to be gay and how “in here all the problems of the world are on the other side of that door. In here you don’t have to worry about the pressures outside.” I stared and him and realized he didn’t get it either.
- The cop didn’t get it. The nurse didn’t get it. And now the shrink didn’t get it. And worst off I hated being in that ward. It was for crazy people and I wasn’t crazy.
- I eventually got to talk to my mom and heard how panicked she was by my voicemail the next morning (she had gone to sleep early and hadn’t heard the phone ring) and how she and my brother had tried to track me down.
- I met with the shrink again the next day and this time he realized that the demons I faced came inside with me and that keeping me in the hospital may not be the best for me. Part of this was helped by me internally believing and thus truthfully telling him and everyone around me “After going through this I can promise you I’m never going to try and kill myself ever again”.
- I believed that lie. I made them believe it too until they let me out. What they didn’t know was that in my head the key word was “try”. Like Yoda’s advice “Do or do not, there is no try” I knew my next attempt would have no calls, no room for error, no witnesses, just a note safety pinned to my shirt. Even hearing how my Mom panicked when she got my voicemail didn’t shake this resolve.
- Somehow I convinced everyone of this lie and got out of psych ward in less than the 72 hour observation period and ended up back at my internship.
- I went back to the old cycles of gay or Mormon but they were back to their 10-day cycles again. I had 3 weeks left on my internship before I went home and I knew that before my 20th birthday in March – if not sooner – I’d be dead. I was past choosing, I had decided. I was full on planning how with several situations as to how I’d do it.
- Then after only a few days home I woke up to a primal scream from my mother yelling my name. Instantly the adrenaline coursed through my system and I was awake and downstairs. She couldn’t find her husband and he had left her some disturbing voicemails. We went looking for him and listened to more voicemails that made it clear he had was going to kill himself. We figured out where he’d gone and when we got there we discovered the police had already been there and taken him to the hospital. He was alive.
- It was only then sitting in the hospital waiting room that I realized had been given a gift. I was able to experience first-hand what my Mom went through when she got my voicemails. The panic, the feeling of helplessness, the primal fear coursing through her veins. I got to see how my attempt had fractured her.
- In that moment it became clear that for the first time that this suicide attempt wasn’t just about me. It wasn’t about what half of me had to die, which binary I chose, or how I killed myself. I finally understood how it would have deep, life altering ripples through everyone around me.
- It would take the pain I was feeling and not end it, but amplify it and share it with everyone around me – forever changing their lives. Even writing this I can only imagine how these two attempts may have changed my Mom’s behavior when it comes to sleeping near the phone, and we both made it out alive.
- I am extremely grateful to have had that experience but I got lucky. Far too many people don’t get that and are thinking to themselves “I’m never going to try to kill myself again”. That is why I had to share my story because far too few talk about this.
- In the last decade I have been able to do some incredible things including living in 4 major cities, going to grad school at Oxford, working for Google & L’Oreal, seeing dozens of amazing musicals that touched my soul, help countless other gay Mormons stay alive and find meaning. I’ve met incredible friends whom I’ve shared my life with, traveled to almost 20 countries, been on incredible adventures and so much more.
- Has it been all rainbows and sunshine – HELL NO! There have been struggles and pain. Loss and rejection. Frustration and fury. But in the end I have been able to hopefully do some good in this world.
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars
In order to push back the demon I had to make it about other people, not about me. But sometimes the stress brings me closer to that demon’s grasp and so I’m grateful for tools I’ve put in place to help make sure I never get anywhere near this demon again. Here are some of the ways I work to stay mentally sane. They work decently well for me but your mileage may vary.
- Get physical – Even if it’s just for a walk or a run let alone a gym session or a full on competitive sport. Activating my body activates my mind and helps me stay sane.
- Talk meaningfully with the inner ring in your life. – Your inner ring may be just 1 person or a handful, but the family and friends you tell just about everything to you should speak to regularly and meaningfully. Sometimes all I need is a quick check in with how their job hunt or move or travels are going but I know that – when shit hits the fan – I can call on them to help get me out if my head. When I find myself realizing my inner ring has shrunk because people drift or move on, that is a warning sign to heed.
- Find and embrace stories. From novels to comic books, business books to TV shows, movies to video games, or from the people around you. Find a way to hear other stories. They don’t have to be about struggle or mental health and please I hope they aren’t! Stories allow us to find our own moral lessons and learnings based on how we – in that moment – interpret them. When I find myself finding only melancholy meanings in stories that is a warning sign and so I look for something different.
- Change your routine. We are creatures of habit. We take the same commute to work, go to the same shops, order the same food and in the process form patterns and routines. When my routine becomes a mental rut something as small and simple as taking a different path to work or going to a different gym gives me perspective and gets me out of my own head. It reminds me that I need to get out of my mental health rut as well.
- Shut off the news. The news alert the other week about RBG falling down and breaking 3 ribs set the mood for half of my office and made everyone a bit more on edge. I stopped getting most alerts so that I could avoid the rapid-fire cyclical anxiety of news. Unless your job demands you have CNN on at all times then don’t. Reclaim your time.
- Change your music. Over the last decade I’ve seen how the music I listen to amplifies or dampens a mood. If I’m feeling down and listen to melancholy music I feel worse for longer. Putting on music with a brighter beat or more calming message works. It may take an entire playlist or two but it works for me.
- Explore a new culture. This one is huge for me. Be it through going to try new food at a local Ethiopian place or flying to Portugal (which I’m doing in a few hours). Seeing how a different culture responds to the same stimuli forces you to change your perspective. Travelling especially does this as you go from “they say elevator wrong” to ” they say elevator differently and that’s okay”. While a lift and elevator are small examples experiencing this reminds me to not think in a binary of wrong and right but to find a way to make things work best for me.
- Learn a new skill. When we only do what we are good at doing it is easy to see ourselves as failures when we fail at some new challenge. In reality we just haven’t experienced it or practiced it yet. We can build resilience by failing often in small and controlled ways. The best way I know how to build this is by trying something new. I went to Costa Rica and spent a week at surf school. I originally thought “yeah, I can do that!” Newsflash I could not. I got up 1 time for about 10 seconds and failed again and again. While I may not have actually learned the new skill I did learn how to fail and be okay with that as long as I keep trying.
- Journal. Writing things down with pen and paper in a quiet spot gives you perspective and lets you empty your anxiety onto a page instead of keeping it bottled up in your head. If I spend 5 minutes each morning with my iced coffee writing 10 lines about the shitty thing Karen from finance did helps me be more mindful during the day.
- Reflect. Spend a day a week different from the others. Don’t work, don’t stress, just set it aside. If I can take it and go to the park for a picnic, take a stroll, or go to an amazing choral church service I find it helps turn the release valve and give me a mental break. Often I’ll take my journal and write until I can’t write anymore thus combining a few activities.
These 10 things work well for me and help me stay sane because they try and slow down the crazy and give me perspective. If you are having a hard time know that you are not alone. You are not flawed. You are human.
We live in a crazy world and so I’ll leave you with the best description about anxiety & depression I’ve ever heard. It comes from a dear friend who was asked by his doctor where anxiety came from. He described it best when he said;
“I mean the brain evolved to pick berries out of bushes, chase antelopes or whatever, and run away from lions, but now I have a computer in my pocket that talks to satellites, i live in a brick box, and will probably live 70 years longer than nature intended, so that probably has something to do with it.”