How I Love Her: On Depression and Suicidal Ideation

By

In 2016, I found her.

I found her on social media, not because I was looking for her but because she happened to show up on my feed. At first, I didn’t think much of it—I liked her photo and moved on and didn’t think about her again because I didn’t know who she was, didn’t even know her name. I just thought she’d be another stranger on the Internet, whom I’d notice once and would have no other bearing on my life.

The Internet, however, never forgets, and she kept showing up, and I kept noticing her, her smile. I kept coming back to her until, finally, I had to look her up and find out who she was.

 

I don’t remember the exact details of how or when suicidal depression first slithered into my life, but I do remember the first time I thought I’d try to take my own life. I was in middle school then, and it was the first time I held an X-acto knife in my hands and wondered if it could cut deep enough for me to bleed out.

I’d learn later that an X-acto knife couldn’t actually do much. I’d learn later how hard it is to kill yourself because the body has to be put through significant trauma to die, and I’d only learn this because I’d keep coming back to this place—I can map my life out according to depressive episodes that have brought me closer and closer to dying each time.

I’ve learned through experience, both mine and others, that being suicidal has nothing to do with age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etcetera. Depression is not a phase. It has nothing to do with maturity. Sometimes, young people want to kill themselves, and, sometimes, grown people do, and, sometimes, there appears to be a clear “trigger” for it: a break-up, financial difficulties, bullying, living in the wrong gendered body. Something that lets people rationalize, Okay, this kind of suicidal thinking is understandable, when the thing is that suicidal thinking is not par for the course for heartbreak, stress, fear, or anxiety.

Sometimes, we are fortunate to be suicidal once and go on to live the rest of our lives in peace. Sometimes, we cycle back to it constantly through the years. We go through better times when we’re feeling okay, “normal” even, and we go through times when we’re not so well, when every single day is a struggle to stay alive. Some of us go through life, amazed, daily, that we’re still here.

Because it’s 2019, and I am still here. I thought I’d die in 2016, when I came the closest to dying by suicide as I ever have, but I made it through that summer and the following autumn on the kindness and generosity of friends, on the support of family, on books and meals and long walks in the stifling Brooklyn humidity.

And I made it through because of her.

 

In the spring of 2016, she’d just gone through a break-up, and I was on the cusp of another depressive spiral. I’d already been on the downward bend for the better part of 2015, and I’d hoped a new year would bring better prospects, more hope, better mental health.

Instead, as the new year gave way to spring, things continued to unravel, my depression getting so bad that I couldn’t get out of bed most days. My hair was falling out by the fistful because of anxiety and panic attacks, my faithful companions. All I wanted was to die, to stop living with so much pain.

It was during that spring that I found her.

When I was downed by my depression, I’d browse Instagram, scrolling through my Explore page to see if anything would catch my eye. I don’t know what algorithm it was that brought me to her, but there she was one day in February, sitting on a kitchen counter in a gray sweater, smiling at the camera as she peeled tangerines. She didn’t have a close-mouthed smile, but one that showed her teeth, her jaw slightly dropped, and her eyes crinkled almost into half-moons.

I didn’t notice much else beyond her, her smile, didn’t notice her Instagram handle or her name, nothing that would identify her. She might have faded into obscurity like anyone else on the Internet had the Instagram algorithm not made note that I’d liked her photo and brought me back to her over and over again until I finally learned her name.

 

I have “Major Depressive Disorder, Recurrent Episode” and “Panic Disorder” and “Insomnia,” and “ADHD.” These aren’t self-diagnoses but official ones given to me from medical professionals when I finally sought out help at age thirty-one, diagnoses for which I am carefully prescribed medication and recommended for therapy.

I’ve known since middle school that I was depressed and suicidal, and I’ve also known since middle school to keep it a secret—when my parents found me on my floor they’d laughed, scoffing that I was being immature and dramatic, saying that I’d grow out of it. Depression occupies a strange place in our modern culture, the word so casually and thoughtlessly thrown around that it’s basically lost all meaning.

Our cultural language reduces depression down to mere sadness, the blues, emotional dips you get over with ice cream and “self-care” and massages, never mind that depression is a disorder in the brain, a chemical imbalance that causes pain that manifests physiologically in different ways in each person. Depression is universal, though, in how it cripples; it makes even the most basic daily tasks impossible, the simple act of rising to go to the bathroom or get a glass of water herculean.

Depression, for some of us, comes paired with suicidal thinking, which brings with it another layer of stigma. When we’re suicidal, we’re often written off as immature, emotional, selfish, cowardly, weak, pathetic, even by the people who purport to love us, and the pain that drives us to the point of death is not one that can ever be sufficiently explained. There never is a good enough answer to why any of us dies by suicide, at least not in ways that can ever satisfy, just like maybe there is no adequate explanation why any of us lives with a desire for it— and yet, so many of us do.

 

Over the next few months, I got to know her through the Internet. I learned her name, where she was from, what she did for a living. I learned about the food she cooked, the inspirations she drew from, the ways she played with flavors and textures. I learned about her and her life, and I started to follow along because there she was, vibrant and alive and cute as hell, a direct contrast from me and my dead life where I lay invisible and unknowable, not worth seeing or looking at.

She’d just broken up with her wife, so her life wasn’t perfect or free of pain. They’d been together for a few years, her wife the first woman she’d dated, the woman she came out for, and I was there as she carried that grief through 2016, her smiles tight, eyes swollen and hooded. She spent the year flitting in and out of the country whenever she could, bouncing around the world like she was trying to avoid sitting in one place because then she’d have to feel and hurt and grieve. Montreal to work on a cookbook, Barcelona, Bogota, Guadalajara, Asheville, Charleston, Reykjavik, occasionally back to her hometown in Michigan.

I wanted to comfort her, wished I could be there for her, and, at the time, that was a remarkable thing for me to want. Major depression locks you down, paralyzing you in a place where you feel so much pain, it’s like you feel nothing at all. It was a relief to be able to feel for one person, to want so much for her even if I couldn’t want anything for myself.

As my depression worsened in 2016, as I came closer and closer to attempting suicide, I told her stories. I told her stories of the woman I was supposed to be by this point in my life, well into a career with a partner and a place of our own, no kids but maybe a dog or two. When I was feeling particularly afraid of what I might do to myself, I told her stories of all the times before—that time in middle school I held an X-acto knife in my hands and wondered if it could do what I wanted it to do. My first year in college, so depressed and lonely I could barely make it to classes and ended up on academic probation, my scholarship and honors standing in jeopardy. Then 2013, my one and only year of law school, the six months I spent having panic attacks whenever I thought about a future in law, the six months I spent thinking about dying and adjusting the plan in my head, until I finally withdrew from school in an attempt to save my life.

Before that, though, there was that Sunday morning in December 2009. This is the story I keep coming back to—this was the story I kept telling her. It was a sunny morning, as mornings often are in California, and I was alone at my parents’ house, ready to carry out my plan. I carefully sterilized my razor blades. I got the new bottle of cheap vodka from where I’d hidden it in the back of the freezer. I thought of all the pills in the cabinet, pills that surely could do the trick in a bind if I couldn’t cut deep enough. I was alone, and would be alone for at least five more hours, which would maybe be enough time for me to do enough damage that, even if my parents came home early, it would be too late.

I was ready—except I wasn’t because, like I told her over and over again, being suicidal isn’t always about wanting to die; it can also be just about no longer wanting to live with pain. All we need is that one tiny lifeline to keep us here, and, for me, on that sunny Sunday in December 2009, my lifeline was a rock band, and the only thing that kept me here was the intense disappointment that, if I died then, I would never get to hear them live.

Because that’s the goddamn thing about hope, I’d rant to her. It’s so often stupid and ridiculous and dumb, and it makes you feel even stupider and dumber because what the fuck? I didn’t think about how much my family loved me or anything deep like that—I thought about Nell and how much I loved their music. I’m alive because of a fucking band.

I imagine she’d stare at me, unfazed, blinking at me over whatever meal we’d be sharing—pasta straight out of the pot we’ve cooked it in, kimchi fried rice straight out of the pan we’ve cooked it in, ice cream straight out of the pint. Hey, whatever keeps you alive, she’d say, shrugging, one foot propped on her chair, leg tucked against her chest. Whatever keeps you alive isn’t stupid.

But what if what’s keeping me alive are these made-up things? These imaginary conversations, this imaginary relationship with you?  Is this okay, too, or does it just make me crazy? Because I feel crazy, I’d say, breaking out of my head because here I was again—I’d survived middle school and college and 2009 and 2013, only to land back in that same dark place in 2016, tinkering with my plan obsessively again. Maybe I’d jump off this bridge, maybe I’d drown myself in that hotel bathroom, maybe I’d take all those meds I’d saved.

When my suicidal thinking got so bad it started scaring me, I’d force my brain to think of her, reaching for my phone and opening Instagram to check her account, her hashtag, to see where she was, what she was doing, who she was with. I’d let myself linger in fantasies and daydreams, telling myself stories of the woman I wished I was—a woman who could make the woman I loved laugh, cook her meals, comfort her, support her and her success and her endeavors. In the stories I created, we traveled together from city to city, sharing food and coffee and sunsets—and though I knew these were just fantasies and daydreams, it didn’t matter because in these stories I would imagine, I was always alive.

 

When I am suicidal, I live every single day in crisis. I go to sleep at night hoping I won’t wake up in the morning, and I wake up in the morning hating that I’m still here. My only goal, every single day, is to get through another morning, another afternoon, another evening. The best I can do is count the days and pass time, dumbly waiting for the day I’ll wake up and see the sun shining outside and feel relief rather than agonizing disappointment. I have nightmares every night, nightmares in which I am physically trapped and restrained, kept from going home to my safe place, and I regularly wake in the night because I’m having a panic attack, gasping for breath while my heart races and my stomach churns. It’s a good day if I don’t have an anxiety attack on my commute, if I don’t slip away to the bathroom to cry. It’s a successful day if I make it through to the next.

Maybe the worst part about living with this is that it doesn’t leave me. I do not have to be actively in a depressive episode for the fear of dying by suicide to be ever-present in my life; I don’t stop thinking of ways to die just because I am presently “well.” Whenever I’m on a bridge, I imagine jumping, wonder if the bridge is high enough for me to die when I hit the water below. When I’m sharpening my kitchen knives, I wonder if they can cut through skin, muscle, and veins to cause enough damage for me to bleed out. I don’t throw away anti-anxiety medication that didn’t work for me. Like some people keep emergency routes and emergency kits, I keep a suicide plan I edit and review for whenever the day comes that I might need it.

I know that major depression and suicidal ideation are simply things I have to live with, that will continue recurring in my life, and I am always aware that, one day, the pain in my brain may get so bad that I will finally succeed in taking my own life. Whether I am presently suicidal or not, I fear that that this will be the year I spiral into a depressive episode so bad, I won’t survive it—and I admit that while that very real probability terrifies me, it also, in many ways, deeply comforts me.

 

When it comes to mental illness, we are unfortunately our best advocates. We need to speak up for ourselves, to describe the pain we’re going through in ways that people can hopefully understand, that help them tap into their reserves of basic human sympathy and compassion. It’s a daunting, terrifying task, and there’s always the risk that we won’t be believed—that we’ll be condescended to and written off—but, if we don’t speak up for ourselves, no one else will, not in any way that will actually help us.

I’ve been trying to make it a habit to say out loud, whether to myself, to her, to someone I trust. I’m starting to feel suicidal again. I can feel another episode coming on. I’m slipping, and I’m not sure if this will be the one that does it. I no longer believe in this idea that it’s okay to talk about suicidal depression only after we’ve “survived” it. I reject the unspoken rule that these topics are taboo unless we have the requisite “happy ending.”

As much as we need survival narratives in the zeitgeist, I believe we need these stories more, the ones that say, hey, here is this darkness I’m struggling with right now, and here it is in its brutal, ugly, horrifying present—here it is, and do you recognize it?

I wonder if she does, though I desperately hope she doesn’t. There’s been pain in her life, personal pain that comes from second-guessing yourself and projecting other people’s expectations on you—Up until my twenties, I projected what I thought I was supposed to be, she posted once—and then there’s her lesbian-ness, the years she spent trying to be straight when she knew she wasn’t. There’s the wariness that comes from playing the part of the person people expect you to be, even if you have the fortune of having a family who loves you no matter what.

She has parents who saw who she was behind her desperate attempts to play a part, parents who pushed her toward culinary school, toward better life decisions, toward accepting her sexuality. Still, that wariness that comes from not knowing whether she’d be accepted as she was lingers about her.

Maybe that’s why I trust her. I trust her because, whatever she has been through, she has come to a place where she knows who she is and that is it okay for her to live her truth. She said as much at an event on a sunny afternoon in Los Angeles: I struggled a lot with self-identity and self-worth and who am I and what am I going to do?, going on to share that the confidence to be who she was only came in her mid-twenties when she began to get positive feedback for who she was and the food she was cooking.

She seems kind, and she stays away from drama; she keeps her head down, focused on just doing what she does so well. She uses too many spaces in her Instagram posts, so I always want to tell her that it’s one space after a period, just one, and she always stands too close to other women—and I think it’s been three years of this, but my trust in her has not changed. She is still vibrant and alive and cute as hell. She is still someone I implicitly trust, and, three years later, I still believe that, if she were to know all this about me, she would be kind.

 

An insidious truth about suicidal depression is how it isolates us in our brokenness, convincing us that there’s something wrong with us, something dirty and shameful that should be hidden away. At the same time, it also convinces us that we’re nothing special, we’re just depressed—how boring, how stupid, how typical. These two extremes work in the same toxic, self-destructive ways, and there’s no way to dismantle these thought patterns except by bringing them to light. Shame works in secret; it operates and thrives in silence.

Fundamentally, I want the same things most people want: I want to be loved, to be valued, to be wanted. I want people to like me. I want to live a productive, fulfilling life doing work that means something and helps someone. I want to love and be loved. I want to be known and recognized. I want to be seen, to see myself in others, to give voice to my pain and brokenness and be heard in my moments of distress—not only during the good times, when I’ve made it through “to the other side.”

The truth is that we don’t always survive. Sometimes, there is no other side.

 

She’s open about sharing her story, aware that it can help people to know her background—that she was adopted, that she’s a lesbian, that she used to model—but she does get annoyed and irritated when she’s reduced to just one of these pieces of herself.

On more than one occasion, she’s expressed frustration that people have written about her sexuality, her gender, and her looks but that no one has reviewed her food—no one has been willing to look past the more sensational details to focus on the work she does and does well, on the craft she has pushed so hard to excel at.

Her irritation endears her to me more, and her dedication to her craft and the discipline that ultimately led her to her own kitchen keep my faith in her. And then there is the part of me that sees myself in her, that same irritation at the possibility of being reduced down to my suicidal depression, to my sexuality, to my gender. There is the part of me that looks at her and thinks, I could be like you, too. I should be like you, vibrant and alive.

I, too, have dedicated long years to my craft, and I’m good at what I do. I have a lot of heart for people. I’m Asian-American and a woman, and I love dogs, too. Yeah, I imagine she’d say. So maybe you should have a little faith in yourself.

The thing, though, is that I don’t. Even knowing that she is only as human as I am, that I have my own strengths and abilities, I still think of her as the one worth seeing and of myself as the one who must remain invisible because I will never shine, not the way she does, not when I live with this depression, this suicidal thinking. I will always be cloaked in darkness.

When we’re suicidal, we need to believe in something. That is fundamentally what hope is, the belief that there is something out there worth staying alive for. Some might say I should believe in god or some kind of infinite being, but I don’t—I believe in her.

I believe in her abilities to excel at what she does. I believe in her capacity to reach people, to mean something to people, to make a difference in people’s lives in ways that she may never know, much like she has in mine. I hope that she is loved, and I hope that she isn’t lonely, is no longer broken-hearted. I hope that she continues to smile as freely and easily as she does today.

And, as I hope for her, I hope, too, that, somehow, I can keep this hope and turn it around into hope for myself.

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Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.

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The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free, confidential crisis counseling twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. You don’t have to be suicidal to call (1-800-273-8255). The Lifeline also offers services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing (1-800-799-4889) and people who speak Spanish (en español: 1-888-628-9454). People who are transgender can also call the Trans Lifeline (U.S.: 877-565-8860; Canada: 877-330-6366). If you’re a journalist reporting on suicide, suicide prevention, or mental health and mental illness, you can find guides and resources to help you in your work at ReportingOnSuicide.org. This is a personal essay and represents the thoughts and feelings of its author first and foremost. Overall, we have tried to adhere to many of the suggestions at ReportingOnSuicide.org while editing this essay; however, we have also respected the author’s wish to communicate what it’s like to live with suicidal ideation to those who don’t experience it, which means we’ve included some material that might not be appropriate in a traditionally reported journalistic piece. – Ed.


Jaehee Seo is a writer based in Brookyn. She is currently working on two book-length projects, and her writing can also be found on Catapult. More from this author →