Suicide inside a global pandemic | Community | Chicago Reader

Suicide inside a global pandemic 

How is it possible to keep dark thoughts at bay when everyone is struggling to survive?

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"I carry a lot on my plate and do not know what the future holds but, for now, I know I’d like to feel my legs walk to Lake Michigan for something other than 2 AM thoughts of suicide." - JOHN GARRISON
  • "I carry a lot on my plate and do not know what the future holds but, for now, I know I’d like to feel my legs walk to Lake Michigan for something other than 2 AM thoughts of suicide."
  • JOHN GARRISON

“You either have someone come flush the pills for you or I have to call an ambulance,” my therapist tells me after a recent failed suicide attempt. It is the middle of April and I have been quarantining in a studio apartment alone with two friends down the hall, people whose phone numbers I list as emergency contacts in case things escalate. Outside quarantine, inpatient means time spent in a hospital under the watchful eye of medical staff. Inside quarantine, inpatient means taking time away from health-care workers dealing with COVID-19 around the clock.

Coronavirus has drastically shaped the world we live in. Two million deaths over the course of seven months have forced everyone to carry on with their life inside isolation. With the unemployment rate at 13.3 percent and suicide risk on the rise, mental health has never been more fragile. Suicide rates have risen 35 percent over the past two decades, and economic recessions historically lead to an increased number of people taking their own life. As the worldwide lockdown continues for many well into summer, the added increase of isolation will only heighten thoughts of hopelessness and despair, eventually leading some down a road of no return.

“Someone who maybe has abandonment issues and struggles with rejection is going to have a harder time in quarantine depending on what their resources are,” says Catherine Chinnock, a therapist specialized in trauma and depression. “Suicidal tendencies might show up a lot for people who need external validation right now.”

Connection is a biological imperative, something we require to survive. When you’re lonely, it’s only natural to seek someone out for social interaction. Isolation from others can lead to low self-esteem, distrust, and emotional conflict, which can become pervasive for people already suffering a chronic mental or physical illness. Research shows the impact social withdrawal can have on stunting the individual, occasionally leading to death from circumstances other than suicide.

In eastern Europe there was this orphanage with a lot of kids and only a few nuns to run it and these children had their diapers changed, they were fed,” says Katie Augustyn, a clinical social worker situated in Chicago. “Their basic needs were met but nobody cuddled them and what they found was these kids stopped crying, became listless, started to lose weight, and eventually some of them died.”

For people like me who suffer from borderline personality disorder, moods fluctuate from one end of the spectrum to the other. Days spent laughing with friends could easily change to self-harm in the blink of an eye. I punch my wall to subside pain and rip skin from my fingers to keep feelings at bay. I drink booze and mix pills, doing things I don’t remember, waking up with scars on my arms. I figure anything is better if it keeps me alive, and drink a bottle of Jack Daniels in a day, egged on by my friend who is a recovering alcoholic. After losing my job due to problems largely surrounding my mental health, I have all the free time in the world to submit to my vices.

“A huge risk factor for suicide is alcohol use, and that’s way up right now,” says Victoria Kessinger, a psychotherapist specialized in dialectal behavioral therapy. “When you’re working from home, and you’re in quarantine it’s so much easier to abuse substances, and there’s not as much accountability for waking up and going to work the next day.”

Chief among reasons I shy away from hospitalization is shame. After 12 years of being suicidal, I figure I should have things under control. I’ve tried five times in my life and can map what triggers episodes, yet whenever they arise, I crumble. My therapist alerts my family that I am on suicide watch, and I feel incredible shame. My sister is a doctor, and now, more than ever, her time, along with every medical professional, is best spent tending to those dying. Compared to COVID, I feel my problems are trivial. I hover over Northwestern’s number in my phone before abandoning the plan altogether. I’d rather let someone who wants to live have a fighting chance than put medical professionals through a song and dance I experience at least once a year.

“Shame is deeper and more toxic. It makes you think there is something wrong,” says Kessinger. “I hear a number of people say, ‘I’m such a shitty person. All these people fighting to live, and I wish it was me. I feel like garbage because of that.’ They have the pain of suicidal thoughts and on top of it, there’s shame.”

With the world in midst of hellfire and despair, marginalized people are especially likely to feel the weight of suicidal ideations. Currently, there are many free resources accessible for those wishing to silence negative thoughts. Howard Brown Health Center offers free workshops for the LGBTQ community in Chicago, Psychology Today has a list of support groups on their site, and the first transgender suicide hotline is now up and running. As the future remains unclear regarding many people’s employment statuses, health-care professionals are trying to make resources accessible for many who need it.

“A lot of people say, ‘I can’t afford a therapist right now,’” says Chinnock, “but there are a lot of people offering sliding scales or free therapy, especially for marginalized groups.”

“There’s really amazing organizations that offer crisis texting and crisis calling,” says Kessinger. “The Pea Club website has a number, the Trevor Project provides crisis and suicide prevention to the LGBTQIA community, and there’s the national suicide prevention hotline.”

I carry a lot on my plate and do not know what the future holds but, for now, I know I’d like to feel my legs walk to Lake Michigan for something other than 2 AM thoughts of suicide. I’d like to look at muddy midwest waters and think how great it would feel to dip my toes in them instead of swallowing me whole. I’d like to make it to another summer building sandcastles with friends cheering me on as I put one foot in front of the other.

Tomorrow may be the today I wish for. There’s only one way to find out. Survive.   v

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