Panorama: i tried to kill myself 9 times – why i’m still alive

Numerous hospitalizations later, he found a reason to stay alive – but he still hasn’t conquered his death wish. So he lives with the recurring urge of not wanting to live anymore.

"You know what? Your prison anklet saved your life. You should advertise it. If it wasn’t for that ankle bracelet, you’d be dead right now."

I came to in a hospital bed, my head was sore. I reached into my hair and felt metal clamps in my scalp. A handsome, young, dark-haired doctor with a bushy mustache and brightly lit, amused eyes stood at the side of my bed and addressed me kindly. I didn’t know how long he’d been talking or if I’d already responded. I seemed to join the conversation only in the middle of it.

I was very thirsty. Nervously, I reached for the metal clamps again with one hand, and with the other for a large plastic cup of water that was on the bedside table. Only then did I realize that I was bedridden.

"Wait, let me help you," the doctor said. He wedged the cup between the bed frame and the pillow, then stuck a straw in my mouth. I drank the water and then spit out the straw. My throat was burning."Was I operated on?" I asked.

"No, you were very lucky. Only two small interventions." He pointed at my head. "You must have fallen down, your head was bleeding. A pretty nasty laceration." "My throat hurts more than my head. My voice!", I said. "I sound terrible."

"We had to pump your stomach, but basically you’re fine. I’m sorry we had to tie you up. We will take you to the psychiatric ward tomorrow, then this measure will no longer be necessary. By the way, you ruined your fancy electronic prison anklet." He laughed. "She seems to have had a short circuit. But at least she set off an alarm beforehand. Modern technology."

I wanted to explain that I was not from prison and that I had the electronic ankle bracelet only to prove to my wife that I did not consume alcohol or drugs. But I realized: any further explanation would sound like a justification.

"Next time you do something like that, you’d better not get into the bathtub. Or better yet – avoid a next time. We would like to keep you with us a little longer. And if you do want to kill yourself again, please don’t take pills. Nobody dies from an overdose of pills anymore. Take care of yourself. It will all get better."

The doctor grabbed my foot, shook it gently, even lovingly, then shrugged his shoulders and left the room.

Well, I thought, that was kind of nice. That was much more pleasant than usual after my Suicide attempt had to talk to a doctor.

I have always had suicidal thoughts

From an early age I had suicidal thoughts. Among my first memories is wanting to walk in front of a moving bus. I thought about killing myself every day from the age of three or four, and it didn’t stop until I was in my early 30s. Every day for as long as I can remember, I fantasized about suicide.

My parents divorced when I was four years old, and my mother married another man who had seven children. Including me and my two brothers, we were suddenly ten children in the house. One of my first memories of this new, threatening family is the funeral of my stepbrother Paul, who he jumped from an office building in downtown Calgary, Canada.

Perhaps for this reason – a reason that had already broken up many families – my two brothers.. talked to me about suicide. Maybe that’s why one of my brothers has the possibility of taking his own life in the back of his mind as much as I do – although fortunately he has never tried it, as far as I know.

When my brother and I worked together in the jewelry business, we often sat and joked about killing ourselves. When we were in a dark mood, for example, after we had done coke together and were slowly sobering up, we would talk about the urge to take our own lives. And then we promised each other not to do it.

When I talk to my mother about suicide, she changes the subject. Emotions basically scare her, and she believes that talking about certain subjects makes them more dangerous. When I was 13 or 14 years old, I told my father that I would think about suicide very often. He explained to me that people who kill themselves go to "astral hell" (times marked by bad luck and bad moods, Anm. d. Red.) come.

My father was a follower of the New Age movement and believed in reincarnation and many different planes of existence. "Don’t do it, son," he said to me calmly. "You don’t die. You just wake up in a worse place again. But call me if you have those thoughts again. Is that how you feel now?"I knew I had to lie to him, of course: he was my father, after all. Thinking about it now, I realize he was right. Every time I tried to kill myself, I would wake up in a worse place.

The first time I attempted suicide I was 16 years old

The first time I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital was after a suicide attempt at 16. At that time I was still living in my hometown Calgary. A psychiatrist had prescribed me Librium, an anti-anxiety drug, after my girlfriend broke my heart.

Yet I was still living with my ex-girlfriend and her family at the time. I had lied and told them that my parents had kicked me out the door – so I could stay with my ex-girlfriend and continue to keep an eye on her. Then one day, on a snowy playground not far from my ex’s house, I swallowed the whole packet of Librium and washed it down with half a bottle of whiskey.

I undressed and lay down in the snow. The snow changed from white to blue, then to green, then to pink. I remember getting so cold I could hardly stand it – and then, almost overwhelmed, I was wrapped in a blanket of warmth and contentment. I passed out and should have frozen to death – but someone found me and saved me. I woke up again in the hospital and then spent a few days in the psychiatric ward.

Shortly thereafter, my ex-girlfriend’s parents kicked me out, and I moved back in with my parents. That was in 1983.

In 1991, in Austin, Texas, my freshman year of college, I tried to kill myself again, by slitting my wrists. Again I ended up in the hospital and later in a psychiatric ward. After that I was arrested several times for drunkenness.

In the 90’s I had a jewelry business, was married to my first wife, and I often thought about killing myself, usually early in the morning when I opened the store.

I often stood in front of the mirror with a gun in my mouth – it was an oily tasting Glock pistol with a square barrel – all very dramatic, over and over again I tried to pull the trigger.

I could not do it.

In 1996, I left my first wife and shortly after that I tried to kill myself again – with a rope in a psychiatric hospital in North Carolina. My alcohol addiction intensified and with it my depression.

I remarried, moved to Kansas City, got arrested several times – each time for drunkenness – and then in 2008 I tried to hang myself with a bedsheet. That led to repeated visits to psychiatric hospitals and finally, after an affair with a colleague, to my divorce in 2012.

This long litany of failure doesn’t explain much, though – except maybe that I’ve been a drunk and a bad husband. I now know that I was trying to escape at the time: With the help of alcohol, I tried to escape from myself; I distracted myself with one affair after another; with each suicide attempt, I fled from life, each and every time I could no longer bear the sight of myself. I admit: I am a coward.

Either I die, or they lock me up

A friend of mine recently asked me, "How is it that you can still continue to lead a normal, productive life as a philosophy professor, father, and writer?

One possible answer is: What else could I do?? Either I die or they imprison me. I’m alive, and also I’m terrified of being locked up.

So, like many others, I am making the best of the situation. My current wife, Amie, who is a Buddhist, finds comfort in the Buddha’s insight that Life Suffering Mean: "I’ve learned that it’s not up to me. Everyone feels this way."

Of course, the suffering of having to escape is also better or worse some days. If it ever feels like the only choice is to be burned alive or jump out of a burning house, as David Foster Wallace once put it: yes, then I would probably really kill myself instead of just making an attempt. Today, for example, I feel a little discouraged, but otherwise happy to be here.

another answer to my friend’s question is: exercise.

Another one is: wait and see. In the past I’ve always held out for a while, then everything collapsed again like a house of cards.

In 2012 I finally got sober, since then everything got a little easier – still there were relapses and more suicide attempts. They took place increasingly in secret – I couldn’t bear the thought of having to explain to someone again why I had given up again.

My fellow human beings have not given up on me

I don’t know why my peers didn’t give up on me then and cut me out of their lives. You had to have at least thought about it. My first wife, my second wife, my daughters (especially my eldest who had to go through so much), my brothers, my colleagues at the university: they all continued to believe in me and support me.

I was a petulant, conniving, unreliable, manipulative, outrageously selfish person. How do you pay back this kind of debt? How to find the words to apologize for all this? You try to become a more honest and trustworthy person, you try to keep your promises, pay your bills, help your kids with their homework, call them regularly. Try not to lie. Try to stay away from the hospital. If you’re a drunk, like me, stop drinking.

You tell those around you that you will try to make everything better, and then you try to make everything better. You pray every night to be sent some unknown power that will make you a little less selfish.

One thing you not Is to kill you. That should be clear. But then there are moments when I am a child again. Then I see the subway pull in and have to fight with myself again not to jump in front of it, just to finally feel free. Or I’m sitting in the bathroom with a hundred pack of Valium that I’ve accumulated over a long period of time, hoping that there are now enough – and then I remember the promises I made.

Of course, it’s no accident that I choose the kinds of suicide that don’t lead to certain death. On the other hand, I owned a gun at least some of the time and I often stood on the edge of a skyscraper and tried to jump.

A psychiatrist once told me, "If you’re looking for a reason not to kill yourself, don’t think about your children". Your children do need you, but they will be fine without you. All parents die sooner or later. The real reason you shouldn’t kill yourself: be an example to your kids."

A friend of mine finds this thought crazy. For me, however most convincing reason, I ever heard not to kill me.

When my doctor gave me stronger medication, the ghosts came

One night – I was back in the psychiatric ward – I was lying in bed because I had asked my doctor for stronger medication. He had immediately agreed. But the new pills made it impossible to walk without falling down all the time.

That was the moment when my ghosts came. Now you could really say that I had gone mad.

To say one thing in advance: I believe in ghosts. I’m one of those who claim to see them, though rarely and under strange circumstances. Since early childhood I had seen ghosts now and then. But when I was in the psychiatric ward and on strong medication, they suddenly came alive for me.

While I was lying in bed, or while I was trying to walk around and act like a good patient, I watched the many ghosts wandering the halls and rooms.

Most of the ghosts came by regularly and kept strictly to their routine. As time went by I got to know them better and better. I got used to them. I developed something like sympathy for some of them who kept visiting me in my room:

For example, there was a red-haired old woman in an old-fashioned hospital gown. She was accompanied by her husband, who wore a suit and who I thought must have died long after her, but still decided to stay with her. A very serious young man always walked behind the couple and asked questions that I could never quite understand. All three of them would sometimes sit on the bed next to me and watch me, and I wasn’t afraid to look back. I never spoke to them.

The worst was a hungry ghost that looked like it came straight from hell. I saw him only occasionally and always ran away from him. He wore white workman’s boots, dirty jeans and an open flannel shirt. His belly was swollen like that of a starving child. I noticed how he clung to the shoulders of many patients and reached for their pills with his scrawny hands. Once I saw him attack another ghost, a young girl, and bang her head against the floor. I had never seen anything like it before. The girl’s screams sounded like an evil whistle.

Plus the ghosts I saw for just a day or an hour or even just a moment. Many of them were beautiful and smelled like lemon, ginger, roses, or fresh wet wood.

And then there were ghosts that didn’t look like people at all, more like a tree branch gently moved by the wind, or the sun shining in your face when you walk out the door in the morning. Or they were like the cold you feel when you get out of the shower; like a twinkle in your eye, tiny blinking lights; like freshly brewed black tea that gives off its smell when you pour milk into it; or the good feeling when you brush your teeth, slip into a fresh pair of pajamas and crawl into your bed.

All suicides are almost ghosts. I could never be sure which ones were living patients, like me. Which were already really gone. Which had already left and then decided to return. But they kept me company during my time in the psych ward, and I’m sure a lot of them are still there.

I learned then that my suspicions were correct: I can’t escape all this by killing myself.

When they lowered my dosage, the ghosts disappeared.

I wish I could say: that was my last stay in the psychiatric ward

Then one day they let me out.

I wish I could say that was my last stay in a psychiatric hospital. But unfortunately this is not true. I tried to kill myself again. I wish I could say that I will never go back again. But I can’t do that.

I think I am a more or less average middle-aged man. I get up early in the morning – sometimes just to make myself some tea, sometimes to bring my wife breakfast in bed. I teach my students and try to help them achieve their goals. I sit at the kitchen table with my 11-year-old daughter and help her with her homework. I love my wife and my children, and I think they love me too.

I often wake up in a good mood, and when someone asks me if I am grateful for my life, I honestly want to respond that I am very, very grateful. Being grateful, however, has nothing to do with the actual problem. You can be grateful for something – and still not feel up to the task. I did not completely escape my death wish. He comes and goes.

About a year ago, I tried to kill myself for the last time – with a dog leash in my basement. I did not write a suicide note. I don’t think I have ever done that.

I was carrying a green leather chair from my office down to the basement when I suddenly spotted my dog watching me from the stairs. She’s afraid of the basement because it’s haunted: sometimes a ghost sits near my workbench with his knees drawn up.

I stood on the chair, took the heavy blue rope, attached it to the ceiling, tied a noose, put my head through it and checked the knot. Then I kicked the chair away.

I hung there and kicked the air. But I wasn’t dying, I was just in terrible pain. Hanging yourself really hurts.

I panicked, tried to suppress it, panicked even more as a result, and at some point – I don’t remember exactly when – I pulled myself up by the rope and took my head out of the noose. I fell on the floor and lay there for a while.

The chair is still in the same place it fell down. It would feel creepy to move it – I don’t want to see that chair in my house again.

Later that day, I was on the phone with my wife Amie, who was out of town. She asked me what was wrong with my voice.

"I have a sore throat," I replied. My throat hurt for at least a week, and some of my students asked me what happened to my throat.

One of my best students recently tried to kill herself

Recently, a student contacted me to tell me that she had been hospitalized after attempting suicide. She knew she could talk to me about it – in my philosophy classes on existentialism, we talk openly about suicide and questions about the meaning of life.

She’s one of the best students I’ve ever had and is double majoring in English and Philosophy. She is 21 years old, charming and popular.

She told me she wasn’t sure when she would be released from the hospital. When I visited her there, she seemed to want to keep an ironic distance from herself. Like she wanted to laugh at herself and wasn’t sure she could do it.

I told her that we would all need her and that she should try to rest. She gave me a vicious and disappointed look – I guess I deserved that. But there just aren’t the perfect words that can convince you to keep on living. There are problems that will last a lifetime and for which no solution can be found.

The next time I see my student (and I hope there will be a next time), I hope we can sit down and talk about why we are both still here.

This text originally appeared in the US edition of HuffPost. It was translated from English, abridged and edited by Agatha Kremplewski.

Note from the editor:

If you have the feeling that your life no longer makes sense, please contact the Telephone counselling. It is anonymous, free of charge and available around the clock. The telephone numbers are 0800 111 0 111 and 0800 111 0 222.

At the Youth Information Center in Munich you can also find personal and telephone information Advice for children and adolescents. Phone number: 089 550 521 50 (office hours: Monday to Friday from 1 – 6 pm).

Those who want to learn more about the topic:

Darkroom Psychiatry Federal Association of People Experiencing Psychiatry

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