Brain Waves: Why my suicide attempt was not a selfish action, but a systematic failure

Brain Waves: Why my suicide attempt was not a selfish action, but a systematic failure

Shefali Arora, Contributing Columnist

“Oh honey, you don’t have the time.” That’s what the ER nurse told me when I asked for a glass of water after overdosing in an attempt to end my own life. The turn of events that enabled me to be here telling a story of “almost” instead of “lost forever” came down to a few seconds.

A split second, random chance, separates me from the students who lost their lives, and I owed it to them not to take my second chance for granted. When I heard of another student’s suicide just weeks after my own attempt I felt not only heartbroken by the loss but outraged that the resources put in place to help students had failed so many of them. I felt, and still do feel, a strong connection to the students who lost their lives that semester and remember thinking “when is it enough?” I wondered when those in charge of the system, in this case the mental health system, would realize that it is failing with grave consequences and that something must be done.

From my own experience with attempting suicide I can say that suicide is neither a personal nor an individual failure, but rather the failure of a system. When I overdosed at Tulane University it’s because I thought I had failed. I had to quit the honors program and my Division I volleyball team, and so in my eyes I had failed as a student and an athlete. After a nasty fight with a toxic ex-boyfriend I saw myself failing as a friend and a person too. I saw my death as ridding the world of a failure and a nuisance, a way to end the burden I had become to family and friends and escape my life of failure.

Let’s take a moment and think what that says. Just because I wasn’t an honors student and a Division I athlete I saw myself as a failure. While obviously this has some elements of my own perfectionism mixed in, the reality is I had been conditioned to believe that if I wasn’t the best, I had failed. Furthermore, that failure was permanent, all-encompassing and definitive of my character, rather than a temporary setback or the playing out of events that did not coincide with my expectations.

What I saw as my biggest failure was my diagnosis as bipolar. That’s it: with that one word, I was crazy. Despite sharing the diagnosis with successes such as Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln, the stigma of the word ‘bipolar’ was enough to let me believe I had failed. It let me believe that I was crazy, fickle, unstable and unreliable. The most I knew about being bipolar came from these stereotypes associated with it.

Even though I had read countless books on bipolar disorder, learned it was manageable and saw a therapist and psychiatrist regularly, I couldn’t shake assimilating the stigma of the disorder into how I defined myself. I didn’t have bipolar; I was bipolar. It was inescapable. No matter what, I always felt like I was hiding some dirty secret if I didn’t tell people, but I knew as soon as I did they’d never see me the same. I hated myself for it, and suicide seemed to be a way to escape.

Now, I champion bipolar and pride myself on it. I realize that the best way to defeat the stigma is to live as a contradiction to it. I want to be the living proof that the stereotypes and stigma associated with bipolar disorder are disenfranchising, harmful nonsense whose consequences are lost lives.

I fully realize that my status as someone with bipolar disorder and a suicide attempt survivor do not go hand-in-hand for everyone, but I truly believe that by sharing my story I am changing minds about what people think when they hear those words. To anyone reading this, know you are not alone, weak or incapable. It takes the most strength to face the darkness within us, and you are fighting a hard battle, but you are not alone and you can win this.