The signs are not always there and every suicide is not an act of desperation.
I tried to turn off my own switch when I was sixteen and was truly surprised when I woke up a day later in the ICU with a ventilator down my throat and a nurse talking to me. Surprised because I really did think it would be like a light switch. I recall feeling I'd found an easy, risk-free (undoubtedly heartless) escape route and reasoning with myself that I'd no longer exist; therefore I wouldn't have to face any consequences. It felt like a smart, logical plan and the decision was a spontaneous, easy in-the-moment one for my teenage brain to make.
I imagined just blackness, but had no proof that nothingness really was all that would follow. It was an effort to cheat, I thought, at a game I hadn't even asked to play. All I had to rely on was my imagination and a Catholic upbringing that wasn't sticking anymore. I wasn't deeply distraught in my day-to-day living about any one thing, as much as I was kind of upset about some things, embarrassed about others, and mostly just bored and disgusted with being me. I didn't see anything that made me want to keep on making the effort year in and year out.
Am I describing the thinking of this young woman clearly enough? It's important at this moment in time when our children may seem well adjusted but our nation and the world beyond, do not. In the home of a dear friend and her loving, welcoming family, I spontaneously, unilaterally and without outside counsel or input, chose my own relief and escape. My real pain came decades later remembering all of this as a mother myself, and in receiving grace again from that friend for the mess I made for her & her family to pick their way through. The aftermath of my casual suicide attempt.
Others suffered in part because they didn't and couldn't see it coming. I stumbled suddenly on the idea, in an hour of dark thought, that dying could be an upside-down, ultimate life-hack--getting out of the work of it by slipping away into the black. I didn't love the world but I didn't hate it, either. It was this: the world and I could take or leave each other, either way.
This is why I have long engaged my own children so deeply in conversation and why I articulate in laborious detail what is happening around us and in our family. We talk and listen to each other long and with great effort about why we yelled last night, how it feels from each of our perspectives to be in this family, how I struggle with reaching for red wine when I'm worried about something or why we still miss someone who has died. We talk about terrible adult behavior and the invisible rules with peers in schools, how to advocate for ourselves and others, about sex, and the etymological roots of the "f" and "c" words. We talk about the 2016 presidential election and how it feels personally to each of us. We talk about engaging with the world with as much emotion and confidence as the way we engage with each other.
So, despite my supremely self-centered act--in my hour of adolescent disconnection--I still went on and received the privilege of a whole life. There were no signs to those around me. My resilient, sacrificing mother did an incredible job raising three children and I was loved by family and friends as my own children are loved. I attributed my actions my senior year in high school to this: that girl did not recognize her value or what she could possibly contribute. She was not engaged in adult ideas or in the wider world. That young, impulsive me tried to sneak out the back because I thought I wouldn't be missed very much, for very long and that the world would not have a lasting hole in it when I left. That frightens the forty-five year old mother I am now, to my bones. I engage my children to encourage them to interact with ideas and to tether themselves to the world, so that on those days that they may find themselves deciding whether to stay or go, they will at the very least know the world would be lessened and impacted beyond even the sorrow and loss to our family and friends.
We watch for the signs, of course. But also and just in case: let's interact with our children and teens around world and local experiences, as soon as possible. Let's acknowledge that they are listening to our opinions and beliefs and will need to determine their own. Frighteningly, my two may someday debate whether to stay or go--perhaps they already have--but if they do they will know how empty a place they would leave behind when the private, terrible hour and chance to "turn off their switch" appears. It is harder to leave the world when you value your own mind and it's ideas--and you already know that you have shaped it as a person of thought and action.
My fears haven't gone away. But engaging our children so they might know their own power, helps.