Trigger Warning: Mentions of suicide.
Recovery is an interesting word. It insinuates an end point, as if being fully “recovered” means you will never experience the thing you’ve “recovered” from again. In some cases, that’s true. In the case of mental illness or substance use, that is not usually the case.
I’ve thought for years about a potentially beautiful way to describe my recovery from suicidality. The truth is: the ugliness of the process makes the journey impossible to sum up easily, or decorate with flowery words. We often look at recovery, if there even is such a thing, as a sort of rainbow at the end of a tunnel, paint it with colours much brighter than the ones we actually experience during the process. But what if we were more honest and said: recovery is messy and ugly and requires endurance. For me, recovery was dark. It was painful, and often lonely. But because of that difficult journey, I am now able to experience beauty in a way that I wasn’t able to before.
By the time I turned 19, I had been on and off of antidepressants. I had a lifelong struggle with anxiety, and an on and off relationship with depression. But I was a high performer and high achiever who showed very little of my mental struggles in my daily life. What went on when I wasn’t performing in front of everyone was a very different story.
My family knew there was something wrong. They supported me in every way they could, but I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready to change my life, I wasn’t ready to admit there was a part of me that needed to change. I was in a relationship that wasn’t right for either of us, one that was young and often exploded into dramatic fights and passionate make ups. I was in university without the daily support of my long-term friends who had all split up and gone to different schools. I was young, in pain and lost. More than that, I had a predisposition to mental illness by way of genetics.
Things got worse, until my episodes were so bad that the only thing that calmed me down was planning a way to die. I would get triggered, lose control of my emotions, and explode. I would calm myself down by promising myself to end it all when I could.
One day, it was too far, too much. I wanted to die. I had to die, it was the only way out of this. I couldn’t live with this brain anymore, and you can’t get rid of your brain. I was home alone and started hunting around the house for anything that might kill me. Medication, knives, rope. Maybe I’d go to the train tracks.
A tiny part of my brain, a small part seemingly untainted by mental illness, screamed at me. And to this day I don’t know the exact reason I listened to it, but I did. I sat down on the floor and called my parents to come get me. They came home, and took me to the hospital, where I was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
I like to think that’s when my life really started. Because although the experience wasn’t smooth, and it induced a lot of pain, it was the beginning of committing myself to a lifelong journey of recovery.
Please know that I never will shame anyone for being suicidal or for taking their own life. The depth of pain it takes to get to that point is not kind, and it doesn’t favour anyone. It wants to take you, and you want to go. The only thing that will get you out is rigorous treatment and support. And that is not available to everyone, nor can you make anyone take it.
Recovery for me has meant a lot of things. It has meant taking medication, going to therapy, and cutting people and things out of my life that don’t support my mental wellness. It has also meant being as vocal as I can about it, so others know it gets better, and it has meant dedicating my professional life to working to make the mental health system better.
I’m proud of my recovery journey. In less than ten years, I have graduated school, found a partner who happily deals with every side of me, found success in my career and lived on my own. Not many people with the same illness can say the same, and I’m aware that it’s a privilege. It’s a privilege that should be a right— mental health is health, and the inaccessibility of the system has led to more suffering than one person could describe.
My journey to recovery will never be over. I still catch myself on bad days thinking about how much easier it would be to be dead and mulling over ways I could make that happen. The difference is that I’ve worked on retraining my brain (largely in part thanks to medication) for long enough that I am also able to catch the good things— my boyfriend smiling at me, my cat stretching in the sun, my grandmother giving me a hug, my friends giggling over a memory of us in high school, a fall breeze.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say that I’ve completely recovered from being suicidal, but I know that the journey is worth it.
Jasmine Hermans is a writer, mental health advocate and public affairs professional. She lives in Toronto with her cat and her many books. Jasmine has bipolar disorder, ADHD and panic disorder. She works in the mental health and substance use care system, and is a fierce believer in publicly-funded mental health and substance use treatment. Twitter/Instagram: @jazhermans.
This essay was selected as part of Shedoesthecity’s New Voices Fund, established to help continue offering opportunities to talented emerging writers with less than 20 bylines. More info here.