Suicide Survivor and Author Sonja Wasden is Today’s Honoree

Suicide will continue to kill people as long as it continues to kill conversations. That’s a point worth understanding any time of year, but is especially relevant during May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month.

My personal story may help illustrate what I mean.

On Dec. 15, 2016, my battle with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts over the last 23 years broke me. In that moment, the invisible burdens caused an enormous amount of emotion to pulse through my veins. I felt like I was trapped in a building that was quickly catching fire; the flames climbed, and I could feel the heat at my ankles. My pain screamed its way through the windows, like pressurized heat blowing up the glass. I knew the only way out would be to jump, so I ran to my bathroom, locked the door, unscrewed the lids to my medication, and swallowed hundreds of pills.

I was dying. I felt it. Yet, my spirit screamed out, “Wait! Wait! I can’t go. I’ll never see my children again! What about my husband who I loved more than life itself?” My family would be shattered if things ended this way and I knew it first-hand because my father died from suicide five years earlier. So, I started fighting like hell to stay alive, but I had made a choice from which there was no coming back.

An ambulance took me to the trauma bay in the hospital, reserved for the most severe emergency room admissions. They cut my clothes off and began pumping my stomach. The doctors filled my stomach with charcoal, hoping it could absorb some of the pills. I was immediately put on a ventilator to make sure I would not stop breathing. No one knew if I would live. I woke up three days later confused. I couldn’t speak. What was wrong with my voice? I squinted. Everything was blurry. I couldn’t move. Was I paralyzed? Where was I?

A nurse came to my side when she saw me wake up and let me know I was in the ICU. I tried to speak, but only scattered words came out. The nurse brought me a piece of paper and a pencil. Barely holding the pencil, my hand slid across the paper, making a crooked line. I had no control over my limbs. Had I been in a car wreck? I wanted to ask them if I would ever walk or talk again, but I blacked out.

Days later I opened my eyes and saw a team of doctors standing in my room. I struggled to speak louder than a whisper and asked if I was paralyzed and how bad the car accident was. Everyone in my room stopped and looked at me. One of the doctors stepped toward my bed and informed me that I had tried to kill myself and I was lucky to be alive. It all came flooding back to me the moment he said it.

A nurse who was taking the blood pressure cuff off my arm informed me that it was true, I was lucky to be alive. The nurse also told me that he, being a believing Christian, knew people who killed themselves go to hell. He patted my shoulder and told me I had just escaped damnation.

I knew I had not just escaped damnation. What I had escaped was death. The stigma around suicide and mental illness wasn’t only perpetuated by those who knew little about it. Doctors working in that field were equally susceptible to bias, despite their exposure and knowledge.

While I was in the hospital, a leading psychiatrist at the University of Missouri told my husband, Mitch, to never bring me back to this hospital again. Mitch was the hospital’s CEO and the psychiatrist suggested it would be better to take me to a hospital far away from Columbia where people didn’t know us. His intentions were probably to protect us. But protect us from what exactly? Why wouldn’t this psychiatrist want to use this opportunity to show that mental illness is no respecter of persons? The fact is it doesn’t matter what race, religion, gender, age, or economic background you come from —royalty to the homeless—mental illness can affect anyone’s family.

When I was released from the hospital and returned home for the first time, I saw my neighbors socializing at the end of our block. I knew they must know what happened because it would be hard to miss a blaring ambulance in my driveway and my unconscious body being carried out on a stretcher. As I approached to greet them, the conversation instantly died. Their silence was heartbreaking, and their discomfort all too visible.

These interactions led me to ask myself several questions. If I had suffered a heart attack, would anyone have asked my husband to never bring me back to that particular hospital because he was the CEO? Or if I had suffered a stroke would the nurse tell me I just escaped damnation? Or if I was diagnosed with cancer would my neighbors be brought to silence in my presence? Any other medical emergency would have been treated without judgment, so why not suicide? Unfortunately, the mental health stigmas result in people feeling shame for needing and seeking help.

Suicidal urges, feelings, and thoughts are an illness no different than any other. Those who struggle with such thoughts and feelings did not ask for them to be there and did nothing to deserve their devastating side effects. And just like someone diagnosed with cancer, a person suffering with suicidal thoughts must fight like hell to stay alive.

Suicide will continue to kill people if it continues to kill conversations. Advances with HIV/AIDS, for example, didn’t happen through silence. Medical breakthroughs happen through frequent and open conversations, even if it’s initially uncomfortable. The support that comes from groups of people willing to talk about the hard things in life can and will save lives.

I bravely stand with the mentally ill. I am a suicide survivor.

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