What My First Suicide Attempt Taught Me About Staying Alive

An ex-foster kid walks into a psych ward after an early morning suicide attempt—stop me if you’ve heard this one before…

This article contains references to suicide, which could distress some readers. Lifeline Network—800-773-8255—offers free emotional counseling 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, call or text 988.

[2022] I’m 31 years old. It’s four o’clock in the morning. The air is cool and crisp. The world is asleep and quiet. The only sounds around me are the other nocturnal animals, the leaves and twigs crunching beneath my feet, and the soft trickle of the San Pasqual wash. This is my favorite time of day.

The blood spurting out of my wrist is anything but a trickling wash—more of a rushing river. I’ve checked all the boxes, though. I cut down my arm rather than across. I left the apartment, so the landlord’s property doesn’t lose value. I’ve left notes, a will, and a video to verify the will. Everything is going swimmingly—a zero-impact suicide.

There’s more blood than I thought there’d be. I mean, I knew there would be a lot of blood, but it’s different when it’s pouring out of your body. I’m light-headed, so I grab a seat on a bumpy, broken piece of pavement inexplicably nestled beside the wash. It’s almost time for the last part of the plan.

I don’t want to traumatize some kid or a jogger or something, so the last part of the plan calls for precision and pinpoint timing. I need to contact the cops. The last part of the plan is to inform them of the body by the wash, but I need to call them when it’s too late for them to do anything. I figure right about when I’m ready to pass out should work. Hard to make a call when you’re unconscious.

I’m getting dizzy now. And I’m scared. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this much blood rushing out of me. The leaves around me are painted red. My shirt is soaked with blood. There’s blood all over the place. It’s a mess. You get it.

It’s at this point that I realize that I have three options. Option the first: I can simply walk home, remove the letter I left for my roommate on the TV and act as if nothing happened. I’ve heard superglue makes a wonderful substitute for stitches. It’ll be fine. Option B: I can finish the job. Boom. Dead. Done. And, last but not least, the nuclear option: Call the police early. Tell them what I’ve done, and try to figure out how to explain this to the people who love me. The people who love me… Only moments earlier, my mind had been stuck in a loop of “Never trust a good thing. Nothing is ever going to get better. You’re just a burden, an intrusion. You have no one.” I wonder how much my thoughts match reality. I try to figure out if burdening them, even more, is okay. Is it acceptable for me to continue living? If so, how will I explain this to them? What happens next?

My reason and my guilt win this battle. I give in and call my local police station though—I’m not sure if this counts as an emergency.

[1998] I’m seven years old. The first thing she takes from me is my name. “Danny is a weak name,” she says. “You can go by either Dan or Daniel in this house.” I’ve never met this woman before, and this is the power she already has over me. I look over at a social worker that doesn’t return my gaze. “I guess you can call me Dan,” I concede. Daniel is what Grandma calls me when I get in trouble. I never liked the name Danny anyway. It’s always felt too informal to me. With all the Daniels and Dans of the world, the men with strong and serious-sounding names, I felt like whoever it was who named me was begging the world not to take me seriously.

The social worker leaves and the next two years are blank, except for fragments of what happened in that house. There are other boys there. I’ve never had a brother. Maybe this will be like having brothers. The youngest one—let’s call him ”Tommy”—is used against us as a punishment. He and I are about the same age, but Tommy has this problem—he wets the bed regularly. Sleeping next to Tommy is one of many possible punishments when I or any of the boys act out, don’t clean to this foster mother’s standards, or refuse to obey. Other punishments in this foster mother’s repertoire include beatings, getting tossed down the stairs, being locked in a closet, and being left in the care of someone much worse. This unique punishment leads to a particular animosity between the others and Tommy. He’s been singled out. I feel sorry for him, but I don’t want to stand out. So rather than try to help him, I withdraw.

I’ve been taught how to hide the bruises and trained to keep quiet. Not that it would’ve mattered. I have no friends at this school. I’m not allowed to go out. I lack the constitution to try to build something good in this place. I don’t know how to fix this. I’m being punished. I know I’m being punished. I’ve done something terrible. This is what I deserve.

[2022] With one hand holding my phone and the other soaked in blood, I tell the woman on the phone that I’ve slashed my wrist and I’m bleeding quite a lot. She asks me to stay on the phone with her until an officer arrives. There’s one nearby. It doesn’t take long. I briefly consider approaching the cop with the knife in my hand. Suicide by cop seems like it’d be a lot easier than explaining to the people who love me what I’ve done. But I’m resigned to live by the time the officer pulls up.

I’m seated on the curb, surrounded by four cop cars. I wonder if anyone is awake to see the spectacle. I feel like a criminal. Am I a criminal? Are cops friendly to criminals now? I’m in the thralls of a manic episode, so I haven’t slept much this week. Not much is making sense. You don’t get arrested for a suicide attempt, right?

When the paramedic arrives, he wraps my wound, checks my vitals, and leads me to the ambulance. He’s nice. He’s so nice that I start to wonder if paramedics are trained to be overtly kind to someone who has just attempted suicide. I assume this is the case. After checking my vitals and confirming my veritable cornucopia of mental illnesses diagnoses (highlights include: Bipolar II, PTSD, and an anxiety disorder), I’m dropped off at the hospital. They recheck my vitals, verify my mental illnesses again, and steal my clothes. I know I’m at a low point, but at least buy me dinner. They bring me to a hospital bed in the middle of a hallway in the ER. And there I wait. Bloody and alone.

[2000] I’m nine years old. I’m kneeling in a field of weeds the size of a football field. I’m meant to pull out all the weeds and I have the weekend to do it. It’s hot. I’m not allowed in the house until I finish the required field segment for that day. I drink from the hose. I eat the sandwich that She brings out at lunch. I do my best to get inside before the sun goes down, but I’m struggling. It’s been two days of this and somehow, being in the house, sleeping in the house with She and her son, is so much worse than being outside.

This is the first time I truly want to die and I beg God to kill me.

“Just do it already. Why am I even here anymore? Please, God. Please. I don’t want to be here anymore. I don’t want to be alive anymore. Please. I want it to stop.”

I don’t finish before the sun goes down. In fact, I don’t finish at all. When it’s dark, I find a hollowed-out tractor tire and hide. Curled up in the tire, I try to rest for the first time in what seems like days. She comes to check on me often during the day, making sure I’m still working, but I’ve noticed that the check-ins are less frequent at night. When She next comes out, She finds me curled up, pretending to be asleep in the tire. She checks the field and walks back in before shutting the door. It’s just like camping, I tell myself. Just like that tent Grandma and I would set up in my old room. It’s not the same, but at least She isn’t around. At least I don’t have to share a room with her son.

Alhambra Hospital Medical Center

[2022] After getting in my hospital robe, the doctor comes and stitches up my arm. I’m fixed, right? The stitches have been stitched. So why am I still sitting on a hospital bed in the ER? Surely there must be someone in more dire straits than me…someone who really needs the bed.

It turns out the hospital does buy me dinner. And breakfast. And lunch. I spend my next 19 hours on a hospital bed in a hallway of the ER.

By this point, I’ve been told that I’ve been found to be a danger to myself. Fair enough. But, like, give me my damn clothes. I can’t run. The cops have my address. As cute–ahem–ruggedly handsome as I am—and trust me, I’m ruggedly handsome as a damn button—I have a hard time pulling off the hospital robe. And it was last season’s robe, at that. Who do they think I am, that one fashion person who wore that one unfashionable thing that one time? (You know who I’m talking about.)

I’m being held on a 5150, and I’m to be transported to a psychiatric facility. For those of you lucky enough not to understand the weight of those four numbers, imagine you open your mail and find that you’ve won a 72-hour stay at one of the most exclusive resorts in Los Angeles. Now imagine that resort has doors that don’t open, guests that threaten to kill you and each other, a seemingly endless barrage of overlapping voices, and a strict no electronics policy. The good news is that you share a room with a mentally ill stranger. The bad news is that it’s all involuntary, and you hate every second you’re there. Oh, and the food sucks (Ohhhh. Shots fired! Hospital cafeterias, ya burnt!). If attempting suicide leaves you sitting on a curb surrounded by police, feeling like a criminal–welcome to prison.

[2002] I’m 11 years old. By now, I’ve been to somewhere around 10 foster homes and group homes. I’m staying with a family that has the breed of a dog for their last name. Let’s call them Mr. & Mrs. Poodle. They’re an older couple–late 50s, maybe. They have a large family that lives in the houses around them, like a whole neighborhood filled with Poodles of various ages and stages of their marriages. A few have kids. A couple of those kids are around my age. Like many Mormon families in that area, generations of Poodles surround me. It’s not the norm for me. But it’s nice. The Poodles are the first family I’m not afraid of in almost five years.

They have weird traditions, and they go to a church with a three-hour service that I find weird, but they’re nice. I’m not exactly a family member, but they still treat me kindly and correct my bad behavior in a way that doesn’t involve a hot stove or being locked in a closet with barely enough space to stand. Eventually, I’m allowed to visit my grandma on Sundays, bypassing the necessary indoctrination into a new religion. I have friends at school. My foster brothers are nice enough, almost like a real family. I spend two years in this home.

[2022] I arrive at the psychiatric hospital just after 11 p.m. and head to bed. Sharing a room with a stranger triggers feelings I haven’t felt since I left the foster care system. It strikes me that these two systems are similar in that they both seem cold and inescapable. Even the plastic bed frame that houses the two-inch-thick pad I’m meant to sleep on is freezing. Sleeping doesn’t seem like an option. They offer me a hit of the night-night drugs. I accept. The real Sandman isn’t goth with a Netflix show; it’s a tiny white pill.

The following morning doesn’t seem so bad. I wake up early. An employee, [male, 50s] approaches me in the hallway. He’s from Texas, with the accent to prove it. I’ve seen It’s Kind Of A Funny Story. I know what this is. Enter the cool counselor. Maybe, just maybe, life is like the movies. Maybe things do get better once you reach the bottom. Let’s call this man Mr. A for Angry, Aggressive, and Asshole. Perhaps you can’t tell, I’m pretty subtle, but Mr. A is not a counselor. Near the end of this story, he breaks into the nurses’ office and punches a nurse in the face—so, pretty far from Zach Galifianakis, as well.

[2002] It’s my 11th birthday. I’m seated in a small room inside a Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) building. Grandma’s sitting across from me. We have a couple of hours together as long as we stay in this room where we can be observed. She bought me a Game Boy Advance and some Spyro game that I thought I needed. Despite everything, my grandma—the woman who raised me all by herself—is still trying to make me happy. Trying to make a birthday spent in a government building feel normal. She was always doing stuff like that–putting in so much effort to ease the pain of separation.

By now, I’ve spent years believing that I deserved everything that’s happened to me. A devastating mosaic of new and awful types of abuse, solitude, hopelessness, and pain that has sunk in so deep, for so long, that I can hardly feel anything at all anymore.

But I feel this.

My family is composed of three people, including me, and I’ve lost so many years because of a mistake I made when I was seven years old. A mistake I don’t even remember making. I want to go home.

[2022] A woman around my age is the first person in the hospital to talk to me. Day one. This is important. She’s in a trio with Mr. A, who hasn’t acted out yet, and an older woman. In the immortal words of Method Man, I’m “not an average joe with an average flow,” so I immediately identify them as the “cool kids.” That’s right, baby! It’s Psych Ward High School and guess who’s found a clique?

Despite all odds, I make some friends. Yes, they’re “I’m trapped in this crazy place, and you seem the sanest” friends, but they’re nice. They’re what I need right now. We spend most of our time in the day room with the broken TV—stuck on the USA network. We watch the entirety of the edited-for-TV version of the Harry Potter franchise over the next three days. (Side note: Why are we not still talking about how Cedric Diggory was robbed? Why is this something that we, as a society, have just glossed over?)

Robert Pattinson Harry Potter
Emma Watson, Robert Pattinson (who portrays Cedric Diggory) and Katie Leung (Photo by JIL Studio/FilmMagic)

I could talk about how my psychiatrist immediately put me on a 5250 (note for you sweet, sweet summer children—this is a 14-day involuntary hold). When you say it out loud or type it into your MacBook Air, 14 days doesn’t feel like it’s so long. But hearing those words inside makes it feel like an eternity. 336 hours.

If I were so inclined, I could mention how the only form of counseling was various group activities led by recreational therapists. These exciting activities included art time, stretching, board games, and mental health bingo (“In External Stressors, we’re looking for ‘being locked in a mental hospital.’ Does anyone have ‘being locked in a mental hospital?’ You do? Bingo? Congrats! Here’s your lemon Starburst, or whatever”). These counselors and activities are meant to distract you from your surroundings, not to address why you’re there or how you’re currently feeling. In fact, no one is there to speak with you about why you’re there or how you’re feeling.

I might also mention, the precocious little scamp that I am, how I was in that hospital for 107 hours and only had my psychiatrist talk at me for 57 seconds total. Maybe I would bring up how I was able to fit in almost 18 words altogether. Or how he pulled me off a medication known to cause severe side effects when a patient abruptly quits taking it. Both of us just throwing darts at what might happen next.

[2021] I’m 30 years old. It’s a year before I try to kill myself. Almost to the day. I’m sitting in a chair next to grandma’s bed saying goodbye to a corpse. She’s silent now, but for the past 24 hours, her breathing was so labored you could hear it from outside of her apartment. She doesn’t look like my grandma. She looks…avian. Gravity pulls at her loose skin, tightening it around her skull. She doesn’t look peaceful like in the movies. She just looks gone.

After everything grandma went through because of me, all the things she did to brighten up my awful childhood, every present, every visit, every sacrifice…this is the image that pops into my head most readily. She spent 93 years on this planet and this small, endless moment is what I remember.

[2022] From day one in the hospital, 12 hours in–11 a.m., I told my psychiatrist that life in this hospital seemed antitherapeutic. I was told we would take it “day by day.” It felt so strange to me that I should be locked up in a hospital, isolated alongside a bunch of strangers, rather than at home surrounded by people that love me. It felt counterproductive to lock up people who were a danger to themselves with people who were a danger to others. It’s an idea so crazy that it just might actuall–-no. I can tell you based on my firsthand experience: It doesn’t work.

Instead of focusing on all that, I’d like to concentrate on the positives. I’m somewhat of an optimist. I’m a real, “the glass is half full, but wait—what is this mystery liquid?” kind of guy. The floor staff were all as nice to everyone as they could be. The people I saw daily—staff, nurses, and most patients, were kind, helpful, and understanding. I got to go outside and walk around the patio for about an hour—once. I met people there that helped keep me sane inside. And I got to catch up on some reading (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End Of The World by Haruki Murakami for any curious bookworms).

According to the patients’ rights handbook that I was given when I arrived, “If you are held beyond 72 hours, you have the right to remain in the hospital for voluntary treatment. If you do not want to stay voluntarily, the facility where you are staying will conduct a certification review hearing within four days of the end of your 72-hour hold.”

104.5 hours after I arrive, I have my hearing. The nurses and staff have been advocating for me to be discharged. I’ve taken all my pills, made my bed every day, brushed my teeth each day, wore clean clothes, showered, socialized (from day one), and I thought real hard about eating the raccoon vomit they call food, everything that doctors/judges might weigh against my release. I’m told by another inmat—patient that socializing and having a place to go when you’re released play a big part in whether or not you’re discharged. I got lucky.

The only time I ever saw anyone happy in that place was when they left. Or when they saw someone else go home.

[1998] I’m seven years old. I’m standing on a chair behind my grandma with a knife to her back and I’m threatening to cut her throat and kill her in her sleep.

I don’t remember this day.

The person who did remember told me that she knew I wouldn’t hurt her and that I was just imitating something we watched on an episode of Law & Order the previous night.

In order to teach me how serious threats like this are, she calls the police hoping they’ll reprimand me and I’ll learn my lesson. What she doesn’t expect is for the police to find me to be a danger to her and take me into state custody immediately. What neither of us expects is that I will spend the next seven years bouncing around from foster home to foster home. In one fell swoop, I have destroyed the lives of my grandma, my aunt (who will slave away for years, throwing away her 20s so the state will deem her an acceptable guardian—all for my sake), and my own life.

I’ve picked up a new habit. You can follow along at home because it might be the key to everything you’ve ever wanted. I write a wish, but not on paper. I use a finger to write on any surface available, an attempt at carving my will into the fabric of the universe. You’re only allowed small, annoying, rounded pencils without erasers inside the hospital, so a finger works best there. Before my hearing, on the surface of the wobbly table in the day room, I write, “They are going to let me out today!” (Is this The Secret? Am I The Secret–ing? Secreting? I never read the book…or watched the movie…or saw that one Oprah episode…)

Anyway, it works. So far, I’m two for two.

After hearing from my social worker, patient rights advocate, and from me, the judge finds “no probable cause” to keep me in the hospital.

I’m free.

During the virtual hearing, the judge asks me if there is anything I’d like to add. There is, but I have no idea how to articulate it. Mostly, I just repeat what my patient rights advocate said, which was a statement composed of remarks I made to her over the phone a few hours earlier.

My mind is racing, trying to find words that are both true and will secure my release. “I immediately regretted what I did, but weirdly, I’m grateful for it. It taught me that even at my worst I still chose to live,” is what eventually comes out. It’s a weird thing to be grateful for; I get that.

So there are these two studies, right? One done by the American Psychiatry Association, found suicide to be the second leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 34. In the United States alone, more than 45,000 people died by suicide in 2020—with an estimated 1.4 million adults that attempt suicide each year.

And the other was done by BMC Psychiatry, which performed a five-year study of 302 individuals that were admitted to an inpatient psychiatric unit for attempted suicide. They found that 37% of those individuals made a second attempt. That’s 112 people in the study that made a second attempt on their own life. Of the 1.4 million that attempt suicide every year in the U.S., 518,000 will make a second attempt.

In those first few days after leaving the hospital, I understood why so many of us make another attempt. What had changed? The desperation, hopelessness and hurt didn’t go away.

The real fight, in my opinion, doesn’t begin or end in the hospital. But round two begins the second you leave those doors for the first time. Finding the right therapist, getting on the right combination of meds, having family and friends around to support you, and doing the work. There’s just over a one in three chance that I’m going to find another knife or a gun in the next five years and try to finish what I started that morning. One in three.

But the odds that I don’t are in my favor.

[2005] It’s three weeks after my 14th birthday. I’m on a plane to California. After seven years, I’m finally allowed to live with my family. Grandma has been in California for about a year getting everything ready with my aunt. A year without any visitation and it finally ends. There’s the dog-and-pony show we have to put on for the social worker that comes to check in on us, but it’s all over. I attend the last two weeks of eighth grade in California before spending my first summer in the golden state. Things aren’t perfect. They never are. But I finally have a home. After seven years, I have a home again.

Oh, right! We still have to talk about Mr. A.

So he’s set to leave on Tuesday. The same day I end up getting discharged. The same day every person in my little clique gets released. But as I said before, Mr. A is an Angry Aggressive Asshole. He’s just a few short hours shy of discharge when he claims a nurse threatened to keep him an extra day. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know the whole story. However, I do know Mr. A broke into the nurses’ office and punched a female nurse in the face. Immediately after, male nurses rushed, sedated, and restrained him in the “Seclusion Room.” After about an hour, they let him back out to join the rest of us. A decision that many of us question, seeing as he never, not even for a second, stopped yelling threats at the staff. Aren’t we meant to be the crazy ones? They eventually pulled him out on a stretcher, restrained and screaming–presumably on his way back to prison. He’d said he hadn’t been out very long.

At the time, there was a part of me wondering if he wanted to go back to prison all along. Another part of me was wondering what it was going to be like after I left the hospital. It was almost time for me to leave. What happens next?

And a small but noticeable third part was still trying to figure out how they did my boy Cedric dirty like that. Prime of his life. Just won the Tri-Wizard Tournament. And shot down by Peter “The Rat” Pettigrew—holding that weird-ass old-man-lizard-baby Voldemort, no less. For the love of Buckbeak. R.I.P. Ceddy D. You were a real one.

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