A Newfound Will to Live

How depression, isolation and cultural taboos almost pushed me over the edge and how I nursed my way back to health

A Newfound Will to Live
Illustrated by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

When people joke about wanting to die or kill themselves, I wonder if they have ever truly understood the weight of that. Fortunately, many people will never have to experience the true desire to end their own life. It is not an experience I would ever wish upon others, though it has allowed me to grow in ways I would never have expected.

My story starts years ago.

When I was in high school and going through college, I can recount on many occasions crying myself to sleep. I was overwhelmed with the world around me, disappointed at my luck in life and wishing things were different. It took years for me to recognize that this behavior, these thoughts, were not normal. After college, the thoughts became more intrusive. What used to happen once in a while started happening weekly, sometimes daily. In graduate school — in my early-to-mid-20s — I was able to recognize that I needed help, so I sought out a school-provided therapist for guidance. My motivation for going was that I felt I cried too much compared with the general population.

When I met with a therapist for the first time in my life, she listened to me explain my reasons for coming. I spoke to Claire about how I cried myself to sleep, struggled to get out of bed every morning and, although my room looked clean, just managed to throw everything in the closet to give the appearance that I was put together. This was the first time I had openly admitted what was going on, and Claire officially diagnosed major depressive disorder in me. I remember telling her I felt like a fraud — I could somehow present myself so well to the people around me but the moment I was alone, my true self came out. Years later, I joked with her that I could (and should) win an Oscar for my acting skills. She did not find my joke funny, so I switched to a different therapist, Mark.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I stopped seeing Claire because she was no longer in-network for my insurance policy, unlike Mark. At this point I had already developed a strong connection with Claire, one I was forced to rebuild from scratch with Mark. Once again, I had to explain how my religion influenced a lot of my life, how my family structure made things harder and how I resent the façade I’ve put up because people think I’m “so strong” while on the inside I’m very much struggling. It took some time to foster that relationship with a new therapist, but with patience and regular visits it happened.

And then the pandemic hit.

No longer seeing patients in person, Mark asked to conduct weekly therapy sessions virtually. I lived with my family and didn’t have the privacy to participate earnestly in virtual therapy, so I declined. I was worried my parents or siblings would barge into what ought to be a private meeting. Months went by without me seeing a therapist. Pre-pandemic, this was a weekly or, at the very least, bi-weekly occurrence. I didn’t think I needed to go to therapy when the pandemic hit because I was no longer in school and the novelty of the situation made staying at home more socially acceptable.

Months passed and I thought I was doing much better. I was actually right.

I started a new job in the middle of the pandemic and became an “essential worker.” I was forced to go into work every day before sunrise and worked upward of 70 hours a week.

But the excitement of a new job faded very quickly and, after a few months, I caught myself in the same old cycle I was used to, only worse. I had no desire to eat, no motivation to do anything besides sleep and I was constantly thinking about how little desire I had to live. I began seeing a work-sponsored therapist. I didn’t like her much and didn’t feel I could be honest with her, but I continued to see her because I needed the help.

As the winter worsened, so did my depression. It seemed to be related to my menstrual cycle. My therapist (and I) believed I had premenstrual dysphoric disorder, a severe form of depression and anxiety associated with physical symptoms that starts up one or two weeks before a period and ends just after it starts. I was given medication to treat this and, within a few months, I started to feel better. The once-nightly occurrence of crying myself to sleep was now happening just once or twice a month, which was a refreshing improvement. I even found the motivation to run, read and see friends. After nearly a year on medication, we decided to wean me off.

The first month was (seemingly) fine. The second month was the same — until it wasn’t.

Just two months after stopping medications, I hit rock bottom. I found myself wanting to end my own life. I came up with not just one but several plans to carry this out, in case the first one didn’t succeed.

In hindsight, it was the perfect storm. I was sleep-deprived, had a couple of incredibly difficult weeks at work and was getting my period soon. I had a disagreement with a coworker and a family member in the same week and hadn’t seen my friends in well over a month. We had experienced a week of below-normal, frigid temperatures, with inches upon inches of snow and ice. The lake froze over. So did the river.

Up until this point, I never thought of hurting myself. I had created a “safety plan“ and had measures in place to make sure I didn’t get to that point, including reaching out to a few trusted loved ones. But things happened and I found myself planning to end my life.

Out of consideration for my family, I made sure all my bills were paid and any upcoming bills or fees were already covered. I organized my belongings as best as possible so it would be easy to go through. I went through the plans in my head multiple times.

Since the river is frozen, I could jump off the bridge and the contact of hitting the ice and the free fall would end my life.

I am a scientist, so I analyzed this plan further and concluded that the physics of this jump wouldn’t end my life fast enough. No bridges here were high enough. I would suffer. I would be in the water freezing to my death. That was not what I wanted. I wanted to die as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Walk into oncoming traffic. Drown in the lake. Purposefully get into a car accident.

I ranked the plans in order of feasibility, ease, pain and time till death. When I arrived at my decision, I began preparing what I was going to wear, where I was going to be and what I would bring with me. I got my bag ready and placed it by my jacket so that, when I left in the morning to take my life, it wouldn’t be suspicious and my family would just think I went to work.

That night, I went to sleep sobbing, ready to end my life and finally feel peace. I repeatedly prayed to God and asked Him to get me out of my misery. I closed my eyes and replayed the plan(s) in my head over and over again. After a couple of hours of this and after struggling to fall asleep, I texted my “safety plan” contact, my brother. I couldn’t muster the courage to call him because I was sobbing so heavily and didn’t want to wake up anyone at home. I texted him, “I’m scared.”

In just one conversation, he learned of my severe depression, my struggle on and off medications, my regular therapy visits and, now, my desire to end my own life. He was driving home after having spent a weekend with us and was surprised to learn about all this despite my “normal” appearance of living my life.

This is what we call high-functioning depression.

After staying up with me, texting while he was driving and ultimately talking me off the ledge, I stopped crying and tried to sleep. Right before closing my eyes, I prayed to God to end my life for me so I wouldn’t have to do it on my own.

I woke up the next day, oddly grateful to be alive.

I had cried so much the night before that I couldn’t see properly out of my left eye. My eyes were very swollen and the skin around them was raw from wiping away tears. I drove to work with my bag next to me. I passed all the different places I had planned to take my own life — the bridge, the lake, the streets. I got to my usual parking spot and thanked God one more time for keeping me alive. I reread the text exchange from my brother, thankful he was my savior in that moment, and went about my day at work, as if nothing had happened the night before.

What I experienced that night and the following morning were feelings of spiritual reckoning.

Someone described religion to me as a body of water, and I remembered the analogy the night I planned to take my life. She told me that “religion, like water, will sustain you. In moments of need, you will turn to God for His wisdom and His blessings to survive. You will confide in Him, trust in Him and believe that what He has written for you is what is best for you.” I recounted my conversation with her — how we talked about rainfall being a blessing from God because it replenishes life and how water can be a literal and figurative cleanse.

I am a practicing Muslim. I pray five times a day, read daily from the Quran, fast during Ramadan and give charity frequently. I try to live my life close to the tenets of Islam and I practice my religion with conviction in God. I know that, Islamically, committing suicide is a sin. Yet for some reason, despite all this and my religious observance, I was planning to do it anyway. It seems that, for me, in the moment of true despair, I dissociated from myself. Even writing this weeks later, I struggle to believe I was that same person. Although I am observant, in that moment, nothing mattered to me except ending my own life.

Had I had the means, like a bridge high enough, it would have happened. Because I didn’t, my life was spared.

In having that experience, I gained a newfound appreciation for life. The little things matter to me more — a restful night’s sleep, a tasty cup of coffee, a hearty dinner with good company, a soothing song, a warm shower, a funny joke and a kind word. I found myself thanking God every day for another chance at life, for this “rebirth.” I think to myself how different things would be if my “safety plan” contact had been asleep or hadn’t answered his texts. I think about what he said: “All the survivors who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge said they regretted it, instantly” and “I will turn back around and drive over to be with you.” I knew he would do it and the fact that he offered made me feel safe. It is quite fitting that he was my “safety plan” contact.

I sought out treatment and am now on daily medication. It has been a long road to find a medication that works well. The first one I tried worked but the side effects made it nearly impossible to function. We added a second medication and, although the combined efforts helped ease my depression, the side effects made it hard to sleep, causing even more downstream effects.

I eventually weaned off my initial medication and, fortunately, have found a perfect medium. My depression is under control and the side effects are tolerable. I am working on creating sustainable habits to carry me through when I eventually wean off all medication. I am building relationships that are fulfilling, enjoying new hobbies and taking care of myself in ways beyond what we are accustomed to think. For example, I have learned to talk about my experience openly, in the hopes that if someone else were struggling they would learn that it’s possible to make it to the other side — to get better and happier, to become at ease and live with peace of mind. I’ve created a structure to ensure that I do what I need to do for myself. I try to work out at least every other day. I go to bed at a reasonable time. I have created strict boundaries with work: I will not bring my work home, nor bring my personal life and struggles to work. I learned how to skateboard as a way to engage with the world around me in ways I had not yet experienced.

Although I can’t say I am completely out of depression’s deep dark hole, I am doing better now. I have spoken about this to my family and made them aware of my struggles, with boundaries, which is one reason I have chosen not to use my name for this essay. I do not want to relive the experience every time someone approaches me about it after reading what I have shared with the world. I do not want to be associated with this trauma within my social circle or at work. And, because of the cultural taboos I continue to navigate, I want to shield my extended family from any scrutiny they might otherwise endure if my name were to be out there.

I am in the process of finding a new therapist, yet again; one who understands how my Arab culture makes this conversation a little more cumbersome than I’d like; who can adjust my medication as needed when I’m observing Ramadan. I no longer pray to God to “get me out of my misery,” because He has. Now, I am thanking Him for another day of life, an abundance of blessings and a newfound will to live.

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