The questions came in a rush — did you really try to kill yourself? Why did you do it? Did you do it before we were born or after? Did you not think of us?

Sandhya Menon is seen smiling in this image. She is wearing a floral dress with her sunglasses pulled back on her head. Background is a lake and greenery.
Blog Blog Thursday, September 10, 2020 - 12:42

About four days ago, I retweeted a tweet that introduced me as a panelist on a discussion about suicide prevention. It had my picture on it with a little paragraph next to it. My kids were around me, and my 11-year-old son caught a glimpse of the screen and said, “Amma, that’s your picture. What are you doing now?” As I got busy talking to my daughter about something, my son proceeded to read the intro right through, including something I had missed on the promotional material. Next to my name, it said ‘suicide survivor’.

“Suicide survivor!” My son exclaimed aloud. We — my parents, kids and I — were just about to sit down for lunch. There was an awkward silence for a minute and he asked, “Amma why are they saying that about you?” He’s a bit slow, so my 12-year-old daughter chimed in. “You tried to kill yourself?” This was a moment of reckoning for me — as a mother, as a daughter and as someone who put her parents through the harrowing experience of having to care for a suicidal offspring in their ageing years. I could bolt and run. I could lie. Or I could tell them the truth. You see, almost eight years since my first attempt (I tried twice) and I still have not entirely reconciled with what I did. I have only referred to it in passing in my therapy; I explore it now and then in the things I write, but if one were to ask me if I had faced up to the fact that I had given up on life and my (then) tiny children, the answer would be a no.

When my daughter asked that explicit question, the silence around me grew tight, pulling at the edges of blame, guilt, fear and disappointment. My parents pretended to have gone temporarily deaf; I, on the other hand, found myself wanting to rush through my response, or even quickly change the subject because we are a regular Indian family — mildly dysfunctional, unable to be vulnerable, and uncomfortable with truths about less that 100 percent functioning adulthood. I took a pause, suggested we finish lunch and then sit down to talk about it so I could answer properly. That satisfied both my children, and lunch resumed.

My son, with his irrepressible curiosity, punctuated the meal with his question of, “Did you really do it?” After ignoring him the first few times, I decided it would be best to quickly answer it, because my parents were becoming increasingly uneasy. I responded with a quiet ‘yes’ and said any more details would be given after lunch. Lunch went by without any further incident; after the table was cleared and my parents went up to a nap, I gathered my children round to have, perhaps, the most difficult conversation I have had, so far, as a mum. I sat two curious, wide-eyed faces down from across me and asked them what they wanted to know.

The questions came in a rush — did you really try to kill yourself? Why did you do it? Did you do it before we were born or after? Did you not think of us? Who made you do it? How did it feel? I answered the questions one by one as best as I could without coating the truth with self pity, pretend-apathy, judgement or fear — though it was tempting to resort to each one of these. If i displayed self pity, I would be making myself the victim and those around me, the villains. If I chose pretend-apathy in order to reduce shock, my kids would pick it up. If I were to resort to judgement, I would teach them self loathing. And if I were to give in to the fear that my speaking about my own attempt would lead them to try it themselves if they were in a similar situation in their future lives, I would be shutting this conversation down, and with it, the possibility of the lessons we could all learn from it, if any.

Some time during the conversation, my daughter’s face softened from innocent curiosity to intense empathy; her forehead softening, her mouth becoming a small O and her eyes melting into intense compassion. If I were to choose one moment in my life to base its value on, it would be that expression of undiluted love that I caught in her face. My son, typical to his nature, continued to look agog; I could tell his mind was working furiously to analyse what he had just heard. Our voices were soft, our circle of three was in secret communion with all the uncertainties in our lives — we were trying to be there for each other as best as we could.

“How did you do it?” I told them. (I overdosed on my psychiatric medication.) “What did it feel like,” my daughter asked. “Do you mean what I felt inside when I did it?” No, she said. “What did it feel like when you took all those pills?” I told her. She broke my heart with, “Oh, I know what that feels like! That’s how I feel when my allergy comes on or I can’t sleep. My eyes get heavy, like there are tiny bits of rock in them, and I feel woozy. It’s very annoying.” Yet another lesson in empathy from my 12 year-old who makes it a habit of teaching me, inadvertently, what it means to really “get” what the other person is going through. My son, on the other hand, grinned and asked, “Why didn’t you try something more interesting?” We had a laugh at that.

The conversation smoothly flowed into how this revelation made them feel. I will keep that part of the story to myself, for now. Some day, when I am older, and they are too, I will seek their permission to write about it, so that folks like me, who resort to extreme measures do not forget that there are always reasons to carry on. We may not know or remember them then but there are ways to build those skills that will remind you of your worth, your value to the world around you, remind you of the work that is still left for only you to do, remind you that there is a life of richness — which includes pain, as well as building resilience — ahead of you.

I will also write about that part of the conversation for those who are left behind — because mental illness and issues arising from bad mental health are very real, very present in those around us. Sometimes, no amount of medication, therapy, support or skilling can overcome it; but there are way more chances of living out our life in its chaotic gloriousness if we seek the help we need, if we extend to our loved ones the offer for help and support. You may not thrive like you imagined, you may not have everything the world tells you you need to own, you may not see your own worth many times. I continue to have suicidal thoughts and ideation regularly. I go to sleep often, hoping I do not wake up in the morning, by some miracle. But I do wake up. I wake up, feel the dread of an impending day, regret that some night magic didn’t put an end to my life. And then I put one foot in front of the other. Then another. Then another. For now, it is the only way I know to be there to watch my children grow up. For now, they are my biggest reasons for staying alive.

(Sandhya is an independent journalist and writer based in Bengaluru. She writes about many things but especially mental health and safe workplace practices.)

If you are aware of anyone facing mental health issues or feeling suicidal, please provide help. Here are some helpline numbers of suicide-prevention organisations that can offer emotional suppport to individuals and families.

Tamil Nadu
State health department's suicide helpline: 104
Sneha Suicide Prevention Centre - 044-24640050 (listed as the sole suicide prevention helpline in Tamil Nadu)

Andhra Pradesh
Life Suicide Prevention: 78930 78930
Roshni: 9166202000, 9127848584

Sahai (24-hour): 080 65000111, 080 65000222

Maithri: 0484 2540530
Chaithram: 0484 2361161
Both are 24-hour helpline numbers.

State government's suicide prevention (tollfree): 104
Roshni: 040 66202000, 6620200

SEVA: 09441778290, 040 27504682 (between 9 amd and 7 pm)

Aasara offers support to inidviduals and families during an emotional crisis, for those dealing with mental health issues and suicidal ideation, and to those undergoing trauma after the suicide of a loved one.
24x7 Helpline: 9820466726

Click here for working helplines across India.

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