The Night I Spoke Up About My #BlackSuicide
My entire life was shaped by violence, so I wanted to end it violently. But I didn't — thanks to overcoming the stigma surrounding African-Americans and depression, and to building a community on Twitter.
In October of 2013, I designed an elaborate plan to kill myself.
At the time, I was working as an editor at a midsize news site. I showed up at the office each day, but mentally I was never really there. All of my limbs felt the way our feet feel when they fall asleep. The most terrifying mornings were when I’d wake up to the alarm clock on my iPhone at 6 a.m., but was unable to turn over from my stomach; removing my bed linens was like digging myself out from under a quilt filled with concrete. Trudging to my mirror each day, I saw a reflection of a man so ugly staring back at me that I thought he was unfit to live. So, I decided it was time for him to die.
Would I sprinkle my favorite dish with some kind of chemical and die as a result of food poisoning? No. I didn’t want to suffer a slow death. Or how about slashing my wrists? Nope. I hate sharp objects. I don’t know how to swim, so taking the A train to the Rockaways after midnight, jumping into the Atlantic Ocean, and letting the currents wash me away from the shore was also a consideration. I decided against that because it, too, would have been a slow death. Moreover, these scenarios could fail.
Instead, I decided on ending my life the easy way: sticking a gun in my mouth and pulling the trigger. At one of my old jobs, I had helped edit a series of stories that publicized black people who went missing. As a cover, I decided I would take details from those stories and use them to plan my own. One in particular seemed perfect for me: A young woman disappeared after hanging out in Atlantic City, never to be heard from again. Remains, possibly of the missing woman, washed up on the coast some time later.
After a few weeks, my plan was nearly set: I would tell my friends and family that I was going on a hunting trip somewhere in the coastal Northeast, probably New Hampshire or Maine, where there are lax gun laws. That’s all they needed to know. Once I got there, I would purchase a rifle (a handgun, I figured, would suggest criminality if I were stopped by police). I even knew what kind of clothing I would wear so that I could fit in as a black man wandering around in small town New England: duck boots, a pair of straight-legged jeans, an insulated vest, a flannel shirt — L.L. Bean, mainly.
I knew I wanted to be near the part of the coast where the currents were strong enough to whisk my body away. I would position myself at the very edge of a high cliff, stick the barrel of the rifle inside my mouth, pull the trigger, and hope the blast would push me off. My lifeless body would then fall into the water and be pulled into the ocean, never to be seen again.
I grew up on Scotten Avenue on the west side of Detroit during the 1980s, the height of the crack epidemic. Raised by my grandmother, Mama, I lived with her, my two uncles, Randy and Cricket, and my aunt, Annette, all of whom directed some form of abuse toward me. Violence was scenery. It was normal to walk home from school, only to have one of the older guys from the block suddenly run and shield my body from bullets that were being fired off just yards away. Often, I’d boil a hot dog on one burner of the stove while my uncles prepared whatever drug they were dealing on the others.
One night during the winter of 1992, six or seven masked men dressed in SWAT team gear raided our house and held Mama, Annette, Randy, and me at gunpoint. I was 11 years old. One of the men held a gun to the back of my head while the others pistol-whipped Uncle Randy so badly that one of his eyes popped out. Blood splatter hit the walls with the strength of a high-powered water gun. Drops of blood fell from the black hole where his eye once sat and sank into our tan carpet, where they would remain for weeks. The men eventually found the drugs and money they were looking for and ran out of the front door. I don’t remember how my uncle’s drug-dealing partners learned about the break-in, but they filled our living room carrying automatic weapons soon after the masked men left. After unsuccessfully shooting at the men as they ran down the street and into the night, they rushed Randy to the hospital, where his eye was placed back into the socket.
When I arrived at middle school the next day, most of my friends had heard about the robbery. At lunch, some of them laughed at me; my house was “weak” for getting robbed, they said. I felt ashamed and embarrassed.
The attack also made me think differently about Uncle Randy. The most stable father figure in my life at the time, he helped me define my masculinity. This is the same man who my grandmother told me once stuck a gun down another man’s throat and asked him to repeat himself after he heard that he had called him a “bitch-ass nigga.” The man immediately apologized. But, after the robbery, Randy was “weak”and I felt like prey. I knew I could never show myself as “weak” again.
A year later, Randy died in a fire at his apartment and Cricket had developed a bad crack habit. It was then, at age 12, that my grandmother handed me a .357 Magnum. “You’re man of the house now,” she said. Sometimes, she would give me her .22 handgun so I could fire into the bushes at night, just to get used to handling a gun in case I ever needed to shoot someone for real.
As I lay on top of my bed one night that fall of 2013, googling more details on how to carry out my suicide, a good friend, Akua, emailed me. Akua runs a nonprofit designed to empower pan-African youth in New York City. I volunteered for the organization earlier that year, but my suicidal thoughts were keeping me hunkered in my small studio apartment in Brooklyn and I hadn’t been in touch with her since the spring.
She asked only how I was doing, yet, somehow, that snapped me into a state of normalcy I hadn’t felt in months. Until that point, I hadn’t told anyone exactly what was wrong, though I had confided in a couple of friends months before that all might not be well. “I’m sorry that you’re going through this and I hope you get help,” they said, without actually suggesting how I could get help. I didn’t tell them I was planning on killing myself.
Rarely, if ever, did I reveal my true feelings to anyone. Akua was different. She was always warm and when she would ask, “How are you,” she didn’t mind if you answered with something other than, “Fine and you?” When she emailed me, it was one of the rare moments I felt vulnerable. “I feel like I am hurting but cannot explain why. I have never felt so weak in my life,” I responded. “I really try to fight through but I'm finding it harder to do so.” The next day, I went to work feeling safer after having opened up, but I still felt as if I was slipping in and out of consciousness. I still wanted to die. But when my thoughts turned morbid, I reminded myself of the first line of Akua’s email back to me: “I LOVE YOU TERRELL.”
About a year after Uncle Randy died, during a summer day in 1993, Mama and Uncle Cricket were in a heated argument in the living room, an event that had become routine in our house. Cricket was a nice person before he became addicted to crack but, afterward, he treated Mama and me horribly. Drunk, high, or both, he threatened us often and said the worst things imaginable to Mama. “Fuck you, bitch!” and “Suck my dick, ho!” were regular insults, but they weren’t the worst. This time, two family friends were also over and tried to calm Cricket down, but he ignored them.
“I know what I’mma do. I’ll be right back,” he said suddenly, after he and Mama had been at each other for 15 minutes. Then, he walked down into the basement, where he lived. One of our friends, already fearful that Cricket was going for a gun, ran out the front door.
I rushed over to where Mama was sitting and pulled the the .22 from its usual hiding spot under the edge of the cushion of her chair. “‘Rell, stop!” she yelled. She tried to snatch the gun from my hands, but she was too late. I aimed the gun at the basement door, rage flowing through my body and pooling in my pointer finger, ready to squeeze the trigger until I emptied the clip. As Cricket stepped out of the doorway, I saw a small gun in his right hand. Just as I pointed the .22 directly at him, the family friend who had stayed behind ran to me and took the gun, saving my uncle’s life and mine from what likely would have been years in prison or a juvenile institution. I was pissed. He had ruined my chance to do something I had secretly wanted to for at least a year, to finally bring my grandmother and me some peace.
And this is where my memory goes hazy. I remember running out the door and across the street, watching Cricket at the top of the porch steps holding his gun at his temples. Mama at edge of the porch screaming for her life. A local news truck rolling up to record everything. A beat cop who knew my family arriving, trying to talk Cricket out of killing himself.
“What do you want Cricket?”
“I want some help. I need help.”
Cricket eventually left with the cop in a patrol car and checked himself into a mental health facility for a year, before returning back to his room in our basement. He wasn’t “weak” like Randy; he was just a neighborhood crackhead. He was sober for a month before he started using again. He continued to be verbally abusive up until the day I left Detroit for college.
Cricket died in 2013 from a drug overdose.
After I received Akua’s email, I must have spoken with at least seven or eight potential therapists, answering questions like “How long have you wanted to die?” and “Are you suicidal?” over and over again. I was looking for a black woman. Like Akua, the people who I have felt most comfortable being vulnerable around — Mama, my godmother, and many of my professors at Philander Smith, a historically black college — have been black women. A week later, I finally found a wonderful black female therapist and began seeing her Oct. 27, 2013.
The first two months were the toughest, in part because I was still in denial that I needed therapy in the first place. My therapist sensed it right away. “You have one foot in and the other foot out, don’t you?” she would ask me during our sessions. “Yes,” I would reply, attempting to hide my skepticism.
How will she respond when I tell her I tried to kill my uncle when I was 12, I thought.
She eventually eased my fears by never judging me and offering a sympathetic ear when I shared something I felt embarrassed about. She specializes in childhood trauma, so we spent the first three months focusing on my time living on Scotten. Each week, she’d identify something as a traumatic experience that, in the past, I brushed off as nothing: the time I tried to shoot Cricket; the years of endless, violent vitriol he directed at Mama and me; the rough ways Randy would try and toughen me up; the times when Annette would drive me to the mall or a park in the suburbs and leave me on purpose; watching Mama die in my arms after a heart attack when I was 18 and never crying or saying anything about it.
“Your grandmother knew what she was doing,” my therapist told me during one of our earlier sessions, explaining that Mama’s insistence on being tough was her way of protecting me. “She taught you how to survive in the environment you were living in.”
Now, it was 20 years later, and I was trying to survive in an environment of a very different kind: a corporate one. More specifically, I was struggling to avoid a manager at work whom I had been told by several colleagues wanted me gone. According to the rumor mill, he, as well as some other co-workers, were trying to make my work environment stressful so I’d quit. “They don’t like what you stand for,” a boss from a previous job told me. Another manager plainly explained what that meant: “You’re too black for them, Terrell.”
I began having anxiety attacks. Sometimes, when I saw someone I knew wanted me gone walking in my direction at the office, the muscles in the upper portion of my chest constricted so tightly that I struggled to breathe and had chest pains that would last for hours. In Detroit, I had learned how to take the long way to and from school to avoid gangs. Instead of killing me with a gun, I was convinced this manager was going to get rid of me with a pink slip.
“Terrell, this is not your neighborhood,” my therapist finally told me after several months. “This person won’t shoot you.”
One evening last summer, nearly a year after I had begun therapy, I was sitting on my bed reflecting on the previous October. I had yet to tell most people in my life that I had once been suicidal and was seeing a therapist, but I was tired of keeping it to myself. I decided I wanted a community to help support me through the process. So, on Aug. 8, I tweeted: “This is my first time openly discussing my suicide battle from nearly a year ago, but I already feel better that I'm speaking. #BlackSuicide”
Soon, my message had been retweeted or favorited 60 times, and several of my followers responded to me directly. Some offered words of encouragement, others revealed that they were depressed and had also considered suicide. Some even told me their psychiatric diagnoses: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and on and on. The conversation that was born of that hashtag was a revelation. I had no idea that so many black people were struggling with similar issues. A common statistic from Mental Health America is that 63% of African-Americans view depression as a weakness, nearly 10% more than the average for all races. Yet, here we were, pushing against that stigma and opening up to one another. I’ve been using #BlackSuicide ever since. The more I’ve tweeted about how the violence I experienced as a child affected my life as an adult, the more support I’ve received and have been able to give others in return.
Growing up, I never heard anyone talk about therapy, even though black people are 20% more likely than white people to report serious psychological distress. Now, I sometimes host Twitter chats in which licensed therapists offer resources on how people can seek help. Most of the participants are black and believe they need treatment, but can’t afford it or have a hard time finding a professional who is also black and will understand their experiences. Some of the therapists who participate in my chats provide links to free or low-cost services. A few of my own followers have even shared their phone numbers in case I need someone to talk to when I’m feeling down. In addition to my own therapy, I now have an entire web of people I can lean on whenever I am struggling.
I still have challenges, though.
On Valentine’s Day, I saw 50 Shades of Grey with a friend. When Christian Grey pulled off his shirt and revealed cigarette burns on his chest — a result of years of childhood sexual abuse — I immediately began having an anxiety attack. My chest tightened. My body trembled. Fear and helplessness gripped my conscience. I was never sexually abused, yet somehow those cigarette burns were dragging my mind out of the theater to somewhere else, somewhere where I thought I’d feel safer. I began doing the breathing exercises my therapist taught me to keep me focused and present. In and out, slowly, slowly. Keep watching the movie. Stay in reality, I thought. My mind never left that theater.
I emailed my therapist that night to tell her what happened. It was the first time I had reached out to her immediately after an anxiety attack. Before, I figured I could take care of them myself. At our next session, she encouraged me to see a psychiatrist, something she had suggested back in 2013 when we first began seeing each other. At the time, I refused, fearing a diagnosis that would have taken me over the edge. Now, I have an appointment scheduled for April.
If you or someone you know is going through a rough time, feeling depressed, or thinking about self-harm, you can call the national suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit its website. You can also head over to ReachOut.com and check out some of its resources.