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Suicide + Honesty: How to Find a Soulmate

Talking openly about suicide can yield surprising rewards.

Several months ago, I was waiting in line to see a sold-out exhibit at a local museum. I’d bought my ticket a while back, when I was feeling good about the world. But depression had since descended, and the last thing I felt like doing was being out among people who didn’t get it, didn’t get me, and were apparently oblivious to the true sorry state of the universe. Mindless TV and junk food beckoned, and I had to force myself to get up that morning and get dressed. Driving to the museum, I almost laughed at how bleak my expectations were: I hoped for nothing more than a few hours of desultory distraction, after which I could come home and get thoroughly numb.

It was a hot day and the line was long. The holiday-mood crowd made me feel even lonelier and more insignificant than I already did. Anything would be better than listening to the endless self-critical drone inside my own head, I thought. So—very unlike me—I decided to make small talk with the man in front of me. I said something banal about the weather, and we began to chat.

He was a total stranger until about fifteen minutes into our conversation, when he suddenly became an intimate friend. The transformation happened when I said I was a writer, and he asked me what I’d written, and I told him about my memoir, “Manic.” There’s simply no way for me to talk about that book without disclosing that I have bipolar disorder. I always sweat it out for the first few interminable moments, never knowing how the other person is going to respond. But this time, to my relief and delight, I was met with equal disclosure.

“I’ve struggled with depression my entire life,” he said. “I’ve been hospitalized several times, I even had electroshock therapy.”

By unspoken consensus, we stepped a little ways apart from the rest of the crowd. We started with the usual salvos—meds, side effects, promising new treatments—all the while gauging each other’s willingness to open up and go deeper. It didn’t take long before we’d both moved to the next level of vulnerability: “It even got so bad that . . .” He said the word first, then I echoed him: “. . . I attempted suicide.”

The S word. It changes everything. From that moment on, we knew things about each other that it sometimes takes years or a lifetime to learn. This person understands the dark, I thought. I don’t have to explain myself, or pretend to be anyone that I’m not. He’s been there, he gets it. I’m home.

He later told me he felt the same way, like the air had just become easier to breathe. It was as if we’d landed in the last scene of “Casablanca”—at the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And in fact, that’s exactly what happened: our relationship, having taken root so deeply, has blossomed ever since. Granted, this was an unusual occurrence; it’s rare to stumble across a sudden soulmate. But it wouldn’t have happened if we both weren’t brave enough to venture headlong into dangerous territory—to step toward connection, not away from risky but potentially rewarding honesty.

There are tremendous benefits to disclosure. I know it, you know it, and yet so many of us remain terrified to talk about mental illness, let alone openly discuss the subject of suicide. Even my friend and I spoke in hushed tones, intensely aware of other ears. The extensive media coverage of the recent spate of celebrity deaths may be helping to change that, but for the most part we are all still talking in whispers.

My experience made me realize how much I crave genuine, meaningful interaction, and how wrong I often am about what I really need. I isolate when I’m depressed because I think it makes me feel better, but the comfort it gives me is meager and cold. Maybe you are sensing that about yourself, too, and if so I urge you to act on it. Intimacy, honesty, unmet friends: they’re all out there, just waiting for you to start the conversation.

(“The S Word” is the name of an acclaimed new documentary about suicide by Lisa Klein, which will soon be available on Netflix. Check it out on FB and at www.theswordmovie.com.)

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