I Was a Suicidal Teen — These 4 Questions Changed My Mind

Earlier this summer, when I read that Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain had died by suicide, my first emotion wasn’t sadness. It was recognition — a gut-level click of understanding. My first thought? "I get it, friend."  

Is it not kosher to say that in public? Good. All the more reason to tell the truth. Given the rising suicide rates, it's more important than ever before to spark an honest dialogue — to normalize words like, “I feel desperate. I want to die.” 

So, are you guys ready to rip out the seams and lay bare the truth about suicidal ideation? Cool.

As a teen, I was a half-inch from suicide. My first sixteen years taught me that nobody liked me, let alone loved me. And I saw zero proof that anything would change as I got older. I lived thisclose to making that choice — to executing my plan. When one more unspeakable trauma hit, that was the end. 

But then it wasn’t. I didn’t do it. An intervention visit to a psychiatrist played a huge role, as did the double dosage of Prozac she prescribed. But in the deciding moment — when it was me alone, desperate and needing to halt reality — there were two things that stopped my hand. 

The first was an inborn, hard-driving need to someday become a writer. I was hell-bent. I wanted to be “a real writer” more than I wanted a loving family, more than I wanted a rich, gorgeous lover to swoop in and save the day. I wanted to be a writer so badly, I was unwilling to die without earning that title.   

The other was birds. And trees. And wind. Outside had always been my safe place. Some invisible something in nature met a need that ran deeper than my human-inflicted wounds. In my do-or-die moment, I heard a bird singing and realized, “Wait. If I’m gone, I won’t have birds anymore.” And nope. Unacceptable. Not giving up birds. 

These two pure loves threw up a barrier. By giving me hope for the future, and an accessible joy right now, they halted my actions; they gave me a reason to make a new plan and seek professional help. They kept me alive. 

Decades have passed since my suicidal adolescence. I’ve spent them working my ass off to reach my crucial goal — see my byline, above! — and fulfilling my mission to support struggling teens. Along the way, I’ve built my dream life, including a backyard with every bird, bug and animal you can imagine. I have the mental space to reflect on how close I came to suicide, and the ladders I used to climb to stable mental health. But still. Sometimes I’m caught off guard. 

My work with teens involves speaking at schools. I had the opportunity last fall to present at my own high school. Twenty-seven years after fleeing, I flew back and spoke to students in the “media center” — code for library — where I had spent every lunch period hiding from the kids I was sure were laughing at me. Afterward, at a signing at the local bookstore, a woman came in, breathless and flushed. “Are you Cyndy Etler?” she said. I didn’t recognize her. I didn’t know her name. But somehow, she knew mine.  

Twenty-eight years prior, it turns out, she’d been a depressed, bullied kid who hid in the library during lunch. This week, she had seen an article in the paper about my book signing. She came to the bookstore to say, with tears in her eyes, “Every day, you walked by where I was sitting with my head down. Every day, you asked how I was doing. You were the only person who talked to me. I’ve never forgotten that.”  

Memory is tricky. While I remember white-hot the uglier details of my childhood, I have zero memory of speaking to that girl — which apparently I did, five days a week for a year or two. Did my brain lock onto the scary stuff and skim right over the good? And if that’s the case, could there have been more good happening in my life, too — but I was too clouded with pain to register it?  

The woman in the bookstore put a sharp point on another vital question: If I had killed myself, what effect would that have had on her? Pulling the camera back further, what effect would it have had on the thousands of teens I’ve taught and coached, who refer to me as “Mom”? I don’t think they would be dead… but would they be as alive as they are if they hadn’t had support from someone who deeply gets it? And what about all the birds and squirrels I feed and water — the bugs I scoop from drowning in the water bowl? Those guys do depend on me for survival. 

These kinds of questions give me perspective today; they give me fuel to make life feel safer for struggling teens. But as an adolescent, I wasn’t primarily motivated by helping other people. I was motivated by having my own needs met. So the questions that changed my mind tapped into the buried bright spots within me. Here’s how I would phrase them today: 

  1. If you had a magical power, something you were put on this Earth to do, what would it be? 
  2. Who or what are you helping just by being yourself and doing what you do? 
  3. How would you finish this sentence? "I will not die until I have ______________________." 
  4. How about this one? "I refuse to miss out on _________________." (Which essentially translates to: "I will stick around and deal with pain or struggle because I will not give up the experience of this thing.")

These questions tap into a person’s joy, purpose and hope — a powerful elixir. If desperation is at the root of suicidal feelings, these three feelings are the weed killer. So go ahead. Hit your teen, your partner, your friends with these questions. Because wherever we are on the happiness spectrum, a shot of joy can’t hurt… and you never know when your caring words are saving a life. 

For more information on the warning signs and prevention of suicide, click here. If you're considering suicide or fear you may become suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). If you're worried about someone you love, visit SuicidePreventionLifeline.org. If you live outside the U.S., you can find a list of suicide-prevention hotlines worldwide here.

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