For all of those who may be struggling out there today, I wanted to share my story with suicidal thoughts and how I dealt with a year and a half of turbulent health, emotional states, and severe psychological stress.
Suicidal thoughts affect members of every people group – every ethnicity, socioeconomic status, age, gender identity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, and so on. Suicidal thoughts also disproportionately affect members of the LGBTQ+ Community, and their chances of resorting to self-harm severely increase in the face of traumatic events (Suicide Prevention Lifeline Web site; Human Rights Campaign LGBTQ Mental Health). Women are more likely to attempt suicide (more frequently through overdose on pills), but men are more likely to successfully commit suicide because they often resort to more drastic means (shooting themselves, for example) (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention).
When I was in graduate school working on my Master’s, I actually had a really rough time the entire 18 months I was there. Most of the time I felt like a disabled oddball, due to my relatively unusual gender expression as a Femme-presenting cis-woman in a mostly male-dominated field (hence the name, LikeAFemmeBoss.com!). I also felt like people didn’t respect me and that I had to prove myself more than the rest of my cohort because of stereotypes that linger about “valley girls,” “rich girls,” “slutty girls,” and “blondes.” I felt awkward asking simple clarification questions from the professors and fellow cohort because they would always give me a funny look as though I were stupid to be asking that. Imposter syndrome – also known by the less stigmatized term “imposter phenomenon” (Sakalku & Alexander, Int’l. J. Behavioral Sci., 2011) – invaded my entire experience.
I got to a point where I was absolutely flailing. My boyfriend and I had recently broken up. I had no security or safe space among the people I had to spend the most time with (that is, the other Chemistry graduate students). I literally did not have the hours in the day to go do community service or another activity that would have put me together with like-minded peers. I was touching people on the arms (innocuously, though obviously) at Chem Keg every Friday just to feel the touch of another human. I would sob every day, some days multiple times. I was struggling in my classes and couldn’t seem to get the help I needed to get better than the absolute lowest passing grades (I even failed a class because I didn’t even have the prerequisites for it but my guidance counselor had told me I had to take it first semester!). I even experienced food insecurity, resorting to ramen noodles and beans and rice to make it to my next paycheck. I stopped being able to eat because I was so incredibly anxious and depressed all the time.
Every step of this was anxiety-inducing and defeating. I got to a point staying up till 2 in the morning struggling through a problem set where I just gave up, went outside in the utter darkness, and started saying to myself, “This is hopeless. I’m never going to get to do what I’d always dreamed and I’m going to fail out of this PhD program, which is more painful than death.”
At UC Berkeley the chemistry buildings are clustered together in a complex. There is a terrace in the middle overlooking a patio with metal grate tables and chairs. I saw the ledge over by the terrace. I started heavily thinking about jumping off that ledge. I felt so out of control and basically so f*cked in life.
Luckily, my mom and my previous experiences with talk therapy (also called counseling) had ingrained in me the idea that this kind of suicidal thinking simply means that something is wrong, something needs to change in your life. And fast. And it does not mean that you are worthless or hopeless, just perhaps that your current path in life is. So instead of killing myself in that moment, I stepped away from the ledge and started to walk home.
Thank the Universe that those people had spoken up about suicidal thoughts in my past, or perhaps I wouldn’t be here now.
In the aftermath, I knew I needed to get back into counseling. I started attending sessions long-term and went to crisis counseling on campus anytime I felt like I was about to have a panic attack. The next morning, I went to a crisis counseling meeting with a very kind therapist who directed me to long-term therapy with a DBT & Psychotherapy specialist in the Bay Area. I also made a safety plan with this crisis therapist to keep me from being scared about taking my own life due to feeling out of control.
A safety plan? At first it sounded so ridiculous to me, but it was actually really important to make sure I had something secure to do when all else felt hopeless. A safety plan is a set of steps that you agree with the counselor that you will take if you are alone and the suicidal thoughts become intrusive and overwhelming. It could be anything that helps to ground you in the present moment. For me, I knew that watching some funny/silly YouTube videos about animals would help get me out of that headspace. I also agreed with the therapist that I would eat something sweet, like chocolate, to get me back into my body and out of the brink of suicide. If those things weren’t working, I would then call either a friend or a therapist for further support.
Later in the week, I also finally had a meltdown about a problem set (which was a symbol of everything else going wrong) in front of one of my fellow grad students, Rebecca. She turned out to be very sympathetic and starting inviting me grocery shopping and to her apartment for ice cream and Anime.
I also reached out to people via online dating. I found a really nice guy named Ceasar. He also had shared a similar experience with suicidal thoughts and burnout in college, and he was very empathetic and comforting. He also similarly liked physical affection and prolonged eye contact. He often would treat me to breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the weekends. He would cuddle me anytime I felt like I was having a panic attack. He liked sharing experiences and since he knew I had no money. He was just the salve I needed in a time when I felt like my whole world was collapsing. We ended up dating for a whole year!
I will never forget the generosity and friendship of these people.
Being around other people who weren’t pursuing Chemistry PhD’s helped me frame life in a different light. Instead of having to go straight through all of my education to PhD status, why not take a break in between the Master’s and PhD? Or just terminate with the Master’s and forget about getting that PhD in Chemistry? Was a reputation and a status of power as a professional PhD in a sea of politicians who only listen to those who have the highest qualifications more important than my quality of life? What was missing from my life that kept me crippled and feeling like a failure everyday? How else could life be acceptable to me? It took me about 8 months to figure out that, regardless of which career I pursued after graduation, I needed to terminate with the Master’s and pursue personal care. A break from the academic rat race. And a release from everyone else’s (at least how I perceived it) opinions about my worth to society. It turns out the only thing I had to prove to myself was that I was still a good and caring person who wanted to use my talents for holistic social good. And so I started this blog the month after I left California and graduated with my Master’s. See how much better life can be just a year after I had these severe and scary suicidal thoughts?
If you find that you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts, I encourage you to consider reaching out to any of the following resources:
- Free Guided Meditations by UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center
- Deep Breathing Exercise to Stop Panic Attack
- Journal it out! You can buy a journal/planner combination book I personally find very useful for gathering and processing my stressful and anxious thoughts here.
- 7 Cups – a completely FREE active listening resource in case you need someone to listen while you gather your thoughts or work through anxieties. If you need professional help, you can also contact a therapist here.
- Calming YouTube Meditation for Stopping an Anxiety Attack
- Help For Overactive Mind at Bedtime
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – Call 1-800-273-8255 NOW (Available 24/7)
- National Sexual Assault Hotline – Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) NOW (Available 24/7)
I’ve also put together a map to help you search for free mental health clinics in your area. I call it mental health, because it does have to do with your thoughts. But please do not let the stigma that still surrounds the idea of talk therapy keep you from talking to a professional. They are trained to help you get past the challenges that are causing you to feel the way you’re feeling. And they only do this as a profession because they genuinely care about people like me and you.
Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Please remain hopeful that you can and you will find a way out of the temporary problem! Taking control of a situation in which you previously felt powerless is incredibly important for getting to the dreams you envisioned for yourself all along!
Please leave a comment below if you felt that this post was at all helpful.
Hannah Stringfellow is a freelance blogger and world traveler. She holds an M.S., Chemistry, from the University of California, Berkeley. Her interests include women’s empowerment, health and wellness, and cross-cultural competency.