The face of mental illness can be deceptive, hidden behind big smiles, wide eyes and exuberant expressions forced into place to avoid detection. Millions of people every day wear a rehearsed look of “all is right with the world.” Many muster the courage to slog through the school day or work week. Without professional intervention, some are pushed by their pain, joining nearly 45,000 people each year in the U.S. who die by suicide.
My story began on a summer evening in Seoul, South Korea. I was 15 years old – smack dab in the middle of a military brat adolescence – watching a movie with my parents. Toward the end of the film, the antagonist met his demise by falling off a building. It was your typical action flick, but something about that scene stuck in my mind. I wonder what it would be like to fall off a building. What should have been a fleeting thought – the occasional kind chocked up to a wild imagination – rooted itself in my mind, my anxiety burrowing it with every passing minute.
That night, as I laid in bed, my mind outraced my pulse and I found myself afraid of the thoughts that were kicking around in my head. It occurred to me that my bedroom was next to a hallway; one that separated our apartment from a 10-story, window ledge. The random thought about falling to one’s death quickly turned into a series of “what if” thoughts. What if I just walked into the hallway right now? What if I just opened that window a little? What if I jumped to my death? It was a numbing series of thoughts, altogether foreign and unfounded.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it was anxiety that was holding my young mind hostage; each surge pushing the thought of suicide into a state of permanence. What began that night as a tourist of a thought turned into a resident of my mind for nearly two years. Thoughts about falling from a building transitioned into cutting my wrists, hanging myself, biting an electric cord, jumping out of cars, laying down in traffic and so on. While other teenagers were living their lives, I was obsessing about suicide.
I felt strange. And I felt alone. My mind was a broken-record, incapable of hearing a new tune. It wasn’t until I confided in my mom that I finally received the help I needed. I was introduced to a therapist who delivered the kind of life raft learning that saves you from drowning in your sorrows. I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). That knowledge gave me the grounding I needed to stabilize myself and face my anxieties. And I began to fight back.
For more than three decades, I have battled compulsions, sparred with mental obstacles and wrestled with anxiety. I used to hate my OCD and the control it had over me. I realize now it made me stronger. It has honed my focus and shaped my approach to life. And it has taught me that the face of mental illness isn’t a recognizable one. As we prepare for National Suicide Awareness Week – September 9-15 – let’s learn how to look for the warning signs of suicide and support individuals in silence. Your help today can mean a lifetime of difference for someone tomorrow.
To learn how you can spot the signs of suicidal ideation, sign up for Mental Health First Aid. Mental Health First Aid offers tools to help start a conversation, listen with compassion to someone who has thoughts of suicide and direct them to professional help. For urgent support, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Nicholas Thomas is the Director of Content Marketing for the National Council for Behavioral Health.