L’appel du Vide

The following deals with suicidal ideation. If you find talks of suicide or self-harm triggering, I urge you to please not continue.

Back when I was 14 I went on a road trip one summer with my aunt and a few of her friends and their kids from Karachi, Sindh to Quetta, Balochistan. If I could sum up Quetta in a few words, they’d be intense dry heat and steep, rocky mountains. We stopped near the edge of a cliff to stretch our legs and get a view of the mountains before us. I remember walking to the edge and, while staring hundreds of feet down to the ground below, having a thought that shocked me before it had fully formed in my head.

What if, right this minute… I jump off this cliff?

My heart skipped a beat and I quickly stepped back, pushing that thought out of my head. I didn’t tell anyone about my thoughts, afraid I’d be called crazy. I was horrified with myself for even thinking about doing it. Life was perfect. I was happy, made the honor depressroll, was experiencing my first silly teenage crush and the feeling was mutual at the other end. At the time, my entire world was colored in different shades of rose. So it didn’t make sense for me to have thoughts of putting myself in possibly fatal danger. Yet, it wasn’t the last time I did.

A few years later, I came across the French phrase “L’appel du vide“.  Translated, it means “Call of the void.” Basically, it’s that little nagging voice  in the back of your head that tells you to swerve your car suddenly into oncoming traffic. Or  jump off a cliff. But the fact that there was an actual word for it and the fact that many people in the world experience it made me feel some relief that I wasn’t the only one with thoughts of doing something crazy like that. The point is, these thoughts are not necessarily associated with depression and suicide and are often fleeting and not connected to any emotion.

But the problem wasn’t that those thoughts hadn’t stopped. The problem was that up until recently, every time I had those thoughts, I’d be filled with a sense of peace. Relief.

During my ER rotation in nursing school, I followed a nurse whose patient included one who tried to commit suicide by overdosing  and was found and rushed to the ER to have his stomach pumped. A cop sat outside his room, nursing a cup of coffee and a paperback. After we left the room, the nurse sighed impatiently and muttered, “Waste of space.”

Surprised, I turned to look at her. Noticing my disapproval she quickly added, “In the ER we save lives for people who want to live. If he doesn’t want to live, that’s his problem but he shouldn’t be wasting resources or my time. Or the doctor’s time. Or this police officer’s time.” Being a lowly student and hence, at the bottom of the food chain, I couldn’t risk answering back and getting kicked off the floor, so I stayed silent. She glanced back at his room. “Psych will be here soon to take him. Do me a favor and remove his IV, will you? Thanks.” And she walked away.

I turned on the light in his room, introduced myself, told him what I was about to do. He stared at the wall ahead and didn’t acknowledge me. Taking his silence for consent, I approached his side and quietly took his hand. As I gently lifted the tape securing his IV, I stole quick glances at his face. From his chart I knew he was in his mid-thirties but he looked so much older. His gaunt face remained expressionless but those clear blue eyes held so much grief. I slowly removed the catheter from his vein and said, “I hope I’m not hurting you.”

He still didn’t say anything but turned to stare at me. As I bandaged his hand, I smiled at him and said, “Thank you for being so patient with me. It’s my first time doing this.” It wasn’t.

He gave me the slightest of nods.

I didn’t know the circumstances that lead to him downing those pills. But I understood the drive that made him do it.

The thing about harboring suicidal thoughts is that you can’t really bring yourself to tell most people because they might react in one of two ways. They might treat you with over-exaggerated care, afraid to talk to you or joke with you, walk on eggshells around you… as if you’re something fragile and you’re going to fall apart. Or at the other end of the spectrum, you’ll have people who, like the nurse, are going to think of you as a total waste of space because the fire inside you has been extinguished for some reason, your will to live, much less thrive, has been stolen from you. Either way, their image of you will forever change. You’ll no longer be the quiet girl with  surprisingly a lot to say, who loves to laugh and joke around and tease people. You’ll just be looked at cautiously as a mentally unstable suicide risk, which you’re really not.

Before I continue, I want to stress that I won’t kill myself. There’s nothing brave or cowardly about my decision. I was raised by people who sacrificed so much for me. To end my own life with my own hands is to throw away a gift they’ve given me so selflessly. It’s a slap in their faces. Their love for me, even though both of them have passed on, makes me both grateful and resentful for keeping myself tethered to this world. There’s no question about it. For their sake and their memory, I’ll never do it.

Depression isn’t always feeling sad. It’s not always crying all the time. There are moments where you feel so incredibly numb and your heart so hollow. You lay in bed at night, staring off into darkness, wishing for the sweet oblivion of sleep to embrace you and it doesn’t. It’s like you’re living your life and you see people and stuff around you but all the images have blurred into unidentifiable shapes and all the colors are a now murky gray. You wish you could feel something, anything. Even pain. And that’s when your thoughts turn to self-harm.

I could never bring myself to cut and it’s not because I’m afraid of the pain. I needed pain, to remind myself that I could still feel. But at that point I also realized that I was heading down a very slippery slope. And I recognized that I had a serious problem. So I started to look into why it was that people cut beyond experiencing the distraction offered by pain. Endorphins. And if there are two things depressed people lack it’s endorphins and serotonin.

I started running a few weeks ago. Actually, I use the word “running” very loosely as I’m, as the saying goes, “slower than a herd of turtles stampeding through peanut butter”. Yet, I still run. And each day I run a little faster, a little longer. I run when the sun is shining to get my fill of serotonin. And though I feel so sore after a run, being outside in the fresh air, surrounded by nature, and that high I feel after a run is completely worth it. And more importantly, each day I’m finding reasons to smile again.

Becoming a runner has become my salvation. It’s that thing I need when ‘L’appel du vide’ rears its ugly head back at me because I now know what to do with those thoughts. My world, while not completely in bright jewel tones, is now in different hues of pastels and the shapes from before are a little more recognizable.


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