suicidal ideation 2.0, queer community leadership, and staying alive anyway.
by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
for my beloved dead, and for Kyle and Wendy, and for all of us still here.
trigger warning for discussion of suicide and self harm
I've come to hate it when folks start texting me with cryptic messages saying, "Did you know so-and-so?"
For the past two years, each summer, my beloved community in Toronto has lost someone because they killed themself. This year, it was Kyle Scanlon.
And no, I didn't really know him- not well- but I knew of him. Kyle was one of the first transguys I knew who came out within Toronto's queer community in the late 90s. After he passed, many, many trans folks I know remembered how Kyle had come to their workplace or school and told his story, how he was the first other trans person they'd met. How his story and presence helped them name themself as trans and do what they needed to do to affirm the gender spirit that made them feel alive. Kyle was one of the first workers at Meal Trans, the 519 s ( Toronto's queer community center) free dinner program for broke trans folks. He won awards and did trainings. He was one of those queer/trans community-bred and based leaders that everybody thanks, leans on, asks for favors, and is grateful for.
And he killed himself.
After he died, there were the blog posts saying we had to love each other harder and do better. There were the memorial posts that listed all the Distress Centre hotlines for the province. There were the postings of his various memorial articles in the queer biweekly paper on facebook, and everyone's memories. It's what we do. And it so wasn't enough
Moments like this are grief and crash and immense loss. And they're also - maybe- an invitation to go deeper. To be real about suicide. I mean really really for real for real- about shit that people don't want to go there about, or want to boil down into a simple narrative of don't do it you have something to live for! call 911! Even the narratives we have that suicide is the colonizer, is the white supremacist capitalist colonialist ableist patriarchy whispering that we should just take our selves off the planet, that narrative has stopped me from reaching for my Ativan and bourbon or cutting when I didn't want to. But it's also not enough.
I was in Toronto the week after Kyle died, with my family. Everyone was hurting . Some of us at Femme Heartshare Circle were talking about it. About how Wendy Babcock, an amazing street sex worker activist, mama and law student, had died of an overdose last year, and how folks weren't sure if it was intentional or not- and how Wendy's family had used Wendy's history of struggle to discredit her courage in breaking silence to about the abuse she'd survived from them.
One of my friends said, what should we do? Should we have regular red flag check ins with each other, the way we do about relationships? Should I go up to you and ask, Have you been thinking about killing yourself lately? And I thought, if anyone came at me saying, HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT KILLING YOURSELF LATELY?, I'd automatically lie and say hell no. The way I have to every single doctor, social worker and most therapists in my life. I don't want anything I can prevent on my permanent record, and I definitely don't want Danger to Self or Others. I've been fighting this my whole life, and I've seen the oppression and hardness that that label can mean to folks in my life who've had it.
But if you normalized it. Because it is normal. This secret. That so many of us wrestle with suicidality. Then maybe, maybe just maybe I'd tell you where it was at.
And maybe we could map the terrain of those ideation places better.
I don't know why Kyle killed himself, and I'm not going to dishonour him by speculating about why he died. I can only talk about how his death, and the regular punctuation of queer and trans and Two Spirit suicides in our 40s in my communities, makes me think.
As a queer or trans or Two Spirit adult, we live within narratives that say that if you just live to grow up, it gets better (Dan Savage is an asshole caveats aside.)
But: what if it gets better and transforms more than you ever expected, but there are also times where it's still crazy, hurts so bad? Maybe hurts worse because it did get better, it got so much better, and also, the struggle did not stop? You ended up sleeping in the back of your station wagon on a mattress pad. Your book went out of print. Your mama died. You were still crazy after all that cum and all those tears. And no one prepared you for a life narrative where maybe struggle and therapy and herbs and miracles healed the pain, but the pain didn't go all the way away. Maybe, as you survived and succeeded, it just got more complex.
Take me. I know it because I am also one of those community leaders. I am one of those community leaders who is 37 now and still sometimes feels so low. My life did get better. I am not the same tortured, dissasociated girl I was. I look good. I'm happy. I'm not strangled by self hatred in the every day every single second of every day way my 18 year old brain knew. I have had the gay sex and art and travel and books and home and all of it. My brain and my spirit and my life and my relationship to trauma has changed, deeply. And I still have suicidal ideation on the regular.
I've had suicidal ideation (where you have repeating thoughts of "I should just kill myself") since I was at least twelve years old. When I was younger- from when I was about 12 to 21- I had periods of months or years where I had to seriously fight suicidality. When I was twenty two, I got away from my abusive family, left the country, made my small, quiet, safe room, and started healing hardcore from the shit I'd grown up in.
Since the therapy and the small quiet safe room and the poetry and the dancing and the friends and lovers and the herbs and the words, since shit stopped being as nuclear fucked up as my childhood was, I don't really really wanna kill myself anymore. I don't have a plan. I don't actively want to do it. I love my life. I am blessed. I am joyful. I am happy. But at times- at times of deep grief, or deep stress, or sometimes even times that aren't even that fucking deep- sometimes, I sit for hours, my wrists on fire with the desire to cut.
I won the Lambda Literary Award this year, and it was one of the best feelings of my life. And three days later, for no damn reason and every damn reason, I left therapy and felt my mood crashing. I tried to drive to a friend's birthday party, but the directions were complicated and I circled five times before giving up and driving home. I crawled into bed at 3 PM and found myself staring at the pillbox on my dresser, thinking, I've got 5 Ativan and a bottle of good bourbon, is that enough?
And I thought, whoa. And I thought, I am 37 and I just won the Lambda Award. I can't tell people I want to kill myself. On my Facebook status update.
I slept. I texted a lover I'd had the sweetest access intimacy with to ask about Wellbutrin. I called friends. I called my witch naturopath in Toronto, who saw me, on Skype, for $20, and asked me, 'What does the depression feel like?" I told her it felt like a slow soft river, that it was good I had a lot of great things in my life, but even when I was in them right then, I couldn't really feel them. And when things did get bad, the direct line to Ishouldjustkillmyself was well marked out. I talked to my therapist, and I started taking 5 HTP, a serotonin precursor.
We believe that working for justice and healing, creating art, and being badasses on our own terms will be part of what heals our hurt. And it is.
But our communities also put enormous pressure on the community based queer leaders we look to, and are. The leadership paradigm that exists within queer and trans social justice communities is still that of the movement/ activist star. As much as we may critique it, we don't quite have another one yet.
(Edited to add: When I say "activist star", I want to be clear what I mean. I don't just mean people who are particularly visible or raised up for their leadership- though I think folks in that position face some unique pressures. I think, however, pressure to not be open about depression, suicidality and the hard places we go hits almost all of us within queer/trans and other identity based communities. We want to have it all together. We don't think it's going to make us more desired or cool or sexy or beloved if we're honest about this stuff. And "community leadership" is sometimes so relative and easy to achieve- it can mean running a small bike program or reading at an event or being the contact person for childcare or any number of things. And for those of us who, because of multiple marginalizations and oppressions, find ourselves feeling the brunt of being undesirable within both mainstream and oppressed or oppositional communities, shit can feel like, well, we're already not beloved, so who will give a fuck if we're not here? (For more info and an amazing analysis about the politics of desirability, and especially how it intersects with transmisogyny, look at this blog post: http://gudbuytjane.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/dating-from-the-margins-1/) In my experience, sometimes, but not always, we can move from leader to semi-visible to undesired in quick succession in our communities, and back again. Thank you for the feedback that pushed me to be clearer about what I was talking about.)
We have complicated feelings about leaders. We need role models We want to celebrate folks who are talented organizers and artists. And we also dont know how to practice horizontal leadership. We lift people up and pedestalize them- expect them to be perfect and with all the answers. we tear them down, expect them to be perfect. We murder folks who look like and unlike us when we fuck up, make mistakes, aren't able to be always on call, or just politically disagree. And that murder, that cut-eye, that exclusion from chosen family or community- it's some of the hardest and most dangerous things we do to each other. Believe me, I understand that people need to end relationships, set boundaries and not see each other for many good reasons. But when we are each others' safety net, some of the casually cruel exclusion we do is life-threatening.
We don't know how to let people be gifted and imperfect. And when we are those people, going from being a nobody to being a movement star, well, it doesn't leave a lot of room for complexity. Or to feel comfortable being honest about wanting to die when so many people are looking to you for a reason to live.
And our communities are still struggling to know how to care for each other well. For real. For the longterm. Without shame when it doesn't get fixed permanently and forever. When the need for care may be lifelong.
When I've wanted to kill myself- when it's hit strong and knocked me to my knees, familliar- there's also this thing. It's felt like, in that moment, I can feel all the ways I really have been without agency in my life. And in that moment of feeling the deep grief and sadness over the impact of oppression, killing myself has felt like one clear way I can have agency. I can have total control. I can't control the WSCCAP. But I can go to the stars.
And it hits fast. With Wendy, with Kyle and with other folks who've killed themselves in my communities, it's not uncommon for folks to say, I just saw them the other day. They were happy. They were fine. And, they might've been. They might've been also holding a lot of hard shit they didn't know how to talk about. And they might've gone from wonderful to deeply despairing fast- and not had room or words to talk about what it felt like for that transition to happen so quickly. Or felt deeply ashamed of freaking out, yet again.
What does it mean for those of us who made things better, who are shaped in the shape of I will come through for you, who have organized and created curriculum and built programs and won awards and fought and mentored and let folks crash on our couches- what happens when we are, again, the crazy hurting deeply sad inside places? That are so different from the ones maybe so many outsiders know? (And what happens for those of us who are not 'gaymous', and who are also struggling with depression and suicidality?)
When sometimes we ask for help on Facebook and miracles come through, and sometimes we do and our ChipIn falls flat? When we are afraid that we were hurting 6 months ago, and we're hurting now, and what is the tipping point when people start thinking, there they go again, they're always freaking out.
I think about the deep stigma of crazy. The reality that even in radical communities where sometimes we are better about loving people who are "too much" we also know the fear of crazy. the reality of community that is love but also just likes to kick it and be casual. Of the post in the house I looked at that said, we're cool with you having mental or physical health concerns as long as you take care of them on your own and don't bring that shit into the house. I think about how the crazy take care of the crazy and when we're not in crisis ourselves we want a break.
We don't want plattitudes or uplift or people telling us we're loved. I mean tell me. But I know I'm loved. Sometimes hearing that helps. Sometimes I am still deeply, deeply sad.
I don't have the answers, but I am intersted in collectively creating them. I am interested in all of us who dance with dying talking about all the different and real things that suicide can mean to us. All the things that allow us to stay here. And more than that, I am interested in creating models of happy-mostly queer and trans adulthood where we can be leaders and still be vulnerable, where we can be open that it's not happily ever after. Life models that encompass falling apart and reforming not as a failure, but as a life pathway. Ones punctuated with whirlwinds and whirlpools, that Coatlicue/Kali/Oya energy that dismembers. And gifts.