The Experience of Living: Part II


We turned to words for comfort, for healing, for strength. We wrote because it was something we’d always done. Because it felt natural. Because there was space and maybe a bit of sanctuary to be found on the blank page. Because hope could be created through the sheer act of finding our own words to relay that which can feel inexplicable.

Dese’Rae L. Stage (2015), Zach Kluckman (2016), Meghan Caughey (2018), Leah Harris (2018) and I (2017) all found our way to the Paul G. Quinnett Lived Experience Writing Contest via different avenues but, for each of us, the impetus to participate was similar. Perhaps this storytelling could heal us in even the smallest of ways, or help others understand what it feels like when suicide is an option, or both those things, or more.

“Writing has been a huge part of my healing process, from the time I was a teenager,” Leah said when I spoke with her last week. Though she’s been sharing her narrative in a variety of ways for nearly two decades, the Lived Experience Writing Contest was something she hadn’t come across anywhere else – a place carved out specifically for those of us with intimate knowledge of suicide. 

“It just made sense to write [my experience] down,” said Des, “because [writing] was what I had always done.”

Armed with an MFA, Meghan twice submitted narratives to the contest. A writer of poetry and fiction, Zach followed “the voice inside me that was saying, it’s time [to share].” Having studied journalism in college, I found a way to articulate my own experience by conceptualizing it in relation to the illness narratives of the patients with whom I now work.

This is not to say the process of writing and editing and, as Zach said, “preparing myself for a panel of people to read it,” is easy. 

“If I win this contest,” Meghan remembered thinking, “what does that mean in terms of my responsibility to other people out there who are struggling with these same issues of living and dying? Sometimes we become symbols that go beyond who we really are.”

Zach and I sought to wrap up our heads around where we, as individuals who lived with prolonged ideation but did not make a physical attempt, fit into the lived experience continuum. Could our stories be as powerful or as relevant as those shared by people who had acted upon their ideation? 

What Des calls “the severity hierarchy” was and, at times, still does skew the level of worth I ascribe to my own experience. 

“The hierarchy makes a distinction between if you shot yourself and lived, if you jumped off the bridge and lived, or if you ‘just’ took some pills, or if you didn’t act,” she explained. “It valuates our experience based on the severity of the act – the more violent, the more we must have meant it – rather than examining what it means that any of us was hurting so deeply that we thought about suicide at all. It’s a damaging kind of narrative. We should be able to define what our lived experience is.”

It is something we all hope those who are considering submitting their story to this year’s contest will take to heart. So, too, do we want writers to feel empowered – to see this contest not as a competition or a judge’s exercise in determining which account has the most merit, but rather as a chance to shout down the stigma that has so long kept us quiet.

After placing in the contest, Zach encountered a colleague who questioned the veracity of what he had written.

“It was like, ‘Oh yeah, he’s a writer, he probably made all that stuff up,’” Zach recalled. “And I gotta tell you, that was pretty crushing…[I]t was this ironic situation where, because I hadn’t shared my story [before] with this one person, she assumed I was lying. It was an interesting reminder of the stigma that still exists…Sometimes, not telling our story reinforces the power of actually telling it.”

And so we eagerly encourage and await the submission of lived experience narratives this year – voices to join our collective proclamation that what we have survived is true, and real, and worth sharing.

“I want my [voice] to be part of a chorus,” said Des.

“If [we] really want to change the way people understand and respond to those of us who [have been] suicidal, it’s the stories,” said Leah. “It’s the stories that change people.”

Next week: On describing the darkness and struggling with it still.