The Experience of Living: Part I
I first came across the phrase "lived experience" after my second encounter with severe, prolonged suicidal ideation.
Trying to figure out how to talk about my pain was a problem that had plagued me since I first experienced symptoms of major depressive disorder at age 13 - a conundrum that was complicated by a diagnosis of pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder at age 21, confounded further by two episodes of acute pain during which suicide seemed the only way to stop hurting.
Over the course of that decade, language - specifically the meaning I ascribed to certain words - proved to be a major obstacle to my acknowledgment of the hurt and helplessness I felt. When I thought of "depression," I thought of words like "sad" or "down" - minimizing and missing the many other manifestations that my illnesses can have. When I thought of "sick," I thought of the flu - discounting mental health altogether. "Struggling" meant "weak" and "scared" meant "stay silent."
It was through reading first-hand accounts written by individuals who had experienced suicidal ideation that I first realized I wasn't alone. Descriptions of that which had previously felt impossible to convey - darkness without light, deep water without a life jacket, falling without hope of a foothold - resonated with me in a profound way. It is because of the narratives of others, truly, that I learned how to say, "I'm sick, I'm struggling, I'm scared. I need help." And it is because of that - and the socioemotional and economic supports to which I had access - that I'm still living.
So it was that I had a similarly profound awakening upon encountering the term "lived experience" through the American Association of Suicidology's Paul G. Quinnett Lived Experience Writing Contest. I had lived in a netherworld of not knowing how to hold my experience with suicide. I did not identify as an attempt survivor, but I felt that being so close to crossing that line was an important part of my narrative that could not be dismissed. "Lived experience" - and the affirmation and acceptance I felt in submitting my story to the contest in 2017 - paved the way for my own increased advocacy. I found strength in knowing there was a term for that which I had lived through. I found solidarity among the other storytellers - including the writers whose stories we will, together, be revisiting this month.
Over the course of the next several weeks, this space will feature a glimpse behind and beyond the narratives of six of us who have placed in the Paul G. Quinnett Lived Experience Writing Contest since its inception in 2015. Here, we will reflect on our lived experience (and the sharing of that experience) and shed light on where life has taken us since our stories were submitted. So, too, will we reflect on what we want those who are struggling - and those who do not have personal experience with suicide - to know about who we are, where we're going and why we wake up each day.
In recognizing the life-saving power of language and of personal narratives, I acknowledge that the same words that feel right, and encapsulating, and evocative for one person can be unwieldy, and clunky, and incorrect for another. I ask that, in reading this series, you forgive that which does not resonate with you and hold tight to those turns of phrase that speak to your own experience - as someone who has lived, as someone who has lost a loved one, as someone who is wondering or wants to know more, or all of the above.
I will add the caveat, too, that I speak for no one but myself. My peers who have chosen to be part of this series have reviewed every word I have written to ensure I have accurately reflected what they have shared with me. Many of the words and most of the punctuation and grammar are mine; the voices are theirs. I am a conduit, and a privileged one at that - lucky, in a sense, to have the chance to share more of my own lived experience and to connect with these other humans who have walked different roads than I but who have encountered the same suicide signpost(s).
Therein is the dialectic - our stories are unique, and universal. Our voices are our own and lift up as one. Our lives are different, but we all are alive.
I thank AAS for extending the invitation to be a part of this series, my interviewees for their openness and eloquence, and you, for bearing witness to our humanity.
With gratitude and hope,