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Overcoming My Most Dangerous Coping Mechanism: Suicidal Ideation

Let’s Talk About It

March 29, 2024

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Photography by ACALU Studio/Stocksy United

Photography by ACALU Studio/Stocksy United

by Hannah Shewan Stevens


Medically Reviewed by:

Kendra Kubala, PsyD


by Hannah Shewan Stevens


Medically Reviewed by:

Kendra Kubala, PsyD


We often pick up unhealthy habits when wrestling with our mental health. Here’s how I gained control over a harmful way of thinking.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, you’re not alone. Help is available right now:

Suicidal ideation stormed into my life as an unwanted companion at age 7.

These thoughts arose as an escape from the abuse I experienced between the ages of 7 and 9 years old.

The trauma triggered complex post-traumatic stress disorder, with the suicidal ideation growing into a warped coping mechanism to dissociate from my inescapable reality.

Depression joined the party in my early teens and loomed over my life with infuriating consistency.

I swiftly got lost in the gloom until suicide morphed from an unimaginable concept to an attractive option for reprieve.

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What is suicidal ideation?

“Suicidal ideation refers to thoughts or fantasies about ending one’s own life,” says Dr. Deborah Gilman, owner and chief licensed psychologist at Fox Chapel Psychological Services. “These thoughts can range from fleeting contemplations to detailed plans for suicide.”

“It’s essential to understand that while someone may experience suicidal ideation, it does not necessarily mean they will act on these thoughts,” she adds. “However, it is a significant risk factor for suicide and should be taken seriously.”

My obsessive ideation started as momentary thoughts of “Wouldn’t it be easier if I were dead?”

Appearing in brief lapses at first, the thoughts developed until they appeared multiple times a day, sometimes every few minutes.

On low-mood days, when I couldn’t see the point in carrying on, I fantasized about what suicide would look like. The systematic approach became a bizarre balm for the constant ache of depression that underlined my every waking moment.

Gilman explains that there are three ways suicidal ideation can manifest:

  • Passive ideation: thoughts of death or dying without a specific plan or intent
  • Active ideation: specific thoughts of suicide, including planning methods and considering when or how to carry it out
  • Suicidal intent: an apparent desire or intention to end one’s life, often accompanied by plans or preparations

With close to two decades of experience wrestling with the influence of suicidal ideation, I’ve become well acquainted with all three types, spanning from flicking away fleeting fantasies to actively planning the end of my life.

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How my suicidal ideation started

Long before the word “suicide” entered my vocabulary, I contemplated not existing.

Every time I got in the bath, I sank beneath the surface of the water and listened to the dull echo of the underwater world, wondering if death felt the same as floating in the womb. The feeling felt like liberation, something I so desperately craved because fear and despair haunted my daily life.

At 11 years old, I learned exactly what suicide meant, and the concept entranced me.

My family watched a movie where someone died by suicide, and after I asked what the word meant, my first thought was, “That sounds like a nice way to escape from the world.”

Death held no fear for me, only the possibility of relief. I didn’t believe in an afterlife, so my perception of death was emptiness, a long, dark peace where silence ruled and pain could never penetrate.

I didn’t tell anyone about the abuse or my depression until my teen years — meaning I suffered alone, clinging to any coping mechanism I could conjure. The two main ones were self-harm and suicidal ideation.

Life kept throwing curveballs at me, including a healthy dose of medical trauma starting at age 13, which developed into incurable chronic pain. Eventually, suicidal ideation played a starring role in my life.

How my suicidal ideation developed

By the time I celebrated my 16th birthday, suicidal ideation interrupted my thoughts every day, sometimes from the moment I woke until I fell into a fitful sleep at night.

Dreams of suicide floated through my subconscious, casting a warm glow over the concept as I basked in the idea of freeing myself from the pain of living. I submitted to suicidal ideation and allowed it total control of my life.

Enduring additional instances of abuse didn’t help because these events compounded the idea that trauma would always overshadow my life. It felt inescapable, so I embraced my vision of absconding from my life into a cloud of comforting darkness.

Although I never followed the thought process through with direct action, it’s undeniable that keeping suicide on the shelf as an emergency exit option provided comfort.

If life felt like too much or a trauma trigger arose, I’d devote hours to playing out every step of the process.

If I couldn’t escape physically, I sank into deep dissociation, and the chant of “I could end it all” became a song I couldn’t get out of my head.

And when my chronic pain overwhelmed my ability to cope, I used the same process as a meditative tool to move through it.

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Starting the work to leave ideation behind

The process of ejecting this toxic influence from my life began with actually naming it in my mid-20s.

Until then, I didn’t even know this obsessive coping mechanism had a name. Then my counselor explained it, and the cage I’d built around it cracked open.

I could see that ideation had become so omnipresent because I didn’t want to be alive. I lived on borrowed time, promising myself an endpoint whenever life’s difficulties overwhelmed rationality.

After a near-miss, when I got too close to following through on these plans, I accepted that survival meant deciding to want to live.

Speaking up and finding my will to live

While the internal battle raged on, I recognized that reality needed to be spoken aloud.

Sharing these horrific thoughts with a wide cross section of people felt too intimidating. Instead, at 26, I picked one confidante to share my truth with. As soon as the words left my mouth, I felt a lifelong weight release its grip on my body.

“When someone is struggling with suicidal thoughts, they need to find ‘their person,’” says Misha McK, co-founder of the Suicide Watch and Wellness Foundation. “When struggling with your mental health, reach out to your person; don’t shut them out.”

Allowing my suicidal ideation room to exist outside of my brain influenced my will to live. It felt less scary out there in the world without these thoughts locked down inside my mind.

Next, I replaced my suicidal mantras with any reason I could find to stay here. This included big things like my loving support network, focusing on building a career, and finding small joys like a stunning sunset or a song that made my heart sing.

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Shutting out the stigma

Once I successfully entrenched the will to live back into my body, I talked about my experiences more casually.

I refuse to be consumed by the shame and stigma that often drown out people’s reality in the name of comfort.

“The stigma associated with suicide and mental illness has a huge impact on those struggling with mental frailties,” says McK. “We must establish a comfort zone for those who are suffering.”

Fear of others’ judgment nearly killed me, and I didn’t want anyone else to be stuck in that cycle. I needed my loved ones to understand so that they knew what to look out for if the ideation began taking over again.

People withdrew; some judged and disengaged, but others listened and learned. Curiosity in this area doesn’t kill the cat; it allows it to thrive and to change or save lives.

“It’s a big deal to have suicidal ideation, but it’s also surprisingly common and treatable,” says Charlotte Fox Weber, a psychotherapist and the author of the book “Tell Me What You Want.” “Be curious about figuring out whatever helps — meaningful conversations, medication, therapy, relationships, social activities. All areas of life can be resources for shifting the experience of living.”

Recovery isn’t a linear path

It’s easy to outline how I flourished and discarded the obsessive suicidal ideation that dominated so much of my youth and twenties, but it doesn’t reflect reality.

I’m 30 now, and ideation has come back to haunt me repeatedly, slipping into my consciousness when my defenses were down.

It requires regular check-ins and continuous work to keep this old “comforting” coping mechanism at bay when it tries to cast its spell over me.

I maintain healthier coping mechanisms, like investing in therapy and affirmations for my mental health and implementing regular physical therapy and mindfulness practice to manage chronic pain.

And I remember that even when ideation rears its head, it’s not permanent. I’m in control of its evolution. I’m stronger than I could ever hope to be.

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The bottom line

Yes, I’ve fallen off the wagon, and it’s tempting to lie there in the dust and sink into the doom-and-gloom belief that life isn’t worth living.

But life is a gift I cannot take for granted, so I get up every time because suicidal ideation will never be allowed to take control or cast itself as a balm for depression again.

Medically reviewed on March 29, 2024

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About the author

Hannah Shewan Stevens

Hannah Shewan Stevens is a freelance journalist, speaker, press officer, and newly qualified sex educator. She typically writes about health, disability, sex, and relationships. After working for press agencies and producing digital video content, she’s now focused on feature writing and on best practices for reporting on disability. Follow her on Twitter.

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