This is well outside the realm of stories that Asia Sentinel normally publishes. However, we were surprised and impressed by its quality and sensitivity, especially from a recent journalism student. It was made available to us through an agreement with the Journalism and Media Studies Center of the University of Hong Kong. We hope you will find it as valuable as we did –the editors.
By: Ruhi Soni
On a late evening last September, I stood in a dark hallway on the ninth floor of my building, watching people beg a 15-year-old girl not to jump off the edge of the window on which she was standing. She had been spotted barely half an hour earlier. As she wrestled with and shrieked at the building guard who had been the first to arrive on the spot and was holding on to her tightly (so tightly that she had a red mark on her arm even hours later), she drew a crowd of masked onlookers – trickling in at first, then rapidly. The dark hallway on the ninth floor was bursting at the seams, until people began waiting on lower floors, hoping for the best outcome.
I stood back a few feet from her. The temperature that night must have been in the upper-20s Celsius, but I was trembling. My father was trying to pull me back. He was afraid of the packed crowd that was forming in the hallway whilst our country, India, was reporting 5-digit new COVID-19 cases every day. He was afraid of the front-row view from which I was watching the chaos unfolding. And he was afraid of my own history with suicide.
I had attempted suicide when I was 19 – when I was just a few years older than the girl before me. I had survived the attempt unscathed while my loved ones were not even aware of what had happened. My failure to end my life was the push I needed to seek out professional help – if I couldn’t succeed at dying, I might as well learn to live. It took years of anti-depressants, rigorous therapy, and being surrounded by determined and patient friends and family. But that night, when I watched the young girl try and fail to end her own life, it was the first time I watched through the eyes of an outsider the events that could have happened to me if things had been different.
The girl, petite but stubborn, was dragged off the edge by six grown adults. Stubbornness gave way to resignation. Her shoulders slumped. She sat down and eventually lay down on the floor, cycling between silent tears, blank stares at the ceiling, and angry screams. I stood silently as the panicked adults around me tried to calm her down. “You are more than your grades!” “No breakup is worth it!” “Think of your parents!” “Do you want to see my pet puppies? I’m sure you can’t say no to puppies!”
Over the years, I had become familiar with these platitudes too. They were already cliché to begin with, but now they had lost all meaning, the way words do when one hears and reads them over and over and over again. For a moment, I imagined myself in the girl’s head. I imagined what it must feel like to have complete strangers who have never seen your marksheets tell you that no grades are worth ending your life over. What it must feel like to have people you’ve never spoken to tell you that no breakup is worth killing yourself.
I felt annoyed and frustrated. So much so, that I sat down next to the girl, leaned towards her, and said, “Hey, why the hell were you trying to kill yourself with your mask still on?” She broke her gaze away from the ceiling and towards me. Finally. In the hour that had passed, it was the first time she had looked at someone in the eyes. We both stared at each other for a moment and then laughed. The adults looked on, clearly bewildered at our insolent laughter during such an emotionally sensitive situation.
In the years that have passed since my attempt, when loved ones ask me why I tried to end my life, I still can’t pinpoint a singular circumstance that had alone flipped the switch for me. No single bad day on which I had transformed from a happy child to a suicidal teenager. Instead, what comes to my mind are the random trains of thought I used to have constantly. For example, “I missed my school bus” became “My teacher is going to mark me absent” became “My teacher is going to have a bad impression of me” became “My teacher is going to give me bad grades” became “I’m going to fail school because of the bad grades” became “I won’t get into a good university” became “I’m not going to get a good job” became “I’m going to die because I won’t be able to put food on the table” finally became “Oh God, I should just kill myself now”. I know now through therapy that these absurd, far-fetched, spiraling trains of thought are called “catastrophizing”. They are very common among people with severe depression. And they are a much better hallmark of people with suicidal tendencies than any singular poor report card, family argument, or ended relationship looked at in isolation.
My age group of 18-to-29-year-olds leads India’s suicide statistics year after year, the latest being about 35 percent of all reported suicides in 2019, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. Statistics from this same bureau neatly reduce the complexities of choosing to end one’s life to one explanation, one “Cause of Suicide” chosen from a short dropdown list of tragic circumstances such as “Drug Abuse/ Addiction” to “Love Affairs” to “Failure in Examination” to “Property Dispute”. Our nation is so hungry for simple answers that arguably the single most headline-grabbing and TRP-generating news of 2020 was the death by suicide of a Bollywood actor, and the morphing of his legacy into conspiracy theories as people searched for why someone of his stature would willingly end his life.
Back in the dark hallway on the ninth floor, after the girl and I laughed together, we began talking. Or rather, she did. I stayed silent, only stopping her to ask more questions. I learned who she was. I learned her name. I learned her age. I learned that she loved her friends deeply, that she came from a caring family, that she was doing well in school, that she was an excellent digital artist. One moment, she reminisced about her closest friend, who was leaving the city soon. The next moment, she joked that the handwriting in her suicide note was terrible. In just a few minutes, she transformed into someone who was so, so much more than just an angst-ridden girl who failed to kill herself. She was human, with a rich and complex life that we could never have learned about in that dark hallway until we all shut up and listened to her and stopped chalking up her decision of trying to end her entire life to one hypothetical bad day.
At the end of the ordeal, she had spoken so much that she was too drained out to re-attempt. We forgot pandemic protocol for a bit and hugged each other, tears and snot and awry mask and all. She promised me that she would stay alive for one more night. Which was fine. Reimagining life as something more than a dead-end was not something she could do overnight anyway. But one more night was a step in the right direction. It was the first step she needed to take to finally be heard and understood.
Ruhi Soni lives in Bangalore, India. She is a recent graduate in journalism at Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Center, which made the article available to Asia Sentinel. She also studied biology and is pursuing science journalism. She can be reached through Twitter at @rookarmeremanko.