I was 13 when I first thought about killing myself.
I know it was that age only because I remember a specific detail that couldn’t have occurred when I got any older. After my sister, Lisa, moved to college when I was 14, I left the bedroom at the back of our third-floor 3-bedroom apartment, overlooking the fence, and into the larger bedroom that used to be hers.
The fence is an important detail because the I remember wondering how it much it would hurt if the spikes punctured my skull as I fell onto them, and resolved that if I was going to kill myself by jumping off the building, I should try and avoid those spikes.
If there’s one skill that underpins good reporting, at least according to the Medill School of Journalism, it’s the inquisitive mind to ask good questions and whiff out terrible answers. I’ve always had a curious tendency, but Medill trained my question-asking to a laser-sharp focus on people and their motivations. Friends, and interviewed sources, then compelled the other necessary skill — the active listening that now underpins my approach to all relationships.
I’ve always been surprised at how much people are often willing to share, particularly about themselves and their most personal, intimate secrets, if you’re just willing to listen. I often spend time with such people as they spill the truth about themselves — the guilty pleasures they’re too ashamed to tell, the insecurities they fear, and the secrets they regret. It is knowing this — and knowing the consequences if such information were widely known — that I’ve been critical of journalists who treat such intimacy insensitively.
It was my therapist who, during our first session a few months back, asked me to tell my own story. I was taken aback. I didn’t know what to do.
I’d spent every moment of my life up to that point trying to hide the truth about my life story. Now I was being asked to share it.
(Those who know me personally and are scoffing at that claim should recognise that there is a difference between making myself the story and making myself the center of attention. I unashamedly admit I am the latter, but I will ask you to consider how much you really know about me and my life. What’s my favourite food?)
Over the last few weeks, though, I’ve become convinced that this is good for my mental health. I believe that forming a cohesive and consistent narrative about myself will help me understand how my personal history affects me and untangle the mess of stressors and anxieties in my life.
This is part one.
Suicide is not an easy or casual thing to contemplate. Dying is an awfully permanent thing — to decide that the marvels of life are not worth continuing to exist is a serious mental condition.
In all the times I’ve been at high risk for suicide, it’s never been one single, big reason, but rather a bunch of little reasons which added up to make life miserable and nearly unlivable.
I am not alone feeling this way. The Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide, a set of published guidelines developed by leading experts in suicide prevention, expressly point out that “Suicide is complex. There are almost always multiple causes, including psychiatric illnesses that may not have been recognized or treated.”
At 13, I knew that something was wrong. I hated myself. I found every day of my life to be a gentle struggle, like pushing upstream against a slow but menacing river. I thought about giving up and just ending my life, then and there, rather than taking on whatever happened next.
But the worst part was probably when I didn’t have anyone to talk to.
There’s no age by which everybody realises their sexuality, but the realisation and formation of a sexual identity are indisputably linked to puberty and adolescence.
I remember, at age 11, attending my first sex education class in primary six (the British educational system’s equivalent to sixth grade). I don’t remember our teacher’s name, but I do remember that she made us chant the words ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ ten times, out loud, so that the entire class of eleven-year-olds would get over giggling about these terms. (I loved that moment.)
I have hazy memories of watching educational films about ejaculation, fertilization and impregnation, and I feel like we talked at length about primary and secondary sex characteristics — all the girls were told about their breasts getting bigger and all the boys about deepening voices and strengthening muscles. All of us were taught about hair growing in new places.
What I don’t remember learning — and what I realise, now, was probably not a mistake — was how to handle being attracted to other people and what to do if what I wanted to have sex with wasn’t a woman’s genitalia.
Like basically all teenagers, my exposures to the richer senses of sex was through the Internet. I won’t go into any further detail, but I discovered and learned about an entirely different axis to both sex and to sexual pleasure and realised the inadequacy of my formal sex education.
While the Internet could fill in the details about sex that my teachers and peers could not, there was little that even folks on the Internet could do when it came to dealing with the emotions that came along with adolescence.
What do I do when I fall in love with another boy?
The city of Hong Kong, at the southern tip of what is now China, was the only place that I really knew while growing up. I’ve lived in and visited many cities, towns and villages across the world throughout my childhood — courtesy of parents who like to take the family to travel every summer — but Hong Kong was the closest thing that I had to a home.
It’s funny, because my birth coincided with the year that a new Hong Kong began in 1997. The colonial administration handed the city over to China on July 1, 1997, after over a century of British rule. I grew up along with a post-colonial Hong Kong — one of the many signs that my life, however much I wish otherwise, is inextricably postcolonial. (The only good thing that’s happened to me for being born in 1997 was when I got to go to Hong Kong Disneyland for free. It was an underwhelming experience.)
Despite the government advertising Hong Kong as an international, cosmopolitan city, the city is an exceedingly conservative place. (However, it’s a great place to do business.) The city’s populace are firm believers in traditional Chinese cultural values, evidenced when Hong Kong’s laws allow for floor numbers to skip using numbers with a digit ‘4’ (as four, in both the Cantonese and Mandarin dialects of Chinese, sounds like “die”), and the city’s architecture will still include weird features like odd angles and holes to accommodate feng shui expertise, despite the city having the most expensive land in the world.
This has huge implications for members of Hong Kong’s LGBT community, which included me for a while; the Chinese Society of Psychiatry, which is affiliated with the mainland Chinese government north of the Hong Kong-China border, only de-classified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 2001. (The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973.)
While homosexuality might be medically accepted, the idea that queerness is a mental illness, rather than another diversity of humanity, still remains pervasive in Hong Kong and Chinese society.
This line of thinking was not just shared by the general public, but by my own parents as well. My mother has, in no uncertain terms, stated that she believes homosexuality to be a serious mental disorder when I gingerly asked her about it as I first began to explore my sexuality. The anger and disgust that she expressed made me scared and frightened, and I knew that I could never come out to her — at best, she’d disown me. At worst, she might actually kill me.
This is a fear that’s shared by far too many queer children. And it shattered my world to realise that my own mother — this woman who gave birth to me and loved me and took care of me for so long — wouldn’t accept, wouldn’t support, wouldn’t recognise who I was.
I figured out I had to stand on my own. I figured I would always be standing on my own.
It is in this environment that I figured out I was gay and I had to learn how to live with that. The struggle of dealing with society’s stigmas and taboos — the shame of other people’s judgments and mutterings, and the fear you might be attacked, maimed or even killed if you did so much as say you were attracted to someone — was drilled so deeply into thirteen-year-old me that I’m still recovering a decade later.
So, when I began to feel the hormonal urges of sexual attraction toward other men, I didn’t have anyone to turn to. I couldn’t talk about my fears, my shock, my desires to anyone — not to my parents, not to my friends, not even to my teachers, who would be legally bound to share that information with my parents. I had to navigate that aspect of my biological, personal and social development on my own — a frightening prospect for even the bravest and most resilient of teenagers, a category of which I most certainly did not fall under.
Suicide prevention experts advise sharing stories of positivity and strength to help those at risk avoid choosing a terminal path. In the few times I have told this story to others, they’ve always told me about strong and resilient I am, although, in truth, I’ve always felt anything but.
Nevertheless, I survived. Despite my sadness, my crying, the pain in my heart and in my head and the nagging feeling that “maybe this life isn’t worth living after all,” I survived.
I survived my first wave of suicidal thoughts because I convinced myself that life was worth living and I was more scared of dying than whatever was coming next.
There was so much to come in my future, I thought. After all, I was 13. Statistically, the best years of my life were still to come. It was probably a better deal to wait it out and see what happens.
It was a matter of taking it day by day, moment by moment. I tackled each challenge as it came and tried not to let any single thing overwhelm me too much. I watched TV shows, primarily productions from the BBC — relatable sit-coms, especially Miranda, got me through some of the saddest days. I read news articles and listened to streaming radio stations.
The biggest danger was when I had nothing to do, because then my mind would wander and would inevitably fall into a dark pit of some kind. So I threw myself into work, and when I ran out of stuff to do, I created new things to work on.
When it came around to college applications, my admissions counsellors were impressed and mildly shocked at the range of projects and experience I was able to present — even considering how many of my peers were similarly capable or qualified. I’d taught myself several programming languages, could speak either fluently or conversationally in other human languages, had started a bunch of websites trying things in technology, social media, news, journalism and taken over an exceedingly popular and well-trafficked educational resource website. During school productions, I’d often be one of the people called on by staff technicians to run either the lighting or sound boards — once, simultaneously — because I was one of the few who could. One year, I wrote the entire script for the school’s annual play.
People around me thought I was showing off, or playing the college admissions game really well. In truth, it was neither. I wouldn’t be surprised if those things certainly did help my college applications, but I was doing them simply so that I had something to do, so that I could exhaust my body and my mind before going to bed every night so I didn’t have enough energy to think about how awful I felt and how much I wanted to die.
I had to get out of there.