The Girl in the Gorilla Costume

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I have never been a huge fan of Halloween. But I was born with a volunteer spirit, so during my senior year of high school, I spent a week inside a haunted house set up inside a shopping mall in Tulsa, OK, helping to raise money for a local nonprofit that provided support for children who had been abused.

Each shift I put on a different costume and played a different role: but I’ll never forget the day I was the gorilla. Standing still in the costume, inside the wall behind a large picture frame, I looked like an inanimate object, but I came to life and scared people as they walked by. I didn’t have to be all that dramatic to frighten people, just show that I was alive.

After about an hour, a dad walked through our haunted house holding his five-year-old son. Before I even moved, I could see the young boy staring at me with fear in his eyes. I heard the dad tell him that it was okay, that the big gorilla was just a person in a costume. I nodded my big gorilla head yes and said hi in my normal, nonthreatening voice. The boy’s level of terror escalated. In an effort to allay his fears, I took off my mask to show him I was just a harmless teenage girl. That sent him over the edge. I have never seen anyone so scared in my entire life. It’s a moment I have never forgotten. For that little boy, knowing that I was an ordinary person was far more terrifying than believing I was a monster.

Working as a suicide prevention professional — and being “out” for almost two years about my own experience living through a suicide attempt — I sadly now see the parallels in how some people perceive attempt survivors. Losing someone you know to suicide is undeniably a frightening experience. But for many people, the realization that there are “normal,” ordinary people out there walking around among us who have attempted suicide is even more terrifying.

When someone dies by suicide, it’s sometimes easier to imagine that they were different; unlike the rest of us. But the truth of the matter is that “normal” people, finding themselves in extraordinarily painful situations, can fall into states of utter hopelessness and helplessness. During these times, suicide can temporarily seem like the only possible escape from the pain.

It is scary — for the person experiencing thoughts of suicide, and for everyone who knows them. After all, if normal people can have thoughts of — and die by — suicide, that means it could happen to anyone.

The good news is that many “normal” people who have survived periods of acute suicidal ideation and/or suicide attempts have lived through their crises and gotten better. Most people do, in fact, survive. Many of us have even gone on to work in the field of suicide prevention. We are researchers, crisis interventionists, educators, mental health clinicians, public health professionals, and more.

Those of us active in the suicide prevention movement are not only committed to keeping ourselves safe, healthy, and alive; we are also dedicated to sharing what we know in the hopes that it can help save others. We don’t have all the answers, but we do have some answers. We bring another piece of the puzzle to the table.

Our field, and society is general, constantly ask questions like “Why did this happen?” and “Why did they do this?” Those of us who have our own personal experience of suicide attempts are here to share what we know. We know what we were thinking at that moment when we tried to end our lives. We know those triggers. We want to share our experiences and wisdom so that new prevention programs and treatment methods can be more effective at helping more individuals survive their suicidal crisis and recover.

It’s okay to be scared of my past suicide attempts. Honestly, I’m still scared of them, too. That’s why I work vigilantly to stay healthy so that I may never have another suicidal crisis. Let’s all continue to work together to find the answers needed to stop suicide. Many of our lives depend on it. 

Shelby Rowe, M.B.A. (New York, NY) is the Manager of Education and Prevention Programs for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the mother of three sons, and recipient of the 2016 Chickasaw Nation Dynamic Woman of the Year Award. A public health professional, crisis intervention expert and suicide attempt survivor, she has been a leader in the suicide prevention movement since 2007. 

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