Shawna Marie Aarons-Cooke

The Life You Choose

“Is this the face of extreme stress, trauma re-activation, complex grief, depression, and anxiety?”

It’s fairly easy these days to post positive inspiring messages. However, how much does your life align with what you post? Are you as thoughtful, aware, aspirational, confident, badass, and self-inspiring as your social media feed? Living in this time where almost everything and everyone has an online presence, we risk living in a parallel universe whereby our online lives are vastly different from our offline lives.

I’m reflecting on the lives of public figures, both internet famous and celebrities, who’ve committed suicide or died by drug overdose. While living lives that others envied, they were struggling with how they truly felt about themselves and their lives. Some were simultaneously struggling with depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and/or addiction.

The Selfie

Once on a particularly challenging day for me, I took a selfie that I posted online. I considered using the caption “Is this the face of extreme stress, trauma re-activation, complex grief, depression, and anxiety?” I remember remarking to myself how ironic it was that I looked amazing and felt all kinds of fucked up at the same time. Anyone seeing the picture would have no idea what I was really feeling at that time. It made me realize how easy it could be for any of us to mask our pain, not only to ourselves, but to others beyond the usual “I’m fine” with a smile that fades as soon as the other person is out of sight. It’s probably how we can have those floods of “I had no idea” posts on social media when someone attempts suicide, is medically hospitalized due to an overdose, ends up in rehab, or does indeed succeed in taking their life.

The B-Day Call

Since I mentioned suicide, I’ll go further and say that my exposure to suicide, suicidal thoughts, and suicidal behaviors began in 1995 – umph humph, a long time ago my friends. As for alcoholism, addiction, and substance use, I do not recall a time in my life when I wasn’t exposed. Meanwhile, I can clearly remember suicide entering my world with an indelible memory of my 22nd birthday. I’d gotten paged by a family member. When I called them back, they explained that my grandfather had attempted suicide and was in the hospital on a one-to-one. In case you don’t know, a one-to-one is a suicide watch whereby hospital staff monitor you 24/7 with someone in your room so that you are not left unattended for fear of you taking your own life.

I was both shocked and perplexed. Who? What? Nahhhh. Can’t be. For real? Maybe that’s the normal response, but for me it really tripped me up. Here I am a recent college graduate out at my own birthday dinner, on my real birthday, and the man I’d idolized my whole life, I looked up to, and who basically raised me, had reportedly attempted to take his life. It just didn’t make sense, especially because of how spiritual, smart, charming, funny, and jovial he always seemed to me. Yes, he drank a lot, every day actually. And smoked weed, often. But he never talked about death or appeared to be sad. Also, he’d worked in the medical profession my whole life. There was a part of my mind that was trying to figure out how he could possibly fail at taking his own life if that’s what he really wanted to do. (Yes, even back then I psychoanalyzed just about everything.)

The Others

He was the first person I’d known who’d taken this step, but he is far from the last. A few years later a close friend with whom I’d worked and also spoke to daily called me in the middle of the night asking if I could talk her out of taking her life.  In the process she shared that she’s had suicidal thoughts most of her life and attempted at least once by taking a bottle of pills. Fortunately, she’d slept it off and didn’t have any medical issues as a result.

By the time I was attending New York University’s social work school studying to become a clinical social worker/psychotherapist, my exposure to people experiencing suicidal thoughts and/or attempts had become somewhat of a normal occurrence. With every new person I assessed, a noticeable amount of them would disclose having suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and/or para suicidal behaviors. Additionally, when I was preparing to publish my first book, Prosperity NOW!, and attended a writer’s workshop, one of the participants shared that she was planning to write a book about her long-term struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts despite her accomplishments as a Black woman who’d overcome the odds.

Hold up! You suicidal?

Back then, and for many years after, I understood theoretically that a person could be in a state where they considered or attempted suicide. But, I couldn’t relate as to how they’d get to that point until the morning I woke up and heard myself say, “No” out loud at the thought of getting up to start my day.

I didn’t want to get up. And I didn’t want to start another day.

I didn’t want to get up. And I didn’t want to start another day. I’d been a counselor and/or clinical social worker/psychotherapist for several years by then. Somehow, in hearing my own voice and thoughts I kicked into psychotherapist mode. It’s strange when I think back on that moment, but I literally became my own psychotherapist and had a conversation with myself that went like this:

“Hold up. You suicidal?”

“No, I don’t want to kill myself. I just don’t want to live my life like this anymore.”

“Oh. Aight. So if you don’t want to live like this anymore, how do you want to live? Imagine a blank page and you get to map out your life, what’s on it?”

“I don’t know but he’s gotta go!”

“Ok. Good. That’s a start. Anything else?”

“No. Not right now. But, this was good. Thanks.”

“So you good now?”

“Yep. I’ve gotta go to work. Talk soon.”

And with that I jumped outta bed, took a shower, and went about my day. I had clarity and purpose from that exchange. I knew what I had to do to make my life better, at least the first step. It was an important turning point for me. I remembered that I have control over my life. I get to choose how I live my life, how I feel, what I want, and who’s with me along the way. I didn’t have the whole thing mapped out, but I knew that I wanted to be free of the relationship I was in and needed to start taking steps in that direction. It wasn’t easy, and it took time to get myself fully free, as well as over, this long-term relationship.

I have control over my life. I get to choose how I live my life, how I feel, what I want, and who’s with me along the way.

Through this experience I also learned how it is that someone could feel like they didn’t want to live their life anymore. In my work with others, I had a newfound clarity and empathy for how they felt because there was resonance. I knew the feeling. I could relate. And I offered them something that helped me – a reframe that perhaps they didn’t want to live their lives the way they were currently living and feeling, and if so, to consider how they did want to live their lives instead. This reframe has proven helpful to many. Instead of thinking about death, dying, and not living, they were thinking about living a different way and/or a different life than their current experience. So far, everyone I’ve offered this reframe to has been able to galvanize within themselves motivation to live a life of their choosing.

What about you? 

When I started this post, I didn’t anticipate how much I’d share about suicide. I thought that I would point out the potential discrepancy between how we live, want to live, and share publicly. And then encourage you to recognize how much power you have in your life – to live a life of your own choosing, while mentioning how much our fears, doubts, insecurities, and pain points can allow us to choose less than what we truly want out of life. Now that this has gotten quite long, and I believe there is great value in reading about how natural it is to want to end the pain or disappointment that we may feel about our lives, perhaps I can stop here.

I’ll end with this:

If right now or at any point you are feeling pain or disappointment with yourself or with your life, it’s a message to you that you must choose another way – a better, more satisfying, loving way of living. Let the life you choose be a life of love, peace, happiness, joy, freedom, and fulfillment. Give yourself permission to choose a life that is well lived, full of laughter, smiles, and many new great memories that you will cherish as the years go by. Most importantly, let the life you choose to live be on your terms and good for you.

There is a free 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline with counselors available to assist if you’re having thoughts of suicide: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Please do not let shame, fear, or embarrassment stop you from seeking out the assistance of a professional to support you. Why go it alone when help is available via crisis supports, psychotherapy (for individuals, couples, families, and groups), as well as other forms of counseling and healing professionals? For some, a blog post or self-help book will help in the moment. Longer-term supports are also available.

Thank you!

Thank you for reading this message. If you found it helpful, I’d love to hear from you privately or in the comments. If you believe it may be helpful to others, I hope that you share it with everyone you think will appreciate it.

Until next time, be well, be love, and be good to you, always, in all ways.



2 thoughts on “The Life You Choose

  1. Thank you Shawna Marie, this was enlightening and insightful. Continue to practice your truth. Peace and blessings!

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