Yom Kippur After a Suicide Attempt

How do you repent when the greatest sin you’ve committed is against yourself?

Content warning: suicide.

One late spring night, earlier this year, I swallowed a handful of pills.

I’ve struggled with depression for years. For me, part of that struggle is regular suicidal ideation. I’d tried lots of different types of therapy, medications and coping techniques, and I had made it so far, so I thought I could handle it. I wasn’t happy, but I was surviving.

But this year, I was in a particularly difficult situation, having moved to a new city during the pandemic. It was almost impossible to meet people, let alone make friends, but I was trying my best. On top of that, without getting into too many details, I was living with people that made me hate myself. It was a level of self-hatred that I had never experienced before. I told myself that I was pathetic, a loser. And I was so embarrassed about the whole thing that I was totally in denial about how deeply my living situation was hurting me. I would remind myself that I had a lovely boyfriend, I was earning straight A’s, this life was what I had wanted. I convinced myself I was fine. And then, one night, after a few drinks, I tried to take my own life.

I don’t remember everything that happened that night. I spent the next few days in the hospital, which was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. My family flew across the country to pick me up and take me home. As we were driving away from the hospital, I told my mom that I was terrified because I didn’t remember what had triggered my actions, “what made me do it.” The scariest part was realizing that there was no event that caused it. For so long, all I had really wanted was to die. That night, my inhibitions were lowered, and it just happened to be the night that I let my guard down too much, that I didn’t stop myself.

I didn’t suddenly hit rock bottom; I looked around and discovered I had been living there. I had become so accustomed to feeling so awful that I actually thought I was doing relatively well in the days before I tried to kill myself. It was a jarring wake-up call.

Since then, I’ve been trying to shift my whole outlook on life. It takes a lot of effort and adjusting to stop hating yourself. First, I moved out and cut off the roommates who made me feel so awful about myself. I couch-surfed until I settled on a living situation that really fostered my well-being. I also began to accept my friends’ and family’s support. When my family flew out to help me pack up my apartment, I couldn’t help but think that I didn’t deserve to be disrupting everyone’s lives so much. Thankfully, I was too weak to protest much. Now, I’m so glad that they came.

Looking forward, I’ve completely changed my plans for the future. For years, I had believed that it was impossible for me to be happy, so I hadn’t bothered to look for a career that I would enjoy. Now, I’m searching to find something that I love. I’m planning to transfer schools and change my major next fall.

And now, here we are, at Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, and I have to reconsider what this holiday will mean for me this year.

Yom Kippur is usually a day of ruminating on all of your sins, apologizing and punishing yourself accordingly. But what if you’re already actively trying to stop ruminating over every little mistake you’ve made? How do you spend a day where most Jews fast and punish themselves, if that’s what you’ve been doing every day? What if your self-punishment is actually the thing you need to atone for?

For some of us, starving is a form of self-harm. It’s a sin I personally committed against myself many times. Does it really make sense to repent for this sin by repeating it? Should I starve myself on Yom Kippur to prove that I’m sorry for all the times I starved myself? It would make more sense to atone by taking excellent care of my body.

Or perhaps your internal dialogue was cruel. Perhaps you said such wicked things to yourself that you would never consider saying them to any other person. My harsh words led to self-hatred, which led to standing in the bathroom with a bottle of pills. If my sin was to mercilessly beat myself up over every little mistake I made this year, I can’t use repentance as an excuse to beat myself up further. I can only atone by offering myself the forgiveness I never gave.

So, in a radical act of self-love, in a year when I need it more than ever, I’ve decided to go easy on myself this Yom Kippur. I will offer myself forgiveness.

Some people may think that I should be prioritizing the sins I committed against others, of which I know there are many. But I think we can all agree that trying to kill an innocent person is one of the greatest sins you can commit. Why shouldn’t that hold true if that person is yourself?

Doing teshuvah for the crimes you’ve committed against yourself and your body involves love, care and forgiveness. I often feel I need permission to give myself these things on a regular day, let alone on a day centered around self-punishment. But this year, I’ve decided to give myself permission. I have felt way too guilty for way too long. I have long denied myself love, care and forgiveness. Now, I’m working to believe that I deserve those things. This year, I’m not looking for anyone else’s permission.

This year, if the greatest sins you’ve committed were against yourself, I hope that you read this and feel empowered to love yourself on Yom Kippur. If you feel like you need permission, here it is. If you’ve already criticized yourself enough to last a thousand Yom Kippurs, maybe take this day off. You deserve it.

If you’re thinking about hurting yourself or just need someone to talk to right now, you can get support by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or by texting HOME to 741-741, the Crisis Text Line. And here is a list of international suicide helplines if you’re outside the United States.

Bracha Schacht

Bracha Schacht (she/her) is an undergrad hailing from the Chicago suburbs. She is currently studying in Hong Kong, where she deeply misses her mom’s matzah ball soup.

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