Elizabeth Sampat is a game designer in San Francisco. She attempted suicide at the age of 12, soon after her brother died in a car accident. I interviewed her on April 17, 2013. She was 31 when we spoke.
If you want to play 19, the game she made about her suicide attempt (as discussed in her interview below), click here. Obvious trigger warning is obvious, but if you find discussion of methodology difficult, please keep yourself safe and don't play the game.
I didn’t really have a lot of friends. I had one friend who I was really close to, as long as other people weren’t around. I skipped—this is really jumping all over the place—I skipped sixth grade.
When I was in fifth grade, I was bullied a lot. I lived right across the street from the elementary school and so the kids would toilet paper my house. At one point, these girls came over saying that they wanted to play at my house and I let them in and they locked me out of my room and trashed it, and then I had to go through the window in order to get back in.
So I was like, "Things are gonna be better when I skip sixth grade because I’m not gonna be with the same kids," but then when all of the seventh graders found out that I had skipped a grade, they called me names. They were giant jerks, and so I don’t really think it was necessarily what happened with my brother got the ball rolling, ‘cause I felt huge amounts of guilt about that. I felt like I should have known him better. I felt guilt that I didn’t feel like my relationship with him was the same as my relationship with my other siblings. I wondered if he felt ignored. He was 24. I was 12. This is what was going on with me, and while I was dealing with that stuff, there was this kid that I went to middle school with who made it his mission to make me as miserable as possible. I got detention for being late to math class once because he was standing in the door while the bell rang just repeating over and over again, “You’re a fat, ugly whore,” and not letting me in. At one point, I think… I don’t know how it became general knowledge that I was really depressed among the kids. The teachers didn’t know, my parents definitely didn’t know, but [this same kid] presented me with a petition to get me to kill myself that had been signed by over 100 kids. I guess he had brought [it] to a skating rink or something and, of course, I didn’t know most of the people on the list but it was just like, 'Wow, this is super great...'
There was a period of about a couple weeks where... I was like, 'If one person is nice to me today, then I’m not gonna kill myself.' That was enough for a while, and then I realized at some point that I didn’t care, that that wasn’t enough and that one person being nice to me once a day wasn’t enough reason to keep going...
[After attempting suicide in the bathroom], I went to the school psychologist and I said, “I tried to kill myself. I didn’t realize that the actual process of dying was going to suck, so I would like to reverse this please.” I’m sure I said it in a different way. And he got really angry at me.
He was like, “Well, why did you try to do that?”
People have asked me that so many times and I never have an okay answer for that. I think looking back, as a grownup, he was probably freaked out of his skull because just a couple days earlier, I had been passing a note to one of my best friends saying that I was thinking about killing myself and it got intercepted by our choir teacher. She brought it to him and he called me in to talk about it.
I was like, “No, I was just being sarcastic. It wasn’t a big deal.”
He believed me. And then three days later, I’m in his office and I’m like, “Yeah, actually, I did try to kill myself.”
So he was probably worried about what that was going to do for his job. I mean, I’m sure he cared about was going to happen to me too, but he called my parents in and they took me to the hospital... My mom stuck with me while I was in the hospital. I didn’t really see my dad much. The only real memory I have of him was him coming into the hospital room and asking me if I even thought how this was going to reflect on him at work and, if anyone asked, that I had food poisoning...
Des: Tell me more about having to lie about your suicide attempt.
Elizabeth: Yeah, I mean, I told a couple kids at school and they sure as hell didn’t know how to handle it ‘cause we were babies, but it’s a weird thing to carry with you. I want to—my instinct is to say that, if you hide it long enough, then it’s like it happened to somebody else, but I think I want to say that because I want it to feel like it happened to somebody else. I know that that was me and it’s something my family never talks about.
I think I mentioned it to my mom once. We were fighting about my dad and I really wanted her to leave my dad but she was telling me that it wasn’t financially possible at the time because he was paying for my college, and I was trying to think of anything I could say to get her to listen to me and I was like, “I don’t care if I can go to college or not. Don’t you realize he is a big part of why I tried to kill myself?”
She looked at me like I had slapped her across the face and she said, “No, no, he wasn’t. That was—you were listening to Beck and it was hormones. You were going through puberty. It wasn’t your father...”
But yeah, as I mentioned earlier, I’m not really good at social situations. As I get closer to people, like if I’m dating or getting to know somebody, it took me a long time to try to figure out how open to be. I spent a lot of my teenage years just sort of wielding all of the trauma in my past. I was like a hobo with a broken beer bottle, like, “Get away! Get away! I am broken. I’m fucked up.”
And when that didn’t really win me a lot of friends and ended up pushing away some of the people that I cared about the most, then I was like, 'Okay, I’m gonna change myself. I am going to be a positive person.' I did that for a long time and I just felt like I was bottling up so much stuff, and I was like, 'Where’s the happy medium? Where do you—how do you have a relationship with somebody where you can talk about your favorite liquid eyeliner and when you tried to kill yourself?'
There’s a point in every relationship where it’s like, "Okay, this is probably the point at which I should tell you that I have a strong history of depression and I tried to kill myself when I was 12," and especially… This is kind of nerve-wracking for me because they’re just starting to talk a lot about depression in the game industry. There’s a group to sort of highlight depression for game developers called “Take This.” In the original Legend of Zelda game, you meet a sage who gives you a sword and says, “Here, take this. It’s dangerous to go alone.” [Ed. Note: The actual quote is "It's dangerous to go alone. Take this," but I like Elizabeth's version better.] It’s about trying to create a community that is being open and visible about depression and mental illness.
But you still wonder if it’s gonna impact your job. My logical brain is like, 'No employer is going to hold it against me that I tried to kill myself when I was 12 years old,' but you still worry. You still worry that people are gonna look at you differently, that—this is most stable my life has ever been, knock on wood. I’ve spent the last 30 years running away from stuff, or running to stuff, or barely scraping by, and I try very hard to project a sense that I am stable and I’m in control and I’m powerful and that everything’s cool, and I am afraid that people will think less of me or will be able to see through me if I give them a larger context. So yeah, it’s not like—my mom never asked me to lie about it and my dad only asked me to lie about it that once, but as I got older, it just made sense to sort of omit it from my history.
Des: Well, yeah, you can’t be like, “Hi, I tried to kill myself.”
Elizabeth: Right, yeah.
Des: It just becomes a part of you, I guess, and it comes out eventually. I certainly don’t tell it to people unless I’m talking about this.
Elizabeth: Yeah, I was…so after, Aaron Swartz killed himself—god, I don’t even remember how old he was but he was so young.
Des: I think he was 22-ish. [Ed. note: Aaron Swartz was 26 when he died.]
Elizabeth: Yeah, something like that. It was weird because the night before I fell asleep thinking about how it had been 19 years since I tried to kill myself and the enormity of what has happened in those 19 years and the things that I never would have seen or done and how grateful I felt for those 19 years. I was like, 'Man, in 2014, I’m totally throwing a party. That’s gonna happen. I’m gonna throw a party and I’m gonna celebrate this additional 20 years that I almost stole from myself.'
Then I woke up the next morning and I found out about Aaron Swartz, and he was only 10 years older [Ed. note: 14 years older] than I was when I tried to kill myself, which sounds like a lot. I mean, that’s almost double the age that I was, but it feels—I know I’m still pretty young, but 10 years still feels like nothing. So I made a game about it. I made a game called “19” that explores the whole experience of going to the hospital and how the nurses were and my concerns about my daughter and how I got through it. My favorite page—a lot of it’s very serious but—
Des: I remember now. I played it. It was fun.
Elizabeth: My favorite part is one of the pages talks about everything I would have missed, and there’s a link to click on that says “19 years of bad haircuts.” You click on it and there’s all of the really questionable hairstyles I’ve had in the last 19 years. And I look at all of those different versions of myself and I don’t like all of those different versions of myself, but they definitely deserved a chance to happen. Putting that link out in the world was terrifying. I have almost 2,000 Twitter followers, most of whom are industry professionals—I’ve gotten every job in the game industry other than the one I have right now through Twitter—and just putting this out there to these people and being like, “By the way, I tried to kill myself. Do you want to know all the gory details about what that was like?” was terrifying. But it was received really well. The most hilarious part about it was that I put it out there and I got a lot of, "Wow, that’s incredible," "That’s inspiring," "I’m crying," "I recognize a lot of this stuff," but nobody was re-tweeting it. So I was like, "You know, it’s okay to share this link if you want to," and as soon as I hit OK on that tweet, I got like ten re-tweets in the first 30 seconds. I think that it was so personal, people weren’t sure what to do with it which, yeah, it’s one of—everything I make is personal, but that’s one of the most nakedly personal things I’ve ever made. And on the game, I don’t have my last name. People have put it on indie game repositories and stuff with my last name, but initially I was like, 'I’m not sure how connected to my greater internet presence I want this to be.' I have one friend at work who knows that it exists. I have one friend at work who even knows I’m here. And it’s just this—do you bake?
Des: Yes. Wait, what?
Elizabeth: No, like, cook.
Des: That was completely non sequitur! Yes.
Elizabeth: This is how I talk. So, it’s like if you’re making a butter cream frosting and you’re trying to incorporate the ingredients and there’s a point at which you think that it’s all ruined forever. It’s all lumpy like cottage cheese and you’re like, “I’ve ruined everything and I am the worst in the world and my cake is fucked.” And then you just keep incorporating—
Des: My cake is fucked.
Elizabeth: So, you keep the stand mixer going for another 30, 45 seconds and BOOM, you have this beautiful, glossy frosting. If you ever want to do a chronically depressed cooking show, I could be your co-host.
Elizabeth: But it’s like that. I’m still trying to figure out how to incorporate who I was into who I am and what that’s going to look like. And I’m still very much at the lumpy phase.
When I was a kid, I used to read a lot of Elizabeth Wurtzel. I couldn’t find my copy of Prozac Nation and so last year, I got another copy off of Amazon. It was like, 'Since I just re-bought this, I’m gonna reread it,' and I was reading it. It was like, “Fuck, why are you so whiny? Everybody has problems.”
Des: I couldn’t get through that one.
Elizabeth: She had a line… She wrote a book called Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, which I still like. She wrote it while she was high on Ritalin the entire time (her next book after that was actually about her Ritalin addiction). It’s kind of a manic tirade about famous female figures through history and stuff. The last line of the book is something that has stuck with me since I was however old I was when that book came out, which is, “I want to be better than the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.”
I think about that maybe once a day. So, let’s say—I talk in metaphor a lot—let’s say you go to a used bookstore. You buy a book and you think it’s pretty good and you let it bang around in the backseat of your car for a while. You take it places and you dog-ear pages and whatever, and then somebody points out to you that it’s this amazing, rare, out-of-print book that’s worth thousands and thousands of dollars and you treat it differently. I think when you try to kill yourself, it’s like that. Once you really get an idea of what your life is worth, you feel like you have an obligation to start treating it differently.
When I’m really depressed, I get so angry at myself because I feel like I should be past it. I feel like I should know better. And my friend, who is one of the smartest depressed people I’ve ever met in my life, said something to me once when I was talking about how I shouldn’t be upset because I let the circumstances—I think I had just broken up with a guy or something—and I was like, "I am only hurt because I allowed myself to be hurt and there’s no reason for me to be depressed because everything that happened was a choice that I made."
And she said, “Elizabeth, you can’t self-control your way out of suffering. You just have to feel it.”
I was like, “Well, that’s not what I want to hear.”
Des: Feel your feelings.
Elizabeth: Yeah, but there’s still a lot of times where feeling your feelings feels like defeat.
If you’re feeling suicidal, please talk to somebody. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you're not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.