Wow, another big topic! I simply cannot do justice to these in a blog post, so please don’t be under the impression that my notes are in any way definitive. I just hope to share a few thoughts and ideas and maybe they’ll be useful to someone else. If not, there are a lot of books out there, and good support too (although you may have to look hard for it) so please don’t be discouraged, keep hunting for what you need.
Feeling suicidal has been something I’ve lived with for most of my life. I was first seriously making attempts on my life when I was 10 years old, feeling totally alone and overwhelmed and desperate not to suffer anymore. Since then it’s been a companion I’ve had to learn to live with, a shadow I can’t shake. It sits on my shoulder and whispers into my ear, weakens my courage and resolve, tells me that things will not get better. So how am I still here?
There’s a few nasty traps with feeling suicidal that I’ve been able to see and to some extent avoid. The first one is the idea that if you are sick enough, or in enough pain, that someone else will come and help you. This is a powerful rescue fantasy that the mental health system often inadvertently plays into, which is heartbreaking because no one can sweep in on a white horse and take your pain away. I once spoke with a young woman who tried to admit herself to hospital as she was feeling suicidal. They told her unless she hurt herself they couldn’t help her. So she did. Mental health staff will often draw distinctions between degrees of suicidiality – the occasional thought, feeling it strongly, making plans. Between so called ‘passive’ and ‘active’ attempts (those you have a good chance of recovering from and those you don’t). In my experience this is often done quite without any awareness that in an attempt to be taken seriously and gain the help they think is on offer, people often steadily graduate up the ranks to higher and higher degrees of suicidiality. What agitates me so much about this, is that a cross-wiring of kinds is happening here – good healthy impulses to get help and get better are being cross-wired into self-destructive acts. Now both the healthy and the unhealthy impulses are driving the person down into suicide – what hope do they have then?
Sadly, the line between the people not sick enough to need help, and those so sick they are considered beyond help is very fine in some circumstances. People find themselves unable to access services as their situation is not serious enough, and then unable to access them as they are too high a risk. A long time ago I discovered that my learned pessimism about other people’s power or willingness to help me actually stopped me getting worse in a misguided attempt to get support. It’s not an easy one to stay out of for me, a bit like a whirlpool that pulls at me. I have to mentally remind myself a lot that my energy must go into getting better and taking care of myself, that getting sicker to get help is like going deeper into the desert following a mirage of water. No hope lies that way.
Another trap I’ve noticed is using symptoms to express pain. The mental health system is at times very poorly set up to support people who’ve experienced trauma. Sometimes the number and severity of your symptoms are used to ‘grade’ how severe the experience you’ve come through is. This penalises you for being resilient, and leaves you caught between getting validation and acknowledgement for your trauma, or functioning to the best of your capacity. People with trauma can start to speak ‘the language of symptoms’, in inpatient settings they may compare severity of illness to rank their trauma along side each other and compete for the highest severity, comparing scars, numbers of diagnoses, amount of time in hospital, number of suicide attempts. Especially when your trauma is being denied or downplayed by those closest to you, the need to have it acknowledged can be so profound that people self destruct seeking that validation. This can be hard to understand if you’ve not experienced it. The language of symptoms is subtle and insidious and once you start speaking it it’s very hard to break. In this language suicide is seen as the ultimate way to express pain, to reject terrible circumstances, to show that you were a victim, and that your situation was so severe it was not possible to survive it. The way out of this is to refuse to rank trauma, to validate all harm and all pain, to take away the burden of ‘proving pain’ from people who are hurting.
The lure of safety is a trap that can make death seem enticing. People who’ve been badly wounded and broken can be willing to hide out in any port to escape the storm. It’s hard to keep hoping that tomorrow will be better when all your hopes are dashed. It’s hard to find strength when the bad days are horrific and completely outnumber the good. We can get to a point where we just want it to stop and will do anything to make it go away.
I turn these thoughts on their head whenever I can. Instead of seeing death as a peace that I am denied, I find anger in my heart at the thought that my story would end in such a miserable place. I use everything I have already survived as impetus to keep me going on – if I was going to give up, I should have done it 10 crises ago. I’ve already come this far now, nothing will take me down now. I find that it is crucial to reframe the seductive nature of the traps and find a way to think of things where continuing to live is being brave, is bearing witness, is triumphing over abusers, is having a voice, is all the things I long for. If you allow suicide to be framed in a way that it seems to contain the things your heart deeply longs for, then you are incredibly vulnerable to it because it will take all your strength to deny yourself what you so deeply desire and have within your power, and none of us can be strong all the time. For me it’s key to see these things as tricks and deceits, like sweet voiced sirens that will sing me onto the rocks if I listen to them.
I also hold onto many things that help to keep me in life and wanting to live. I do not have one precious thing, for that would make me terribly vulnerable to losing it. I have lost so many things dear to me in my life. I have many things, big reasons and little reasons that hold me here and keep me fighting for life. Some are huge ones – I want to write books, who would care for my pets, my family needs and loves me. Some are little ones – I’d planned to feed the ducks this evening, I haven’t finished making that birthday gift, the moon is so beautiful tonight, perhaps I’ll watch it set. They are my talismans against the dark, and they fail when the darkness is great. I hold one until its light goes out, then I put it back and take out another. The power of feeling suicidal is that it strips meaning from that which means most to us. In a black, fey mood, the thought that our children would miss us is suddenly hollow and devoid of power. I have learned to expect this and not be dismayed by it or blame myself for it. I rotate my reasons to keep going, and never hold onto one past its usefulness. In time it will regenerate and I’ll be able to use it again.
I also now know that there are times when all my reasons fail. When I am joyless and without love of life, when I have no hope for a future and can find no meaning in my pain. When to ask me to live is to ask to me to submit to torture and anguish. In these times I pour the pain out of me, into journals, I weep for hours, days, months, I scream myself to sleep. I accept that I am without hope, without reasons, and I put myself at the mercy of the world. If I am to die, then kill me, but it will not be by my hand. And if there will one day be a reason for me to have endured this, then spare me. I will wait for it. One day there will be reasons and meaning and hope and I will be glad to have endured.
I have also learned that not all change and help comes from within me. When I am deeply broken, I bind myself to stillness to keep me safe from my reckless longings, and I wait. I have learned that if I wait patiently, with my eyes open and my ears pricked and my heart ready, then something will change around me. I will read a book that speaks to me, or someone will say something that unlocks a peace in me, or some circumstance will change and give me hope. Sometimes my desire to be the agent of change, to fix the pain and put the world to rights is the very part of me that is most dangerous in despair. I hold myself still and wait for hope.
I also find hope in my ignorance. I remind myself how many books I have not read, the degrees I do not have, all the millions of people in the world with thoughts and ideas and theories and experiences I’ve never heard of. When I can find no way to patch together any hope with what I know, I go hunting for information and I tell myself that I will find it again. My knowledge is such a speck in the universe, and how much my world has changed with powerful books, good friends, sound advice, how much my inner life has grown and my strength increased as I’ve learned and understood more. And yet still I know so little. I cannot pronounce the certainty of despair when I have only the tiniest fraction of all the knowledge in the world. Other people have found hope, I will sit at their feet, I will watch their lives, I will find foundations for my own.
I abandon reason when reason drives me to despair. There have been times in my life when the anguish was so unbearable that I have broken inside and decided that it was no longer fair to ask me to endure it. That if love of my family kept me here, than that love was cruel. I have taken my hits and bled my last drop and no more can asked of me. I had no reason to expect that my life would become any different to how it has always been. In this place I cast about desperately for a reasonable response and could not find one. In the end I sidestepped the question entirely and concluded that if hope was foolishness and staying alive was madness than I would be a fool. A little madness can be a refuge from the relentless logic of such thoughts.
At times it is helpful to remind myself that there are those, only a very very few, who have hurt me for the sake of the pleasure of hurting me. That they would gain delight in knowing that I continued to inflict pain on myself long after they had gone. That dying by my own hand would be murder from an untraceable distance. I am a profoundly stubborn person. I decided if they wanted me dead, they were going to have to do it themselves. If there are black days where I live only to spite those who’ve hurt me, then so be it.
Feeling chronically suicidal can become a mental habit whenever things go wrong. Your brain tosses it up as an option like a big dumb dog dragging something horrible on to your bed. If you’re used of thinking of suicide when you’re stuck, it may help to talk back to your brain (politely) and tell it you don’t want this option at the moment. You want other suggestions and ideas about how to improve things. You may even write a list of all the various options open to you, and number them ahead of suicide in your list of ways to respond to your life. So perhaps suicide ends up being at option number 467, after
- 452. Move to Japan and take up kite making
- 231. Eat everything you can find in the fridge
- 93. Call a helpline
I run my proverbial list in order from most to least likely to help, easiest to most drastic, and least to most harmful. Even self harm, total isolation, or an eating disorder are before suicide on my list. They I can heal from later, suicide I can’t. Some things – like harming someone else – are after it. It doesn’t have to be a good reason (although a good reason is better) it just has to be enough to get you through. Almost anything you do with your life should be above suicide on your list of options.
So the rope I have cast over this pit is woven from many different things, stubbornness, folly, faith, patience, experience and a deep love for life. No one thing alone could keep me safe, but between all of these things a kind of armour is made that helps to protect me from despair, a kind of path that walks me through the darkness.
I imagine that the things we each make this path from may be different for us all. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense to no one else, if it’s patchworked together, a jumble of contradictions, badly worn thin and with holes you have to leap over. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it only has to be enough to get you through this night. Tomorrow can take care of itself.
I hope you may find something here useful or thought-provoking. If you are feeling suicidal yourself, please take good care of yourself. Call someone if that may be helpful, do those things that keep you safe and give you hope, reframe it, wait it out, find someone to hold you, find reasons to endure, and walk gently. There is hope for us.
Australian 24 hr phone services:
Lifeline: 13 11 14
ACIS: 13 14 65
Suicide call back service: 1300 659 467