Between Rose and myself, today has involved touching base with or trying to arrange supports for 3 suicidal people. We’re home now, the doors are locked, the phones are off the hook, and we’re sharing dinner. Rose has cooked using these beautiful little tomatoes from our garden. Someone stole our trowel and I got paid today so I bought her another one. It’s become a project we love working on together, a little hub of abundance in the middle of our busy, at times tiring, lives.
We both know what it’s like to be in that place, how dark, lonely, and desperate it feels. Sometimes there’s concrete things we can do to help, linking people to resources, taking people to hospital, going around and giving them a hug. Sometimes there’s so little we can do except bear witness. To find some way to say “I see you. I hear your pain. If you should die tonight you will be mourned.” I told a friend today that working in mental health with a system that doesn’t support people in ongoing crisis, at times I feel like I am standing at the gates to Auschwitz, helpless to intervene, marking a tally of those who enter and will never return to us. Sometimes counting the dead is all I can do, and it kills me inside. I’ve written about bearing witness before:
These are people, who get thrown out of hospital for being a nuisance, who get turned away from services for being too sick, too suicidal, too much hard work. These are people who are dogged by the impact of chronic trauma and abuse, who fight so hard to stay alive through so many dark nights and simply run out of fight, people who want to live but can’t bear the pain any more and who sometimes want to die, whose ambivalence is misinterpreted as manipulation, whose suffering is disregarded as attention seeking. They are real people. Under the labels like Borderline Personality Disorder, Dissociative Identity Disorder, under the other labels used (mostly) when they’re not in the room – asshole, stupid, FITH ‘fucked in the head’, bitch, waste of space, they are humans. They are dying. And if they die, they should not die unloved. If they die, we shall mourn them. If there truly is no hope (a common reason services withdraw help, because they’re ‘probably just going to die anyway’) we should not throw them out of services but move them to compassionate palliative care services. That’s what a caring society does for people who are dying.
I’ve seen this too often. I’ve had to contact media to force a hospital to admit a friend who had been left, untreated, without food or water, in the ER for ten hours with her arms lacerated by self harm. I’ve had to coax a friend into drinking activated charcoal to absorb the poisons that were killing them from a suicide attempt, because they had been marked a chronic complainer with behavioural issues and the entire state public mental health system had been closed to them – even sympathetic doctors could no longer admit them. I’ve myself turned up to ACIS, our crisis support service, homeless and acutely suicidal and been turned away because “we don’t treat people with DID very well, you’ve got a better chance of surviving on your own”… and that doctor was right. I did. I’ve supported people to increase their level of dissociation to survive the night when distraught and suicidal and unable to access any kind of support. I’ve visited people dying of self inflicted harm in hospital. I’ve sat on their bed and held their hand and shared ice cream with them. If I had a dollar for every email from a person with multiplicity who was confused, suffering, lost, and being more harmed than helped by the mental health services, I wouldn’t have a lot of debts left. I’ve lost friends to suicide, and supported others grieving after losing someone they loved to it, and shared poetry about it, and exhibited artwork in exhibitions to raise awareness. Since I was first suicidal at 10, it’s been part of my life.
So today – please bear witness with me. I’m not breaking any confidentiality, I’m not exposing anyone. I’m telling you that people like me stand at the gates and we tally the dead. Everyone we lose is a loss to all of us. A book too short, tragically ended, a life cut off. This is not the way people are supposed to leave us. Each loss makes the world a little darker, the night a little colder. We must find ways, together, to see people in pain. To bear witness to their lives. To sit with their pain. To mourn and to scream and to find ways to live. To burn brightly. To bring warmth.
If you are feeling suicidal yourself, or care for someone who is, you might helpful: