Oct. 10, 2018 - I was waiting in line at Starbucks, scrolling through my newsfeed when I first saw the headline that Anthony Bourdain had died. As the day unfolded and confirmation of his death by suicide came across social media, I saw tweets and shares flood in, many with the same sentiments.
“I didn’t see this coming.”
Just a couple of days before, there had been similar public reaction of shock and confusion when news broke that Kate Spade had taken her own life.
Suicide often seems to come out of nowhere. Mental health problems can, for many, be invisible even to those closest to them.
I attempted suicide just after my 13th birthday.
Leading up to that moment, I had been interacting with people the same way I always had. I suspect that to those who knew me, it didn’t seem as if anything had changed. But I felt as though my physical self was on autopilot while the world inside me crashed. Inside, I was suffocating in terror and shame and panic and rage. I had the overwhelming sense that I was not okay, and that nothing was ever going to be okay again.
I would shut my bedroom door at night and collapse on my bed, unable to breathe because it felt as though there was something literally crushing my chest, so intense was my feeling of hopelessness and despair. I felt trapped and isolated. I didn’t want to live anymore, and I made a plan to end my life.
The very nature of what I was going through stopped me from reaching out for the support I needed. I felt a lot of shame and a fear of being judged as weak or selfish. I felt like I was a burden on those around me already. I feared I would be imposing even more on them by asking for help.
I often see articles or posts telling people thinking about suicide that they should reach out and ask for help. What this advice misses, though, is that it can be incredibly difficult to connect with people while dealing with your own depression, anxiety, or other mental health difficulties. When I was 13, I didn’t believe my life was worth saving, and I couldn’t, at that point, see what I can see now: that the way I was thinking was because of the illness I was lucky enough to later recover from.
It’s hard to know how to help someone going through an acute mental health crisis. I want to share some of what has and hasn’t been helpful to say and do over the years.
“This will get better!”
When we notice someone in pain and suffering, we often rush in to try to fix it. We don’t know what to say, so we offer up well-meaning words as a substitute for real advice. It’s a lovely gesture, but for someone contemplating suicide, it can add to the feeling of being invisible, and not being heard.
For me, people skirting around what was happening felt patronising and invalidating, as if by distracting me, I would forget that I wanted to die. It doesn’t work like that.
Instead of saying, “It will get better,” recognize their struggle. Say that you wish you knew how to help. Say that you wish you could make things better. It’s okay that you can’t.
Showing up, simply being there, is what can make a real difference.
“Focus on the positive! You have a great job! Your family loves you!”
It can be tempting to try and cheer someone up by pointing out all the positives in their life. For me, this only added to the feeling of being isolated and misunderstood.
I was aware of all the things in my life that were, on the surface, going well. I was not contemplating ending my life because I hadn’t noticed that I had a family who cared about me. I knew I was lucky in many ways, and already felt guilt and shame that I felt so detached.
Reminding me of it, although unintentional, was hurtful rather than helpful.
Instead of telling me to, “focus on the positive,” remember that my struggle in those moments was internal. I was telling myself that everything good in my life was an illusion doomed to collapse around me. I needed to hear that everything I was telling myself was not true. Now was not the time to be making major decisions about my future, because I hadn’t slept or eaten properly for weeks.
Start by trying to tackle simple tasks. Maybe, I could just get through the next hour, and try to get some sleep.
“Don’t you think you are being selfish?”
I grew up always being top of my classes in school, playing the harp, and performing around the country. When my mental health deteriorated as a teenager, I felt like I was letting everyone down. Suddenly, I felt like a disappointment, a burden, a shell of my former self. It seemed to me that I had failed at life, and the guilt and shame I felt from being unwell was one of the many things that stopped me from asking for help with some of the thoughts I was having about suicide.
When I did open up, and was asked if I viewed it as being selfish, I was shocked. I thought I was doing the right thing for my family. I wanted to make things easier for the people around me.
I can see now the flaws in my logic, and the pain that suicide would have caused. But at the time, implying that I was being selfish made me feel like I was only considering the need for my own pain to end, when the reality couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Those struggling with suicidal ideations aren’t considering taking their lives out of selfishness. Instead of pointing to suicide as a selfish act, point to the impact that person has on those around them, and ensure they know that they aren’t a burden.
Open dialogues are not a bad thing. Fears grow bigger when they fester in our minds, and those fears can often be blown out of proportion if left unattended.
“If you wanted to die, you would have done it by now.”
Whenever I was told this, it felt like a challenge that I then had to meet. It’s a dangerous, damaging thing to say, with little understanding of how the suicidal thought process works.
It’s common to have ambiguity or hesitancy when contemplating suicide. It’s also common to have very banal reasons for delaying death, e.g., “I still have milk in the fridge, I’ll wait a day,” or, “I want to see that TV show tomorrow night.”
None of these detract from the intensity of the feeling, nor do they undermine the severity of risk, but what they do is give us time, and that time allows for things to change. Sometimes staying alive is merely a matter of finding reasons to get through, one day at a time.
Instead of hurtful messages that can push someone further towards suicide, get them talking. Find out if there’s something they are interested in that is happening within the next 24 hours. It sounds small, but can make a world of difference.
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
Instead of waiting for a friend to reach out to you, take the first step. Notice who has started turning down invitations. Look around the lunchroom and see who’s not there. Send a text message to your friend from the gym who hasn’t been there for a few weeks.
The responsibility lies with all of us to pay attention to who used to be around the table, and who isn’t any longer. Showing a person who may be struggling that there is someone out there who cares enough to reach out, even if just through a text message, could mean the world.
Be proactive. You might say, “I notice you’ve been keeping to yourself lately. I’m going to stop by after work tomorrow.” Put a card through their letterbox. Tell them you’ll stop by again over the weekend.
Suicide often can feel distant, something that happens to other people in other communities, and we assume that those people get help, that it’s not for us to deal with. Until eventually, it’s a neighbor, or a friend’s fiancé, or a brother. And we didn’t see it coming.
Conversations about mental health should begin long before a crisis point is reached. Suicidal thoughts are the culmination of a multitude of factors, not a starting point. How we talk about mental health is important. It’s crucial that we start having more conversations.
Talk saves lives. Keep showing up. Keep reaching out.