|Here's a corgi puppy taking a nap to make you smile before you go|
I've been talking a lot with people on Twitter about suicide this week, for a number of reasons. In an amazing co-incidence, it was both International Suicide Prevention Day and R U OK Day in the same week, so mental health and suicide in particular has been on a lot of people's minds.
Anna Spargo Ryan wrote an amazing piece about the whole “mental health awareness” day thing, and she managed to very eloquently sum up one of my problems with these campaigns. As she says, it’s great that they exist, and it is very important that people are made more aware of the potential issues of people around them, even if they’re not immediately apparent. It really is, and even though I'm going to go ahead point out a bunch of ways I think it could be improved, please be clear I don't think RU OK Day in and of itself is a bad idea. There is also a lot of fundraising that goes on around RU OK Day that allows the foundation behind it to do some great work in the community.
Anna refers to mental illness as a Pandora’s Box, and it really really is. It’s virtually impossible to guess from the outset what’s going to come out of that box once you open it, and it is ridiculous to attempt to open it unprepared. If you don’t know what to do if you ask someone R U OK, and they say “No,” then you can end up doing more harm than good. I know from experience that confessing to depressed or even suicidal feelings and being met with a blank, startled stare, is actually more depressing and more anxiety inducing than simply being ignored. Maybe for people with less severe anxiety and depression, sharing their feelings isn't so challenging. But for me, admitting to someone, anyone, that I'm not okay is like peeling off my skin and inviting them to poke it. When they respond with confusion, or worse, fear, that's like having a hot poker stuck in me. After the hot poker, I'll often get the casual follow up, where someone asks if I’m still down and I have to answer with the deepest shame, “Yep.” That Look that you get when you’re STILL depressed and the people who care enough to ask STILL don’t know what to do just kills me. It makes me feel broken, unfixable, hopeless, and on top of that, guilty that my sadness is making other people sad. Like I said, maybe this lack of ability to respond in a constructive way doesn't hurt other people as much. Maybe some people take much more comfort from just being asked than I do. But speaking for myself, and only for myself, if you have no answers, I would honestly prefer you didn’t ask.
I would implore everyone who is considering starting an RU OK conversation to take a minute beforehand to consider how it might go, and what you are going to say if there IS something wrong. What if someone says, “Actually, I AM really depressed”? The obvious answer is, “Well, you should see a professional.” And this is a Good Plan. But are you going to help them do it? Can you recommend anyone? Are you willing to ask if they have someone to go with them to appointments, and offer to take them if they don’t? Will you ask next week how they are? What if they ARE already seeing someone, but it’s not helping? Do you have any alternative suggestions, even if it’s just a momentary distraction? If you don’t have any idea of what to do next, asking R U Okay is nothing but empty words to make yourself feel like you've contributed. It's a great start - but the RU OK Day has been going since 2009, and I think it's time we move off the starting blocks of this conversation.
But that's just a really quick summation of my problems with this particular aspect of awareness raising - although I'm sure a lot of you already have some rather fervent arguments against what I've said here. Like I said, I don't think the idea is without merit - anything that helps destigmatise mental illness, even in the smallest way, is worth doing. I just think it needs to be improved on. Hold on to your comments though, because I've got more to get off my chest. On a larger scale, I have a lot of problems with how suicide is viewed by the neurotpyical general public.People seem to have this perception of suicide as always being done on the spur of the moment. It's viewed as a choice made out of a moment of weakness, a fleeting urge with permanent results. Perhaps this is why so many people view it as a weak, stupid choice. Maybe that's what makes people so angry. If I thought of it like this, I would probably get pretty angry about it too.
But my own experience of suicidal thoughts is very different. I'm sure for some people the decision to commit suicide IS made on the spur of the moment, and maybe they would have felt differently if they'd made it through the night. But speaking for myself, and only myself, I've never considered killing myself in a fit of despair.I mean, I've had PLENTY of fits of despair, but those have never been the times when I thought about killing myself.
Those if you who have struggled with major depression will probably know what I mean when I talk about the cold, calm grey on the far side of a down swing. Depression is often depicted as being all about being sad, and that is a large part of it is. But for me, the sad was never dangerous. It was awful, and debilitating, but I was never suicidal when I was actively sad. Suicidal thoughts have only ever come up for be when I've been so sad for so long a that all the emotion in me gets burned up. I end up feeling like a desolate pile of ashes. Empty, charred, cold. On the other side of sad t here is endless, apathetic grey, and when I find myself there, that's when the thoughts of suicide
The first time I really seriously decided I was going to kill myself was about six months after I'd been diagnosed as properly crazy. I had no job, few friends, and a boyfriend who loved me dearly, but was hopelessly out of his depth. I remember calmly taking stock of everything that was worthwhile about my life, and the odds (as I saw them) that my situation would get better. I concluded perfectly calmly that it just wasn't worth it, and after a couple of days of mulling it over, I decided to kill myself. As soon as I decided, a wave of relief washed over me. With the weight of the rest of my life lifted off me, I felt better than I had in months. I was enormously comforted by this definite end in sight, and proud of myself for taking charge and setting my own end date. I would think about it and smile to myself, and hold the thought close like a baby blanket.
The thing about the grey, apathetic bottom end of depression is that you lose all empathy for the feelings of others. I told my boyfriend about my marvelous plan, and remember being quite annoyed that he was so upset about it. I honestly felt like he was being horribly selfish, and obviously just hadn't thought it through like I had, so I tried to explain. Now I'm stable again, I have no idea how I thought explaining would help, but I honestly did at the time. Anyway, one trip to the ER later, I decided to put off my plan until my boyfriend wasn't watching me quite so closely. And in the meantime, things got better.
The second time I decided to kill myself was nearly two years ago. I'd been in a horrifically stressful job, then gotten fired, then taken another horribly stressful job, and gotten fired again. After that, I was unemployed for months because I was too burnt out to even apply for anything. My boyfriend was going away for a work conference, and as with the time before, I took stock of my options and decided I was down to suicide again. I was broke, burned out, and just so.fucking.tired. I don't have the words to express how completely and utterly exhausted I was. I was too tired, too drained to be afraid or angry or sad anymore. I was just done. I couldn't do it anymore. So I did a bunch of research on how best to achieve my aim, with minimal pain, mess, and potential failure rates. I made a plan, and I let my boy leave town without letting him know. I'd learned my lesson from last time about disclosure. But in the end, I didn't go through with it that time either. It was, in the end, a pretty mundane thing that prevented me - I realised that I hadn't factored my cat into my plan. If I killed myself too soon, she would be starving by the time my boyfriend came back. I mean, she wasn't going to die or anything, but I felt bad leaving her without food for a couple of days for my convenience. So I put it off, and put it off... and then my boy was back, so the plan had to go on the backbench. Doing at while he was right there in the house felt...well, tacky. I mean, there's going ahead and killing yourself, and there's making your boyfriend wake up next to a dead body. The second option was just totally unacceptable to my mind. Plus there was every chance he would find me and interfere. So I hid my supplies, and I hid my plan, and I waited. And things got better.
You'll notice a theme here: things have always gotten better for me. And for a lot of people with mental health issues and chronic mental illnesses, it does get better. I would never want to tell anyone it's not worth trying, because it absolutely is. When I was first diagnosed, I thought that I would never feel okay. I didn't even have a concept of what okay would feel like. But here I am, six years later, able to write all this out and share it with strangers I'm so okay. There are lots of things you can do to work towards being more okay; therapy, medication, lifestyle changes can all work together to completely transform your life. Sometimes people come out the other side of a depressive down swing and wonder how on earth they had been so down. But not always. Quite simply, it doesn't get better for everyone, and I often wonder what would have happened if my life hadn't gotten better when it did.
These experiences have shaped the way I respond to suicide in a very particular way. What I remember most about the points in time when I was considering killing myself was how alone I felt. I know that depression lies, and I know that my perception of the world can get warped by my mental illness. But not being able to talk to any one about my plans made it so much harder to find a way out, to think of any alternative. In response to this experience, I try my best to be available if people I care about do want someone to talk to about suicide. A big part of making myself available is not only making the time, but also doing my damnedest to quash my own feelings about it.
In the end, I think that my feelings about someone else’s decision is not as important as making sure that person has what they need. I would rather swallow my fear, sadness, and confusion in order to make sure they’re not alone. If they tell me they want to die, and we talk about it at length, and they still really truly want to die, then I don’t think that telling them how much that upsets me is helpful. It’s not about me – it’s not my call. I can’t presume to tell someone who cannot bear being alive anymore that they MUST do so, for my sake or anyone else's. I don’t have to live in their heads – I don’t KNOW how it is for them. They are the one who has to live with their decision. There have been people who have discussed their plans or urges with me who I would miss horribly, but I can't put that on them. Not then. I know it's entirely possible that telling them how much I would miss them, how sad I would be, could just bounce off the wall of grey. It could also send them into a shame spiral that just confirms all their feelings of being worthless, useless, and a burden. I remember thinking that it was totally okay that my boyfriend was going to be sad that I'd killed myself, because the feeling would fade in time, and it would still be better for him in the long run than being in love with someone like me.
When people come to me with suicidal tendencies, these days I only ask one thing of them: to wait a day, and then to talk to me about it again. The vast majority of people change their mind in the 24 hours between talks, and if they don't, I'll ask them to wait one more day. But if after that they haven't budged, and they still really honestly believe it's the best choice for them, I'll just ask them to say goodbye before they go. That's it.
This approach has seen me accused of being heartless and completely lacking empathy - how could I possibly let people go through with killing themselves? How could I live with myself if I didn't stop them? What sort of person am I to let them stop fighting and give in? This view assumes that I have the power to stop someone who really, desperately doesn't want to live anymore, and honestly, I don't think I do. I can encourage them to wait, to put it off, to think about it some more. But when it comes right down to it, if you're determined, there's no stopping you. It also assumes that I have the right to stop someone, and I also honestly don't think I have that right. It's their life. It's their choice. I can offer advice, I can offer an ear, and I can do my best to try and open up the echo chamber of lies that mental illness builds around your reason. But I can't, and I won't make that decision for anyone else.
That's my whole big diatribe. I'm sure a lot of you have a great deal to say is response, so before you do, please try and keep in mind that this was an extremely difficult post for me to write. If you hate me now...well, that sucks, but not entirely unexpected. But I want this blog to be honest, and this is as honest as I've ever been with anyone.
If you need someone to talk to, Lifeline is an excellent free crisis support service here in Australia. They have online services available through their website, or you can call them on 13 11 14.