Thursday, September 12, 2013

Suicidal Tendencies

This is a brutally honest post, with a great deal of raw emotion exposed, so please proceed with caution. I will be discussing points in time when I was suicidal, and talking to other people about their suicide plans, so if this is triggering you might want to stop now.
Here's a corgi puppy taking a nap to make you smile before you go
Still here? Cool, let's get into this then.

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.


  1. I know it sounds cliche but I love this post. It puts into words a lot of the feelings I have about suicide and mental illness. One of my friends told me that she would love to just be numb for the rest of her life because it would be easier but it's not. Numb feels like you're dead already.

    1. I guess this is why suicide seems to be such an attractive option when you've gone numb: if you feel dead already, you might as well be dead.

      I'm so glad you liked this post. It was...difficult. But necessary I think.

  2. I think the biggest improvement needed for R U OK day and the International Suicide Prevention Day would be to provide more education on how to help a person who shares with you that they are having thoughts of suicide.

    At Lifeline I have strangers telling me that they want to end their life, and what stands out is that a good deal of these people haven't told this to anyone else in their life. At lot of our work relates to reducing the stigma associated with suicide, and I hope that in time people will feel more comfortable being upfront about their thoughts of suicide so they can get the help they need (be that professional, of just a friend who will listen).

    As for the idea of not trying to stop someone who is very determined to end their life, that is a tough one. At Lifeline one of our goals or mission statements or whatever its called it something along the lines on "working towards a world without suicide". It was drilled into us in our training that it is our job to prevent people from ending their lives, no matter what their reasons for doing so may be. In the context of my work, I don't know enough about a persons situation to know how 'good' their reasons are for wanting to end their life, but I do know that I speak to a lot of people who have considered or attempted suicide and were later quite grateful that they did not manage to complete it.

    As an aside, maybe on a post like this it could be a good idea to give the number for Lifeline? (Totally not trying to drum up business here, I don't even get paid :-P). For all the people who don't have someone in their life they feel comfortable talking about suicide with, it can be a really helpful resource.

    Jess xo

    1. I feel like the attitude towards suicide as being something that must be prevented at all costs partially feeds into the stigma, if you follow me. It makes it very difficult for a lot of people who aren't used to talking about it react in a rational, calm manner, which is what usually works best.

      Having said that, I think Lifeline is a very particular situation in this whole spectrum of possible instances. As you say, you're talking to people who have (or feel like they have) no one else to turn to, and you're attempting to help someone you know very little about. In that instance, I think attempting to convince them to at least put it off in all cases is the right way to go.

      And you are totally right about putting the Lifeline number in, I'll do that now.

  3. This is an excellent post and I would just like to share my thoughts on the subject
    Actually I don't think it would make a blind bit of difference asking someone if they "r ok" (in my own personal experience since the age of about 13) if they want to hide their feelings away they will. In more recent times I have dealt with my own suiiciadal tendancies by making the biggest god damn list ever seen and when i feel suiciadal i start thinking through my list of things to do but get so swamped by the sheer magnitude of the tasks i have set myself i give up. i know this doesnt help with the feelings but it does keep me alive for the better times of which there have been some if not alot.

    1. I'm a big fan of lists as a stalling tactic too. If I find the list gets too big, one thing that works for me is just erasing the last half, two third, and making it more manageable. Sometimes I just have to cut it down to one thing, and I've had to train myself to accept that even doing that one thing counts as success.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. i actually want the list to be as long as possible and impossible to accomplish because once i've gone through everything there is nothing left to keep me here

  4. "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."

    Oh hai there, nerve.

    Seriously, thank you for this. I have way too many thoughts to clog your comments too much, but I remember so often getting trapped in this spiral where even though I know that mental illness lies and fucks with my perception, my inability to trust my feelings and perceptions ends up feeding the bullshit. And one of the best ways people have managed to short circuit it has been to acknowledge the reality of how I'm feeling. When you feel really alone and all anyone can do is tell you you're not, it can feel really invalidating, and it feeds the demons that tell you you're wrong and ungrateful and terrible.

    I know you've mostly touched on thoughts of suicide that get to the serious/planning/etc stages, but I can't help thinking about something friends of mine (also with chronic mental health diagnoses/issues) and I have talked about, which is the suicidal thoughts that don't get that far, but are still there enough to notice. I learned a while ago the benefit of having people (usually fellow crazy people) with whom you can have an almost nonchalant conversation about suicidal thoughts/feelings with. Like, "Bluh, really wanted to die this morning" "Urgh, sucks bro, I had that last week, did you still want to grab coffee this afternoon?" And not everyone can be the person who can do that; and even if you can be that for some people, you perhaps just can't for someone else. And that's okay, but finding the people who can do that for you can be so good, because it can short circuit the guilt spiral, and it can make it easier to keep an eye on the level of intrusive thoughts you're having because you're not so focused on shutting them down so as not to freak out the people in your life.

    And, I've probably rambled in your comments enough for the moment. :|

  5. Um, I think we may both have the same shirt, because a lot of your experience is also mine. My cats and dogs have been the only reason I stayed alive at times. They mattered more to me than I was.

    I call it The Bleaks. These days I have a couple of friends who are also taking their little pink pills, and if any of us are having the Bleaks, we can ring and talk. And we know each others "things" that signal it's time to take extra care. I have no idea how I got through the earlier times.

  6. I realised that I hadn't factored my cat into my plan.

    I love that line. It really resonated with me. For me personally, it was a little, tiny mundane thing like that that stopped me. I thought, I can't so that to my friend. She's just lost a teacher and a dog and I couldn't cause her that pain. I didn't even consider my parents or my sisters. Fo some reason, she was the only thing that mattered in that dark time.

    Thankfully, I've never gone back to that dark place (touch wood). But this post was really heartfelt and I admire you so much for having the bravery to talk about this. I know it's really hard. It was also really topical as my school had R U OK day today, which included an extended lunch and free dress. On one hand, I was happy that my school was acknowledging it and raising money to help the R U Okay foundation, but on the other hand, it was completely ignored. No one took it seriously and tbh, most people probably didn't even know why we had free dress. It just irritated me that no one took it seriously. I just feel that there is so much opportunity for it too be not taken seriously - like I feel mental health is treated sometimes. However, the idea itself is good.

    Thanks for a great and heartfelt post,

  7. Thank you for writing this. It's all useful and validates the support I've been trying to give to a friend who lives too far away to hug every day. I do worry that I might say the wrong kinds of things but then worrying is an almost constant thing for me. So thank you for alleviating my worries and helping me continue to be strong for her.

    1. You're very welcome. I hope you and your friends come out the other side of this.


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