The subject of suicide is one that hits close to home for me. I lost my mother to it in 2000 and I too have known times in my life when I had to struggle with suicidal feelings. And even plans.
Without knowing where
I was looking for a life
That seemed not to be there
My work as an experience expert taught me that quite a lot of people are dealing with thoughts of suicide. We talk about it, for example, in self-help groups or simply during individual meetings. Yet still the subject is quite a taboo: wanting to end your own life. Which is strange, if you consider that suicidal thoughts are one of the common symptoms / signals of depression.
Discussing suicide demands more honesty, knowledge and skills
And luckily, this is also happening. Take the recent book by Dutch authors René den Haan and Fredrike Bannink for example: Suicide Prevention. When they went out to search for stories based on personal accounts, I contacted them to share my story and advice. That story is now part of their book, along with those of five other clients. I will share my story here as well, in English.
Many times, suicide, or an attempt, is still seen as an overreaction, as attention-seeking or a selfish act. This does not help at all in stimulating debate about the subject and in encouraging people to seek help.
Yet talking about it and getting help is exactly the difference between recovering or not. And thus between life or death
For a long time, I kept silent about my suicidal thoughts. Even though I certainly had them. Or actually; they had me. Because they caused lots of stress and tension, as I was constantly tiring myself by fighting against them. I was lucky enough during my last crisis to find a psychiatrist who was willing to listen to me without prejudice. She asked about my mental issues and the story behind them. And she chose my side.
She succeeded in gaining my trust. And when she eventually asked about my suicidal thoughts, I finally felt safe enough to tell about them.
I trusted her to take a look inside my weird, bizarre, chaotic and suicidal mind
This therapist even went further, asking me who I would call if the suicidal tendencies would play up again. To call someone… Never before had I thought about that. She offered me permission to call her if needed, but also told me that I probably would not make the call, because I did not know her that well yet. But even the symbolic idea that there was somebody I could call, felt as a relief.
Wow… There was a person who wasn’t shocked by my thoughts and feelings. Someone who even seemed to understand me and was willing to listen when these thoughts would bother me again. And she was right: I probably would not have called her. Yet she did not give up and asked me who else I could call. Never before had I thought about that. How could I ever put such a burden on other people?
As a home assignment, I had to come up with two persons who I could call, and ask them if that would be okay. Quite hesitantly, I got to work on it. And guess what: the people I asked, had no problems with it all at.
Moreover: they were even happy to support me
The moment when I would need to make that call, never came. But the idea that I could fall back on someone; that I could talk about it and share my thoughts with others; that made my suicidal thoughts much lighter to bear.
My most recent depression, and the sense of hopelessness along with it, did not come out of nowhere of course. I was strongly convinced that I would never be okay again. My relationship had just ended, I had moved, and my brother – who was under my care – was not doing well. I was co-parenting… And I also lost my job because I was still in my trial period when I started slipping under.
In my paranoid mindset, I believed I would not get any unemployment benefits. Neither would I ever be able to work again, or remain to be a good mother and partner. Therefore nobody needed nor wanted me. These thoughts stayed with me for months, causing lots of physical and mental stress that was heavy to bear.
For a while, I was even unable to feel any emotions for my own daughter. The person whom I normally loved more than anything in the world. It only shows how serious a depression can be. I had started writing goodbye letters. It had always hurt me that my own mother had never left a note when she committed suicide.
I wanted to explain why I chose death
The only thought that prevented me from actually taking the actual step, were my concerns about who would take care of my brother. Due to his serious mental issues, I had been his informal care taker and legal guardian ever since he came under professional help and assisted living.
That sense of responsibility apparently remained. Thank goodness…
For a long time, I hoped that my medication would start working. From my earlier depressive episodes, I knew it could take a while before they had an effect. Only after several months, after an increase of the standard dosage and additional sleeping pills and tranquilisers, my situation started to improve a bit.
Especially the trust and patience from my psychiatrist helped me to regain hope
It seemed as if I could tap into her hope at times when I lost mine. Or perhaps my hope increased at a spiritual moment, when I was lying in bed and saw nothing but obstacles ahead. I no longer wanted, nor could, go on pretending I was doing fine. I had been doing that for years, but now my energy to keep it up had finally faded.
That moment turned out to be a source of enlightenment and comfort. I felt the hope coming over me as I decided that it was okay to be me, despite all my mental challenges. I had never made a secret of my depressive feelings, but I usually approached rationally, with my head.
What my head already knew, could now also be felt with my heart
I was able to accept my psychological vulnerabilities instead of struggling against them. Anyhow…. This realization is what turned me around. After long periods of failure, I slowly started to realise that I could also still achieve small successes. That proved to be enough to regain the hope that improvement was actually possible. This is how I entered a process of acceptance, recovery and healing.
Tips for care workers
- Ask about suicidal thoughts and plans. Talk about them when they are there. That takes away part of the stress. My experience is that being able to share these thoughts is often the start of relieving the heavy burden and contributes towards healing. The ‘normalisation’ of suicidal thoughts can also surely help in this.
- Always take expressions of suicidal thoughts seriously. Still too often I hear that such expressions are brushed aside as “seeking attention”. And sometimes that may be true, but not in other cases. The best response is to actually provide that attention, and be supportive instead of dismissive.
- Ask who could provide help when the suicidal thoughts and plans get worse. Let someone organise this help: which person in their social network would answer the phone? Ask about this with that person, and see if it’s okay to ask their help.
- Show that you understand the thoughts. Ask what they need to be able to deal with and/or change these thoughts. For example, what steps have helped in the past?
- Indicate that the person is much more than just their suicidal thoughts. That this state of mind is temporary, and as heavy as it may be now: it will pass. Offer hope, and if that (sense of) hope is currently gone, let them know that you are still there for them.
Nanette Waterhout is experience expert and works in a FACT team, while also providing informal care for her brother who has been dealing with serious mental issues or years.