The first time I can remember having suicidal thoughts was around age 11 or 12. Oddly enough, I have this quite vivid memory of such an awful thought at one of the places in the world that brings me the most joy – my family cottage. And yet, I remember being struck with an unusual line of thinking I’d never experienced before. “If I’m no longer alive,” my mind thought, “I won’t have to suffer like this anymore.” At this stage in my life, I’d been dealing with rather severe insomnia, night terrors, and paranoia pretty well every night for a number of years. This particular night was no exception, and though my cottage was one of my favourite places, on this particular night I was terrified. Looking back, it almost feels like it plays out like some sort of horror film in my mind – lightning flashing, thunder crashing, and a windy house creaking around me, playing tricks on my overactive imagination.
I distinctly remember being frightened of the thought I’d had in the midst of my desperation as well. I had been dealing with these challenges for so long that I couldn’t really remember being refreshed, couldn’t even particularly remember what it felt to not have the weight of my fear at night dragging me down through every day. The fear I experienced nightly had become intrinsically combined with another emotion as well – shame. Shame for the toll I thought this was having on my parents as they sought the best way to comfort and help me, and shame for not simply being able to be strong enough to overcome this problem on my own.
Similarly, I remember feeling immediate shame wrapped up with my fear of my thoughts of harming myself. Even at such a young age, it seemed shameful to even consider suicide as an option to end my suffering, a selfish option. But in that moment, all I wanted was to stop hurting. I had more moments like this through the months and years that followed, though they eventually did subside for a time as things improved.
Looking back, I’m not sure I’ve ever shared this story with many, and I don’t think even my parents. Mom and dad, if you’re reading about this now – which you certainly are because you’re wonderful and supportive – sorry I didn’t ever come to you at that time, or tell you about it until now. Shame is a powerful feeling, and keeps us from asking for help from those we know can give it to us. I think my thoughts about the power of shame are a large part of why I wanted to share and write about my experiences.
As my parents know, this stage of my life is unfortunately not the only time I’ve had suicidal thoughts. That particular night was over a decade and a half ago, and my thoughts in recent years have returned to a similar place. I’ve been having a difficult time with physical illness since contracting malaria nearly a decade ago when I was eighteen on a trip to West Africa. Somewhere along the way, this physical illness became fundamentally connected with mental illness. Sometimes as I look at the residual physical symptoms I still have, I can’t help but wonder which came first.
Regardless, in the past few years I’ve off and on had similar thoughts to those I had many years ago. In my experiences, my thoughts of suicide have often been abrupt and surprising as well as exclusively a means by which to end suffering. This is not always the case, and each person who struggles with these suicidal tendencies will get to that place by any variety of experiences and emotions, and every person will have their own unique reasons for contemplating suicide.
It’s here that I’d want to encourage all of us to listen, truly listen, to those who express suicidal thoughts and desires. Often, we want to throw out quick platitudes and advice in an effort to encourage and help someone. We can try to point out all the different things in someone’s life that might be good, or we’ll show them all the people who care about them. These things in and of themselves are not negative things, and in many situations can greatly help people see good in what might otherwise seem a bleak and far too often difficult life. For those seeking to help someone facing suicidal tendencies and thoughts I’d encourage you to pause, listen, and try to empathize with how they might feel.
Recently, a very good friend of mine attempted suicide. In my many conversations with others about this, and for almost each person there were as many different feelings and opinions about suicide and my friend’s suicide in particular. It’s hard to know how to deal with the many emotions suicide can stir up within the vast number of people it has an impact on, but I would offer the same advice – listen, and do so without judgement. It can be difficult to understand a person’s motivations for suicide, and is often quite hurtful to those left in the aftermath, both in a successful attempt and otherwise.
I’ve often heard of people feeling as though suicide is a selfish option, which is a position I can certainly understand and empathize with. In some ways, the lack of consideration for others’ feelings when choosing to go through with a suicide attempt could be considered self-serving, but I would also push back against this. I believe it’s important to attempt to see how someone who has suicidal tendencies may not see this, or in fact think quite the opposite. In my case, as I’ve struggled I’ve often felt like a burden in my close relationships, whether it was with a romantic partner, close friendships, and most especially my parents. In the midst of knowing how deeply these people care about me, I can’t help but feel the guilt and shame of letting them down, or feeling as though I greedily demand too much of their affection and attention.
My friend expressed a similar feeling to this as we sat on her bed in the psychiatric ward of the hospital following her suicide attempt. Many people had come to visit her in the time since, and many of them were understandably at a loss of what to say or how to help. My friend confessed to me that she struggled as well with how to respond to people, and found it distinctly difficult to talk to people who were hoping to encourage her by pointing out the many positives of her life. She said, “People keep telling me how much they love me, and the many good people I have in my life who love me. I know that, I have no doubt they do. The problem is that I don’t love myself, and feel guilty for the pressure I put on these people.”
The people who love my friend were doing what they could think of to help her, trying to point out the love and support she had around her. This is a commendable, wonderful effort born out of the purest desire to love her, and I won’t say anything otherwise. Unfortunately, in this particular situation these weren’t the things my friend needed to hear, were not her particular obstacles. The same is true for me, and of others I’ve spoken to with suicidal struggles. This leads me to where I’d want to finish what has turned out to be a much longer piece of writing than I originally thought it would be – with two final thoughts and recommendations beyond listening.
Anyone can listen, and I would firmly advocate that everyone should listen. An important part of listening to someone’s struggles, though, is to know your own limitations. You can’t “fix” the hardships of those you love, nor should you try to. You can, however, point those who open up to you to seek out those who can provide them with tools to learn to change their thought patterns and help themselves. Direct those you love to seek help by those who are trained to do so – therapists, psychologists and a variety of other healthcare professionals. Build a space of listening without judging, and provide encouragement as well. Try to keep in mind though, that part of this encouragement should always be to seek out people who are equipped to assist more than you are.
To those who are struggling like my friend and I did, and still do, I’d encourage you to be honest. As I said earlier, shame has power and hiding yourself away won’t help you. You may have to have some very difficult conversations with people in your life about your feelings and desires, but I can assure you that these people who care about you would rather have these hard discussions with you than to lose you. I’ve made efforts to be more honest about how I am actually doing to the people I encounter in my life, and I’ve found immense freedom in doing so. What’s more, the mental understanding I have of people’s love for me has slowly trickled its way into my heart as people have continually shown me their love through their actions. Quite often, the action that stands out the most is simple – they listened. They heard my struggles and demonstrated that they were yet still willing to stand beside and with me by being willing to listen once more the next time.
As for me, I do still struggle with suicidal thoughts from time to time. There isn’t always a pattern to their frequency or severity, but they often feel less overwhelming than they once did. I attribute this to the effort on my part to surround myself with loving people willing to listen, but more importantly on the great effort taken by these people to continually love me in the ways the see me needing. Above all else, these incredible people have given me space to struggle and feel as I do, and their listening includes offering me validation and empathy for these feelings. This is the most valuable aid we can give those experiencing any type of suffering – a recognition of their reality and an attempt to understand and experience it with them.
Ask for help, and listen to those who are asking.