It’s a word that for most of my life I felt uncomfortable with.
For longer than I can remember I have battled with anxiety and depression, along with other trauma related mental health problems. As a child I couldn’t have named it as such, but looking back I was certainly depressed for the majority of my childhood (and beyond) and anxiety informed much of how I lived. There were many moments that I certainly would have given anything for an ‘out’. Yet at this young age there were no words to explain it fully and, as I was hiding many other aspects of a traumatic childhood, these feelings were mostly covered up too.
As I got older there were more and more signs that I was depressed. Bit by bit I began to acknowledge it. However, it was still not something I talked about much and I did everything I could to hide it.
I had been brought up in an environment (family, religion, school, community, society) that told me that suicide was a deviant behaviour. I believed it, for myself at least. I didn’t judge people who ended their own lives, I actually felt compassion for what they were going through, but for myself, if I got even close to feeling like I didn’t want to be alive anymore I would judge myself, believing I was selfish, wrong, bad or ungrateful.
Looking back I can begin to piece together why I judged myself so harshly. A close family member, who had abused me throughout my childhood into my teens, threatened and attempted suicide repeatedly. Aside from the abuse, he also engaged in a range of destructive behaviours that caused trauma and pain for my whole family. As a child it was difficult to separate his other behaviours from his mental health problems that, while linked, were actually different issues and needed to be viewed as such.
This is just one piece of the puzzle that led to my inability to express my mental health problems and my uncomfortableness with the topic of suicide. Whenever I was depressed I would constantly feel that I was as ‘bad’ as him. His abusive behaviour would become tangled and I would put myself in the ‘deviant’ category.
These are my personal issues, yet many people will have experiences of their own or a message from society (or the lack of one) that leads them to feeling uncomfortable with discussing suicide.
In the last few years I have begun to acknowledge how much pressure I put on myself to hide my own problems. My empathy for others going through these issues was apparent. I was open to listening and acted as a confidant to many friends. Later, I supported people through my job role in this area. But I was still judging myself based on a complicated, confusing upbringing and a lack of understanding and stigma in society as a whole.
I can’t say I’ve untangled it all completely even now or that I don’t judge myself harshly at times still. Even today it is something I struggle to talk about with many people. It’s not a comfortable topic, for me or for many people around me.
For a long time if someone asked me if I ever felt suicidal, my response would have been an outright, “No. I’d never do that.” In terms of acting upon my feelings, it is true, I would like to hope that these feelings are something I won’t act upon. But the honest answer would be “Yes, I have often felt suicidal.”
I have never attempted suicide, but I often feel suicidal. Even today I am experiencing anxiety, depression and PTSD at a severe level and the need for it all, the world, life to stop is consuming. Something I have come to learn is that feeling suicidal and acting on these feelings don’t always go hand in hand, but attempting suicide is an act which comes from feeling suicidal. Sometimes they need the same interventions, sometimes one does not lead to the other, but both the act and the feeling need to be treated with compassion, dignity and respect. In the first instance we need to be given the opportunity and space to speak and be heard.
Some, if I tell them I feel suicidal, will jump to the assumption that I am about to end my life and panic. Others become so uncomfortable and try to change the subject or deflect the conversation, not even trying to understand if it is something I have made a plan to act upon or if I am asking for help. Then there are some who it is so triggering for, for reasons of their own, that they will react in a harsh, judgemental way that reinforces all of the self-loathing I have built up in myself for feeling this way and, worse, for expressing it (one person recently stormed out of a room when I briefly mentioned my past suicidal feelings).
However, there are many, many people who do want to listen. I have come across a range of people who will try to hear and attempt to understand the best they can. They care. They want to help. They want to understand (or maybe do have an understanding based on their own experiences). And even if there is nothing they can do to change the feeling, their listening, their empathy, their stepping outside of their comfort zone can be a momentary flicker of light in the darkest of dark times.
Many people also have a need to fix me. I understand that. Of course nobody wants a loved one to feel this way. As such, I could tell you now about all the techniques and support I use to work through these moments, (and there are a range of useful resources and support tools out there if you feel you need support or want to support someone through this – a quick internet search brings up websites, charities, organisations and phone numbers in your area), but for someone who is in the thick of it, barely managing to see past the next moment, these handy tips, this fixing, can feel patronising and diminishing or is just too much to handle there and then.
Yes, there is a range of support that can help a person and sometimes there will be appropriate moments to have open, honest, helpful conversations about this. And of course if a person is attempting suicide or expresses a plan then please help them to get immediate support.
However, what helps me the most, if I do step so far out of my comfort zone to talk about my suicidal feelings (it’s rare), is listening. Just listening.
I understand that a conversation about suicide isn’t comfortable for the listener. It’s difficult, it’s painful, it’s hard, it’s uncomfortable. But you can be sure that for the person feeling suicidal, it is ten thousand times more uncomfortable talking about it.
The times I have reached out to someone, what helped me the most is when I received their attention, when they held space for me and were just there, listening. No judgement. No insensitive remarks. No belittling. Just listening and hearing.
Maybe if we can all begin to hold space for someone feeling suicidal, who desperately needs to be heard, we can make the space bigger and bigger for more and more people, then maybe the topic won’t be such a taboo or so uncomfortable.
Because believe me, there are so many people out there feeling this way. I can’t tell you the amount of times I have heard people talk about their mental health problems or suicide (in my personal and professional life) and each time I do I am given a little more strength to talk about my own experiences. Trust me, it is a privilege to hold this information about a person because there are often so few we feel we can tell. If you’ve been chosen to hear it then please try to hold that space, these feelings as delicately and openly as you can.
This topic is complicated. It often comes hand in hand with a whole host of other issues and can be lost or tangled up in the web of confusion around them. But if we can begin an open dialogue with the ones we love, if we can put aside our uncomfortableness and allow people to speak honestly, then maybe more people will feel they can speak out when they are planning to end their life or feeling like there is no hope. Maybe we can help give someone a little hope or even help to save a life.I know that in my darkest moments, when taking another breath feels unbearable, it is in no small part because of the people around me who held this space, who listened, who have helped me to see that I am worth showing up for, that I am still here today.
Let’s try to get comfortable with the word. Let’s talk about it. And listen. Together.