Staring into the Abyss

A warning from the start: this post is about suicide, and I’m writing from a personal perspective. It’s going to be uncomfortable. Please be advised as such before you continue reading.

On a date some time in the next week, it will be a year since the first of my suicide attempts in my latest spell of ill health. In that time, I have attempted to kill myself six times. It feels almost stupid to point out that they were all unsuccessful attempts, but I’m told it is reassuring as well as obvious. I am alive, and right now, that’s not a fact I intend on changing any time soon. I daresay I am even content with the situation.

I can say it unflinchingly. I tried to die. Perhaps that’s a peculiarity of people like me, or of people on the autistic spectrum, or maybe it’s really just me. But the fact that I can state a truth like that without the action hurting me places, I think, something of a responsibility on me, should I choose to accept it. These things need talking about if they are to be brought into the light and tackled, and tackled they must be. A brief Google search throws up some seriously ghastly numbers, summed up pretty well here (but also freely available in longer form if that’s your bag) if you’re after another cheery read. Arguably, of course, one suicide is one too many. The rates in the UK are much, much higher than that. It’s a big problem that’s only getting bigger, and one of the things people can do is be honest about it. At least, that’s what I can do, so I’m doing it.

A man I once knew but no longer speak to told me a story. In this story, a true one, the long and short of it is that a woman’s husband killed himself not long into their marriage. As it’s not my story, I will leave it there, except to say that in the telling of said story, the implication was that there was no hint at all that it was even possible until it was proven so. As far as anyone else was concerned, it ‘just happened’. The idea that someone could be in so much pain that their perceived only and/or best option was to kill themselves, yet without anyone around them, even their own wife, having any hint of what was happening shook me deeply, and still does. I had no idea, perhaps naïvely, that it was even possible.

Perhaps the even scarier bit, though, was the fact that this episode directly affected the person telling me’s life to the point where he couldn’t talk to anyone close to him about his own mental struggles (which were pretty severe, frankly). Having since met the woman in question, and knowing that she was in a position in the story-teller’s life that she might have been expected to be of support under such circumstances, this is scary. It’s a literal example of perpetuating an attitude of silent stoicism to the point of damage all round, and as a result, it took a long time for this guy to even realise how much his mental health was affecting him, let alone get help (though thankfully, he eventually did). I don’t know if he now has the support from those around him, or has even told them, but I can but hope that the cycle has been broken at least for that group of people.

For me, I know that, certainly running up to the most recent events in my mental health history, very few people would be able to say they had no indications whatsoever if I had been successful. It would have been no less shocking or upsetting for that, but I have at least been open enough with my mental health that I don’t think it would have been a total surprise. The main reason behind each time I tried was that I had had enough. I’m not sure whether or not I ever really wanted to die. It just felt like the better option compared to living. In Matt Haig’s book Reasons to Stay Alive, he points out in the opening chapters that being suicidal doesn’t mean you’re not afraid of dying, or that looking into the abyss isn’t still terrifying, and I can honestly vouch for the fact that it is. It’s probably that that saved me, in fact. I was never numb enough to simply go without looking where I was headed, and in most cases in the last year, it was that hesitation that provided the vital point that changed the course of events. I suppose I’m lucky to have a brain that needs to rationalise everything into oblivion before I can do it, but I’m not stupid enough to suggest that that’s enough for everyone.

My therapist and I have, naturally, talked about all this. I’m building, with her help, a list of coping mechanisms for the various kinds of “moments” my brain decides to lob at me à la chimp with faeces. Things like breathing exercises, meditation, having a cup of tea, or taking a nap. I threw out suicide as an non-option, thinking it was what she wanted to hear and what I needed to say at that moment. To my surprise, she stuck it up on the whiteboard. “You have a problem you want solving in each of these situations. In those moments, suicide looks like an option, a solution, and if you’ve encountered it as a viable option for yourself, pretending otherwise won’t work. Our goal here is to find other ways through that will solve the problem before you get to the bottom of the list.” Without her, and without a whole load of help over the last couple of months, I wouldn’t be able to construct that list. It’s getting quite big, now, and I haven’t even considered the bottom despite my brain still having some faeces-throwing moments.

The fact that the help came after my last attempt, which I now understand was intended to either prove how ill I was or put myself beyond needing to prove it, so was, in some senses, successful, is a worrying thing. This was attempt number six in 10 months, the fourth within 5, and certainly after the last few, each time I was put in front of a mental health professional, I tried to tell them how bad things were. Even when I turned up in my pyjamas at a psychiatric hospital, telling them how much I wanted to die, they sent me home to recover. A month later, I tried again, incidentally attending the appointment the next day in my pyjamas again, accompanied by my Mum, trying to tell them how bad it was, barely getting the words out, curled up in a chair almost unable to speak. A month later, I tried again (though not in my pyjamas), and this time they believed me. That was my turning point. The real one, rather than one that deflected what I had long considered the inevitable, but the one that actually meant things turned around. I’ve had my longest stable period in ages, where I’ve managed to get out of the house and do things, start seeing people again, making plans and working out how to make them happen.

I did consider suicide to be my inevitable end, and it would have been without my getting help and support. Breaking the silence was only one part of it, and certainly wasn’t the end of the matter (I first voiced my suicidal thoughts nearly 10 years ago), but it was a start, and you can’t get anywhere at all if you don’t start. Keeping schtum about it buries the problem to the point where people like the guy I was talking about earlier can’t talk about any part of their mental health because it’s all been swept under the carpet together. Refusing to acknowledge it for what it is, i.e. a proposed solution to a problem, doesn’t stop it happening. Recognising that there is a problem you hope to solve by killing yourself is a huge part of the equation, because if you know there’s a problem at all, you can look at that and work out other solutions, with help. I will always have the option to kill myself, but what I also now have is the equipment to not do it, the other options that mean there’s more between me and that final option.

It’s working. I’m dragging myself/being dragged (I honestly couldn’t tell you which, sometimes) out of the mire, away from the Edge, and back into something resembling real life. When I wanted to die, it was because life had nothing to offer except the continuing struggle to get people to believe that I was really as ill as I felt. They told me I had six months to wait for therapy, and when I replied that I knew I wouldn’t make it through six months, they told me there was nothing they could do. I have since gone private for my therapy, which wasn’t an easy or a light decision, but was the necessary one bearing in mind where I was at the time, and with my parents’ support, it’s proving to be every bit as beneficial as we had hoped.

My point? Honesty doesn’t solve everything, but it does bring things out into the open that don’t serve anyone by being hidden. Accepting suicide as an option means it can be dealt with, rather than being a Great Unmentionable that we would rather ignore. We can’t ignore it until it stops being an issue, and it won’t stop being an issue if we ignore it. So I’m putting my bit out there, being honest, putting it straight, holding my hands up and saying “this was and remains a Thing. It’s not just my Thing, but it’s real”.  The hope is that by saying it’s real, it will encourage other people to see that it’s real, whether they need it to be for them personally or not, whether they knew before or not.

The other point of all this is that I am now alive. It’s been hard for some people around me not to treat me like a dead woman walking, and while I know it’s a lot to take in for those who love me that I was nearly not here, it’s also hard for me when they treat me as if I was successful. We’re getting out of that rut, and I hope that means that those I love are getting their heads around it rather than just shutting up. If we treat those who admit to having stood on the Edge as if they had actually jumped, rather than as people who didn’t jump and are therefore every bit as alive as they were before and need the help to walk themselves back, we do them a disservice. We suggest that they are permanently broken for having considered that option. The process of walking back from the Edge isn’t just a matter of backtracking. Once you’ve Looked Down, it changes you, perhaps irrevocably. But it doesn’t mean you’re not alive. Those of us who made it back from the Edge are still alive. Broken, in need of mending, in need of help, maybe (in fact, almost definitely). But alive.

If you need to talk to someone, there are loads of options, of which some of the professional ones are nicely summarised here. I can thoroughly recommend The Samaritans from experience, they are really excellent. Don’t suffer in silence, and don’t think you can’t walk back from the Edge if you’re there now or have been before.

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4 thoughts on “Staring into the Abyss

  1. I admire your honesty and guts in laying this out in public. Suicide, and the attendant problems which lead up to it, is something which should be, but seldom is, discussed in detail, by health professionals as part of a consultation. I am fortunate in having a GP who asks the right questions, and listens to the answers, and responds appropriately. I am lucky in this respect, others are not, and I grieve for them.
    Onward and upwards.

    • Thanks, Keith :) Among mental health professionals, it’s definitely something they ask about a lot when you see them, but often not until you’ve actually identified ‘the problem’. Maybe asking about it sooner would fix part of the conversation – for me, ‘last resort’ often also meant ‘last talked about’ too, which I figure is counterproductive…

  2. Brilliant. Well done for getting such a beautifully thoughtful account of it out there. It will, at the very least, help other people who feel that they’re in hopeless darkness to see that there are ways to walk back from the edge.

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