Navigating suicidal thoughts
Updated: Nov 29, 2020
The end of May had me trying get my head above the water.
I feel it’s only in the past two weeks that I’ve gotten to dry ground.
It’s July now.
I didn’t realise how much time I really needed time to process and rebuild myself mentally and physically. This seems to be the theme of the year. January had me writing about how I needed to learn to rest in order to recover from a physical illness. It seems that since then I’ve been trying to recover from the impact of the social illnesses. I feel in the month of June I was just flat. Just completely, flat.
It’s hard to describe the feeling, but it was definitely a movement through a short phase of depression. I spent two weeks just being ‘on’, just being physically angry and being hyper-vigilant, and after that my body just went ‘off’ and I flatlined. My usual depression survival package is to reduce my life to the basics. I know that I don’t have energy to maintain my normal way of life so I reduce everything to the basics: eating, sleeping, washing, doing work, minimal social contact – and that is it. I don’t let myself worry about anything else because it’s hard enough to do those things. I strip my days to the bare minimum until I have the energy and the focus to start adding things to my life again.
This time was interesting as I still had physical energy to do things, but emotionally I didn’t. I think that's what made think I was doing okay. I hadn’t realised how sad I was until one of the days in the early morning I was talking to my friend and they said ‘have you had a therapy session recently?’. The question caught me off guard. I was like wait, what? Do I seem that sad?
They said yes.
It was weird. Firstly because I’d actually had a therapy session that same day but had clearly just bypassed everything. Secondly, because I’m not very used to people seeing me before I see myself. I’m generally quite self-aware but that conversation made me realise that actually, yeah. I wasn’t in a great place. During the course of that conversation I realised how much in that moment I did not want to be here and how much I needed to just cry.
Suicidal thoughts are new for relatively new for me. Once when I was around 12 years old I remember sitting down to pick up a piece of glass and considering cutting myself. In that moment I said no, and i never had any other thoughts about harming myself until 12 years later just after my 26th birthday. (I know people thought I was suicidal during my psychotic episode but that was more of a Abrahamic ‘I must sacrifice myself as the thing I love most to prove my love to God’, kinda suicidal ideation, not – ‘I want to die’, you know?).
Anyway, since then I've been learning a bit about how to navigate and move through those thoughts and I want to share with some of the things I know are helpful for me to do and that helped me to get through the month of June.
1) Identify triggers/Contextualise experience
The few times that I’ve entered into suicidal reasoning since last year has been either 1) when I’ve really been confronted with how trash the world is or 2) when I’ve been confronted with how trash the world is and how little I can do about it or 3) when I feel the pressure of all the things I could possibly do and I don’t feel strong enough to hold it.
This time it was all 3. BLM reminded me how trash the world is, how little I can do about it and it brought up insecurities that I’m too broken to do even anything that’s small and useful.
Recognising the context helps me to know that I’m not just being silly, or I’m not blowing things out of proportion or I’m not just being weak – I’m able to contextualise what’s happening in my mind via what’s going on in my life. Whatever is going on in your mind is usually to some extent related to what’s happened in your life and I’m able to respond accordingly or prepare for it. I’ve really learnt to pay attention to the relationship between the external and the inner world to manage my mental health, to notice what things in the external world have unlocked doors in my inner world, and then process what comes out of those doors accordingly. Ask yourself, what is happening? Why am I thinking like this? When did I start thinking like this?
2) Don’t judge yourself
There was a point during the few weeks where I kept feeling like I failed. ‘i've failed at being a mental health person’ or ‘I’ve failed at being a christian’ because I ‘shouldn’t be thinking about how much I hate being alive. But honestly, it’s not true. I hadn’t failed at anything and I was able to centre myself in that because of point 1 – I know exactly why I was feeling that way, so I know that I hadn’t failed at all, I was just being a human being responding to things in the world and processing the thoughts that come with that. That’s it. Experiencing suicidal thoughts in themselves is not necessarily a bad thing, we all have to grapple with our existence at some point. It’s okay to be human and to feel.
3) Maintain a balanced perspective
I always say that the ability to discern the bad is also the ability to discern the good. If you remember the first point, I talked about the triggers that I have for suicidal thoughts being that I either really remember how trash the world is or I feel too small or broken to make any significant contribution. Reminding myself of the other side of the equation really helps to ground me. Yes the world is trash, but it’s also beautiful. Yes there is mass injustice, but there are also acts of justice daily. Yes there is a lot of hate, but there is also a lot of love. Yes what needs to happen is so much more than I can do, but there is still a lot that I can do. That practise is what kept me. The balancing is not remove the trash from sight, because it’s important to see it, but it is to stop myself getting locked into one particular narrative/thought pattern. If I only look at the good I lose all the ways I can be helpful, if I only look at the bad I lose all the ways that I can be hopeful. I must see the world as it truly is, which is both good and bad. And the good stuff reminds me of what I’m staying alive for.
4) Know what you are living for
For myself, I know that as many suicidal thoughts as I have, I wouldn’t end my life because of God. It makes it somewhat easier for me to experience suicidal thoughts without being afraid of them, because I know I would never act on it. There are some people that experience suicidal ideation and don’t end their lives because of their family or friends. The best reason that I heard once was because their goldfish needed to be fed. For me, as much as I love the people around me, they’re not enough to keep me here because I don’t live for them. Fundamentally, I’m here because of God. If there were no people around me, it would just be me and God. If there was no career, no anything, it would just be me and God. I’m living to have a relationship with God, I’m here because God put me here for, he created me, created my life, for a reason, He gave me life itself and this breath and all of the amazing experiences I have and if I cut the film before it ends I’ll never know where all of this is leading to. As much as I don’t like what happens at times, God has given me this version of life and so God must think this version of life is worth living. His judgement is better than mine. I can’t cut the movie before it ends. When I’m in a very very low place, that hope in God and the life He has given me is the thing I stand on. You have to know what you are standing on. It has to be unshakeable, because life will shake you and convince you that there's nothing here for you. There is.
5) Know why you want to end your life/problem solve
This is linked to the point about contextualising and also the previous point about maintaining perspective. I will never forget the day that I talked one of my friends down from ending her life and the words I offered her in the midst of crisis was ‘I don’t think that you want to die, I think you want the part of you that wants to die, to die’. She said that was correct, and we processed that a little bit and I think that’s part of what really helped in that moment. Like I said, sometimes when I feel really overwhelmed and feel like I’m failing or I’m not going to succeed I might explore suicidal reasoning, but then I remind myself that there are other options. I might need to reduce my responsibilities. I might need to learn something, I might need to talk to someone, I might just need to give myself space to feel.
I say this because again, it’s so easy to get locked into a particular thought pattern and for your vision to narrow and it to seem like the only option to what you’re facing is to end your life, but if you know the problem you’re trying to solve by ending your life, you are also able to potentially explore alternative methods to solving that problem.
6) Talk to someone
It can be hard to do these things I’ve listed alone – balance perspective, find solutions, remember all the things you are living for. It’s hard. I have really benefited from having people around me that I can just express my thoughts to, process, without them trying to fix me, but with them just being present and listening and exploring and just offering small encouragements. One of the days I had gone out with some friends and a few days later one of my friends called me back to ask how I was doing because I had apparently told him that I don’t want to be here. It really shocked me because I didn’t remember saying that out loud. I know that I was present with those thoughts all day, but I didn’t remember saying it. I was surprised that I had felt safe enough to say it. They asked me about it and we talked about it briefly, and I was really grateful to have that space. It wasn’t even necessarily the talking that was helpful, just being able to say it out loud without having the other person freak out or make me feel weird.
As a brief side note, I hadn’t realised how difficult it is to hear someone you love say that until recently when a friend shared that they had been thinking about suicide too. I've spoken to countless parents/friends/family members who have been scared for their loved ones, but it's different when you feel it. My friend was just sharing what had been happening in their mind that day, there wasn't any intent there (it’s really important to know that someone having suicidal thoughts doesn’t mean they intend to end their lives, I hope I’ve shown here that sometimes it’s literally just something that needs to be processed. Knowing that distinction will also really help you when trying to get professional help for someone). I felt some anxiety rise in me when they said it and I felt this desire to go to their house and wrap them up and watch them all day, but I know that wouldn’t have been helpful. They were just expressing. But the anxiety of hearing someone you love say they thought about ending their life is real. But you have to remember that it’s your anxiety, coming from your own store of love for them. You have to be able to sit with your own feelings before you can make space for theirs. This is something I might write about at a later date).
I recognise it's quite a privileged position to have people around me that I can express things to and to also have access to therapy, if you don't have access to either of those you might want to think about using a free helpline when you feel that way, just to explore and process what’s happening for you. At least then you can talk to someone in real time if you feel able. There are a few of them online, Papyrus I know is a good one specifically for suicidal thoughts.
*I’m not ending this post with reflections because it’s quite a sensitive and potentially triggering topic. I invite everyone who reads just to notice what comes up for you while reading and explore that. Whether you’re someone who doesn’t have these thoughts, has never had them, or you’ve supported someone with them, or you experience them yourself, just be present with yourself. If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, I assume you’ve read this far because you actually don’t want to end your life. Please don’t. There is more waiting for you. There really is. Give God a chance to show you.