I’ve never been especially close to my extended family – partly because I’ve always felt like the black sheep. When we went to visit on the holidays, everyone wanted to go shopping on Black Friday, spend money, eat out, give each other expensive gifts. All I wanted was to talk about life, the universe, and everything at length for hours with someone who would engage with me. I have one couple in my family (extended cousins- S and J) who I always loved talking to. J even gave me a hardback copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead to keep. I cherished that book – mostly because it was from him. I admired him.
I went to visit them about a year ago in Arizona and while there with my van, he took a video of the conversion to send to another cousin of mine – T – because T was converting a school bus and looking forward to trips in it. I started writing to T for the first time in my life. We shared videos of our vehicle conversions, discussed trips we could take together, and he told me about his young son Z and his recent divorce. He loved his son like the dickens. He seemed optimistic for the future.
It was amazing to me – to finally get excited about someone in my family who had similar values as me, someone I could relate to. Not to mention that we were the only two people in my extended family who had ever been divorced. It was a tough road no one else could relate to. His emails slowed and I thought he’d just become busy. It was fine. I was looking forward to meeting up with him at some point in the future and meeting him and Z at Route 66.
And then my dad called me a few weeks later. “T was shot.” He said. I didn’t understand. “What do you mean, he was shot? With a gun? Who shot him? Is he okay?” “With a gun. He’s in the hospital. He probably won’t make it.” I was stunned. I paused for a while. I was just confused, wanting answers. “Who the hell shot him? And why?” I heard some silence at the other end. I heard my dad take in a breath and said “…Well…T shot himself actually.”
Apparently people can’t just use that word.
He wanted to die. He meant to die. He couldn’t take life anymore.
I got off the phone quickly and started bawling. I couldn’t stop for at least ten minutes and thought about him constantly for weeks afterwards. All the feelings were going through my brain – compassion for him, sadness for him, sadness and compassion for his son and the rest of his family, understanding…and jealousy. He went through with something I’ve thought about countless times. I was in some ways jealous that he finally got some peace. And sad and angry at myself because I wish I had done so much more for him – I wish I could have shown him that no matter how hopeless everything feels, we are in control of our lives and we can make it better. I know deep down I could have shown him that had I known how dark his world was, had he shared it with me. Because I know that world way too well. I’m still in it occasionally. But it’s like being in a prison cell with a picture of the mountains hung up – you have to believe the thing you can’t see still exists somewhere, that darkness is where you are now and that light will come again even if depression tries to convince you this is the path forevermore.
I’ve insinuated my past depression here before, but I may not have disclosed how it still impedes on my life. I still have bouts of suicidal ideation. But I have tools now – tools to remind me that this is temporary, that I need to reach out for support even when I don’t want to, that I need to take care of myself, that I need to keep breathing and living one more hour and one more day because it will get better. Even though it feels like it never fucking will. Even though I know that even when it gets better, I will someday soon go back to this feeling and this place and have to talk myself out of it again.
I’m writing this here because I’ve been on both sides of this – talking to someone who is suicidal and being suicidal myself. I’m also writing this because I want people who read this to know how to help someone who is suicidal because if you’ve never been there yourself, you likely are dealing with your own emotional shit regarding this person committing suicide in addition to feeling totally helpless to their actions.
I can tell you from experience that these are things that DO NOT help someone who is suicidal:
Telling them about all the things they have to live for.
Believe it or not, most people who are depressed and suicidal can list off exactly what things/people/etc they could live for. They would love to want to live for them! And yet, the sadness is overwhelming, painful, and typically ongoing. They don’t see a way out of the cycle except to end it entirely. This isn’t about those things that hold them to staying on this earth. They want to leave because it’s just too painful for *them* to be here any further. And most likely, this is not an impulsive decision as much as it is a well thought out and long planned out rationale.
Telling them suicide is a selfish act.
Does suicide leave people who are here on this earth hurting? Yes. Is suicide acted on for the person experiencing the pain? Yes. However, when the person who is experiencing suicidal thoughts is thinking about suicide, they envision how much of a negative force they are on the people around them. They think it will be of benefit to those around them that they are not here any longer to burden others with their pain, their feelings, etc. They see how their pain has hurt others and see leaving the earth as a kind act – a martyr act almost. Thus, hearing that what they want to do is “selfish” is not only not helpful but also makes no sense to someone in the throes of suicidal thoughts.
Sharing your negative feelings about them committing suicide.
Similar to the above, focusing on why you feel negatively about them committing suicide will just cause the person who is suicidal to put up roadblocks mentally. They aren’t really thinking about *you* and *your feelings* even though they have called you. What they want and need to hear is why you want them in this world, not why you don’t want them missing from the world. Subtle delineation, but very important.
Not listening to, dismissing, or trying to change their feelings.
Oftentimes, people are suicidal in part because they have felt misunderstood and not truly heard by anyone in their life. If you aren’t listening, dismissing, or trying to change their feelings about their pain, this could go down an even worse path of reconfirming to them that no one “gets it” and they are really honestly truly alone. They have called you. Clearly, you are important to them. Really be there. Really hear them. Even if it makes no sense to you. Can’t you at least see they are hurting in front of you? Haven’t you also been hurting in your life? Relate to that.
Here are things that may help:
Telling them you can’t understand where they are at, but you hear their pain and hurt and would like to support them in these feelings.
Telling someone you don’t understand where they are at is *not* a problem. Because honestly…you probably don’t! If you admit you don’t understand, it actually gives you more credibility and will likely lead to the person feeling safe in sharing more with you.
Sharing how much you care about them.
It’s hard to keep telling yourself the negative self talk of “No one loves me and I am alone in this world” when someone on the phone or in front of you is saying “I fucking love you. A lot. And I want you here. Not for me, but because you are a lovely human being who adds to this world in countless ways – in my life and in others’ I know.” Don’t say anything you don’t mean, of course, but most likely if this person is reaching out to you, you have a bond – Use it. Promote it. Spill your guts. Show them you care too.
Listening to their pain. Trying to understand where they are coming from.
Think of a time when you felt all was lost. Even if you weren’t suicidal. Maybe it was when you broke up with a partner or maybe you got news of someone close to you dying or you got bad news that you thought would be the end of something huge (emotional, financial, otherwise). Can you put yourself there? Now triple that pain in your mind. Imagine feeling that person’s pain. Imagine being in a position where the world just seemed totally unbearable to live in and the only viable option seemed to be ending it. Even if you don’t fully “get it,” can you imagine it at all? Listen to their pain, put yourself in their shoes. Try to see.
Asking them if they can envision anything they could be excited about in their future or even in their present.
Most of the time, someone who is suicidal will be thinking about the negative things in their past or the negative things that could or will be happening in their future. Remind them they have a body now and in their very momentary present, there are still promising things ahead. Even if that is just looking across the room and describing the beauty of the light through the window. Maybe it is a friend lunch they were planning on having tomorrow. Or something positive that happened in the past that could easily be scheduled or planned for the future. Suicidal thoughts usually come and go. If you can convince them to stay around even one day longer, you may have saved their life.
If and when you feel that you are too overwhelmed to continue talking, let them know you are not equipped (or do not feel equipped) to handle this situation and encourage conferencing in a suicide hotline or therapist.
Many people might say encouraging calling up a suicide hotline should be procedure #1, but from a personal perspective, if I was suicidal and someone told me that immediately, I would probably start going down the wrong way quickly. This is because the person called you because they wanted to speak with *you,* not a stranger, not someone trained in the psych field (It’s also likely that they’ve already reached out to or have been talking to them for a while anyway.). Give them you. Once it makes sense and you feel the person is receptive to it, conferencing in (so you don’t disappear) a person who can help further is definitely wise.
Continue showing your presence and support even after they’re off the metaphorical cliff.
Even if you help this person off this cliff this time does not mean their feelings on the subject are gone. Don’t pretend they are. Ask if you can check up on them more frequently over the next days and when you see them, ask how they are feeling about suicide these days and how or if you can help.
This may sound crazy, but connecting someone who is suicidal with other people who *have been* suicidal and survived may be helpful as well. I say this because it may help with not feeling so alone, feeling understood, and also beneficial in terms of pooling resources and tools and reasons to keep going. Chances are though, you don’t know many people who are openly suicidal. So I think the least I can do is write them a letter myself from someone who has been there countless times and is still here and glad about it (most days)- Me. Feel free to share:
“Dear New Friend,
You’ve probably either found this blog through a search or had this blog post shared with you by someone who cares about you and you are considering suicide. I’ve been there (and continue to be there regularly). I have been dealing with depression since I was in high school and there have been ups and downs since then, but currently at 30 years old, things are mostly up. I’ve never attempted suicide, but written suicide notes, thought about it as a feasible option countless times, and definitely had desires to act on it strongly at least a few times in my life.
I want to tell you that what you’re feeling right now is valid. In this moment, you might feel like there is a hole that you are stuck in and you can’t possibly get out. You may feel like life is meaningless, that you are a speck in the world and can do nothing right and make no difference in anyone’s life (especially your own). I know everyone is probably telling you stuff like “Oh, your life does have meaning. For your kids, for your wife/husband, etc etc.” Or maybe: “You create the meaning.” Or whatever. And while all of that may or may not be true, it doesn’t really help you where you are right now, does it?
I’m here to tell you that it’s okay to feel like life has no meaning – maybe you’re right, maybe you’re not. And maybe this hole can’t be gotten out of. Either way, if we go by this assumption, there are two ways to look at it. One is the doom and gloom your brain has given you : It’s saying that meaning is the only reason for living and if there is none of it, why bother continuing? But there is a different perspective. If there is no meaning, this life doesn’t matter. Why bother wasting the little life you have killing yourself now when you can spend the rest of your days living it up and if you die doing it….well, it’s still more life than you would have had if you kill yourself today…right? You are in a uniquely qualified position right now to (in your mind) have nothing left to lose. I have a secret to tell you: It can only go up from here!
I know it’s ridiculously morose, but really seriously think about this. Imagine you have cancer right now and were just told you have 6 months to live. What do people do with that? Generally, they go try to accomplish a bunch of things on their bucket list. Are you imagining? What would you do with that 6 months? Make a list. Even if everything on the list is just “Eat ice cream for every fucking meal.” Or “Quit my job, use all my money, and travel around the world with it.” If there is *anything* on this list…well, why not do it? What is stopping you from it if you’re willing to die right this very minute?
I think about the first time I wanted to commit suicide (in a more than fantasy kind of way). I realize how much has happened in my life since then that I never would have been alive to experience. So many good things! Yes, I mean there were of course really shitty things too. But those good things (and even the pain of the bad ones that pushed me forward) were invaluable. I would never want to give those up. I’m not even just talking about big huge amazing things like traveling to amazing places or falling in love. I’m talking about things as small as the first minute I met a lovely soul and feeling I was not alone in this world over and over again, going on a hike by myself and realizing I hadn’t talked to “me” in a long long time, learning and failing and learning some more, living in a van, having some long giggle fests with a close friend, eating some amazing homemade ice cream, having parties, dancing…
If you’re willing to give it all up, why not go and do the things you’ve always wanted to do? It’s not too late. Every moment from here on out is one more than you would have had anyway. Guess what? You probably even have more than 6 months to live. And if you go do those things on your list, it might just change you so much that you know no matter how much your brain tells you to get out of this world, it’s worth staying here until you’re forced out. But hey, even if you just go do those things and still think it’s worth ending your life, at least you spent those days between now and then living the way you wanted to.
Less is more in the here and now. You can’t take anything with you when you leave this earth. And you’re not guaranteed an afterlife. Assume this is all you have. Might as well use it. And hey, if you don’t believe me, is it really going to do any more damage to just try for 30 or 60 or 90 days to live a life you wouldn’t have been alive for anyway? The only black and white decision is not being here to make any more decisions. Live in the gray for a little bit. I promise the option of leaving this earth will always be there if that’s really what you want.
…But I don’t believe it’s what you want.