How do you build community and connection, especially when you feel alone?
With great difficulty. The only way I know how to handle anything is to push through it no matter how difficult it gets. When I start isolating, I sit and accept what’s going on. Even if I don’t want to connect with people, I do it anyway because ultimately that’s what does help.
It’s that sense of community that brings people through hard times. It’s not helpful to cut people off when your mind is telling you that’s the best option. Your brain hates you sometimes, so it’s good to let others know how you’re doing when your brain can get stuck.
How do you prefer to communicate with people when your suicidal thoughts get bad?
It’s hard for me to verbalize these thoughts. I tend to stick to written communication because it’s easier to get thoughts onto paper or screens than it is to say things sometimes.
I have a select few people that I depend on, but I am quite stingy with my trust in people.
People who have never been suicidal will likely never understand the depth of those feelings. The amount of sheer vulnerability it takes to reach out when you’re in that dark place is huge. People might refuse to reach out for help because of the negative responses of others. There are times when people who are trying to “help” will immediately call for a welfare check on someone thinking about suicide because they don’t know what else to do; those situations are rarely helpful. What would help is listening and simply taking the time to be with that person through their thoughts.
In my role as a facilitator for the Alternatives to Suicide group, I’ve heard people say: “I can never say this in my actual life, and it’s a miracle that a place like this exists.” I think Alternatives to Suicide is an excellent alternative to more clinical groups or treatments. We often discuss how it’s not about taking suicide off the table, but that it’s more about making suicide option #100. For those who are thinking about suicide, it’s a comforting thought; it’s not a scary thought. Keeping it an option on the table is important. The Alternatives to Suicide approach suggests, “Let’s give you steps in between that decision. You still have that ‘safety blanket,’ and you also have all these people supporting you and other resources before suicide has to be an option.”
Telling someone they cannot kill themselves is taking away their right to govern themselves.
What gets in the way of your wellness?
Usually myself. I’m the type of person who doesn’t act until pushed into a corner; I can’t get the motivation to do something until it builds up. I admit I am my own biggest obstacle in dealing with suicidal ideation. I can feel suicidal for a week, a month, etc., and not do anything about it. Once it gets to a certain point, I have to take action, and that’s what I do.
What does “taking action” look like for you?
It usually looks like me reaching out to the people I trust. One of the things I’ve learned, having lived with bipolar since I was six, is that I have to reach out to people when I get to that point. I don’t trust my own thoughts when I’m in a negative head space. I have very intrusive thoughts daily, so I talk to the people I trust. Then, I’ll ask them what to do because they have a clear picture of what I deal with. If I have to do something else than just talk, we come to an agreement about what’s going to benefit me that won’t infringe upon my privacy. It’s a lot of trusting other people with my well being; I can’t always trust myself to not make an impulsive decision.
How did you find what works for you?
Trial and error. What has not helped are those cliches like “think positive thoughts.” I was involved with therapy/counseling, but insurance has been a barrier. I’m already in my head so much, so I don’t need intensive DBT or CBT therapies. I’ve been able to flow into using coping strategies through basic talk therapy. I know I’m stubborn, so it’s good for me to get a third party opinion on issues sometimes.
What does support or connection look like to you?
Supportive people are non-judgmental, non-reactive, and accepting. It’s very hard to get a rise out of me, so reactionary people make it difficult for me to share suicidal thoughts with them. The best thing in that moment is to say what’s in my head to just get it out. It helps to “see” my thoughts in a sense. It also helps when people can give authentic advice and validate what I’m feeling instead of just suggesting hospitalization or yoga.
I refuse to speak to people about the suicidal aspect of my experience if they have not experienced it themselves. I know they still care, but they can be a hindrance when actually dealing with it. If you have not experienced these thoughts or if you’re neurotypical, you often rush to “fixing it.” I’ve dealt with this since I was twelve; there’s no “fixing” my suicidal thoughts. It’s more about acceptance. It’s about accepting that this is a part of me and understanding the difference between passive and active ideation in general. If people can’t differentiate between the two, I’m met with this consistent fear reaction or “I don’t know what to do.” It’s taxing because people will try to fix a problem that has no solution. Oftentimes, the best solution is to shut up and listen or just say “this sucks.” People who have been through it, get it. They’ve felt what it’s like to be preached at about how to fix something. We need to be told, “what you’re feeling matters and you’ll get through this.”
If it gets to the point where I do have to be hospitalized, I would much rather someone who has been suicidal come with me rather than someone who can’t understand what that’s like.
I’ve been to the hospital for serious suicidal ideation. It helped a bit, but I still had to do all the legwork through the process. The hospital I went to was helpful because I was able to be around people and had a chance to stabilize from my thoughts. I’m not a big fan of clinical settings; they don’t emphasize empathy and understanding. I believe that recovery is facilitated through connectivity, not medication and treatment. Those are nice tools, but they are useless if you don’t have support. When available, peer support is consistently a better option than clinical settings. A hospital stay is more of a stabilization, not a fix. You ultimately have to do the work yourself; no one can do it for you.
What advice do you have for people working in suicide prevention?
Be open-minded and actually listen to the people who have been there. Don’t push the panic button the moment someone says the word “suicide.” It’s the most detrimental thing you could do. That shuts people off and makes people not want to come to you again. I’ve cut ties with people who have called welfare checks on me instead of talking with me about the situation. If you can’t understand it, say you can’t understand it. What we need is empathy. If you can’t feel the pain someone else is in, still just be there for them.
Be there when they call the hospital or someone else. Simple gestures show you care. Humans are either the smartest or dumbest creatures. If we don’t understand something, we shut down. If you’ve never experienced suicidal thoughts, you have no measure of looking at it because it’s something you can’t imagine. It's like describing oxygen to something that doesn’t breathe oxygen. Honesty and empathy are key. If someone needs you there, be there. It comes down to honest and open communication, accepting that person in the place they are instead of looking for solutions. When I’m suicidal, I’m never wondering what to do. I’m not looking for someone to “fix me” or “fix my problems.” I don’t need to be told what to do. What I need is someone there to sit through it with me. My suicidal ideation is oftentimes temporary. Just knowing you have another person with you, someone to hold you accountable, gives you a sense of not being alone. You can’t deny that someone is there for you if they’re right there in front of you. It’s always comforting to have that person around you to not feel so alone and isolated. It’s hard for someone to be present to another person’s pain, but it’s through vulnerability that we grow. It’s through vulnerability that we find strength. If we don’t have the courage to be vulnerable, we don’t have courage at all.
How do we reframe the suicide prevention narrative?
Through publicity. Through bold people talking about their experiences. Death makes people uncomfortable, and, especially with suicide, people feel very awkward talking about it. This is more than just a mental health conversation because we know that about half of the people who die by suicide do not have mental health diagnoses. Breaking the stigma in the mental health community about this, too, is important.Suicidal thoughts are symptoms of not only mental health conditions but life events, transitions, and a combination of societal factors. I think these are important steps to reframe the narrative around suicide and mental health. If we don’t take control of the problematic narrative society is pushing, that will be the dominant narrative.
Even baby steps, like these conversations, this blog, our Alternatives to Suicide group, celebrities talking about their stories, can help shift this narrative.
The thing that facilitates change is people, and people don’t want to reach out because of fear of ostracization. There is power in groups, there is security in being surrounded by people who say “me too.” Building community and cultural understanding are the most important things we can do right now. Change doesn’t happen fast, but we need to continue to step up and face these problems collectively as a community.
I hope that, in sharing my experiences, it lessens the pain for someone else.