One night, when my children were babies, my then-husband was traveling out of state for work.
We had moved to a new city where I didn’t know anyone. This was before the time of cell phones and GPS. Navigating the city with two screaming babies in the car was a nightmare. I felt so alone. I barely left the house.
We were struggling to get on our feet after the move, I was unable to find work, I blamed myself for our financial stresses. Add this to the mountain of baggage I had carried into our relationship from my painful childhood.
I could barely breathe under the weight of my life.
When my husband called me that night, I was a complete disaster. I broke down in tears. I couldn’t make words. I just cried. He asked me over and over what was wrong. When I finally spoke, the only thing I could say was, “I just want to kill myself.”
I was overwhelmed and hopeless. I was depressed. I didn’t have a support system. I couldn’t see another way out. I felt isolated. I didn’t feel like I could tell anyone what was going on inside my mind. I was afraid people would think I was crazy. Usually, my feelings expressed as anxiety and anger. It was not possible for me to enjoy my life with this constant internal battle. The only way I could see to silence my demons for good was death.
Knowing that my children needed me here kept me from ending my life. My children gave me a reason to seek treatment when I needed it. They reminded me that my life had a purpose. Truly, they are why I am still here today. They gave me a reason to continue fighting when I didn’t think I could.
It’s been a decade or longer since I’ve had suicidal thoughts. Looking back on that time, I now see that I probably didn’t actually want to die. It was the stress and suffering of my life that I wanted to end. I didn’t want to keep living the way I was living, and I didn’t know how to make it better.
Sadly, suicide has been a recurring theme in my life. I’ve experienced it with people close to me. It’s heartbreaking in so many ways. It’s hard to see someone we love hurting so deeply that they no longer want to live. It’s hard to hear them say the words. It’s hard to know what we can do to help. It’s hard, and it’s scary, and it’s something no one wants to think about.
But we have to think about it. We have to talk about it. We have to be prepared, so we know how to help if someone we love is struggling with these thoughts.
I’ve heard people say things like, “Oh, it was just a cry for help,” following a suicide threat or attempt. In my experience, these “cries for help” have eventually resulted in the person ending their life. The suicides in my family were not random acts. There were multiple attempts, and much conversation about it before the actual death occurred.
We cannot minimize these cries for help, or judge them, or ignore them. We can’t assume that someone is being dramatic, manipulative, or looking for attention.
That’s what we want to believe when we hear our loved one say that they want to die. It’s an impossible thing for our ears to hear. I think that is why we explain it away with our judgements and assumptions. It’s much easier for us to think of someone as dramatic than depressed. It’s more acceptable in our culture for them to be seeking attention than suicidal.
These attitudes and stigmas keep people from getting the help they need. It’s a fear-based reaction for us to turn away from the uncomfortable things we prefer not to hear. That is what happened in my family. The cries for help went unheard, the person did end their life, and we were left in our regret, wishing we had known how to help.
Like anything else in life, running away from the scary stuff will not fix it. We have to hear what people say, and take it at face value. We have to extend empathy, compassion and courage instead of minimizing and judging.
We have to treat each of these “cries for help” as the event that might actually end that person’s life. If someone we love is crying out for help—we need to help them. It’s that simple.
We can’t run away from the ugly stuff. Instead, we need to be a safe place for people. We need to create space for them to be open and honest with us, without fear of judgement. We need to listen without minimizing or explaining away the things we don’t want to hear.
We need to make sure the people we love know that we can handle them at their worst.
We build this kind of trust through extending unconditional love and complete acceptance every day.
We must be brave and encourage our loved ones to seek professional help if they express suicidal thoughts. The level of treatment will depend upon the severity of that unique situation. Sometimes talk therapy works wonders for helping people find a way out of their depression. Sometimes, there is a chemical imbalance at work that will require medication to correct. Sometimes, the situation is so urgent, inpatient treatment is needed to keep the person safe during their treatment.
These are not easy decisions to make. They can be very emotional, and unfortunately, many people have negative attitudes toward seeking treatment for behavioral health. Because of the stigmas associated with mental illness in our culture, people may fear seeking treatment because they don’t want to be labeled as “crazy.”
If they’re resistant to treatment, we may have to insist that they do it. This means acting on their behalf, no matter how passionately they try to convince us not to. Truly, it may be the only way to prevent that person from succeeding in taking their life. If we had done so in my family, we might have one less empty chair at the table this Thanksgiving.
Suicide can be preventable. If we know someone we love is struggling, we can’t run away. We have to help. We have to make sure they know that we are there, we will listen, and we love them no matter how scary their thoughts are. We have to create space for them every day, so they know they are not alone with their demons. We have to take their cries for help seriously- and get them professional help when they need it.
I’m grateful every day that I didn’t give up when my kids were little.
If I could say anything to someone who is wrestling with suicidal thoughts, I would want them to know that whatever they are fighting with is temporary. I never imagined how amazing my life would be, and how completely my wounds would heal in time. If I had made a permanent decision based on my temporary hopelessness, I wouldn’t have been here to watch my children grow up. I would never have known my own fortitude. I would have missed out on the best years of my life. The happiness and peace I have today were worth the struggle.
I was worth the fight—and so are you.
Author: Renee Dubeau
Image: david pacey/Flickr
Editor: Emily Bartran