I was 19 the first time I attempted suicide. I don’t remember the circumstances or most of the particulars, but I do remember checking into the hospital. Feeling hopeless and helpless, I didn’t know what to do or who to trust. One thing I did know was that I didn’t really belong here – most of the people here were far more disturbed than I was. Maybe that was a bad decision, given the way things played out over the next ten years. It’s too late for second guessing. After seeing a psychologist we determined that I just needed to get out of a bad relationship and move on, so I did. And things got better.
But the thoughts didn’t go away. After a few years, the depression returned, and so did the suicidal thoughts. It was a while before I attempted suicide again, but for years the thoughts plagued me. At least once, I made a trip to the ER after trying to overdose on sleeping pills. I knew the words to say to keep me from being involuntarily detained (it was an accident, officer) so they let me go home.
I want to pause here to offer some insight into the thoughts of a suicidal mind, because many of you are going to accuse me of being selfish, even if it’s just in your head. When I thought about ending my life, it wasn’t about ending my pain. On the contrary. It was about removing myself as a burden to everyone else. You see, when I am in that frame of mind, I don’t think clearly. My primary, driving thought process centers on removing hurt from my loved ones. I become convinced that they would be better off without me. Truly convinced, not just as a simplistic diatribe. It’s hard to explain if you’ve never experienced it. I find myself in a place where with every fiber of my being I believe that my death will be a relief to my loved ones.
Now, I know that’s not true. In my lighter moments I am able to see the fallacy of my brain’s arguments against itself. It’s been a long time since I’ve had those thoughts. I did attempt suicide at least twice more over the pursuing ten or so years, and I thought about it more times than I can count. I won’t recount the details of those experiences to spare my own emotions, but it’s important for what I’m going to say next that you understand where I’m coming from.
Now that we’ve gotten the story out of the way, I’d like to share with you some things to look for in loved ones who may find themselves in my shoes and give you some things to say to them (and some things not to say.) And here’s an important note: you won’t always see the signs, so don’t take this list as exhaustive, because it’s not. In fact, because of the readily-available nature of information about the topic, many of us (myself included) learn to hide the signs.
What To Look For
- Becoming withdrawn. No, not everyone who becomes withdrawn will attempt or even think about suicide, but it’s an important early warning sign.
- Expressing hopelessness. Regardless of the circumstances, hopelessness over the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one, or just life in general can lead to suicidal thoughts and actions. Many of us feel as if we have no purpose, and I can’t think of anything that is more hopeless than that.
- Feeling as if they are a burden to others. We often feel like we are too much for other people to handle, and that is possibly the most dangerous feeling.
- Using or abusing alcohol or drugs. Again, not everyone who does this is suicidal, but often people who feel hopeless they turn to these things.
- Suicidal ideation. This is pretty straight-forward. If someone says they intend to kill themselves, don’t assume they are playing the attention card. (This could be verbally or non-verbally expressed. Suicide notes, giving away possessions, or other forms of communication signal intent.)
- Risk-taking. The riskier the venture, the more likely death becomes.
One thing you won’t find on my list is self-harming, because many people who self-harm have no intention of committing suicide. I know this from experience.
This list isn’t exhaustive, but it hits the high points. And again, remember that some of us are very good at hiding these things.
What To Say (or Not)
- Just be there. Don’t pawn them off on a “professional” or suggest they need to see someone. Maybe they do, but more importantly, they need you.
- Tell them they are important to you, because more than likely they don’t think they are. Make sure they know how you feel about them and that they aren’t burdensome to you. You may think they know this, but say it anyway.
- Don’t tell them they are selfish. That will send them farther down the rabbit-hole. They already feel like there is something wrong with them. Accusing them of being selfish will just reinforce those thoughts and make them more likely to go through with their intentions.
- When appropriate, point out their good qualities. Make sure these are legitimate and that you aren’t reaching, because they will know. Use current evidence, not things they did in the past.
- Give them hope, whatever that looks like for you. It may seem like it’s falling of deaf ears, but at some point it will sink in. Generic statements like “God loves you” or “you have a bright future ahead of you” aren’t particularly helpful, so be specific, and think short-term. Long-term hopefulness is blind and almost useless to someone who is hurting now. Sometimes, five minutes from now is an eternity.
- Repetition is important. Say the good things often, not just when they are visibly hurting. Conventional wisdom says that it takes 10 positive things to offset one negative thing, and people who are hurting cling to negative. It takes a whole lot of positive to offset what they are holding.
- Understand that they aren’t just saying things to say them. If they say “I’m worthless” they believe it. Don’t dismiss those statements. Show empathy instead of frustration when they say those things.
I know these things are hard, but if I hadn’t had people in my life who were willing to do the hard things, I might not be here. And I’m so very glad I am still here.
I also want to issue a disclaimer. I understand that with someone who is chronic, these things get old. Don’t beat yourself up if you falter. And don’t try to tackle these things alone, or you’ll get worn out. Being empathetic is important, but if you wear yourself out, you won’t have any more to give.
A second disclaimer: Writing this post wore me out emotionally. It triggered a massive anxiety attack, so forgive me if it’s incomplete and without links to cool animation and sources. Doing research, I stumbled across an animated video that hit me harder than I thought it would. I spent the better part of a day not being able to breathe.
And last but certainly not least: if you feel like you are or might be suicidal, please, please, please reach out to someone. You can call the National Suicide Hotline at tel:1-800-273-8255 or visit website at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.