World Suicide Prevention Day Issue
Alone in the Darkness
My name is Bethany, but throughout my life I’ve worn a number of labels. Right now, I am a mother, a wife, a teacher, a writer, a life coach and therapist, and a sailor. I am also the recipient of a Master’s degree, a saxophone player, and a not-so-natural redhead.
I have other labels as well—labels that I haven’t always been eager to publish for the world to see. I am a person who has experienced anxiety and depression. I am a victim of emotional abuse. I am a 36-year-old woman with self-harm scars. I am a person who has attempted suicide.
For years I have found these labels impossible to reconcile. I fell into an emotionally abusive friendship in high school, after being bullied and underdogged relentlessly in junior high. This co-dependent roller coaster left me with zero self-esteem, fearing that I could not live without this friend who was cruel to me.
As I fell deeper into depression and self-hatred, I began to self-harm. I cut my arms, starved myself, and spent 90% of my thoughts calling myself every horrible name in the book. I tried to leave this friend when I was 15, and I ended up attempting suicide when I was unable to do so. She had too strong of a hold on me, and I was not able to make the break to freedom. I survived my attempt to slit my wrists, and I remained in the friendship for 2 more years.
It was after I met my now-husband that I was finally able to leave the friendship behind. During this time, I was diagnosed with depression and given a medication that did not work for me. In therapy, all I learned was that there was something horribly wrong with me, and that I needed to change and hide it in order to have any kind of a future.
For the next 17 years, I threw all of my energy into creating a persona that was as far from this label as possible. I distanced myself from close relationships, because I knew I could become “clingy.” I redefined myself as perpetually happy, so that nobody could accuse me of having the label “depression.” While I had suicidal and self-hating thoughts, I made sure that my self-harming was all internal.
My life looked great on the surface, but just below, I wasn’t realizing that my limiting beliefs about myself were holding me back. I was unable to establish boundaries at my job, I doubted my confidence, and I was constantly living in fear of people seeing the person I thought I really was.
All of these fears boiled below the surface, until they finally came to head in 2012. I had begun both sailing and blogging, I made some strong, positive friendships in both places. I was taken off guard by the positive comments that these new friends made to me, and I begun to question the assumptions that I had not been aware that I had held. Perhaps I was not stupid, awkward, and clingy. I began to consider that I was something more than I had considered myself to be.
My thoughts were forced into action when my work situation took a turn for the worse. Years of not setting limits and not advocating for myself had led to some destructive patterns. Ultimately, I would choose to leave my job and house behind, moving my family 1300 miles to Houston, where we now live on a sailboat.
Unfortunately, this move was not the neat-and-tidy happy ending that I had hoped it would be. I saw familiar patterns repeating themselves in the new setting, and I reverted to many of my old habits—they were all I knew. My self-destructive thoughts returned, and I even began self-harming again for a brief period of time. For 2 ½ years I worked with an online therapist, who helped me to learn new tools so that I could finally understand my current and past behavior and stop being afraid of my own mind.
This process of redefining was powerful. I was able to see that all of the labels I had been given—and those I had given myself—held no true meaning about who I really was. Seeing myself in this new light allowed me to establish better boundaries and develop better communication skills. The changes in my life were so powerful, that I was moved with the desire to help others through the same process.
Why is There a Stigma to Mental Illness?
There was a time in my life when I may have felt vulnerable sharing the story of my struggles. I learned early on that there is a stigma to mental illness—and especially suicidal ideation and self-harm. In fact, my doctor had told me, when I was a teenager, that the fact that I had been on medication could keep me from getting a job.
This stigma comes from misunderstanding. We make so many assumptions about mental health issues, because we do not know what they are. We do not know why someone is self-harming or talking about suicide, so we assume that they are being selfish or doing it for attention. We can see no external reason for someone to be depressed, so we assume that they are making it up.
There has been a backlash to these assumptions, but it has also been inaccurate. Facebook and other social media outlets are inundated with posts stating that mental illness is a physical disease, “just like diabetes.” This has led many people to assume that medication is the only answer, and that people who are suffering will feel better if they just take the right pills. While this movement is well-intended, it does not address the true complexity of mental health issues.
A third assumption that is made about mental illness is that it is permanent. I remember being told so many times that I would always be “that way,” meaning that I would always be depressed, suicidal, and self-harming. This led me to create the persona in the opposite direction, but it also led me to believe that I could not truly heal.
What Really Causes Suicidal Thoughts?
Suicidal thoughts occur when the mind is overwhelmed. It is important to understand that our minds have evolved to help us survive. For this reason, it is not possible for our subconscious mind to wish for us to die—or even to be harmed.
Our minds are constantly working to solve problems. Yet our minds also make assumptions, which can make it difficult to see the problems accurately. In my case, I had assumed that I was not lovable, or even likable. In my mind, I was never good enough. And because I had this assumption, I could not comprehend that anyone else would ever like me or think I was good enough. The result was that I never established boundaries, and I always blamed myself if I encountered problems in relationships.
My assumptions made true problem-solving impossible, because I couldn’t even see the true problems! My “solutions” were reactions to what I thought was going on, and they often only made the problems worse.
As the mind tries to solve the problems it perceives, and yet it sees its solutions not working, the result may be anxiety of panic. The mind will eventually tire of this cycle and the pile-up of unsolvable problems, leading to depression.
Suicidal thoughts happen when the mind sees no way out. It is desperate to end its suffering, and the only possible way to do this—that the mind can see—is to end its existence. Suicidal thoughts are a last-ditch effort of the mind—what it perceives to be the lesser of two evils, the only way out of an impossible situation.
The good news about this is that the mind will happily try any course of action that will solve the problem without resorting to suicide. The problem is that the person has to believe that there is another way out, and that this other way out might not be easy. In my case, it was a period of relentless questioning and redefining of assumptions, so that I could clearly see the problems I was trying to solve—and in many cases I clearly saw that there were no problems.
What to Do If You Experience Suicidal Thoughts
There are few experiences as terrifying as having thoughts of suicide. It can be easy to panic, or to allow these thoughts and the guilt behind them to become your main focus. That, however, will only worsen the spiral. These are some steps that can be helpful if you are thinking of suicide:
- Realize that your mind is not trying to harm you. Your mind is frightened and overwhelmed, not violent and scary. Begin to see that you are having these thoughts, because your mind sees no other way out.
- Calm your body. When you are panicked or attacking yourself, your body and mind go into a state of fight-or-flight. This causes a barrage of stress hormones to be released and makes it difficult to think clearly. So always focus on relaxation first and foremost. Find something that works for you. Try breathing exercises, yoga nidra, prayer, meditation, or even walking.
- Do what you need to do to be safe. If you are worried that you are going to act on your thoughts, call emergency services. If you do not trust yourself to be alone, call a hotline. Your first priority is your immediate safety.
- Enlist some help in finding alternate solutions. Take a look at your situation. What is it that seems impossible, so that there is no other way out? Once the crisis has passed, enlist the help of a friend in finding other solutions, so that your mind does not feel so overwhelmed.
- Seek professional help. Notice that I didn’t say “consider” professional help. This step is non-negotiable. Suicidal thoughts nearly always involve layers of misunderstanding, and you need help learning some new tools to help you understand yourself—and the world around you—better. Don’t think of it as getting a new label or as having a problem. Most people have misunderstandings, and learning to work through them will give you a leg up. Seeking help is the first step in learning to love yourself. You are caring about yourself enough to take the first step out of suffering.
If you have a friend of loved one who is talking about having suicidal thoughts, help them through these steps. Remember that they are not being selfish—in fact they likely need to spend more time paying attention to themselves in order to stop thinking about suicide.
And remember that they need to follow step 5. Trying to provide constant support and validation for someone who is suicidal will only lead to a destructive relationship. Your loved one does need to realize that they are lovable, but it is not possible to convince someone that they are, by constantly telling them so. They need help learning the tools, so that they can find their own way back to self-love and inner peace.
Bethany shares the wisdom she has gained through her journey at Online Therapy and Coaching, where she helps others through her blog, e-courses, and individual e-mail, chat and video sessions. She offers the lowest cost online therapy available and has helped others to make positive changes to their lives.