Trigger warning: This story discusses suicide and depression.
What does one wear to the hospital to watch someone taken off life support after a suicide attempt?
I wondered this yesterday as I stood in my bedroom after a shower.
What does one wear?
It’s not like this is a common occurrence. There are no fashion rules about how to dress. One doesn’t wear black until the funeral. White is for weddings. But for saying goodbye?
Someone close to me took her own life. Two days before my wardrobe dilemma she hanged herself with an appliance cord.
My sister phoned me with the news. Her first words were, “Are you sitting down?” Those words might be forever burned in my memory.
I’m going to be vague in the details because I want the deceased to remain anonymous. This isn’t about the who, it’s about the why. I’m not making any announcement on social media. There won’t be a memorial printed in the obituary section where people go to learn whose grandparents or parents died, poach (hire) caregivers for their elderly and to find real estate (I’m kidding about that last one). I’m not even going to share this post with my social networks. Instead, I’d rather let people find it if they need it.
My long-held approach to blogging is to write to educate. My social media also reflects a desire to inform and educate, along with sharing my ups and downs. I fear that if I post an announcement to social media, it will become about me, and about people comforting me.
This isn’t about me.
This isn’t a cry for sympathy or condolences.
I am writing this to educate, to inform, to advocate. My intent is to acknowledge a killer that takes too many people and to acknowledge those who are involved in it.
Suicide. A woman in her early 20s. A noose. You don’t need to know any more than that.
→The more we talk about suicide and depression the less it’s taboo and stigmatized.←
Deep in it & my own experience with depression
I’d recently given my dearly departed loved one advice to try to cope. I go through bouts of moderate depression. I’ve been close to killing myself, but I never get past the outside edge of the line (if inside the line is a suicide attempt). I don’t think I ever will. That edge is my bottom. Everyone’s bottom will be different, and all bottoms are valid. (I’m sorry for saying “bottom” so much and don’t blame you if you’re giggling right now despite the sad nature of the post. I have a juvenile sense of humour myself, and humour does help take the edge off.)
When I hit MY …. boundary, two things make me put on the breaks:
1. I think about my family.
When I was in my early teens it was thinking about the devastation it would cause my parents and siblings and family members beyond. As my siblings had kids, my first nephew, the nieces that followed (all adults now), and nephews (both currently under the age of 10) became what I refer to as my “anchors”. Anchors are those things or people in your life that anchor you from floating into suicide. I don’t know whether I came up with it on my own or if I read that word somewhere and subconsciously adopted it. These particular anchors held that status because how do you explain the concept of suicide to a child? This is a lesson that they’re going to learn anyway now, but they won’t learn it from my death. Also, if I find myself feeling low again now, I have the added anchor of, “They can’t go through this again.”
2. It’s simply not an option
“Suicide is not an option” becomes a mantra some days. I used it a lot last year when I was working in a job that was terrible for me for many reasons.
So, the advice I gave included finding an anchor.
The truth about depression
Depression is not an antidepressant deficiency. Although a common belief, depression is also not a chemical imbalance. Not a single study has proven that it is. Google “The Serotonin Myth” and read this short blog post by Dr. David Healy, a psychiatrist, psychiatry professsor, psychopharmacologist and scientist. His statements about this marketing myth are also written about in Science Daily (and other places too, I’m sure).
Depression a series of symptoms related to many things going on in your body and we refer to this series of symptoms as “depression”. It’s related to overall wellness including (but not only) the gut microbiome and genetics. Depression doesn’t begin and end in the head. Kelly Brogan M.D discussed this in her book A Mind of Your Own: The Truth About Depression and How Women Can Heal Their Bodies to Reclaim Their Lives. Brogan is a psychiatrist with a degree in cognitive neuroscience from MIT, an MD for medical school and clinical training so when she teaches the dangers of medication and recommends implementing lifestyle changes instead, she’s doing it as someone with lots of clinical practice and access to medical journals with evidence-based studies.
All disease begins in the gut. Depression and gut health are very much associated. I don’t want to get too much into that in this post, but I’ve written about it on my blogs in the past and likely will again. (Here’s one such post from a couple of months ago.)
Hippocrates, who lived in the third centrury BCE, is considered the “father of medicine.” He also provided such gems as
Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food
Natural forces within us are the true healers of disease
If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health.
Everyone has a doctor in him or her; we just have to help it in its work. The natural healing force within each one of us is the greatest force in getting well.
[Side note: Every time I say “Hippocrates” in my head it reminds me of the way the Bill & Ted pronounced “Socrates”. IMO, Hippocrates deserves some air guitar.]
Statistics (or one of the three lies)
The NIMH estimates that in the United States, 16 million adults had at least one major depressive episode in 2012, which is 6.9 percent of the population. According to Statistics Canada’s 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) on Mental Health, 5.4% of the Canadian population aged 15 years and over reported symptoms that met the criteria for a mood disorder in the previous 12 months, including 4.7% for major depression and 1.5% for bipolar disorder.
That said, Brogan believes that depression is grossly misdiagnosed and mistreated, especially among women, one in seven of whom is medicated. According to in the book St. John’s Wort: Nature’s Blues Buster by Dr. Hyla Cass (1998), “It has been estimated that 18 million Americans suffer from depression at one time or another in their lives.”
What depression is
Symptoms aside (I’m guessing that you know at least some of the symptoms), depression itself is a symptom of other things going on in the body, such as inflammation. According to Brogan,
When scientists purposefully trigger inflammation in the bodies of healthy people who exhibit no signs of depression by injecting them with a substance… they quickly develop classic signs of depression.
Think about that. I almost feel like the book can begin and end there.
[Update, fall 2020: I need to add new context here.
While I agree with a lot of what Brogan says about depression, including the information contained in this post, I am currently more skeptical of her teachings because she’s been spreading COVID-19 conspiracy theories and dangerous misinformation. I have always said the following and I will reiterate: If you suspect that you are suffering from depression, talk to a doctor who is open to both medication and nutritional and lifestyle therapies.]
Even if you’re on medication and it’s working for you, what else are you doing to address the root cause? Where are your imbalances?
What depression is not
Depression is not a lot of things, but here are a few that come to my mind:
- Something that a person can “snap out of”.
- Something that can be cured by “thinking positively” alone — though positive thinking and affirmations are certainly among the tools available for use.
- A bad mood or a bad day or sadness.
Often, even the most severely suicidal person has mixed feelings about death. Their feelings are about ending the pain, not an end to life. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to talk someone out of suicide.
My thoughts on suicide
People cruelly judge suicidal people based on their viewpoint rather than considering the perspective of the person who decided that life is not worth living.
People call those who attempt or successfully commit suicide weak and selfish. I’ve heard it said about people. I’ve read it. I’ve seen it in my Facebook feed. Suicide is often called a “selfish act.” And in a way, it is. However, calling it “selfish” oversimplifies. “Selfish,” in our society, is a dirty word. People are called “selfish” as a derogatory term, in the context of not considering the lives of those around them.
Here’s the thing: People who are experiencing suicidal thoughts don’t have the perspective of a healthy person. Our wacked-out bodies are fucking with us. Our minds are fucking with us.
People with suicidal thoughts often think that the world would be better off without them. Sometimes they think, “Life sucks, what’s the point?” The “selfish” part is the desire to leave the bad feelings behind and be at peace.
Sharing suicidal thoughts is not a cry for “attention”, but might be a cry for help. Suicide is not a person’s way to get people to feel sorry for them. It’s not about acting out against anyone else, to “show them”. It’s not about anyone else at all. It’s a demonstration of pain.
And if suicide is a selfish act against the living loved ones, isn’t their desire — the desire of the survivors — to hold onto their suffering loved one selfish as well? I’m not judging this as good or bad, I’m simply saying. Maybe, after doing all we can to help, the selfless thing to do is to let them go and then use that tragedy to educate others and to find motivation in our own lives to help people and help repair the world.
I intensely wish that my loved one found peace in her life, but it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes the pain, the torment is too much to bear, and we have to let them go. Maybe you can push through your misery, but not everyone feels they can. Perhaps she could have gotten past her torment and gotten well if _______ [fill in the blank with “would have, should have, could have”], but she didn’t. Her demons were too strong, and she didn’t get the kind of help she needed, the kind of help that worked.
Despite all of the healers in my family — including a medical doctor — who treat the mind and body as one, who follow the Hippocratic philosophy and who also do energy healing work, my deceased family member chose to take a different approach. There’s no way to know whether taking our advice would have saved her, though scientific evidence indicates it might have.
As Brogan says, doctors are trained to think that antidepressants are to the depressed “what eyeglasses are to the poor-sighted” — or as one of my former doctors told me, insulin to a diabetic. (Which is a coincidence, because according to a study that following more than 65,000 women over a decade, cited by Brogan, women with diabetes were 30 percent more likely to develop depression.)
There is so much more to it than that.
My loved one was on a medication that comes with a strong warning and that doctors don’t prescribe as a first, second, or third defence. It is down the chain of recommended medications when nothing else works.
Medical staff didn’t pull the plug that day I got the call that it would be; the day I stood in my bedroom considering my clothing choice to watch a loved one day at her own hand, but the death is imminent. I saw her attached to the machines that were making her chest rise and fall. Her brain activity had already deserted her. I don’t know the status of her soul.
I felt her warm hands. Her exposed shoulders were cold to my touch. I stroked her hair. I kissed her. I said goodbye. I told her I loved her. I saw this lovely girl the day she was born 22 years ago, and I saw her, barely alive, the day before she died (or so I think — I’m writing this the day after and as far as I know, today’s the day). I will read and reread the last Facebook Messenger conversations I had with her. I will look at photos of her. I’ll remember the young woman who was sweet and kind and sensitive. I know that even though the world is emptier without her smile, she’s no longer suffering.
She chose to donate an organ, which might save a life.
Ways to help
Is someone you know suicidal? Here are some things you can do:
- If you’re worried about someone, speak up. Tell them that you’re concerned about them.
- Encourage honesty. Encourage the person to speak openly and candidly.
- Ask questions. Ask your loved one if any particular incident triggered their suicidal feelings. If there was an incident that they don’t want to talk about, don’t pressure them but instead let them know that you’re there for support, any time they want to talk.
- If they’re in a situation that’s causing or making their suicidal feelings worse, encourage them find other solutions out of the situation. Help if you can and if they’ll let you.
- Listen to your loved one without judgment. Let them do most of the talking.
- Be sympathetic.
- Assure your loved one that suicidal feelings are common and not something to be ashamed of. They have feelings, and it’s okay.
- Encourage them to embrace and love their demons. The demons are easier to dissolve with love than with hate and resistance. Resistance only makes them stronger. Some ways to communicate with inner demons: Ask them, “Why are you here? What’s your purpose?” Listen to them. Telling the demons, “Thank you, I love you.” is a method for dissolving them. What we resist persists. This is related to self-compassion/self-love.
- Be genuine. Let the suicidal person know that you genuinely care. Sensitive people are good at detecting bullshit, and I say that as a highly sensitive and empathetic person. I recognize the difference between platitudes and genuine concern.
- Commiserate. Let the suicidal person know that they’re not alone.
- Avoid cliches. *cringe*
- Acknowledge their feelings. Validate them. Repeat back what they are saying (again, without judgment). “You feel hopeless? Why do you feel you’re hopeless?” Allow them to talk it out.
- Encourage them to take small steps. Another good one I read and liked: Tell them, “When you want to give up, tell yourself you will hold off for just one more day, hour, minute — whatever you can manage.” Feelings are overwhelming, but small steps can be manageable.
- Argue or invalidate. Avoid saying things like: “You have so much to live for,” “Your suicide will hurt your family,” or “Look on the bright side.” Don’t make it about you, make it about them.
- Don’t tell a suicidal person that you know how they feel. Here’s why: It’s presumptuous and insulting. Every situation is different.
What you can say instead: “I may not be able to understand exactly how you feel, but I care about you and want to help.” Empathize.
- Don’t offer unsolicited advice. If you have input, ask for permission to provide it. (Tread carefully. Well-meaning advice can fail and often backfire.)
- Don’t make it about you. This one deserves its own point, even though I mentioned it above. Don’t make it about your feelings, thoughts or experiences. It’s always about them.
- Blame yourself. You can’t “fix” someone. If someone in your life succeeds in killing themselves after you tried to help, do not blame yourself. You did what you could. Do consider getting help. Some suicide resources help those affected.
Break the silence
We need to talk about it. We need to talk about becoming symptom-free so that those who experience depression can thrive. We need to talk about depression, period. And suicide. And prevention. And the fucked up “diagnose and adios” medical system (credit to Max Lugavere for “diagnose and adios”).
- Organ donation: I strongly urge you to be an organ donor. In Canada you can fill out a form here. The organ donation registry in the USA is located here. If you’re in any other country, google “organ donation” and your country name. When I got home from the hospital I went into the registry to see what options I had previously selected and to make sure it was up-to-date with my preferences.
- Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention — I’m not familiar with the organization, so this link isn’t an endorsement.
- Suicide Prevention Lifeline (U.S. resource)
- The Family Association for Mental Health Everywhere (FAME). Since 1989, FAME has been empowering families and caregivers who have a loved one with a mental health concern by providing support, education, coping skills and self-care strategies. I love this organization and have supported their fundraising events but it’s specific to the Greater Toronto Area. Search online for a similar organization in your area or contact FAME to see if they know of one.
- If you’re into light work/energy healing, send me a message and I might be able to recommend some people to help you get through a loss
Feel free to share more helpful resources, thoughts and stories below.