The thing about suicide is, it's always sudden and unexpected to those of us left behind. But for the one who choses this desperate last resort, it's rarely sudden. It's the final act in a long and agonizing battle.
Why is that? How can we be so near others and seemingly never see it coming? The answers are as varied as the reasons behind the act, and unfortunately no one will ever truly understand why someone chooses to take his or her own life. Instead, the survivors are left to say, "If only she had reached out to me," or, "If only I had reached out to him."
If only... If only...
This is half the tragedy of suicide. It is not only bitter for the life lost, but for the sorrow of those wishing they would have done more.
I have not been affected by suicide in this way, but I have been on the other side of the coin. I feel I need to share my experience to hopefully shed light on the situation for those trying to understand it.
I have lived with depression for more than half of my life. In those 17 years, I have been suicidal many, many times, and each time I was surrounded by people who loved me. But I'm going to be completely honest: At my lowest points, there were so few people who, despite coming into contact with me every day, ever reached out to me. At my worst, just before falling into a nervous breakdown that took years to climb out of, I was considered very popular and in the middle of a very big social scene. I was in close-knit clubs and organizations and had two very close friends, and yet as I pulled away, the phone calls became infrequent. By the time I completely withdrew and spent my days staring at the walls, not eating, not sleeping, just crying, not one single friend checked after me. Not one.
I don't know why this is, exactly. I think for the most part it was because I focused so much of my energy pretending that I was OK, so that nobody had any idea this was going on. I also spent much of my time building walls around me, so that even though I was surrounded by friends I didn't let anyone get really close to me. I guess they thought that if I wasn't around, I didn't care about them, either.
I'm not sharing this to point any fingers. In fact, I don't blame anyone for what happened. It's hard to know what to do when the problem is kept such a secret. It was a big mess all around, but it's over now and it's time to learn from it.
Here's what I want us to learn:
If someone is truly struggling, chances are they're not going to show it. For some insane reason, we've gotten it into our heads that having these emotions is shameful, as though to feel pain is to be weak, pitiful, a disgrace. When someone is suffering a mental illness, these feelings of guilt and shame are magnified, compounding the grief and multiplying the agony. Putting up a wall and acting like things are fine is a defense mechanism.
If you are pushed away, don't go away. There are so many times where people did ask how I was, and even though in my head I was screaming, "I'm not OK! I'm not fine! I need help! Please save me!", I still put on a brave face and said everything was fine. Eventually they just stopped asking. I don't blame them; I basically pushed them right out of my life. But still, I really wish they'd have kept asking. Even though I didn't open up, it was so important to know that people cared. When they drifted out of my life, I took it as evidence that I didn't matter and that nobody would miss me when I was gone.
If you care about someone, let them know. You don't have to make grand gestures or have deep talks to let someone know they're important to you. Be kind, be friendly, be curious about their life. They may never let you know what they're going through, but they will feel your love. This is true for everyone, not just those who are struggling. We all need acceptance, friendship, kindness and forgiveness. You never know how even the smallest of actions, like giving a smile to a stranger or asking about a co-worker's weekend, can touch a person.
If you suspect someone is struggling, don't think it's someone else's problem. There seems to be the idea that if someone has a serious emotional battle, it's not just anyone's place to step in. If an acquaintance is struggling, don't assume that it's the job of someone closer to them, like family or close friends, to make it right. You are not responsible for changing their situation, but you don't have to wait to offer a kind word or hand of friendship. We are all connected in this big human family. Whether we're related by blood or joined by close friendship or none of the above, we all share in the responsibility to lift the human race. At the very least, think of it this way: Would you rather face the supposed awkwardness of approaching this person, or face the guilt after they are gone of doing nothing at all?
If you don't know what to say, then listen. I'll let you in on a secret: People don't actually want you to solve their problems. In fact, not all problems are solvable, and it's rare that outsiders can actually change what's going on inside of us. It's up to us to change our own lives and pull ourselves up, and yet, having a shoulder to cry on can be invaluable in this process. When someone comes to us with a problem it's very tempting to want to provide a solution, to help fix it (I am so guilty of this myself). It's even more tempting to think, "I can't help them, I don't know what to say," so they just avoid the person altogether. Instead, the best course of action is just to listen, to ask questions, and offer encouragement. You will not only be giving much-needed moral support, but by letting them talk through their problems, they just may find ways to solve them.
If you want to help, then help. Sometimes people feel that they are powerless to turn a situation around. While it's true that you may not be able to change things completely, nobody is without the ability to impact another for the better. No gesture is too small. You don't have to get someone into therapy or host an intervention. Simply be a friend, offer kind words, smile, ask about their day, give them a compliment, invite them to lunch. You don't even have to get into the heavy stuff, ever. Just offer your happiness to another, and let that person know that they have value.
The plain truth is, everyone is struggling. No one is free from sorrow or strife; we are all fighting the same battles in different ways. And yet, in spite of this, we all carry on alone. We put on a brave face, tell others we are fine, turn down offers of friendship, and close ourselves off to those who love us or want to be closer.
Let's make a vow never to let our friends and loved ones — even our acquaintances — drift away because of our own indifference, or worse, our negativity. We may not be able to keep others from making drastic choices, but we can do our part to lift them up. Let's vow not to be ashamed of emotions and work at supporting those who are battling their own. Let's offer kindness all along the way, to friends and strangers alike.
The world can be a dark and lonely place, but we don't have to let the darkness surround us. Let's band together and let no one feel unloved. Let's be kinder than necessary and work to magnify our love for others. Always remember: