Content warning: This piece discusses suicide in a way that some readers may find triggering. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
14th May is my survivaversary. It’s a word I made up to turn something negative into something positive. That date is when I tried to end my life twice within a matter of hours. Instead of having the day as something to dwell on how I “failed”, I instead use it to think about all the reasons it’s good I survived, of all the good things that have happened in the preceding twelve months that I never would have done otherwise. I try to go on a daytrip or buy myself something special as a treat. The first couple of survivaversaries I got myself jewellery with green amber in it, I’ve gone to the zoo, this year (with COVID preventing most things) I gave Amazon and Waterstones lots of money and got a takeaway with the promise to myself that I would do something special next year. In recent years, close friends have taken to sending me messages on the date to tell me about reasons they are glad I survived for. It’s taken a day when my life hit rock bottom and turned it into something good.
Just by turning that idea around that I survived and not failed has allowed me to view my experiences of suicide differently. Usually you hear about ‘failed suicide attempts’ like someone has failed an exam, but surely we are pleased that the person has lived? Failure/failed is a horrible way to frame it. I like to joke that I’m terrible at killing myself given how I’ve ‘failed’ five times so I’m not going to bother doing it again – like I’m learning to drive – because that’s what the language means to me. Why can’t we frame it as survival?
Suicide is typically the end stage of a mental illness. A mental illness will convince the person with it that they are weak, that they are a failure, that they are undeserving of love, that they are bad, that they are hopeless, that they are a burden, that they are a drain on society. It will beat and suppress and belittle that person to the point where there is no perceivable alternative but to remove themselves from the world they are in.
Trying to raise your head from a pillow is hard when you are dealing with all that; trying to stand up/walk/wash/eat/speak/work/smile/take medication/ask for help is hard when trying to deal with all that. Trying to coordinate all the things you have to do to end your life is near impossible when you are dealing with all that noise in your head.
In 2018 there were 6,154 suicides in Great Britain. This means more than 16 people per day took their life. It is estimated that 10-25 times that number attempted suicide. These people were not failures, they are survivors.
I don’t perceive myself as a failure for getting through those occasions, the two that day and the three others before that, when I believed I shouldn’t or couldn’t stay alive. I survived those five occasions. It can be incredibly difficult to carry the weight of believing you have failed alongside trying to rebuild yourself and the problems you tried to leave behind. There is also the judgement of others, the treatment given by some who are in a position of help, trying to explain what has happened to loved ones. It takes an enormous amount of will power and trust in others to help to get you through.
I always isolated myself from people around attempts and I know that when I start cutting myself off from people, it is actually a huge red flag that things aren’t going well and I need help. When lockdown was being talked about, I knew there would be a big risk of my mind going down this path, so I put things into place to prevent it. Those closest to me all exchanged contact information so they could reach out to each other if they hadn’t heard from me, I made sure someone had keys to my building and flat, I discussed my concerns with my line manager so they would know what to do if I stopped doing what I had committed myself to. It’s the break of routine and loneliness that I knew would drive me to remove myself further. And there were times I found myself wanted to hide from people, when I would find myself balancing up the pro’s and con’s of keeping going. But the people around me pulled me through with their understanding and their patience, their random messages with animal photos, their book recommendations, links to music and online videos of theatre productions.
Survival isn’t just recovery, it’s finding something new and better. It’s acknowledging the difficulty that led you to a place and the things you need to get to somewhere new. It’s trusting yourself as well as others around you. It’s believing that history doesn’t always repeat itself. It’s knowing that you have what it takes to come back from the brink, over and over again, and that needing help isn’t weakness or defeat – it’s knowing your limits. This doesn’t just apply to suicide, it applies to anything when everything is making you want to give up. We are all trying to survive something. And we all do, every day.
I’m trying to think of a message to conclude this blog neatly, some sort of neat sentence to conclude it properly but I don’t have one. I’d like to tell more about what it feels like to survive suicide five times but I’m too afraid to do so as there is so little conversation around this topic, I feel as though I’d be committing a major faux pas to open up about this. I’d also be worried about being sectioned. Being sectioned is always an overriding fear when reaching out for help. Ending your life has an element of taking back control of the madness that surrounds you, in reaching out you are also handing over that sliver of choice and control that remains. As much as you may know about the reality of the mental health system, Victorian images of police, big injections and padded cells swirl through your mind. It’s another leap into the unknown and you don’t even know if there will be help at the other end. It requires placing faith in strangers when you have none in yourself.
All this because suicide is something as nation we just aren’t able to discuss, yet you look at the statistics and it’s clear that we really need to be talking about the actual realities of it in order to truly start supporting people. We need to look at the language we use. I’ve already talked about ‘failure’ but ‘commit’ is another word. People do not commit suicide as it is no longer a criminal offense to end your life. People die by suicide or end their lives. Words matter. We need to be listening to truths that may make us upset, that may hurt us, because it is a painful topic. When you try to improve your mental health, you are told you have to talk about things you avoid thinking about, the fears that come to you in the dark, the things that hurt you to your very core. It seems to me that suicide is one of these things for us collectively as a society so to be healthy, to lift some of the darkness and pain around it, we need to talk. We need to learn about what it’s really like and how it really feels. That’s how we start to heal.