This week is Suicide Prevention Week, and today specifically is Suicide Prevention Day. My daughter Mary has been blogging about it very eloquently, and my daughter Mercy has also posted a poignant account of her struggles. This is a topic I struggle to write about because it hits so very close to home. Suicide has cast a long, dark, heartbreaking shadow over my life. In the past few years, I have lost a nephew, a dear friend, and a friend’s son to suicide. Another close friend attempted suicide twice but survived.
It seems like this tragic choice is becoming more rather than less common. Several of my children have been suicidal in the past, and all have struggled with depression, as have I. My broken heart struggles with hopelessness at times. There is no way to “fix” someone else’s despair, is there? Yet that is the one thing we want most desperately to do.
I’m know I’ve mentioned it before, but perhaps I should mention again that I also was suicidal as a teenager. A series of events occurred at my boarding school that made me believe life was not worth living and that I had no hope of ever getting to a better place in my life. Then, one of my closest friends tried to kill herself and came within a hair’s breadth of succeeding. When I received that news, I gave up. If she couldn’t bear to stay alive, then how could I? That same day, I was asked to do something that I didn’t think I could survive emotionally.
I had been toying with the idea of suicide for months by then. I felt the time had come to follow through with it. I was pretty sure that if I took all the medications in the house, they would kill me. I waited for everyone else to go to bed. That way, I could take the pills and no one would find me until morning, when it would be too late.
But first, I wanted to listen to music one last time. We had one of those record players where you could stack up to five records at a time, and it would drop and play them one by one. What kind of music did we have in our missionary home in Africa? Hymns and classical music. So that’s what I listened to. I lay on the couch with the headphones on and listened, while I felt the pills calling me from the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. Everyone else was asleep.
I listened for an hour. Two hours. Three hours. I chided myself for delaying. I walked into the bathroom and stared at my sad face in the mirror. Then I walked back to the living room and listened to some more music.
There were two things that stopped me from following through with my plan for that night. First was the fact that if I did it, my mom would be the one to find me. I couldn’t bring myself to do that to her. But secondly, as I listened to hymn after hymn, I began praying. I had to believe that God had made me for a reason, and that reason was not to kill myself while still in my teens. I didn’t want to be alive, but ultimately I didn’t feel I had the right to reject the gift of life that God had given me, even if I couldn’t figure out what the purpose of it was right then.
By the time I turned off the record player and walked to my bedroom to get a couple hours of sleep, I had fought a terrific mental and spiritual and emotional battle. I know it doesn’t happen this way for everyone, but that was a defining moment for me. I had made a commitment to stay in the world, whether I saw any point to it or not. Sure, I would be tempted to backtrack on that resolve, especially in the ensuing couple of years, but each time I would remind myself of that night, and draw back from the brink.
Did my life suddenly get better? No. It got worse. I went through two years of deep depression and despair. But the key word in that last sentence is “through.” I somehow got through it.
Since then, depression has hounded me for most of my adult life, but I have clung desperately to my commitment to stay here. Along the way, I’ve learned a few things, from my own experiences and those of others.
Virtually every suicide prevention post I’ve ever read urges people to reach out for help. I agree, that is what you should do if you are considering taking your own life. However, if you’ve ever been in that spot, you know following that advice is all but impossible, because you don’t believe anyone cares or that anyone can help you. So first of all, if you’re reading this, and you’re in that dark, dark place, please make the call to a hotline or your granny or your pastor or someone. I promise you, there are many people in this world, including me, who want you to stay here. Sometimes just hearing a caring voice on the phone makes all the difference in the world.
Secondly, in my decades of dealing with varying degrees of depression, I’ve learned that for me at least, focusing inward does not help. Dwelling on your misery and despair (or past trauma) is kind of like Gollum crooning over and polishing the ring which he knows is destroying him. Despair becomes like a dark, poisonous jewel which you cling to because you think it’s all you’ve got.
As a committed Christian, my first move is always to cry out to God for comfort. Does that fix anything? No. Not in a tangible way. But it’s the first step in pulling me out of a downward spiral by forcing me to focus “up” and think about things I can be grateful for. Hymns are still a tremendous comfort to me and I am grateful that I know so many.
The next thing I do is try to identify someone else who may need encouragement of some kind. So many times in my life, I needed someone to be there for me—and they weren’t. Many other times, though, someone was there for me right when I needed it most. I want to be that person who is there when someone needs me, without them having to ask.
When I was still in school, I would look for the kid who sat alone in the cafeteria, the one who never had a friend to walk between classes with, the one who sat in the back row and never made a comment or asked a question. I would sit next to that kid and start talking (this took a lot of resolve for an introvert like me). The rule was that I couldn’t talk about my own problems or struggles. My goal was to learn about the other person and be a safe person for them to talk to. I made several friends this way, and I believe I succeeded in being an encouragement to them.
Sometimes people need to hear that you care enough to pray for and/or with them. I have been moved to tears by friends who sensed my distress and stopped to pray for me on the spot. I have a long list of people I pray for every day. In fact, if you need prayer for something, message me and let me know. I will follow through. Prayer has become a lifeline for me in recent years. As I’m sure you can guess, trying to be an encouragement to others always encourages me also. And the wonderful thing about it is that it doesn’t cost me anything except a little time. Kindness is free! There is no need to hoard it. Spread it around wherever you go. You’ll never regret it. And you never know when your act of kindness might make all the difference in someone else’s day.