September 10th 2018 was World Suicide Prevention Day. To mark the day from a personal point of view, I put up a post on my Facebook page and Tweeted too. A few weeks ago I was filmed by the RNLI Film and Image Unit for a short film they are making about my voluntary role with Tobermory RNLI Lifeboat and my accompanying mental health struggles. I recently had a long and helpful appointment with ‘my’ Community Psychiatric Nurse after a long period of not seeing her. This blog entry is a description of how I live with my suicidal thoughts. I hope by sharing this incredibly intimate aspect of my self, I will help increase awareness and understanding about deep depression and suicide. This is an account of my personal experience and cannot be read as a generalisation of suicide per se. I am confident though, that there are contextual similarities with others who struggle like me which will be helpful.
Recently, despite the many good aspects of my life and my uniquely privileged lifestyle, I have been fighting familiar intrusive thoughts that my life is worthless, that I am worthless and it follows that the most natural conclusion is to take my life. These are not constant thoughts which continue to eat away at me through the day and night. They intrude at the most inopportune moments, sometimes fleetingly but generally with enough force to stick for a good while. They are private thoughts, triggered by any number of interpersonal interactions, thoughts, memories and moments. An incredibly astute observer might see for a split second, a grimace of pain cross my face when these thoughts of death reach into me. They would also hear me emit a muted cry of pain or a deep, lingering sigh.
Since I’m so used to this happening, I find myself burying these thoughts and feelings, fighting them inwards and hiding them deep within me. I used to be a psychotherapist so ‘internal dialogue’ fits comfortably as a term which describes what’s occurring. The thing is, there is no voice attached to these thoughts. I do not hear myself or anyone else, actual or imagined. They are thoughts accompanied by powerful emotional and physical feelings. Essentially they are beliefs - basically an overarching belief that my life should come to an end because of my ineptitude as a person.
Whether these thoughts are serious enough for me to become worried about my intentions and I consequently reach out for help, depend on how I grade them. Because I recognise them so clearly now, I give them levels of seriousness depending on how they arrive in my psyche, into my being and how durably they ‘stick’. First off I have the fanciful thoughts. The ones which are romantic notions of taking my life. This could be anything from the day being a lovely and sunny one, when I might think, “this would be a nice day to die”. Or, “I could head out in my kayak, capsize and drift off towards the far horizon”. The latter might be a response to recalling a moment of embarrassment when I believe I behaved badly to someone in my past. This kind of fanciful thinking serves to assuage my painful thinking in the moment by being a distraction, where I fantasize about a semi-honourable death, drifting off towards slow oblivion in a suitably restless sea.
A level up from the fanciful ideations are the ‘thought punches’ into my head and the ‘body blows’ into my being. These are powerful enough to stick and set in train semi-serious thoughts of suicide. Unchecked they might build into more enduring beliefs that the most obvious solution is to take myself off to my chosen tree and hang myself. If they occur in the dark hours of the deep night when I ping wide awake, as I often do, I might consider slipping out onto the deck of our yacht and lowering myself into the night-time sea to eventually die of hypothermia. I would be clad only in my underpants because I never want to be found naked. These thoughts and feelings of powerful desperation are promulgated by the more entrenched self-beliefs I hold about myself. Examples of these being; believing I’m a feckless father, a life failure in employment and business, a wasteful daydreamer, an untrustworthy person, a poor friend, I have nothing of worth to offer, I am a burden, and so the seemingly inexhaustive list continues. These thoughts and feelings may present themselves at any time, whether life is going well or I’m struggling with a dose of depression. Generally of course, they are stronger and more present when my mood is low. I have learned to rationalise these thoughts, to attempt to see them for what they are and realise that it’s certainly not logical to act on them. If I think I’m struggling with this process I might express to Karen (my wife), that I’m having a tough time and “I’m feeling suicidal”. This one simple sentence, spoken out loud and knowing I have been heard, is usually enough to dissipate the strength of the feelings and/or the thoughts I’m experiencing.
However, there are times when these body blow suicidal thoughts stick like a ball of mud thrown against a brick wall. With sun, the mud might set rock hard and become insoluble. (It reminds me of when I was a boy in Africa, my friends and I used to have battles with clay lakkies - hand squeezed balls of mud on the tips of whippy sticks, which when flicked like a tennis serve, sent the mud screaming through the air. Brutally powerful and accurate. Great fun as well to plaster house walls with nasty splats of mud!) What happens is, I find myself unable to now rationalise my thinking with any certainty. The thoughts metamorphose into beliefs and these then set deep within me. The primary belief being that the time has come to end my life and there is no point in lingering any longer. It could be that I might be berating myself for being a horribly curmudgeonly husband or as with 2017, a useless sea kayak guide. The belief that I am eternally useless, worthless and a burden to others, takes root and instead of distracting myself from this belief, I find myself arguing, “why not kill myself?”
This is a dangerous time for me. This is when the thought of death has become realistically pragmatic. It has shifted from being an attractive desire, to one where it is now the most reasonable solution. When I am at this depth, I begin to make my plans. I have already chosen my tree. It is local, within ten minutes walk and hidden from public view. I know the type of rope I will use and its length. Being an outdoor instructor, I know the specific knots I will tie. The only unknown is whether to leap off the branch in the hope I break my neck, or lower myself off and hang until strangulation has done its work. More recently I have been considering immersion in the sea and dying of hypothermia but here, I find myself pulling up short, because I don’t want my Tobermory RNLI colleagues to be the ones who find me. In terms of being found, I have in the past prepared letters for the local police and coastguard with GPS coordinates of my suicide location. I have also written letters to individual family members.
When this is occurring for me, I am now in the grip of deep depression with a very strong desire for suicide.
Even in this state, with every fibre of my being now craving my obliteration, I find within myself a desire to hang on to life and I make my thoughts and intentions known, not only to my wife but my community mental health support network too. This may be the psychiatrist, the community psychiatric nurse or the local GP. I will do so knowing that I may be admitted to hospital and in some respects, this is what I desire for hospital is a safe haven for me. What I fear most, is that the final decision to take my life will be made beyond my conscious awareness. I know within myself from my adventure activities, that before a risky undertaking I have a propensity to weigh up all the factors, and once done, if they are in my favour, to suddenly act without a conscious decision to do so. It’s almost as if my body moves into action before a cognitive process has taken place. I believe that if (when) I take my life, this is how it will be. I will be in the firm grip of a belief that death is the only course of action to take, I will have negated the consequences and I will act on this - suddenly. I use the word courage to describe the motivating emotion which will literally see me release myself from the tree branch I will hang from..
Equally, it is courage which drives me to struggle against the forces raging within me. The belief that I must die is real - in that it appears very real. Any amount of dissuasion by concerned others does not seem to work. I hear their words but do not take them in. In a vain act of self-aggrandisement, I argue the reasons why I believe I have the right to choose my own path and it’s far better for me to end the pain I am struggling with - for pain it is! It’s a palpable emotional, cognitive and physical pain, gripping my thinking and emotions along with a agonised chest. My mind is a continuous maelstrom of self-destructive thinking and the dreadful reasons why this should be the case.
In these moments despite my firm belief that I must die, I do find myself making agreements to keep safe and to make contact with the health professionals if I’m feeling close to acting. In this regard, I’m thankful that I’m a person of some honour because I feel duty bound to keep my word. When I’m considering taking myself off to my death, I find myself agonising with the fact that I would be breaking my word if I went through with the act. However, even then, I have moments when the desire for death is more powerful than my reasoning and this is when I will choose to be admitted to a psychiatric ward. Here, cocooned in the warmth of the ward, I believe myself to be safe.
Recovery happens. Inevitably it takes root within the process of my struggles and inexorably I begin my long climb back to normal reality. Slowly and surely the light and colour returns to my world and to my thinking. Through dialogue and peaceful ‘time out’, I readily grasp onto nuggets of hope and my beliefs of the inevitability of my death are replaced with aspirations and plans for the future. Needless to say this process of recovery is not linear and there will be times when it seems as if I slip backwards. These moments or relegation become sparser as time goes by until at long last, I’m feeling like my happier adventurous self again.
Recovery does not mean an absence of my depression. This will always be there in my life and very recently, I have come to accept that it is an illness I will have to live with, rather than constantly seek a cure. Not having acted on my suicidal desires and thoughts does not mean that I do not have them or that they are not serious. These are not prosaic cries of help which I have often heard suicide referred to in the past. They are real for me and it is only through fighting hard for myself, that I manage to keep myself from acting on my desires.
Being open about my mental health struggles is becoming increasingly helpful for me. Each time I share my struggle (as I am doing here), I gain confidence in sharing more often because of the warmth and the love I receive when I do. My online community of friends and acquaintances are instrumental in this process. Twitter for me is a power for good! I hope that by being open I may normalising the dialogue around the subject of suicide. This is my hope, that increasingly, our society will become less offended or frightened by the subject and becomes willing to really listen to those who need to talk about their suicidal thinking. It is my experience that it is not helpful when I express my suicidal desires some people either change the subject away from the issue, or attempt to make it better by telling me of all the reasons I have to live. I term the latter a sticking plaster approach. Both responses are undoubtedly well meaning and I am grateful for any time I am given by those who have a desire to see my internal pain healthily diminished.
To bring this blog entry to conclusion, I want to say, at the moment of writing this I am safe. I am currently experiencing suicidal thoughts and feelings but I have these in check. There is enough firm reality in my life for me to focus on and I have exciting plans to fulfil. Additionally, there are the powerful metaphoric insights I gained from my 3 Peaks by Kayak journey earlier this year to remind me that suicide is a permanent solution to an impermanent situation. The simplest and most enduring of the metaphoric insights being “live life” when I saw a tragically injured Gannet on the island of Ailsa Craig and “this discomfort will pass” when I was struggling across the eighteen long miles of Luce Bay against a strong ebb tide.
Finally, thank you for reading what I have shared and I welcome any responses you may have. If you have been touched by what I have written and my words resonate and have a personal impact on you, please don’t dwell and find someone you are able to chat to about what you are experiencing. Please take good care of yourself.