Suicide ‘Alternatives’ are the Best Suicide ‘Prevention’

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Terry tulips blooming in the park. Selective focus.

One way I stay alive: When I don’t know a reason to live till spring, I plant bulbs.

At last count, I’ve wanted to die on more than 7,300 days of my life. I’ve spent only 6 of those days in a psychiatric hospital, setting that hospital’s record for shortest involuntary commitment.

How can a person who deals with such frequent thoughts of suicide have completed college, hold a job, maintain a career? How can she rebound from job losses during two economic downturns? How can she own a home, live a life? In short: how can she be as successful as I am?

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, which makes it a great time to learn from people like me who have been preventing our own suicides for years.

Wanting to Die is ‘Normal’ for Some

Wanting to die is, it turns out, not terribly unusual. People want to die because they’ve committed what they consider to be an unpardonable social sin, because they’ve failed in some way at work, because their spouse has ended the marriage, or they’ve experienced too many bereavements.

Wanting to die is a pretty reasonable reaction to lots of terrible life circumstances. I’ve been there, done it all, and I’m still alive. As are lots of people.

So the real question is why and how do some of us keep going when we frequently want to die. The answer lies in a mix of motivations and solutions that we practice.

Some Things I Do Instead of Dying

Here are a few of the “alternatives to suicide” that I have used over the 40-plus years since I first wanted to die:

Escape: Binge watch television, binge read fiction, write revenge-themed novels, stare at the ocean, stare out the window.

Exhaust myself: Logg long hours at the gym, on a trail, up a mountain, on the bike, in a kayak.

Become engaged in something: Use some creative skill; pet the cat or dog; arrange wildflowers into a bouquet; shop an hour for $5 worth of giftwrap and ribbon. Anything that’s not about the feelings inside of me.

Encourage myself: Mark every little step forward. Create a to-do list so detailed that I count it progress when I finish my shower … my breakfast … my commute. Remind myself during times when I feel without hope that the God in whom I believe has promised me “a hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11) … even if that comes far in the future, when I finally arrive in the country where God wipes away every tear (Rev. 21:4).

Extend myself: Extend myself for others, even when I feel like I have nothing to extend. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, in “Option B,” her book about surviving the grief she suffered after her husband’s death, says one tool she learned was to log daily three ways she had influenced others for the good. For me, this works. I offer kindness. Volunteer. Show a colleague a new skill.

Remember: At one point, my best suicide preventive was recalling that I would have killed myself if I’d tried the particular overdose I’d considered at age 19. Some years later, I held to the memory of a voice (that I know as God) telling me “If you don’t have a reason to live till spring, plant bulbs.” I still plant bulbs, lots of them, almost every year.

Walk through my rituals: Daily routines that never change can keep you going. For me, these include alarm at 6. Coffee. Oat cereal with milk and berries. The print newspaper. The chair where the Bible and journal and planner wait. They resume in the late evening, when 9 p.m. brings on hot tea, the buzzing electric toothbrush, jammies and a book by the bed.

Protect myself: At the worst, I just keep myself safe. I call the friend who is willing to come over, so I’m not alone. I text the person who will remind me that I don’t always feel this terrible. I check in with a suicide hotline or the crisis text service when I need to say things that even the best friend shouldn’t hear.

(And by the way, the hotline care strategy is to listen first, then help the caller identify any circle of belonging and choose even one thing the caller will do in the next 24 hours other than kill herself. That is to say: name notwithstanding, “suicide prevention” hotlines are designed not to prevent suicide, but to help us find alternatives to suicide that will allow us to choose life for another day. And the evidence is that they work.)

Suicide Alternatives vs. Suicide Prevention

None of these is a suicide “prevention” strategy. Suicide “prevention,” as we practice it today in the US, trains thousands of “gatekeepers” to peer into the lives around them for “signs” of suicidality. It urges them to push people like me toward professionals who hold the keys to locked wards, where we can be almost perfectly protected against self-harm.

Ironically, we have trained so many people to be on guard against “symptoms” that ordinary human supports have become much less available to people experiencing challenges. Today, I have to consider carefully any potential confidant. Is this a person who will (with or without professional qualifications) assess me to be a danger to myself, call police for a midnight “welfare check,” insist that I need to take a medication that time has proven doesn’t work for me? Will they shuttle me toward another locked ward?

Me, I’d rather hold my tongue than risk the professional suicide that an inpatient event provides. I’ve only just rebuilt a new career after my one-and-only psych hospital stay more than a decade ago.

People who have lost loved ones to suicide, professionals who have lost patients to suicide – even those who have temporarily protected family, friends, and patients from one episode of suicidality – don’t know even a percent as much about eluding suicide as those of us who have stood this battle for years. My friends and I don’t “prevent” suicide. But we each maintain our personal lists of “alternatives to suicide” that we put into practice when the urge hits. Even when it hits really often.

Why We Need to Focus on ‘Alternatives’ Instead

This year’s Suicide Prevention Awareness Month comes at a time in our nation’s history when the suicide rate remains staggeringly high. We also have access to a number of multi-nation studies published across more than a decade demonstrating that as nations improve access to psych meds and hospitalizations, their suicide rates increase. Which is exactly what we’ve seen in the US over the last 30 years.

For more than 7,300 days of my life, waking up the next morning required me to make a conscious choice to diligently pursue something – anything – other than my impulse to die. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider our “suicide prevention” approach. Maybe the best teachers of how to avoid suicide will be, not the people who are afraid someone else will die, but those of us who can explain how and why we regularly choose to live.

Carlene Hill Byron is a nonprofit fundraiser who has worked as a writer, marketing communications specialist, or public relations officer for nearly four decades. Her paper, “Suicide Learning from Global Perspectives,” was presented at the 2015 NAMI-North Carolina state conference.

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Finding Silence in a Run-On Brain

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Even when there’s no noise, there’s no silence for me.

I’m not one of those people whose brain is always running down the list of what’s next, what needs to be done, whose post needs to be liked, how to fit in all the many people and tasks that a day requires.

I have a brain that multitasks. All the time.

I’m typing this post while I’m listening (inside my head) to one of the songs from this morning’s worship set and (outside my house) to the cars passing by. My mother used to wonder how I could watch afterschool TV while doing my homework while (intermittently) crocheting granny squares. “I guess I just have an eight-track brain,” I told her.

My brain becomes more quiet when I have a task outside myself that engages more of its channels. The best is physical activity with a purpose. Gardening, for example. When I garden, one brain channel is deciding what needs to be pruned or raked or cut down or weeded, one channel is directing my hands and feet and maybe my huffing lungs (if the job requires heavy hauling, as the best jobs do). Another brain channel is measuring the project’s current status against some anticipated outcome: beds clear for winter, rose bushes free of strangling vines, lilac shrubs in beautiful bloom because I’ve taken down with a handsaw the five 20-foot maples that overshadowed them.

Work — hard, physical work — is where I find silence. With all my channels fully occupied in the task, there’s no place for my brain to run. It can focus on what it is doing and nothing more. Silence.

I suspect that others with a bipolar diagnosis have discovered the same thing. Silence doesn’t come with a meditation discipline. Thoughts that seem to run in four or five separate channels simultaneously can’t be quieted by trying to become quiet — or even by trying to follow the standard instruction and simply letting the thoughts pass. A brain built for radical multitasking keeps running on all five or eight cyclinders until it’s exhausted. That exhaustion can begin a serious downward slide. Other choices are essential.

Gardening works. Dancing works. Trying to play the piano — even just practicing scales — works. Playing music requires me to read the lesson book, to move my hands ways that are not easy for me, to keep track of each finger’s correct position in relation to the scale, to hear what is right and what is misplayed.

I don’t find silence in quiet. I find silence in big occupations — occupations big enough to require all the channels I can play at once and far enough outside me to make any of the yammering internal channels become irrelevant.

I am happy with the silence I find. I hope you find the kind of silence that suits you.

This post is part of the Five Minute Friday linkup: this week’s prompt is Silence.

Shania Twain: You have to feel the pain

You recover from a fall at your own pace.It’s been 15 years since we’ve heard from country star Shania Twain, who finally has a new album out. Turns out she’s spent the last decade and a half doing hard stuff, including bringing a marriage to an end and digging herself out of the emotional void that divorce typically creates.

In an interview with Alison Abbey, she says she chose to let herself experience the devastation of divorce:

“When you leave a long-term relationship, everything you know, everyone you know, and all of the dreams that you were building for your future — that’s all just gone …

“I gave up on fighting the way I was feeling … The more you ignore it and try to pretend that it’s not happening, the longer it takes you.”

It’s hard to let yourself experience that much pain! Especially at a time when the medical profession’s diagnostic bible, the DSM-V, says that 2 weeks is the outer window for behaving as if something terrible has happened. After a couple of weeks, employers start to urge a call to the EAP and friends start to say we need to see a counseling professional. And then the counseling professional tells us that we’ve been sad for more than 2 weeks so we have a “clinical depression” which requires weekly professional counsel and probably medication to get us back to “normal.”

I like Twain’s approach better. Big losses make big hurts. Big hurts force big changes. And when you’ve had a big hurt, my job as a Christian isn’t to push you away to a professional — it’s to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Rom 12:15). God is the healer, and He’s got lots more than two weeks to hang out and  do the work.

It’s only recently, by the way, that clinical professionals have insisted on  treating major loss as major depression. Philip Hickey’s article on the recent history of this diagnostic trend is excellent, although very long.

 

 

 

Dorothea Dix Built Inclusive Communities for Mentally Well & Ill

 

Dorothea Dix Oval Frame

Maine’s Dorothea Dix created inclusive communities for the mentally ill in the 19th c.

As Dix Hill becomes Raleigh’s Central Park, we must stop to remember that this was once a place where mentally healthy and mentally ill lived together in community, much like the vaunted and admired communities of L’Arche.

 

The communities of L’Arche have always intrigued and humbled us. In these homes where able-minded and learning-disabled share life together, the intellectually challenged “least of these” are treated as peer – even teacher – to their “normal” housemates, including philosopher Jean Vanier, who founded the first household.

The nearest L’Arche is 150 miles away, but in Wake County we can still listen to the men and women who lived together on Dix Hill. Continue reading

Inspiration or Encouragement?

Not feeling so inspired lately. Slogging through things. Which is what I usually do at this time of year. It’s marked on my calendar: “Low.” Repeats. Early June to early August. Then, without a break, “High” pops in. That’s when I might (as I recall once from my teen-aged self) go to the library and check out a stack of self-improvement books so tall that I can barely wedge them between my outstretched arms and my upstretched chin, imagining that in the two weeks before they fall due, I will accomplish significant self-renewal.

When I’m low, I can’t hope for inspiration. All I can hope for is to actually follow through on responsibilities. And I’m grateful for people who pop into my office to remind me that I’ve promised them something soon … leaving me enough time to scramble it together in decent order.

When I’m low, you are my inspiration — what you expect of me, what you know I can do, what you believe I can achieve on our behalf.

When I’m high, you take a back seat to my own excessive energy and imagination. When I’m high, I barely see you.

God told us to “Encourage one another daily” (Heb. 3:13). Thank you for encouragement during the half a year I desperately need it,

In response to the Five Minute Friday Link Up “Inspire”

PS: And this is how little “inspiration” can matter … In the last 2 weeks, I have written and rewritten (on the encouragement of a writer friend nearby) an article that will be published in the August Redbud Post — my first time in that publication — and created from scratch (on the encouragement of a generation younger colleague) a radically different employment ad for our agency that is sparking both applications and social shares. For me, inspiration can be overrated, at least compared to the encouragement offered by people who trust me to do well.

 

 

You Don’t Need to Die Today

I don’t know who you are. Today you’ve been reading posts I wrote about friends who died by suicide and ways to stay alive when you want to die by suicide and the few, very inadequate church ministries that exist to help people with mental health issues.

Whoever you are, whatever is driving you, you don’t need to die today.

You can call one of the hotlines that I keep programmed into my phone just in case — the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline connects with a network of trained volunteers all over the country. Call 1-800-273-8255. f you don’t want to use your voice, you can text someone at

If you don’t want to use your voice, you can text someone at crisistextline — Text 741741 to chat with someone who really understands.

Do whatever it takes. Because sometime in the next weeks or months, someone will be relieved that you did. You matter. Even to a blogger like me who can never know you, but can tell you’re looking for help.

I’m praying for you right now.