THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH: LIFE AS A SUICIDE SURVIVOR.
By Ashley Ford-McAllister.
I am good at many things – writing, training dogs, administrative support, providing advice to others.
I’m also terrible at many things – dancing, singing, and, it turns out, dying. I am one of the 25 failed suicide attempts to every successful suicide. Four times over.
This is mainly because my country (UK) doesn’t allow for easy access to guns, but, even in countries where firearms are easier to get hold of, the statistics remain the same: more people will fail in a suicide attempt than will succeed.
A lot of the discussion around suicide focuses, understandably, on those whose attempts result in their death, and on the lives and emotions of those left behind. “Failed” suicides are very rarely discussed, mainly because suicide was only decriminalised in the UK in 1961, and is still considered a “common law” (though not statutory) crime in certain US states. Suicide is still considered a “selfish” act, with those attempting it held to have been inconsiderate of their loved ones, a burden on health services, etc.
When you wake up after all your plans, preparations, and actions had been not to do so, you will probably feel one of two things: some people will feel relief, realising that, although they were struggling to work out how they could carry on living with whatever their particular struggle was, they didn’t, in fact, want to die, or at least not yet. Others, like myself, will wake up feeling exhausted, frustrated, and deeply resentful that they have to face a life that no longer holds meaning for them.
Whichever way your reaction falls, if you’ve woken up alone, at home, there will be “administrative issues” to attend to – destroying the suicide note that, obviously, no one read, sending texts to those you’d previously texted a goodbye to, often claiming you were “drunk”, almost always reiterating, several times, that “everything’s fine, now” – even when it’s not. You’ll have to clean blood out of furnishings and carpet, clean up the vomit, and try and get rid of the smell. Dispose of the evidence of pills and alcohol. Wash up the knife. If you’ve woken up at home, but someone is with you, you have to explain things to them, and do so in a way that doesn’t imply that any of this is their fault. You’ll probably feel obliged to help them clean up, or apologise for the fact that they’ve already done so.
If you wake up in hospital, you’ll have to deal with a barrage of the wrong questions – how you were feeling before you attempted suicide, rather than how you’re feeling now, what your mental health history is like, as opposed to what, of the various stresses of life that we all have to deal with, has proved intolerable, or insurmountable, for you. Whether you have somewhere safe to return to, rather than whether you want to go back to wherever “home” is.
Waking up after a suicide attempt, and not having a sudden revelation of wanting to live after all, is like waking up on the morning of a long-planned picnic to find that it’s raining. You’re disappointed, your brain is circling, trying to work out what you should do now, and you can’t imagine ever being able to do anything again – the day seems to stop existing, because the plans you had for it have been overtaken by events.
There’s also faint traces of humour in the situation – the realisation that you’ll probably have to choose a different brand of alcohol, because that particular one is always going to remind you of trying to kill yourself. The fact that you’re now out of razor blades, or that you should maybe put some kind of marker on the knife you used – it’s probably not okay to use that on vegetables, now, is it? Or maybe it is if you sterilise it properly. The fact that you finally have an answer to that booby-trap of an interview question: What’s your greatest weakness? Swiftly followed by the awareness that you can’t tell a prospective employer that your greatest weakness is lacking the ability to bring about your own death.
If you attempt suicide, and fail, you have a 7% chance of succeeding in a future attempt in the following five years. Over the following 37 years, this rises to a 13% chance. People who have attempted suicide and failed are more likely to engage in suicidal idealisation at times of stress than those who have never attempted suicide. Although I have not made a serious suicide attempt this year, I have seriously considered attempting suicide on several occasions, both for logical and reactive reasons.
Perhaps the deciding factor in whether a person who does not succeed in a suicide attempt sees themselves as a “failure”, and feels the resentment and disorientation of one who is living a shadow life, or as a “survivor”, who feels that they have been given a “second chance” at life, is the motivation behind the attempt.
Logical suicide is where, having looked at the situation from several angles, discussed possible solutions, or lack thereof, with others, attempted those suggested solutions that are accessible and viable in that individual’s given circumstances, and come to the conclusion that they would be better off dead, and appropriately planned their suicide.
Reactive suicide, on the other hand, is the stereotype of the “impulsive” suicide – the person who “out of the blue” tries to take their own life.
It is likely that a logical suicide whose attempt did not succeed would be more inclined to see themselves as a “failed suicide”, while a reactive suicide would be more likely to feel they had been granted a “second chance”, and identify as a “survivor of suicide.” Of course, these are generalisations, not absolutes – until people are fully able to speak openly about suicidal feelings, particularly individuals who are suicidal, but do not have a history of mental health issues, and do not have any pre-existing health conditions that might incline them to suicide, all we have is generalisations, guesswork, and assumptions.
The eternal question around suicide is “How do I support someone who has attempted suicide?” A personal answer, and one that professionals seem to agree with, is: Let them be honest about their emotions, their thoughts, their difficulties and frustrations. Let them talk about wanting to die. Listen to them when they explain why they want to die. Offer practical advice, that the person is able to enact – stay away from easy platitudes such as “Tomorrow’s another day”, and “Life is for living.” Don’t dismiss their feelings – “You don’t really mean that, you’re over-reacting”, and don’t assume that because their life appears “amazing” and “perfect”, because, as far as you can see, they “don’t have any problems”, they have no “right” to be suicidal. Suicide, for me, and I presume for others too, has never been about life seeming “hopeless” – it’s been about hope being visible, but, for whatever reason, out of reach. Seeing no hope at all in a situation tends to produce a Stoic, one who will simply shrug, sigh, and get on with the hopeless business of existing – it’s why suicide rates during the Great Depression of 1929-1933 were lower (although they still rose against the national average of that time) than they are now – when, during the Great Depression, welfare didn’t exist, and so the economic crash would have had a far more devastating impact on the day-to-day lives of all but the very rich. Seeing that there is a potential way out of one’s situation, but being unable to access that “escape route” – perhaps because of lack of money, family and/or work commitments, or similar socioeconomic pressures and restrictions, is more likely to result in a suicide attempt. If someone who is suicidal asks you to do something for them because their circumstances mean they can’t do that thing for themselves, and you are able to render that assistance, even if requires some effort on your part – please; respond positively. Don’t try and “jolly them along” by insisting they can do whatever it is for themselves – their circumstances are not yours. In the UK and the USA, people, especially men, are well-schooled to not admit to a lack of ability – if someone has overcome this schooling, and asked for help, then they have probably tried to take action themselves. Asking someone else for assistance is never the first port of call. However, if you are in a situation that means you can’t help in the way that is requested, don’t walk away from that person because you “can’t help anyway.” If they see themselves as having been given a second chance, engage with that – identify low-cost, accessible things that they can do to carry on that enthusiasm, and bring the sense of being granted a “new life” into reality. If they see themselves as a “failure” – acknowledge that. Listen to their frustrations and concerns. Encourage them to engage in activities you know they will succeed at, and enjoy. In either case, remember: they are not “a suicide risk”: they are your lover, your friend, your parent, your spouse, your sibling, your child, your co-worker, your student. They are still the person you have always known.