September is Suicide Awareness Month, and many groups and organizations have increased their public visibility in order to discuss this very serious subject. Suicide is a result of conditions like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, domestic violence, lingering diseases, etc. The statistics are staggering, the impact is frightening. I believe we are quite aware, although I do not know that we are necessarily better informed. We’ve always known that suicide is a terrible thing, and I hope we understand by now it is an expression that life has become an unendurable, very lonely, hell.
I have paid special attention to websites that offer support to people who are struggling with conditions that might result in suicide. It is nice to see so many non-professionals so deeply concerned, involved, and full of a desire to help others. Their enthusiasm is admirable. Drawing from multiple sources, I have read their pearls of wisdom, savoured their sage advice, and I would like to offer a suggestion of my own:
I write this in considerable frustration. How would you feel if you said to someone, ‘I have been depressed all week’, and they responded: ‘I’ve been depressed all month–you think you have troubles?’ How would you feel if, when telling someone about a serious problem, they start shovelling advice at you without really knowing what it is you’re saying? How do you feel when you’re looking for real comforting and support and you get, ‘Hang in there!’ ‘Keep the Faith!’ ‘Don’t Give Up!’
Your cry for help quickly has turned into ‘misery one-upmanship’. Hoping to have a conversation about your problems or needs, suddenly you find yourself talking about their problems or needs. When someone tells you ‘Hang in there’, do you feel you’ve established a meaningful connexion with someone who genuinely cares, or has heard and listened to you? Does ‘keep the faith’ answer your most pressing need?
Here is a cliché to describe the benefit of clichés: they are as useful as a sieve in a sinking rowboat.
As odd as it sounds, sometimes people do not want a solution or an alternative way out, they want to be heard. They’ve reached out because they can’t find the answers, or the comfort, within themselves. Isolation is a terrible thing, especially when you’re hurting. Engaging in one-upmanship, answering before you’ve been asked, lumbering the sorrowful with adages and words of dubious wisdom, increase the feelings of isolation. The need to be heard and acknowledged can be greater than the need to be fixed, and there’s nothing more frustrating than trying to get something off your chest when the other person only cares about resolving the issue—your feelings aren’t important.
Reality and resolution are fine, they have their place, but they also have their appropriate moment. The ‘tough love’ approach to healing does not help. I read one website posting in which a person was advised, ‘this is going to be tough, you have to dig in, it’s going to hurt, you’re going to want to give up….’ In that event, I’d take the trouble over the cure.
It isn’t that people don’t mean well—that’s the problem, they do mean well, and don’t know the right things to do. Unless you actually know what you are doing, talking may be the very worst thing to do. It is vitally, critically, supremely important to remember—what you are doing literally is a matter of life and death.
It’s very hard for many people to reach out. I’ve been reading submissions from a veteran who is (according to his posting) so tough bullets flee from him, and bombs cower before him. The problem is that his tough statements reveal wounded vulnerability; to this man, reaching out would be an act of weakness. I hope someday soon he learns that reaching out is an act of courage. It seems paradoxical, revealing ‘weakness’ takes strength, admitting to fear requires courage.
So what is a person to do? How can we genuinely help?
Open ears, open heart, open arms, close mouth. Remember the conversation is not about you. If you have a shared experience, phrase it in such a way that you’re not saying you know what the other person is going through, but that you remember what you went through and how can you help? You are not in competition to see who has suffered more. Do not offer advice, just listen. When s/he is ready for advice, s/he will ask for it. To have reached this point in communication has taken great courage (possibly prompted by the deepest sense of desperation). Support and acknowledge that.
When the time comes to offer help, be part of the solution. ‘We can do this,’ as opposed to the more frequently used, ‘you need to do this, you need to do that, you and you and you.’ In that event, feelings of isolation increase. No one reaches out to be alone (and reaching out for the wrong result is worse than being alone.) In order for this to be beneficial, you must be committed and see it through to the end. There is no place for changing your mind and withdrawing. That is a betrayal of trust.
I believe we all want to be heard, understood, accepted, and validated. We do not want to be alone, or judged, or told what to do alone. There is value in knowing others share your view that your difficulty is serious. There is freedom in knowing that it is all right to be incapable of dealing with a particularly painful problem on your own. Some people are so badly damaged by circumstance and experience that they can’t or won’t believe this about themselves, but these are basic human needs.
Here’s another paradox—to be truly alone, you need other people to avoid.
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