Suicidal people are often called selfish or cowardly, but how often are they called exhausted or terrified? Andrew Lawes shares his story.
Content warning: contains frank and honest descriptions of suicidal ideation and self-harm.
I’ll never forget the darkest night of my depression. I’d been off work for months due to the state of my mental health. The medication I was taking, rather than helping, was contributing to the growing feeling that I was losing any control I had over my mind. Night after night I’d go to bed and lie there, unable to sleep, while my mind raced along at a mile a minute. I couldn’t even form a narrative to my thoughts. It was as if I had two or three minds, each thinking about different things, thoughts forming too fast to begin to comprehend each one in isolation. Trying to sleep only exacerbated the situation, as with no outside stimulus there was nothing to distract my mind, allowing my thoughts free reign over my consciousness. I’d open my eyes in the hope of some respite, but that didn’t help. Now, in addition to the thoughts in my head, I had the shadows to contend with too. Each dark shape that was cast onto my bedroom wall had a life of its own, moving, taking up new forms, almost at will. They seemed less like shadows and more like entities, not just a mere absence of light, but some form of dark power swarming around my room, preparing to envelop me at any moment. When I closed my eyes to block them out, it just led back to the rampaging thoughts that were impossible to tame.
It’s hard to truly describe how this happening night after night affects your psyche, but it left me a broken man. After weeks of this horrific cycle, I reached a point where I was desperate for some control, some sort of power over the situation. I’d talked to people, I’d taken medication I was told would help, I’d even stopped smoking. Anything that had been advised to me I had attempted, and all of it had been in vain. I went into my kitchen and I picked up the biggest knife I could find. I placed the edge against my skin, applied pressure and slowly, deliberately, pulled the knife inwards.
As the blood began to flow, the thoughts in my head slowed. I felt a dark calmness creep over my body. I placed the blade against my skin and repeated the process. One cut became two; two cuts became four; eventually both my arms were covered with shallow cuts, blood streaming down my arms. A scene straight from a horror film, yet for the first time in months, I was at peace.
It would be easy to look back at such a night with a sense of shame or embarrassment. It would be easy to paint me as someone who had lost his mind. The truth is the complete opposite. That night, those acts of self-harm, was me taking some form of control over what was happening to me. It was an extreme solution, but it had been an extreme problem that I was trying to overcome. That night was the culmination of weeks of mental torture of which there seemed no escape. Aside from hurting myself, there was only one other way I could think of to end the insanity festering inside me, and I’d promised my new-born niece I would not turn to such an act of finality.
When people think of those who make the decision to end their own life, they often use words such as “stupid”, “selfish” and “cowardly”. To do so is to completely fail to understand the sheer terror and desperation that depression leads you to feel. Every thought we have, every action we take is governed by our mind, and when you feel like your mind is working against you, when you feel like your thoughts are no longer your own and everything you try in an attempt to get better only makes you worse, it is no longer about living or dying. It is about ending the madness, stopping the insanity, before it takes you over completely.
I hear people refer to those who self-harm as “attention seeking”, and I wish they would take a few minutes to attempt to understand the persons’ side of things and the reason why they choose to self-harm. Instead of judging, mocking or getting angry, try to take a few minutes to think of the reasons behind it. People who self-harm aren’t, as a rule, doing so to gain attention; they are doing so either to feel some form of control over one aspect of their lives, or to feel something, anything, at all. Maybe, instead of dismissing someone as “attention-seeking”, people should interpret it as “control-seeking” or even simply “help-seeking”, and try to support them through the situation. For somebody to get to the point where they are self-harming, something is going wrong, either in their thought processes or in their life. Instead of judging, mocking or getting angry, try to think of why somebody may be feeling that way, why they feel such an extreme solution is the only way of coping, and try to show some empathy with the person. Ask if there is any way you can help. Let them know you will listen if they want to talk. Sometimes, when you feel so alone, just knowing that somebody cares enough to listen can make all the difference.
While self-harm and suicide are not always a result of depression, the three are intrinsically linked. Depression affects one in four people, which means it is likely it will enter your life at some point, if not directly then through a friend or family member. It is not a mood. It is a severely debilitating illness that causes devastation to peoples’ lives, and anybody can be struck down with it at any time. It cares not for money, social class, race, gender or career – it can attack anybody, at any time. Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking it won’t affect you, because any trauma, any unforeseen stressful incident could trigger the illness.
It is not, however, a life sentence. It can be beaten. The sad part is that it takes a lot of strength and energy to fight it and it attacks you when you are at your weakest. It often does so subtly, in a way that you barely even notice until one day you just can’t cope anymore. It makes you feel ashamed of yourself, too scared to talk to people about it for fear of labelling, of being put in an institution and of being tarnished forever. At the very moment you need help the most, it is the hardest time to ask for it.
I talk of depression as a separate entity invading my mind, because to me, that’s what it is. You are not your depression. It does not define you. It is an illness. You are not “mad”. You are not a “freak”. You are just poorly, and you will get better. It can be a long, painful process – it has taken me many years to get to the point where I can say I am happy, but I am. I’ve had relapses since, I’ve freaked out, had spells where my anxieties are through the roof, but I’ve made it through, and you will too. It will take time, but you will get there. Don’t be scared to ask for help. Don’t be scared to tell someone what you are going through. I can’t promise that every person will be sympathetic, but I do think you’ll be surprised at how many people understand. I know I was.
If someone you know appears to be struggling, please offer them support and understanding, and then listen if they talk, Don’t interrupt, don’t offer advice unless it is asked for, just listen. Be there for them. It could make all the difference. One day, this horrible, vile illness could strike you. I hope it doesn’t, because it is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, but it might.
If you are struggling with depression, or thoughts or self-harm or suicide, please try to talk to someone, be it a friend, family member, doctor, colleague or even just an anonymous person on the internet or at the end of a phone. I promise you, however much the illness makes you feel like you are, you are not alone. You are never alone.
Please call 800-273-8255 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org if you’re thinking about hurting yourself. There are people who can help you.