The Gift of the Lived Experience

I’m not sure anyone wakes up in hospital to the dawning awareness that they tried to take their own life the night before and understands that it will turn out to be one of the most important and defining moments of their life.

I can still see my ashen-faced mother beside my bed when I opened my eyes, still feel myself catch my breath as the fragments of memories began to piece back together to form a picture of the night before; my desperation, a friend’s phone call, an ambulance, my brother at the end of my bed, my friends, my heartbroken parents.

A kind social worker came to see me that morning and his words have stayed with me for the 30 years it has taken me to write this. He explained the merry-go-round analogy, the sense of wanting to stop the world and get off, to pause time, to catch my breath and regroup and make a plan; all of the things I couldn’t seem to do while the world kept spinning and I kept feeling more and more out of control. Looking back, they may not seem like big things, but at 17, they felt all consuming. Falling behind with my study preparations for my HSC trials, a destructive relationship, fraught family dynamics, feeling isolated even whilst surrounded by friends, confusion, overwhelmed; it was all fairly standard teenage stuff but for me, when it all came crashing together in that one desperate moment, that one night, I just had to make it stop.

The message that social worker left me with was that was ok to feel all of those things, I just needed to ask for help, that help was always available and that nothing, nothing ever, was worth my life. That it was worth living, that I was worth saving.

His words carried me through the excruciating days and weeks that followed as I navigated my way through returning to a life that looked pretty much the same, yet I was forever altered. I had to return to school knowing that everyone knew, face questions I couldn’t answer, watch people struggle to make eye contact with me or turn away because they just didn’t know what to say. What do you say?  And how could I explain? I was the girl most unlikely. There was an overwhelming sense of shock. ‘’Her?’ ‘Really?’ ‘What?’ ‘Why?’

Only one or two friends of mine knew I was struggling before that night and all these years on, only a handful of friends would know I have continued to live with mental health issues on and off my entire adult life. Until now, I have told perhaps 10 people about my suicide attempt 30 years ago. Until now.

I have come to understand that my silence, my fear of judgement, my hesitation to reveal my whole story is one of the reasons our suicide statistics are so shocking. Of course I am not single handedly responsible, it is our collective avoidance of this conversation that is costing lives every day. It needs change and we are all responsible for speaking up, for asking questions when our instinct tells us to, for sharing our experiences and our struggles when we feel brave enough, to create a space for others to do the same. I believe if we can do that, what we will hear is a groundswell of voices saying,  ‘I know’, ‘I’ve been there’, ‘I understand’, ‘This is my experience’, ‘I’m here for you’, ‘I am listening’; without the shame and the stigma, without the judgement and humiliation we have come to expect. We just have to take the first step, to have the courage to start the conversations.

These words will make some people uncomfortable and that’s ok. It gives them the opportunity to sit with that discomfort and question it and explore it and perhaps challenge it when they feel ready to. I have learnt  that other people’s comfort is not my responsibility to carry or be stopped by anymore. This task is too important, the need for change too urgent. Lives depend on it.

I am fortunate enough to have countless people in my life who love me, who would say that they feel they know me well. In truth, they know parts of me, mostly the bubbly, extroverted, warm, welcoming social butterfly; always busy, always surrounded by friends, always happy. That side of me is absolutely real but it is not the whole picture.

I want to be brave enough to be honest with the people in my life, to pick up the phone on the dark days instead of hiding away behind ‘I’m great, really busy!’, when I’m not.  I’m not suggesting that every conversation needs to be heavy and dark, just real. In being open with my friends and family, I give them the opportunity to let their own guard down, to drop any mask they might have been hiding behind, to know that with me, they have a safe place to be themselves. Everyone needs that. Pretending is exhausting. To be loved for everything that you are, to feel completely understood and accepted is one of life’s greatest gifts and it is worth the risk. It is worth the hard conversations. They are the path to true connection, and that is what we all seek.

So I am grateful for that night, all those years ago. I am grateful to have survived; and I survived ONLY because I reached out, and a friend who knew me well asked the right questions. I am grateful for every day I have lived since, even the hardest ones. I am grateful that my parents past 30 years have not been spent in grief and guilt and sadness; that we have had so many moments, created so many memories, that they have seen me happily marry and build a beautiful family of my own, that I have known great love and friendship, great joy and despair and everything in between, that I have lived and lived and lived.

That night has, in many ways, defined me. But until now I didn’t truly understand it’s purpose. It was this; to answer this call, to step up and speak out, to raise awareness, to help save other, precious lives. Suicide is preventable; we just need to start talking about it, to ask people if they are ok and really listen for the answer, to be open about our own struggles even when that feels terrifying, to face our fear and walk through it so others might feel brave enough to follow.

To the friends and family who know and love me, to the ones who were there on that night, if I’ve never thanked you properly, thank you. You saved my life, and you have saved it over and over, every day since, with your love.

To everyone reading this, I leave you with this call to arms against the silence; let’s be brave, let’s talk, let’s accept all of each other, reach out to each other. Conversations save lives. I know, because one saved mine.