A few days ago, through World Suicide Prevention Day, we honoured lives lost and lost souls on the brink. We heard from many voices discussing the need to speak out, to reach out and to be aware. We heard touching stories of lives lost and lives saved. Like you, I was moved by the stories that were shared.
Mine is one of those stories. It is no surprise to many of you reading this post that I once attempted to take my own life. I have blogged and tweeted about that for the past year. In doing so, I have also shared some of the techniques that I use to buttress my recovery in the hopes that you may find similar support. I have shared with you my good fortune at the support I have received from individuals and agencies in furtherance of my recovery.
I have not fully recovered. I am not certain that I ever will.
Statistically speaking, I remain at highest risk. I am still a single white male, over 50 who is unemployed. Added to this mix is the truth that I have attempted to take my own life before.
Despite that stark grimness, I have new tools and new hope which I rely upon to keep the darkness at bay. This was not always the case. Initially, all that I had was hope, and my recovery was precarious. This post is about that period of time, the beginning of life after my attempt.
I will be blunt. I did not expect to survive. My action was not a cry for help. It was a complete abdication of a desire to live. I saw no other solution to my pain, was unable to fathom that there was a solution and had convinced myself of my utter lack of worth. However, my survival forced me to reconsider everything and also forced me to face some unsettling new stressors.
I had to face the unsettling fact that all of the tangible reasons for my feeling of worthlessness, my being alone, my being unemployed, my being homeless, continued to be true. As for the intangible reasons, well, depressive episodes do not necessarily have known causes and feed off all of your doubts and uncertainties. To those I had just added an unhealthy dose of additional guilt and shame. I awoke on September 13, 2014 with the full weight and knowledge of my act of the day prior with one massive exception, hope had begun to supplant my desire to die.
I also awoke with a security guard in my room. So addled was my mind that it took several hours before the realization dawned that the guard was there to protect me from me. That was an unsettling thought. That I needed to be protected from myself. In all of the darkness and planning, never once had I considered that I needed to protect myself from myself. Nonetheless, I did.
With this thought came the added realization that even though I was homeless and alone, I could not stay that way. This meant that I had to finally ask for help. I advised the hospital counselor that I was going to ask my parents if I could stay with them. Remember that guilt and shame I mentioned above, it now hit me smack in the face because it was my parents who found me and called 911 and now I was being called upon to ask them for help. To their credit, and my continued gratitude, they opened their home to me.
My attempt was on September 2. I was discharged less than 24 hours later into, I must now admit, the care of two people who had great intention but no understanding of what I was experiencing. I was in the midst of an anguish they could not comprehend. Yet, I had solved, for the foreseeable future, my homelessness and, to a limited extent, my loneliness.
On September 4 I had my second, and last, meeting with the hospital counselor. In retrospect, that was a mistake as I will explain in a moment. In the course of this meeting, I was given the name of the Canadian Mental Health Agency and a contact number (that proved to be wrong). I undertook to call the CMHA and the meeting concluded after about twenty minutes. Far too brief, for which I blame myself, but then I did not know what was to come.
I called the CMHA that afternoon and experienced my first setback. I explained my circumstances, and was told that no-one could meet with me, in my home, for at least a month. That was devastating to me. Of course, to anyone familiar with the mental health system, such a delay is commonplace. But to someone in dire straits, it was potentially life-threatening. This is the truth of our system – resources are stretched so thin, lives are at risk.
Upon learning of this delay, I broke down over the phone and begged for something sooner. I expressed that I simply did not have that time, that I was in more immediate need. In the end, I was able to get an appointment, at the CMHA offices, within a week. Notice the difference, my home versus their office. It was the policy of CMHA to come to your home, however, at that time they did not have the resources, or policies in place, to meet people in northern Durham in a timely way. To their credit, since then, the CMHA has modified its practice and has now opened a branch office in northern Durham to service people in my situation. Now, no-one has to wait a month for that initial meeting.
My meeting with the CMHA went well. However, in the end, it still took a month for the application to be vetted and resources to be allocated for me in northern Durham. And therein lies the mistake I referred to earlier, and also lies confirmation of my parents inability to care for me, for over the course of that month I received no other support. I was on my own. It did not occur to me, as addle-minded as I was, and it did not occur to my parents, to call the counselor and get treatment while I waited for the CMHA to process things and meet with me.
One important step during my meeting with the CMHA was my applying for social assistance. I had no income. I was unable to work and the CMHA helped me complete the application. Frankly, the thought had never entered my mind until I was asked by the intake worker. As with my eventual meeting with a CMHA case worker, my application for assistance took time to process.
Within these first few days, I learned some truths about life after an attempt, namely, that the system moves at its own slow pace, and that you have to be willing to work on your own. It is your recovery. No-one is invested in it as much, or as little, as you are.
My days waiting were not idle, nor were they mine. I spent a great deal of time on my parents computer researching what might be wrong with me. The counselor used the word “depressed” but what did that mean? I researched depression, bookmarked sites, and printed off volumes of how-to guides. I read them all. But my comprehension was lacking and much of what I read was lost to me.
Sadly, during all of this, my every action was monitored by my parents, my every deed scrutinized. Yes, they were concerned for me, and yes they were protecting me from myself, but they were also massively unequipped to cope with what I was going through and placed me under a level of scrutiny that was invasive. Very quickly, it became apparent that I could not continue to live with them. Even more quickly, it became apparent that my presence was an unwelcome burden. In time, with the assistance of the CMHA, I found a new home.
The CMHA also helped me navigate the services available to me in my community. Those services are wide, varied and, unless you are in the “know”, completely oblivious to most. They were entirely oblivious to me and my parents. But, with the guidance of the CMHA I was directed to individual and group counselling. In both cases, I had to apply and then await a reply. I can assure you, when you are on the edge, every delay is a lifetime. You both want to begin to heal and cannot as the resources are not yet yours to use.
The counselors that I met were all very capable and compassionate people. Yet, behind that compassion was the stark truth that I was only in their office because I had attempted to take my own life. Everything that followed, flowed from this act. Thus, another truth about life after an attempt: while you are dealing with the day to day minutiae of living, you also face the fact that everyone now looks at you differently. You have, by virtue of your act, become “unclean”, somehow a threat, even if only to yourself. No matter how compassionate someone may be, when you express that you are struggling, immediately they jump to the question, “Are you experiencing ideations?” There is no middle ground, no space where you can admit to struggling just like everyone else does.
Another necessity was getting medical help. In this I was fortunate as my parents’ physician agreed to take me on as a patient. I was very quickly prescribed medication which, like everything else in mental health, takes time to have effect, and referred to a psychiatrist. However, for some reason unknown to me, I was not referred to the in-house counselling at my new doctor’s office. In point of fact, I did not know in-house counselling existed until some months later. But I often wonder why a referral to it was not automatic. To my mind, this led to unnecessary delay in my getting counselling treatment.
During all of this I had no guidance from my parents. They left it to me to navigate everything. It did not occur to them to help me find help. It did not occur to them to ask their doctor what resources were available. Of course, it did not occur to me either.
So, let me bring this all together. In the first month or so after my attempt I was in touch with the CMHA but not yet a client. I had a doctor, and had been prescribed medication, but I had no psychiatrist. I had parents who expressed willingness to help, but who had no ability to do so. Against this, I had no home of my own, no job, no income, no therapy. I had no knowledge of the resources available to me nor an appreciation of how to get this knowledge. I did have shame and guilt and self-loathing. I did have the need to talk to my son, and the unfortunate fact of having to do that before I was ready.
And I had hope. That hope fueled my research. I wanted to know what was wrong with me and how to fix it. My research confirmed my suspicion that one element of the fix was to become more transparent. Therapy would only be as good as my willingness to share. Equally as importantly, my research, the fact that I was an active participant in my recovery, served to show me that effort would be needed to effect any fix. Medication certainly helped, but it was not a cure.
Through all of this effort, there were times when I was overwhelmed. Yes, I had a shelter, but what I also needed was a helping hand, someone to pick up the pieces when I dropped them. Fortunately, this helping hand was given to me once the CMHA came on board. Prior to that, though, the fact of being overwhelmed, the fact of delay and the lack of treatment, meant that I was constantly on edge. Incidental things took on huge import, and confrontation undid me. More than once, while I waited for the CMHA to help and the medication to take effect, I broke down. Each time I broke down, I could feel the pull to darkness. Each time I grasped on to that sliver of hope and resisted. But it was precarious.
There you have it. A glimpse into the first few days and weeks of my life after an attempt to end it. It is fairly mundane, much of life is, but while I went through it, nothing was mundane. Everything had a tinge of life or death. I chose life.
About John Dickson
A lifelong battle with Major Depressive Disorder resulted in a suicide attempt. That attempt taught me the danger of being silent about my personal struggles with mental health. I’ve had to learn to be more open about my struggle. I now choose to reach out with the hope that someone will be inspired and end his/her own silence. I’m a dad, a blogger and a new convert to the power of social media.