“There is hope, even when your brain tells you there isn’t”
Turtles All The Way Down by John Green
This year, the theme for World Suicide Prevention Day is ‘Creating Hope Through Action’ so I thought I’d create this piece concentrating on the largest things I’ve done – the actions I’ve taken – to stay alive and to cope with suicidal thoughts and feelings in a healthy and safe way. I really hope that someone can read this and gain some sort of inspiration and ideas of actions they too can take to stay alive…
When the abuse started in November 2006, the first element that I found myself confronting in the decision to tell someone immediately, was the recognition that it was actually wrong. I mean, my sexual education at school literally just went as far as putting a condom on a banana and being told how to apply a tampon! It meant that the only reason I knew that what was happening to me was wrong, was the feeling. It felt wrong. It felt wrong for someone to cause so much pain and upset to another person. Especially when that person was repeatedly asking and fighting for it to end.
It seemed as though as soon as I came to the conclusion that the abuse was wrong and that I needed help from someone to end it, my abuser turned up his manipulation skills and improved on his threats so that they became my next contender in the process of deciding whether or not to tell someone. And I think that this is something which most others haven’t understood about the abuse… You know, I have friends and family assuring me they would have believed me if I’d told them and that they wouldn’t have thought me to be responsible in any way. But, when there’s this one person in the whole world who is having the biggest impact on your life, it’s difficult to ignore or contradict what they tell you or what they ask of you. It can almost become an instinct to just do what they say. And his threats of what he’d do if I did speak up…? Well, they silenced me too.
Looking back across my life, I think I’m quite a tolerant person in that I will put up with a lot of different experiences with a person or an organisation, but then it gets to that point of being the straw that broke the camel’s back. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with that – sometimes that’s a good quality. But it can also be bad because there will be instances where, if I’d confronted them at the time, it might not have escalated. And I guess, the abuse was one of those; because the longer I kept quiet, the worse things got – not just in terms of actions, but my thoughts and feelings too. I mean, I remember being in my abuser’s office and looking out of his window and thinking ‘the only way this will end is if I end my life.’
I thought that losing hope in that way – thinking that the only way to escape these horrible experiences and the memories I was realising I’d have to live with would be by killing myself – at the age of 15 didn’t bode well for any kind of happy, healthy, safe future. As though, if I was already broken in my teens, what chance did I have of mending for adulthood? Somehow, though, I made it to eighteen – two years after the abuse had finished – before I made my first suicide attempt… But I kept shtum when it came to telling all these professionals who were suddenly a huge part of my life, about the abuse.
After my second suicide attempt a few months later, I was sectioned under the 1983 Mental Health Act and hospitalised to a Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) where I made my first friendship with another inpatient. It was ironic because on my tour of the ward – when I first saw her – I was terrified, and I remember actually shrinking back away from her. She had bandages from her wrists to her shoulders and always seemed to have this angry aura about her. Then, I found myself in the secure courtyard with her (I had gone out for fresh air, and she was out to smoke) and for some reason we began talking… (I actually find that all of the most monumental moments in my mental health journey are sometimes hard to pinpoint how they actually came about) And again, for some reason, she began telling me how she’d been abused by a family member and all of a sudden, my own experience of abuse was just pouring out of my mouth, and it was like before I knew it, I was drowning in a mixture of the memories and the tears.
Thing is, there’d been this argument between myself, and my abuser and his boss overheard and came storming out of his office (we were yelling in the corridor just outside of it) to yell why I thought I had the right to say all the things he’d heard me saying to my abuser. And the building anger and frustration at wanting to escape the entire situation, meant that I was screaming back at him what his employee had been doing to me. I was promptly told that I was a manipulative liar and was literally banished from the building. With that in mind, of course I’d kept quiet for two years(!), and of course it was so strange and shocking that I was suddenly telling this complete stranger absolutely everything I’d felt incapable of telling the more appropriate people e.g., family, friends, professionals, Police etc. But, thinking about it, I felt so lonely and isolated both during the abuse and in the two years immediately after it; so, to hear someone else say they’ve been through it (as horrible as it is to hear anyone has gone through anything even remotely similar to my own experiences) is somewhat… stabilising.
All that shock and surprise at telling a stranger though, is nothing compared to my gratitude and appreciation for this girl and for my actions in finally talking about it, because without her and my decision, I might have never reported it. Might have never spoken to the Police. He might have never been arrested. He wouldn’t have a criminal record. And these are all things I’m ultimately grateful for having happened. But I won’t lie, making the report – having a verbal interview, writing my statement, having my video interview – it wasn’t immediately gratifying. I was in no way immediately relieved or reassured. That came a while later. The notion that I was unburdened and that now there was the opportunity to protect others, didn’t really hit me until I progressed through the recovery of my mental illness. And I think that was because I was so unwell (mentally) that I was just in this tunnel where all I could see was darkness. Darkness in anything and everything that happened. I couldn’t find any positives. My rose-tinted sunglasses weren’t just smashed, they were thrown completely out of reach. Which meant that I initially viewed the report as a complete waste because the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) deemed there to not be enough evidence to prosecute my abuser, and a catalyst for my mental health to actually worsen due to the upset of having to talk about all these details that I’d worked so hard to destroy.
Finally, though, when things began to improve (around four years later) I found myself with a new, healthier, and more validating way of thinking in my views around reporting the abuse. The most helpful and therapeutic thought process I now have around reporting the abuse is in the notion that it means I have done everything I can to protect others – to stop him doing this to more people. Believing this has meant I’ve felt relieved of the anger that was surrounding the thought that he was very likely doing it all again to another child. You know, I’ve learnt a lot through my recovery and the other elements I’ll talk about in this post, but one of the biggest was around responsibility. I’ve become more able to accept consequences for anything I’m completely responsible for. And there was a lot of anger at the thought that my abuser was escaping any sort of punishment or consequence because he was denying responsibility for the entire thing; yet I was having to deal the repercussions of my own role in other situations. But, in becoming this healthier and more positive person; I can now see that being the one to take responsibility makes me the bigger person. The better person.
So, I guess my message to anyone out there who might be feeling suicidal either because they haven’t reported their experiences, or because they have; is to know that, unlike many things, what a lot of professionals say about this is actually true – your abuser really does win if you go ahead and act on any suicidal thoughts and feelings. It’s almost like saying they are worthy of your entire life – including worthy of being credited as the reason why you died.
In the summer of 2012, I remember having this one thought ‘I can’t do this anymore’ and it was almost as though I blinked and suddenly, I found myself in the resuscitation department of a local hospital after a suicide attempt, with an Anaesthetist telling me: “we’re going to have to put you on life support to save your life.” Then, in a bit of a haze – yet with really saddening clarity – I said: “I hope something goes wrong and I die anyway.”
When I was woken up from the coma, I was told – in no uncertain way and by numerous people – that I needed to go to a psychiatric hospital specialising in my diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disordered, and which was over 100 miles away from home. The problem was, not long before this, a Psychiatrist had recommended I be admitted to a specialist hospital and so my community mental health team had arranged for me to meet with the staff from the nearest one; the hospital I was being told I had to be admitted to, was one I had just refused to go to.
I kind of cringe now, but in all honesty, my one reason for refusing to voluntarily go to that hospital wasn’t about being far from home, nor about the fact their average length of admission was 12 – 18 months; instead, it was because they had ‘morning meetings,’ a ‘therapeutic timetable,’ and ‘reflection meetings.’ The thought of such structure and loss of control over how I spent my time was hugely unappealing and I guess that ultimately, I wasn’t in a position where I recognised that I need, or wanted, help. But waking up from being on life support? That was a massive kick up the bum that really pushed me towards the sudden – and surprisingly scary – realisation that if I didn’t get help, I really was going to end up dead.
So, waking up in the Intensive Care Unit, I agreed to go; and my voluntary admission meant I was able to go home for a few days before the hospital’s staff picked me and my two suitcases up… I later found out that there’d been a hugely elaborate plan to have me sectioned under the 1983 Mental Health Act and taken there against my will. Everyone saw my agreement to go as a big step forward, but really, I’d gotten it in my head that if this place didn’t make me feel better, I could just run away and make another suicide attempt, and my agreement to go might leave people thinking and finding comfort in the notion that at least I had tried.
Looking back, I’m pretty fortunate that unlike so many people, I didn’t ever have to contend with the fear and belief that getting help for my mental health was like admitting I was too weak to get through it by myself. I think that, like a lot of things in life, how I was raised has had a huge impact on the absence of this challenge because whilst my Mum is very independent, she always recognises when it’s time to get help and has shown me that doing so, is actually a true sign of bravery and strength.
My absence of complete commitment to the admission meant that within 24 hours of arriving on the ward, I was trying to leave and subsequently ended up being sectioned. Looking back, I think that this was testament to the fact that whilst I didn’t see getting help as a weakness, I really wasn’t willing to cooperate with those who were ‘supposedly’ (at the time, I was very sceptical that the staff’s actions were in my best interests) working to help and support me. And I think this is evidence for the thought process and belief that you can throw all your resources at someone, but if they don’t want to engage, you can’t help them make any difference/change. Although, I would disagree that this makes your efforts and energy a waste in any way, because at least you’ve tried, and – hopefully – at the very least they’ll know (or be reminded) that you’re there.
To think to one moment where I can pinpoint that was the greatest influence in me finally cooperating and engaging with the staff, therapy, and medication; it would be when I ran away from the hospital after being an inpatient for about a year. I had earned unescorted leave in the grounds of the hospital, so I jumped the hospital fence, went over the fence of the care home next door, and then into a person’s garden and out of their gate to a taxi I’d already booked to be waiting there for me.
I went to the nearest bus and train station and travelled from there to another city, all the while taking actions that would be classed as a suicide attempt (I don’t want to go into details) so that when I got to the other train station and there were Police waiting for me, it was already too late to prevent it. It was decided that the Police would transport me on their lights and sirens to a medical hospital where the psychiatric staff would meet us and take over being with me for the medical treatment. From there, I have vague memories of being given mild sedative injections whilst the Doctors tried to find a vein to administer the antidote for what I had done, and then I remember my favourite Psychiatrist being there and saying she agreed I should go on life support to have the treatment against my wishes.
I was on life support for a lot longer than the first time and so when I was taken off it, I had so many side effects; the main ones being extreme tiredness and nausea/vomiting. Being taken back to the psychiatric hospital, I was looking forward to seeing the other inpatients I’d come to see as friends, but the staff took me to the Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) on the floor above. My biggest fears of being on that ward were because I’d heard so many horror stories of what it was like, you could hear screaming and banging from there back on our ward, and one patient actually killed another while I was on the ward below! Fortunately, the staff listened when I told them that being on the PICU wasn’t helpful for me and I just wanted to be with my own things, with the staff I knew, and with the girls I could draw strength and support from; so, I was moved back downstairs a few days later.
I think that the reason this incident became such a fundamental turning point in my mental health recovery, was because it was like a shock to the system… I’m very much a learn-the-hard-way type of person because it seems to take big ‘mistakes’ or ‘failed’ decisions for me to recognise something that a dozen people might have already tried telling me or warning me about. Part of me wonders whether this is to do with an issue of trust that relates back to the abuse and how this person – who was trusted by so many people (my family and friends included) – had managed to use that as a huge manipulation tool. And so maybe I question the validity of some of the things people tell me.
Having this enormous awakening, left me genuinely doubting just how much I wanted to actually die. I wondered whether it was more about wanting to simply escape my reality of feeling overwhelmed by the abuse memories and controlled by the hallucinations. And so, coming close to ending everything felt like a huge arrow pointing to a sign that read ‘too far.’ Like, I’d taken my desperation to escape too far because I really could have died, even though that hadn’t been my real intention or goal. In fairness, escaping and suicide can often come so close together for a lot of people… And it just so happens that, for me, I could only see the difference after coming so close to almost achieving one of them. The one which would have completely taken away the opportunity for me recognise that wasn’t what I wanted. It’s like that saying that suicide doesn’t just take away the prospect of things getting worse; it also prevents the chance of things becoming better and – perhaps, in some ways – easier.
So, with this new realisation and the memories of just how awful I felt (both physically and mentally) before, during, and after the suicide attempt, I finally agreed to stick to the medication regime that had been prescribed. The medication was never meant to be ‘the answer;’ but it definitely became the reason why I was able to then engage in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) sessions – both group and individual.
In all honesty, almost straight away I felt relieved to be finally well enough and motivated enough to be taught these new, safe, healthy coping skills. I think this was because when they sectioned me and admitted me to the psychiatric hospital, they kind of stripped me of all the behaviours I engaged in with the belief that they would help me in some way. Of course, it’s not as though there’s no way you can self-harm or attempt suicide as an inpatient, but my routine methods were gone. For me, and a lot of others that happens to, it can mean resorting to different – sometimes more unsafe – ways. So, to finally have the people who I held responsible for this change finally telling me these different coping skills was like a weight lifted. I mean, my belief of them being hugely to blame, was lifted and replaced with forgiveness now that I recognised, they were trying to help (which, I now know, they had been doing since Day One!).
Whilst I finally began to see their good intentions, I still found some fault in the DBT sessions… Firstly, some of the staff seemed to be putting far too much pressure on the notion that if absolutely all the skills weren’t working for you, you were failing at it. As though there was no hope for recovery or discharge from hospital if these specific coping mechanisms weren’t being tried, used, and found/determined to be successful. So, I was an avid ‘spokesperson(!)’ for the attitude that everyone is different – particularly when it comes to mental health and talking about coping skills – and that means recovery should be defined to each individual as an individual, and recommended treatments (including therapy, medication, and coping mechanisms) considered on the basis of the person being treat and nothing else. I mean, there’s a lot of boxing in mental health services where too many professionals are presenting and labelling service users and patients with a diagnosis and then automatically treating and responding to them as is average or typical for others with the same diagnosis. Never considering that two people can hold the same diagnosis yet have completely different symptoms, different causes or influences on their mental health, and different coping methods for their various experiences.
That I could recognise this important aspect of psychiatric care, meant that – fortunately – I didn’t worry or fear that because Mindfulness didn’t work for me, I would never get better! I’ll admit that unlike a lot of things in my life, I actually didn’t really give the Mindfulness module a chance in putting more effort and time into learning more about it than what my assumptions had defined it to be. I thought it was all about prayers, sniffing candles, meditating, thinking of a safe place… I didn’t consider it to be practical. I didn’t consider it to be anywhere near powerful and important enough to work against everything I was struggling with.
These days, I’m actually a fan of Mindfulness and use it a lot when I’m at events, with friends, with my Mum, spending time with my pets… When I was learning about the coping skill, my key worry was that if I allowed myself to really be present in the moment then I’d become even more suicidal – if that was at all possible! So, now – being in recovery – I find that actually, I really want to be completely and wholly in the moment when I’m having such amazing or special experiences because these are the moments that make me glad to be alive. Glad to have fought so hard for my life. And so grateful for all the people in my life who believed in me and my ability to have a recovery and future that was worth all of the time, effort, and resources they had put in to save me.
One particular organisation who had such faith in me and the potential life I could lead with their help and support, was Richmond Fellowship. When, after two and a half years, I was finally discharged from the psychiatric hospital, I moved into my own home and fell under the care of the organisation’s ‘Floating Support’ in my locality. This meant regular, weekly visits from their Recovery Workers who would take me to do my food shopping, collect my medication dosette boxes, and run general errands. And I’m fully aware these sound like such basic activities but after over thirty months in a psychiatric hospital with very little chance of being independent and doing these things for yourself, it makes them challenging and – in the very beginning of my discharge – daunting. I was actually pretty intimidated by the thought of not being surrounded by people literally 24/7 (which was one huge reason why I got a cat within a week of moving into my own home) and so having company in the form of the Recovery Workers, felt really comforting.
As though their support in this way wasn’t incredible enough, as I progressed through recovery in the community and began working with organisations for blog content and attending events, Richmond Fellowship started offering me some incredible opportunities. My favourite of these, has been two occasions:
1. The Working Together Forums which I was first invited to Co-Chair in 2017 and then, seeing my enjoyment for the role and my ability to carry it out, I was asked to Chair the Forum in May 2018 (which you can read about here) and November 2018 (here). Unfortunately, the Forums went virtual through lockdown and in the wake of the pandemic, but I thoroughly enjoyed being trusted with so much responsibility and to be seen as worthy to be in such an important role.
2. The Working Together Committee which I was asked to join a few years ago. This was another huge honour because the Committee is primarily made up of staff of a high standing e.g., Department Heads and various Directors etc so I think to have myself and other service users be part of this, is a massive illustration of the organisation’s real passion and dedication for including the people they support in everything they do.
Both of these very amazing opportunities Richmond Fellowship have provided might – to some people – be perceived to be instances that should occur. That mental health services should involve the people they support in as many ways as possible. And, whilst I’d agree that this should be the case, let’s be honest – there’s not a huge number of services that do this! I mean, when I first got referred to psychiatric services in 2009, you’d be lucky to have a professional’s attention for more than ten minutes never mind actually being listened to and respected as equally as their senior staff were. And so, hats off to Richmond Fellowship for doing just that.
That service who I struggled to get help and support from all those years ago was Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust (CNTW). It was their poor treatment of those with a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder and their lack of resources to help those people, that was the catalyst for me having to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital over 100 miles away from home. So, moving back to their locality, I was terrified they still held the same attitude and dismissive behaviours… but actually, there’d been such an enormous change!
The part (and in my opinion, the most important part) of CNTW to have the largest, most radical change was their Crisis Resolution Home Treatment Team. I mean, when I’d left, they were the most terrible people for effective communication. They were hostile and dismissive. They were unkind and judgmental. Just, literally the people I was absolutely the least likely to go to in a crisis! Yet, when I moved back, and found that recovery definitely isn’t as linear as the professionals imply it to be, they seemed to be more validating and supportive. They listened to me without interrupting and asked what I would like to happen rather than dictating things and making arrangements that went completely against my wishes. Again, do these sound-like qualities that mental health staff should exhibit anyway? Yes, but having experienced a loss of these, it can be completely easy to appreciate them so much more and to be so much more grateful in a completely simpler way.
Whilst the us vs them culture in mental health is extremely well talked about and fairly well known amongst those outside of the industry, something which I think is rarely spoken about – that comes into play here – is that service users can be segregated by their opinions and experiences of services. I once wrote a blog post about being under the care of the Crisis Team and a reader messaged me to point out that not everyone felt that way about them… As though I wasn’t aware that what/who is helpful for one person may not be useful for someone else?!
With that in mind, I think it’s important that this is recognised in me talking about how accepting help saved my life. I want to say that I can appreciate if there’s someone reading this and thinking ‘who the hell will I turn to for help?!’ And to that person – or people – please know that help will come along. It might not even look like a person… Blogging and all the opportunities and experiences that I’m NOT Disordered has brought to my life, has been hugely helpful for my mental health recovery. So please don’t lose hope if a person or organisation seems to be unsupportive or even if you feel they’re making things worse.
That doesn’t mean you’re broken beyond help.
That doesn’t mean you should give up.
Because my readers are literally scattered across the world, I won’t be listing helplines. So, if you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts please ring a local helpline, and if your life is in danger, please call your emergency services