*TRIGGER WARNING – SUICIDAL IDEATION*
I’ve sat pretty motionless for the past hour and a half, because if I don’t move, even if I’m not doing something to actively try and distract from these thoughts, at least I’m not doing anything to act on them either.
I can still move my fingertips on the keyboard, as I’m doing now. Twenty minutes ago I typed in the Samaritans’ email address in an open window in my Gmail account, but I haven’t typed anything else in it yet. I got distracted by opening up a private browser window and looking up more information on a particular way to die. As with most ways to die, there appeared to be numerous downsides. And then I came across this:
It is an incredibly poignant article by the late Sally Brampton, who tragically took her own life a few months ago. It is moving, funny, and brutally honest.
I wish I had a suicidal soulmate, like Sally did. Yet somehow I can’t bear the thought of ‘inflicting’ my suicidal ideation on friends, even on those who might on some level be able to relate to how I’m feeling. I don’t want to burden anyone with my thoughts, or cause them to feel as though they are somehow responsible for my safety. I don’t want to talk to anyone; but at the same my inner critic is busy invalidating me and telling me I have no right to share this with anyone. It tells me I have no right to take my feelings seriously; that if they were serious I would have made an attempt on my life already. That if they were serious then my ‘mood states’ would last longer, rather than often being intense but fairly fleeting. I know my inner critic is a liar. I believe my inner critic.
In her article, Sally wrote that when you are in the midst of depression, “the senseless makes sense”. I don’t know whether or not it’s a consequence of neuroplasticity, but I can certainly attest to the fact that over time and given prolonged suicidal ideation, the concept of suicide acquires its own twisted type of logic. I recognise that it is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, and I recognise the devastation it can leave in its wake. But it’s still as if the phrase ‘suicide is logical’ has been rewired into a tautology in my brain. Most of the time I can hold it alongside the concept ‘suicide is not a good solution’. But sometimes I really struggle with that. Like tonight.
I felt such a strange mixture of shock, sadness and relief, when I read how in her darkest times, Sally began to imagine dying together with her daughter, who also suffered from depression; lying side by side, holding hands, and drifting off into an endless sleep. A couple of years ago in one of my own lowest patches, I half-jokingly half-seriously suggested to a close childhood friend of mine who also suffers from depression, that we usher in our next decade together in a similar fashion; holding hands while drifting off into a place of no pain. She called me ‘sick’ and hasn’t spoken to me since. I told another good friend what had happened and she discouraged me from writing about it, saying it wasn’t really one of my better moments. It wasn’t, and I was ashamed of it. But I think I’d always been hoping that behind the ‘sick suggestion’, my friend would be able to see the fact that I loved her, and if there was anyone I wanted to share the terror and intimacy of death with, it was her. She didn’t see it – she didn’t see the strange sort of logic that suicidal ideation sometimes constructs. Thank you Sally for helping me feel a little less ashamed of the fact that sometimes the senseless makes sense to me.
And yet I’m lucky, very lucky. Lucky because I’m able to root myself to the spot and somehow convince myself to ride it out while letting my fingers do the job of trying to bring me back into safety. Lucky because at this juncture in time, this moment is a moment; intense and almost unbearable, but likely to pass relatively quickly. I am not in the midst of a prolonged period of depression; and even when I am, unlike Sally’s months and years of hell, my worst periods tend to last three or four weeks at a time.
It’s been almost two and a half hours now, of sitting in one spot, waiting to feel safer. I feel a bit safer. Maybe safe enough to risk moving. My inner critic berates me for wasting hours doing nothing. Previously, not making an attempt on my life was evidence of a lack of seriousness; now it’s evidence of a lack of productivity. Another bizarre sort of logic.
At the end of her article, Sally wrote: “So, and I say this with all my heart, hold onto hope, because if we keep it grasped tight, then summer will surely come”. I’d be lying if I said I was trying to hope for summer. Right now I’d like to be able to hope for a crisp, sunny, sparkling day in winter. Right now, that will be more than enough.
My therapist has always encouraged me to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. When I used to crave intensity or powerful therapeutic revelations, or emotional climaxes, she tried to point me in the direction of the beauty of the every-day, ever gentle in her encouragement to try open my arms to happiness and joy from where it could more easily be found, if I could perceive it and then receive it.
Today was an ordinary day, but it was lovely to remember my therapist as I sat in church listening to a sermon on the powerful words of the 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson, who was preoccupied, we were told, by finding the extraordinary within the ordinary. You could say she was driven to it – for much of her life she suffered from agoraphobia and was completely house-bound.
Today was an ordinary day, but I discovered a poet I didn’t really know, and a poem I don’t yet understand but really love. I had time and space for myself, for beautiful music, and for moving words.
Today was an ordinary day but I spent a part of it with my children doing something we hadn’t done before – attending a show in which we and the other families got to draw on a massive sheet of paper stuck to the auditorium floor. We drew as a story was told to us through words and dance, our illustrations bringing it to life. My children were a bit puzzled about why we were there – we don’t often go to shows, particularly not ‘participatory’ ones like this. I explained that it would be a nice ‘family thing’ to do. They liked that idea, and repeated it. My youngest said: “ah, family….I wish we could all draw naked….“?! I have no idea what was going through his extraordinary young mind, but it was a lovely, funny, moment to treasure – somehow, it was just so ….him.
Today was an ordinary day but at the theatre, during the show, I was reminded of my ability to still be childlike and to get carried away by performance, storytelling and simple creative expression. I was grateful for my ability to feel, uncomplicatedly but deeply; my inner child and adult experiencing the moment side by side, rather than trying to negate each other. A juxtaposition that added meaning to ‘both of us’.
Emily Dickinson often used juxtaposition – the better to draw out the extraordinary from within the ordinary. The light which oppresses, which should be heavenly but hurts, which leaves no visible mark, but shakes up our internal world of meaning. I read an article recently that said that as we get older we also become happier, even though that happiness is tinged much more with nostalgia and the anticipation of loss, than in our younger years.
This post is a ramble through my day – an ordinary day, but extraordinary enough to warrant a ramble in this way.
The theme of World Mental Health Day 2016 is ‘psychological first aid’. This can come in many forms, and though the emphasis on this day is on what others can do for those in distress, it’s worth remembering that at the times when we are able to practice it – and it won’t be all the time, or even when we need it most – self-compassion is an important type of psychological first aid that we can administer ourselves.
This evening I was re-reading portions of Rachel Kelly’s excellent book ‘Walking on sunshine: 52 small steps to happiness’, and I was struck again by her ‘last step’, step 52, entitled ‘Unhistoric acts’. Apart from giving away the ending of Middlemarch (I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t yet managed to read it!), the chapter points to the wonderful quote above, which reflects the impact that the heroine of the novel had on the people around her and, to quote Rachel Kelly, it shows “the value of those small – but immeasurably important – acts that may go unnoticed, but can be crucial for our wellbeing and that of others”.
We can all administer psychological first aid – greater information and understanding about mental health conditions can of course help – but we are all capable of ‘unhistoric acts’ that can change lives and make a significant difference to those around us, and particularly to those in distress. Many of us will have been recipients of such unhistoric acts, whether from friends, family, therapists, ministers, colleagues or strangers; and we know the difference they have made. The acts may be known only to the two people involved – and sometimes only the recipients are aware of their effects; but their impact is as much for the good of the world, as it is for the good of an individual.
When it comes to unhistoric acts and the growing good of the world, we are all transformed – whether by the giving of compassion, or the receiving of it.
This followed on from a discussion in which I’d told her that I had been surprised by the strength of my desire, at various points over the last few months, to express myself in pictures rather than words. These periods tended to coincide with times when I found it particularly difficult to write, and also with times when I was more dominated by one or other of my ‘inner parts’. These periods were also very frustrating as I have never been competent or confident about drawing, and I felt completely incapable of giving my feelings visual expression.
We talked about the fact that the aim was not to create the perfect painting, and the quality of the output was not the point of the exercise. I could draw a tree, and I could bring it to her and we could talk about it. Drawing a tree seems perfectly simple, and I understand the idea that it doesn’t need to be a particularly good picture. However, when I imagine drawing a tree, this happens.
Almost immediately, I need my tree to be more than a tree. I cannot just draw a picture of a tree – or I don’t want to. What would be the point? All of a sudden I want my tree to be a metaphor, to convey so much more than ‘tree-ness’ – whatever that is. I want my tree to be about something. I want it to be about therapy, and the relationship between me and my therapist. I want it to be about how she both grounds me and nourishes my growth, and also inspires me to let my imagination take me where it will, like the roots of a tree spreading out in all directions. I want some of the tree branches to resemble weeping willows, falling heavily towards the ground. I want others to reach upwards and delight in finding the sun. I want the weeping branches to be like hair falling down around my shoulders, and I want other branches to be like arms and hands placed gently on that hair. I want there to be a face, barely discernible, peering out from behind the hair, and a million little tributary-like branches, coming off the tree-arms reaching to the sky. I want the two sides of the tree to be definitely but imperceptibly leaning in towards each other, though also seeming to pull in two different directions. And I want there to be simultaneously both a noticeable difference in the colour palette of the two sides, but also a seamless blending and fitting in together. I want the reaching branches to stand out vividly but softly against their backdrop, and I want the weeping branches to be slightly out of focus, but jarring at the same time.
Now, my artistic skills being what they are, if I cannot produce an ordinary looking tree, how can I produce the tree that I have just described? And if I try to simply draw a tree, just an ordinary tree…..well, I know that part of the point of the exercise is to talk about it. But then, it isn’t really just a tree, is it? It’s a seeming-tree, or a telling-tree, and then we’re back to metaphor and right back where we started.
I cannot draw her a tree. And so I wrote her this tree, instead.
Tomorrow I resume therapy after a forty five day break. I have no idea what it will feel like, either before, during or after the session. As is often the case, I have run numerous ‘scenarios’ through my head, of the opening few minutes. Few of those scenarios, I have to admit, are positive. In a way, that’s fitting – in the sense that the most positive scenario would be to turn up without an agenda or a plan, and simply open up about whatever is on my mind. The difficulty with scenarios is that they impede creativity and spontaneity, and they create expectations which lead to disappointment when they aren’t met, and when things don’t play out as imagined. In addition, when imagining sessions I have to play two parts – my therapist’s part, and mine. But I’m not her, and so I’m only ever really imagining me, in two different ‘chairs’ and with two different personas. And I can control ‘me’ – to some extent -but I cannot control what her responses to me will be. And so her ‘failure to follow the script’ leads to yet another disappointment and a feeling of being misunderstood.
Just over a year ago, I found myself unexpectedly in some incredibly painful ground shortly after resuming therapy. I ended up talking about my own past losses (the death of close relatives), and this also led into a discussion about the end of therapy, my therapist’s eventual retirement, and – hopefully far in the future – the death of my therapist. This post was written the day I found out that she planned to retire in a different part of the country:
Not something I had ever thought about before (I think I had just assumed she would stay in the same city and the same house), it came as a huge shock, and I found it incredibly upsetting. The idea of walking or driving past her house and her not being there, was unthinkable. Given the subject matter of our sessions at the time, my mind also turned to death; the thought of not being able to easily visit a grave or memorial for her, was very painful.
I’m hoping that when I return to therapy tomorrow, this will not be what it will feel like, after. But I’m anxious. The last third of the break has been nowhere near as positive as the first two-thirds. I have felt nowhere near as connected to my therapist as I did before. Negative, defensive and resistant thoughts have been much more common. And in the last few days, a major trigger which threw me into internal chaos, also seems to have completely driven my ‘internal ally‘ (and my therapist’s ally too) underground. Or rather, it gave the more troublesome parts of me the opportunity they were looking for to launch the expected (and yet simultaneously surprising), ‘end of therapy break sabotage and attack’.
And so I have no idea what it will feel like after. But I’m hoping, I’ really hoping, it won’t be this.
Alison Crosthwait is a psychotherapist and writer living in Toronto, and over the last few months I’ve had the joy of not only reading her open and thought-provoking posts on her website, ‘The Good Therapists‘, but also of occasionally corresponding with her and sharing ideas. I hope it’s accurate to say that I think we both get excited by creativity and ‘projects’, and back in April we did our first live Twitter chat on the subject of therapy breaks. It was our first experiment in taking a therapy-related subject of mutual interest, and tackling it each from our perspective of therapist and client, by simply letting a dialogue unfold*. One could argue that the therapist has the advantage here as they have experienced ‘both sides’ of the equation – they have sat in both the therapist’s and the client’s chair!
Alison herself sometimes talks about her own experience as a client in her writing, and she is movingly honest about its emotional highs and lows. Reading and writing about both the therapist’s and the client’s perspective continues as a theme in her latest post on ‘The Good Therapists‘, called ‘Summer Reading and Listening‘. She writes: “I’m on holiday diving into an elaborate reading plan combined with a lake view for the next couple of weeks. If you are also in a late-summer reading phase here are some therapy-related writings I have come across lately. No deep thoughts or surprising twists in this post. Just shout outs to people doing great work.”
I am thrilled to be included in Alison’s post and list of ‘shout-outs’, and am excited to look into her other recommendations as well. In her short post you will find two reading suggestions of material written by clients – a blog and a book; and two reading suggestions of material written by therapists – again, a blog and a book. There is also a recommendation of a new podcast (and a video), by a therapist.
Reading Alison’s post also reminded me that it’s been a while since I have written a ‘book review’, and there are at least a couple of recommendations I would love to share, in due course. In the meantime, if you have some reading time left before summer is on its way out (what an unwelcome thought) – do take a look at Alison’s recommendations, and ‘The Good Therapists‘ website itself!
*It’s worth making it clear that this was a dialogue about therapy, not a ‘therapeutic discussion’ of the kind one might have in session. It was intended as an exploration of an interesting subject from two different viewpoints, and we were very clear and specific about the fact that it should not, at any point, start to ‘become therapy’. I must admit, I found that aspect of it harder than I thought it would be!
As this post and Alison’s were prompted by thoughts of vacations and the end of summer, I thought I would gratuitously start this post by including a photo of somewhere I visited recently that had a very calming and relaxing effect on me and was a moment I will treasure from this long summer therapy break.