This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up, “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
“Noel” (2000) The West Wing, Season 2, Episode 10
I suffered for years with constant thoughts of ending my life, eventually coming to find comfort in them, like a blanket that would keep me warm on cold winter nights. On the few occasions that I would share this with people, I was either dismissed outright or met with hostility, fear, or was shamed. While it was painful and difficult for me to understand these responses, as if my verbalization of these thoughts could infect the other person, I have never been able to understand why I was met with these same responses from the mental health professionals who were supposed to be helping me.
By my sophomore year in college, I had taken definitive action to end my life three times. Although I had been in therapy at the time of each attempt, I never told anybody. There had already been power struggles about thoughts of ending my life, having been dismissed by one therapist and threatened with hospitalization by another; sharing about actual attempts was off the table. At age 19, l was starting with a new therapist. I was suicidal, self-destructive, and distrustful–my prior experiences had taught me to keep secrets. I do not have memories of our first few sessions, but at some point early on my new therapist asked what I thought my life would be like when I was 25 and I answered honestly, saying “I don’t plan to live that long.”
Instead of being dismissive, moralizing or threatening he was empathetic, compassionate and genuinely interested in what I had to say about my own experience; I was in unfamiliar territory. Over the next six months, I slowly learned how to trust another person and he tried everything to help me. We started an interactive journal, each writing in a notebook and passing them back and forth at each meeting to have something between our sessions. On a beautiful spring day following an especially difficult session, we spent an hour talking and walking around a DC neighborhood instead of sitting in the office. I remember a particularly painful session where we both sat on the floor and I just cried, remarking that I hated crying in public and him responding with, “I don’t consider myself public.” I did not realize it at the time, but somewhere along the way, he had jumped down into the hole with me and was desperately trying to help me find my way out.
Seven months after we started working together, on a Tuesday evening, I experienced an acute suicidal crisis. The thoughts that had always been comforting were terrifying; I was incredibly agitated, self-destructive, and very determined. Nothing good was going to come out of that night but instead of doing the same thing I had done on three previous occasions, I picked up the phone. Despite our collective best effort to keep me out of the hospital, that is where I ended up–but I was alive and it was because of the strength of the relationship we had forged. It very easily could have ended differently.
In the following weeks and months, that relationship was my sanctuary providing protection from the life I was trying to figure out if I was even interested in living. He was unwavering in his position that my life was worth saving and steadfast in his commitment to help me but was always, always respectful when I often did not feel the same way. Slowly, over time, my position changed. It was not a linear path, I certainly took the long road to get there, and he stood next to me the entire way.
A year ago, I never would have even considered sharing my story but as I read the lived experience stories of others, it became clear that my experience is different in two significant ways. First, we tried many different types of medication, alone and in combination, but nothing worked. Despite what is often reflected in these stories, medication does not work for everybody and if it’s not working for you please know that you are not alone. Recovery is possible without medication and while I wish it had worked, that was not to be part of my story and it may not be part of your story either. Second, and most importantly, I had a therapist who was an expert in treating suicide. For me, this was the game-changer.
As I shared, I saw other mental health providers prior to finding the therapist who would ultimately save my life. While I liked all of them, they were either not trained in how to manage a patient with suicide or were working within a system that was not set-up to manage a patient with suicide. Treating suicide is not something that most professionals are taught in training programs and many mental health systems still use threats, coercion, and practices like no-suicide contracts, which do more damage than good.
If you work within these systems, I implore you to work to change them and if you are a provider who may not be familiar with evidence-based treatments and brief-interventions for suicide, please explore the resources available to learn more and get the training necessary to implement them adherently. I am not a mental health provider, but I have been told by many that it is incredibly scary to work with people with suicide and I believe this to be true. But standing up at the top of the hole and looking down is not what a person in the fight for their life needs or, frankly, deserves.
Perspective from a person with lived experience of serious thoughts of suicide.