Learning How To Live After A Suicide Attempt

Artwork: Anna Jay, Photo: Getty
I am a doctor with four first class degrees, and I am very good at caring for others. Last year, I was admitted to my own hospital. It's one year and a day since I tried to commit suicide, and people are still asking me if it changed my life. They want me to say that I’m grateful I survived, that it has made me stronger, that I’m glad it happened because I learned from my mistake. I try to be patient with these kinds of questions: “It has taught me a lot", I say, "but I wish there had been an easier way to learn.” Of course it’s good to focus on the silver lining and not the cloud, but depression is a horrible disease, often misunderstood and worse, trivialised. Most of my friends and family have been extremely supportive in my recovery. They have listened, been patient and helped me work things through in my head. They have protected me against myself. Some of my friends' reactions have been surprising: “She did what!”, while others have decided to pretend it never happened to avoid awkward conversation. A lot of people have opened up about their own experiences with depression and these are the conversations I have found most helpful: the ones that remind me I am not alone. These are also the people that realised it would take a long time to get over what happened and that just because I was back at work and looked “normal”, didn’t mean I wasn’t still recovering from a chronic disease. I first realised I was depressed about two months before my suicide. I woke up every morning and felt sick just thinking about my life and remembering what a worthless piece of shit I was. I had started to spiral during a bad relationship and even after it ended, I just couldn’t keep my head above water. I lost my appetite and, with it, at least two stone. People started telling me I looked good, and then, with more weight loss, began asking if I was unwell. I’d laugh and explain I was finally eating healthily for the first time in my life, while all the while I felt like a corpse living in a body that was somehow still walking, talking and smiling. When I started to think seriously about ending my life, I realised I was sick and arranged to see a counsellor. She did a risk assessment to see if I was severely depressed. I said I wasn’t because I was still going into work every day. Professionally, I was at the top of my game and I didn’t have trouble concentrating. I always thought severe depression meant you couldn’t leave the house and that you just cried all the time, so I figured I couldn’t be that bad. I started to have nightmares of my ex-boyfriend sitting next to me and listing every way I was inadequate and a disappointment over and over again. I would wake up at 5am and not be able to go back to sleep. I went to see my GP to get some antidepressants. After a particularly hard day, I took them all out of their packets, counted them and put them in a box. I wrote a suicide note to my family, apologising for being such a coward and taking the easy way out. Then I realised this was insane behaviour, so I phoned a friend and asked him to come and sit with me. I didn’t want to talk by the time he arrived and so we sat and made small talk, and he left probably wondering why he was there.

The week after, I had a really bad day. I couldn’t stop crying at work and decided to go home. When I got home, I went and stared at my box of tablets.

The week after, I had a really bad day. I couldn’t stop crying at work and decided to go home. When I got home, I went and stared at my box of tablets for about 40 minutes. I tried calling a friend but she wasn’t in. I decided if I was meant to live, someone would call or knock on my door in the next hour and if they didn’t, it meant that I should die. I waited. When the hour was past, I was ready with two glasses of water. I counted the 178 tablets as I swallowed them. It was strange lying on my bed, knowing that I would go to sleep for the last time and never wake up. I had double locked my front door [I lived alone] and switched off my phone. People have always told me I am determined and that I get where I want to go in life. This time I intended to die. It felt very peaceful knowing that the pain was finally going to be over. The relief was so great, I fell asleep naturally before I went into a medication induced coma. One week later, I woke up on intensive care. I don’t remember much. I’m told my sister had a premonition that something bad was going to happen and sent my parents round to my flat, that 10 minutes after they arrived and knocked the door down, my heart stopped, that my dad went in the ambulance with me and watched me die, that a friend of mine who was working at the hospital helped to resuscitate me, that my family saw the team of doctors who saved my life high five coming out of the Resus unit because they had finally stabilised my heart after six hours of cardiac arrest. I was in a coma for a week after that and it was uncertain what my brain function would be. My sister said that for the first week after I woke up, I was like a fish, asking her where I was and what had happened every two minutes. After I was discharged, I was sent to the outpatient crisis team of the psychiatric unit near to my home and put on stronger antidepressants. At 33, I had to move back in with my parents. They brought me tea every morning, removed everything sharp from my room and came to check I was still alive periodically during the night. I was a child again, afraid to go out, afraid to be alone, disgusted with myself for my weakness. I was sent to see a psychiatrist and a psychologist to talk about my feelings. I hated it. I went in every week feeling in control and left a crying baby. I suppose from rock bottom, the only way is up. But it was a long and miserable path. And even with patient, caring friends and family, it was very lonely. Facing your own weaknesses and re-learning how to live is not a group activity.

I had a really good psychologist who taught me how to talk when I felt I couldn’t and face feelings I had repressed for most of my life.

I found cognitive analytic therapy really helpful, once I had got through the first few sessions. I had a really good psychologist who taught me how to talk when I felt I couldn’t and face feelings I had repressed for most of my life. It also really helped being on the right medications; I had tried several in the past which either caused a lot of side effects or didn’t help much with my mood. Once I had found the tablets to suit me, I felt more secure and able to cope with getting better. As I began to get better, I felt I had been given a second chance at life. I should have died, I should have been brain damaged and instead I was, miraculously, physically intact. I moved to Australia for work. I was worried about being a long way from friends and family and in a different time zone, but it was refreshing to be in a new environment and not be known as “the suicide girl”. I realised how far I had come when I first told a friend there what had happened to me. She was really surprised. She said I seemed the most well-adjusted, happy person she had met in a while. I had to laugh. Over the last year, I have learned that no man is an island, that in order to survive, we need to expose our vulnerabilities so that our friends can see and respond. That telling people you are “fine” means they won’t know to try to help you. I learned how to say 'I feel sad’, ‘I am afraid I won’t be able to carry on’, ‘I need help’. I learned that when people see you vulnerable, they open up themselves and you realise that people each have struggles of their own, and that you are not the only walking, talking, smiling corpse. I know that as a survivor of suicide, I have a six times greater likelihood to try again in the future, and that the next attempt will probably be successful. I know that if I don’t take my tablets, the dark feelings begin to surface again, that the worthless, violated person that died can easily come back and possess the new me. I know that depression will never fully leave me alone, but that talking about how I feel, knowing the warning signs and having friends who keep an eye on me make living with it much easier. And finally, I can say that whatever happens, I have been through hell and survived it, and I can and will keep going.
Samaritans is available around the clock, every single day of the year, providing a safe place for anyone who is struggling to cope. Please call free on 116 123, email jo@samaritans.org, or visit samaritans.org to find details of the nearest branch.

Time to Change has launched the #smallthings campaign which discusses other practical ways to help support someone with depression and mental health problems. *Name has been changed.

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