The Experience of Living: Part IV

I bet you’ve had a day when you did not want to get out of bed. Maybe the sky outside looked particularly menacing. Maybe stress weighed you down, maybe your heart hurt, maybe your pillow just felt plump and cool and tempting.

Maybe you know what it feels like to not only not want to get out of bed – maybe you know what it feels like to not want to wake up. Maybe you’ve tried to make that a reality.

And even if that is a part of your past – maybe now you feel like you’re thriving. And even in spite of that, maybe you still have those moments of wanting to die, of not wanting to wake up, of not wanting to get out of bed.

So it is that the five of us continue to encounter suicidal thoughts, at varying levels of intensity. Our intimate knowledge of standing so close to death doesn’t go away. It has not been eradicated by our survival. Even those of us who remember feeling gratitude or relief when our hearts and lungs and minds persisted in their beating, breathing, believing - are not immune to that which had previously laid us so low.

“I struggle frequently with thoughts and feelings of wanting to die still,” said Meghan. “And maybe for me part of being alive is the activity of constantly evaluating, ‘Is this what I want?’ Asking that question over and over, and answering it, is part of how I define my life.”

With sustained survival has come a sort of knowledge about how to cope with this thing called living. Perhaps that means viewing the suicidal thoughts not as directives but, rather, as warning signs – a gentle reminder to check in with oneself.

“I’m not ‘cured,’ if you define [it] as never having a suicidal thought again,” said Leah. “To me, [those] thoughts are simply an alarm system now. I don’t need to follow them down the path…It’ll be like, okay, I know what’s going on here, I need to kick into ultra-self-care mode. For me, [the thoughts] are a warning signal that I’m just not being kind to myself.”

Dese’Rae recognizes her suicidal ideation in a similar fashion.

“I still struggle with those obsessive thoughts of hurting myself,” she said. “I think the really interesting thing about post-traumatic growth is I know what’s happening, and [know] I need to kick myself into gear.”

I still struggle, myself, with the thoughts when they return, which isn’t often but tends to coincidence with the two-week long flares of pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder I live through each month. Feeling that low, after several days of functionality and even happiness, is like failure for me. And yet the recurrent darkness, the intermittent thoughts of death, make the good days that much sweeter.

“We’re all fucking miracles,” said Des. “We wake up every day to stay here. [Doing that] and deciding to live every day? I think that’s more hopeful than, ‘Tra-la-la, look at me, I’m cured.’”

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One of our goals with this series is to highlight the changes we hope to see in the suicidology and mental health arenas, from encouraging support for clinicians with lived experience to incorporate that intimate knowledge into their work, to educating even the youngest among us on how to cope with socioemotional distress.

Here are some of things for which we’re advocating:

  • The elicitation of recommendations from individuals with lived experience to inform policy, education, research and resource development

“We need to be the first line. We’re the ones who’ve been there, so we need to have a say. We need to have our hands in every pot.” (Dese’Rae)

“We aren’t just interesting stories. We should also be looked at as a resource. Our perspectives deserve to be taken as seriously as those folks who are academically trained.” (Leah)

  • The development of more peer support programs and inclusion of coping skills as part of school curriculum

“I really think we need to look at teaching people how to deal with stress. We don’t teach that in school. We teach [children] STEM, and we teach them how to pass standardized tests. There’s some nods to socioemotional learning but we should be teaching from kindergarten and even preschool [ways] to calm their nervous system down.” (Leah)

“We talk about safe sex with kids, and we talk about drugs with kids, but we don’t talk about suicide. We want to shield them from it. We might do more harm than good with that. Some of the [suicidal] thoughts really did start when I was a child.” (Zach)

  • The creation of safe space for clinicians with lived experience to incorporate that into their work

“For months, I would go to these [Zero Suicide work group] meetings and sit there and think, does anyone have any clue how much I’m sitting here thinking about dying? The irony is so strong…[When I mentioned my brother’s death], suddenly the group started opening up about why we’re motivated to do this work. And part of me went, okay, this is probably why I’m here.” (Meghan)

“Clinicians and providers who have been willing to keep it real and share their own struggles have been the most helpful to me. There’s ways to bring in bits and pieces of their narratives, and I wish that were more encouraged. A big part of the problem lies with the fact that there is a lot of discrimination in the healthcare field, so if you ‘come out of the closet’ as a survivor, there’s a lot of backlash.” (Leah)

And here are some insights we hope you’ll remember:

  • Be direct. Ask the question. It may save a life.

“We talk about people who say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know [you were hurting], why didn’t you tell me?’ Because telling you that is a kind of vulnerability that is impossible to describe…I hope we can create a kind of conversation where people understand that if I share with you that I’m thinking about killing myself, I’m trusting you in a way that goes beyond almost any other form of trust I can think of…I’m trusting you with the deepest, heaviest, most emotional thing that I’ll ever experience.” (Zach)

“There is something so powerful in just listening and holding space. And I know a lot of people don’t have skills for that. But I would encourage people to just see what it might be like to listen non-judgmentally without feeling like you have to jump in and fix that person. There’s something incredibly healing in being present for each other.” (Leah)

  • Suicidal ideation does not mean failure or fault.

“I want people to read the stories that understand that living with suicidal ideation, and plans, and making attempts, all of that is such a complicated, overwhelming, intense experience. It’s not just people whining, it’s not just people complaining, it’s not just people who don’t have the willpower to life themselves up by their bootstraps, whatever the hell that means. It’s people who are seriously struggling and they don’t know where to turn.” (Zach)

  • Being a survivor does not mean absence of suicidal ideation or attempt.

“This process of healing is absolutely non-linear. It does not follow a trajectory. We can still be healing, and have suicidal thoughts, and even have attempts. There’s no one right way to go about being a survivor. We do the best we can with the real lack of resources for even the most privileged among us.” (Leah)

***

It’s been years since some of us first shared our lived experience narratives; for others, breaking the silence is relatively new. The experiences of living and of sharing what that feels like continues to guide the work that we do.

And even on our worst days – when getting out of bed may seem untenable, when we may wonder why we’re waking up – we hold tight to the meaning we’ve found in survival.

“Life proceeds forward despite all [the] darkness,” said Meghan. “So far life has defied that pain, and that’s pretty amazing.”


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Zachary Kluckman, 44

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Certified Peer Support Specialist, QPR Suicide Prevention Gatekeeper Instructor

Zach continues to write and perform while encouraging others to also share their stories of struggling with suicidal ideation and/or substance use. His collection of memoir and poems called Trigger Warning: Poetry Saved My Life was published in 2013.


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Meghan Caughey

Portland, Oregon

Senior Director, Peer Delivered Services, Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare

Clinical Instructor, Psychiatry, Oregon Health Science University

After more than 100 psychiatric hospitalizations over the course of several decades, Meghan has been working in the behavioral health field for 12 years. She continues to paint and write. She is currently working on an essay about courage in the face of hopelessness.


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Dese’Rae L. Stage, 35

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Creator, Live Through This

Dese’Rae’s voice continues to be one of the most prominent from the lived experience community. In addition to her continued work on Live Through This, Des is working on a book grant and collaborating on several research projects. She is considering returning to school to pursue a Master in Social Work degree.


Photograph by Dese’Rae L. Stage | livethroughthis.org

Photograph by Dese’Rae L. Stage | livethroughthis.org

Leah Harris, 43

Arlington, Virginia

Writer and Founder, The Story of Change

Certified Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises Provider

Certified Facilitator, Life Stories Institute

Certified Transformation Coach, Artist of the Spirit, Coach Training Program

Leah’s work as a public speaker, author, educator, storytelling coach and workshop leader is shaped by perspectives on trauma, human rights and social justice. 


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Kristin Drouin, 28

Washington, D.C.

A licensed clinical social worker, I work in pediatric palliative care. My passion for mental health advocacy is made manifest through volunteer work with Crisis Text Line and as a member of the Board of Directors of the International Association of Pre-Menstrual Disorders.