How to Keep Your Friends from Dying
A few weeks ago, I was at lunch with friends when I mentioned in passing what a rough patch I was in. I didn’t go into detail. I didn’t belabor the point. I wasn’t looking for attention or a pity party. We were just talking about life, and I made a brief comment that went something like this, “Oh, I hear you. I’m in a pretty rough patch right now too.”
My soul was quaking more than my hands as I mustered the courage to even admit that life wasn't perfect. I was hurting. The last thing I wanted was to be vulnerable. And yet vulnerability is the only thing that can save us when we're drowning in a pool of our own shame.
My friend Jenn didn't skip a beat, continuing with whatever we were talking about at the time, and then about five minutes later, returned to my comment. “Hey, I don’t want to skip over what you said about life being really hard right now. Is everything okay? Do you wanna talk about it?”
On the outside, I was being the "Steve Austin" most friends and close acquaintances know and expect me to be, smiling and laughing over lunch and a beer with friends. But the tension inside me was the stuff of crazy making. Every conversation, each song on the radio, and all of my thoughts felt triggering.
Since January, I've been working through some deep emotional baggage; a private issue, more than twenty years in the making. It's felt especially tricky for me because writing is my therapy, but this isn't a subject I'm ready to go public with yet, if ever.
I didn't want to give details, but I did want to talk about the pressure I was feeling. I was desperate to not feel so alone. I wanted so badly to get my shame and pain out in the open. To have someone hold my fear. To be hugged and loved, to trust someone with my tears. But I could hardly push the words out past the knot in my throat.
I told Jenn that I was struggling really hard.
She said, "Let me ask you something that I hope isn't triggering. I know you've worked through years of therapy after the suicide attempt. You've written books, you're a speaker, you have a podcast, and you're a life coach - but do you ever have suicidal thoughts any more?"
What a bold question.
I took a deep breath and gave myself a little time to process. What the hell did she just ask me? And am I going to answer this honestly? Holy shit. I don't even know what to do with this.
I didn’t want to die. I didn’t feel suicidal. But I was going to be traveling for work soon after this conversation, and I know that loneliness and depression can be a toxic cocktail. I hadn't felt this triggered in years. I was shaky scared about being alone in a hotel room for a few days because almost six years ago, I nearly died by suicide in a hotel room.
So I told my friends all of those things. And ended it with this, "I don't want to die. I'm not in a bad place. I just don't want to be in the middle of the emotional mess I'm in right now."
If you're reading this and worried about me - thank you, but don't. I am genuinely okay now. I have processed and asked for help and let my support system know what I'm going through. I traveled out of town and had a wonderful time. My friends checked on me multiple times a day, and the trip was a great success.
I am healthy. I am strong. I have learned how to breathe again. I take my meds when I’m supposed to. I eat healthy-ish. I exercise. I talk through my issues. But I’m still human. And sometimes I’m not okay. Sometimes I still want out of the anxiety, depression, stress, or shame. Sometimes I want to run screaming from the panic attacks.
So please don’t think I took a prescription or a “magic Jesus pill” and suddenly my life was okay. It’s just not true.
A few friends and I talked about this very thing in the second episode of the CXMH podcast (click here to listen). You can have suicidal thoughts without being suicidal.
Have you ever been there? I’m no medical or mental health professional, but what I know is this: you don’t have to have an official mental health diagnosis to feel completely overwhelmed.
When depression and shame nearly killed me, nobody saw it coming. I had a great job. A beautiful wife. And my little boy’s first birthday was the day after I almost died. From the outside looking in, my life was Pinterest-perfect. But inside, I was crawling through a living hell.
My anxiety was through the roof. The “black dog” of depression made it hard to get out of bed some days. I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse when I was just a preschooler, and the PTSD, plus the panic attacks, and the porn addiction, and the shame of all those things was eating me alive from the inside out.
I had performance-based Christianity down to an art. I knew when to stand, sit, kneel, and raise my hands. (I was sort of like the Richard Simmons of Liturgical aerobics.)
I spoke the lingo. I knew the songs. Everyone thought I was on top of the world. They just didn’t see that it felt like the world was on top of me.
Just in case you think stories like mine are rare, the latest suicide rates from the CDC were just released in June, and they show a continual rise in the number of people attempting suicide and also those dying by suicide. In 2016, nearly 45,000 Americans age 10 or older died by suicide. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death and is one of just three leading causes that are on the rise. The sad reality is that suicide doesn't discriminate.
So what can you do?
You're not a mental health professional. You have no training. You've never felt suicidal before. Can you actually do anything to support the cause of suicide prevention?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
In the real world, suicide prevention looks just like what my friend Jenn did for me: she listened. Suicide prevention begins in everyday conversations. It starts with listening to the people around you. Listen for the hurt beneath the words. Keep your heart and ears open for the hopelessness and be courageous enough to ask about it. Don't ignore the pain of those around you.
We've all felt weak or hurt or scared or ashamed. We've all been in dark places before, probably more times than we'd like to admit. But it's part of what makes us human. Life isn't always comfortable or easy. We need each other to survive the roller coaster of experiences we can neither predict nor control. If you want to do the transformative work of turning someone's living hell into heaven, it all starts by listening and responding with understanding and compassion.
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