Thoughts on Suicide by Andrew Brown
I’m sorry you are reading this, I truly am. Aside from academic or professional interest, the reason you are here is that you are either experiencing suicidal thoughts or someone you love is. In both cases, it feels like it is such a helpless position to be in. If you are the individual experiencing these thoughts then you are likely feeling alone, isolated, misunderstood, lost and an in extreme emotional pain. I’ve often heard many people who have never experienced suicidal thoughts and ideation first-hand telling people to look on the bright side, that it isn’t that bad when you think about it, or everyone gets sad from time to time. I find this thinking to be wholly unhelpful and, in some cases, it can often make you feel worse than you already do. For those who have a loved one who is going through this, I can only imagine how you feel as I was always the one that was experiencing it. But, from what I can imagine and what I have observed in the people that love and care about me, how you feel probably isn’t that different. You are likely feeling helpless, your heart is breaking for your son or daughter or sister or father. I think in the case of most parents, you would take away that pain for them and carry it with you for the rest of your life and never speak of it again, no matter how much it hurt, just to see your loved one smile like they used to.
Sadly, it doesn’t work that way, no matter how much we wish that it would.
My name is Andrew Brown, and I have tried to kill myself more times than I can remember, probably around ten to fifteen I think. I’m an alcoholic, I have bipolar 2 (the depressive one), I self-harmed severely and I was sexually abused in some pretty horrific ways from the age of four to the age of seven. My body is a tapestry of scars, my mind feels like a labyrinth sometimes and, whilst I haven’t attempted to take my life in over ten years, I still feel suicidal often. Of all of the advice I’ve been given over the years, and from what I have collected myself through research and personal experience, I’ve always come across the same advice. Eat heathier, exercise, limit illicit drug and alcohol consumption, go out and make some friends. This is all fantastic advice, but I feel that often it is written by people who have never experienced severe depression. How can you eat healthier when you can’t eat at all? Or if comfort eating in your room is your only place of solace? How can you exercise when just getting out of bed takes almighty effort, you go downstairs, make a cup of tea, and have to go back to bed because you feel exhausted? How can you stop drinking when passing out drunk is the only time you can forget and actually sleep? How can you stop taking heroin when it’s the only thing that doesn’t make you feel anything? How can you leave the house when you haven’t left it in 5 days and just the thought of unlocking the door fills you with dread and you break out in a cold sweat?
The answer is, that you can. I know you don’t believe me, I wouldn’t have believed if I was reading this fifteen years ago. I wouldn’t have believed that I had the strength that these other people do, that I wasn’t like them and it’s not that simple. I don’t know you, I don’t know why you feel the way you do, you may have experienced some emotional trauma in the past that you are afraid to deal with. My first piece of advice for that is - don’t deal with it. That can wait. You need strength for that, and if you’re reading this, you likely don’t have that strength right now. I was almost forty when I dealt with mine, and you know what? I made it to almost forty.
I think there is often an overlooked group of people when it comes to suicidal thoughts and depression too. For those people that there is no reason you feel like this way. Nothing happened. You had a wonderful childhood, you’re happily married, you have a good job, you love your children. I feel for you too, because I can imagine this is incredibly confusing and frustrating. Depression isn’t picky. It doesn’t care if you were abused as a child or raped as an adult, it doesn’t care that your partner cheated on you. It also doesn’t care if nothing at all happened to you, and by all rights you should be happy. There are different levels of depression, some relate to your brain chemistry and some are down to trauma.
I can’t tell you what will work for you, I can only tell you what worked for me, and whichever camp you are in, I hope I can give you some practical advice that can help you on the road to recovery.
Don’t do it.
My first piece of advice is do not kill yourself. This may sound like the most patronising thing you’ve ever read, but bear with me. Suicidal thoughts are like any other thoughts, they come and go. So forget that your house is a mess, that you haven’t called your mother in a while, that you have no food in the house. As harsh as it sounds, nobody and nothing matters other than you right now. This is not selfish. I’ll say that again because it needs to be said again.
Putting yourself first is not selfish.
You might worry that if you don’t call your mother, she’ll worry. She’s already worried, she’s your mother. Even when you were well and happy and came home half an hour late and nothing was wrong, she was worried. The people that love you, worry about you. Just like you are worrying about them right now. But if you are trying to please everyone in your life to make them stop worrying about you, you are taking away precious personal resources from yourself, resources that you need right now. If you are suicidal, all of your energy and entire being needs to be focused on you, and that you are going to get through the next day, the next hour, even the next minute, without acting upon it. Your friends and family would much prefer they don’t hear from you as often as they would like, rather than going to your funeral. It won’t be easy; I’m not going to lie to you. But these thoughts will pass and until they do there is very little you can do about. Whatever you do, do not get drunk. However tempting this may be, it will make you worse.
Call an ambulance if you need to, and don’t you dare be embarrassed about it. Call a friend. Call the Samaritans. If you need to get through alone, then do that. That’s what always worked for me. I just needed to be alone to process what I was feeling.
Lastly, these are thoughts and feelings. They cannot hurt you, only your conscious decisions can do that. I know they are very uncomfortable and painful, but they cannot hurt you and they will pass.
Drugs and alcohol.
I’ve abstained from drugs and alcohol for many years now, and I think out of every choice I made, stopping drinking was the single, biggest aspect my recovery that made the most positive changes in my life.
If you take anti-depressants like I used to, then this medication is making your body fight the depression, usually by altering your brain chemistry in some way. It is trying to lift your mood. When you drink, you are taking a strong depressant. Not only will it stop your medication from working, it will damage your mind and body. Imagine trying to drive a car that is simultaneously in first gear and reverse. The same is applicable to drugs. Anything that alters your brain chemistry or mood should be avoided.
I am an alcoholic, maybe you aren’t, but stopping drinking was extremely difficult for me. I got through much the same as I got through the suicidal thoughts, one minute at a time. I constantly dreamed of being to say I’ve sober for a month, a year, five years, ten years. This is the wrong kind of thinking, and I wish I had been given a valuable piece of advice that a woman in a supermarket gave me five years ago earlier in life. I was buying alcohol and in the queue I overheard her say to the cashier that she hadn’t drank in twenty-odd years. I was a little drunk already, so I asked her how she had done that. It was mid-afternoon so she likely knew exactly where this conversation was going and why I was asking. I will never forget what she said to me.
“You don’t need to say no to every drink for the rest of your life, it’s too much to think about. You only need to say no to one drink. The next one.”
I’d love to tell you I was so inspired I got home and poured all of the alcohol down the sink, but I didn’t. I got home and got absolutely shitfaced as usual. Although that piece of advice stuck with me, and within a very short space of time, I hadn’t drank in two weeks. Something I had not managed in the past twenty years. Seek professional help if you need to, I found that groups sessions with drug and alcohol charities were brilliant. To be in a room with a bunch of other people who know exactly how you feel, I can’t tell you how healing and supportive that is.
Your mood, mind and physical health is paramount.
Everything I do, every single thing I do in life, revolves around my health. It has to. Because nothing else matters. If a friend is getting married and having his stag do (or bachelor party in the US), and it’s going to be wall- to-wall shots and drinking games, then guess what? I’m not going. All of my friends know me, they know my past, they know my weaknesses and they know that I can’t go to these things. It’s the reason I don’t go to some festivals where there is a large drink and drug culture. It’s why I don’t go to all-you-can-eat restaurants and eat terrible food until I’m about to burst. It’s why if Saturday morning is my time to exercise, then I’m going to exercise. This may sound harsh and a little selfish, but I don’t care. If something is going to negatively effect my health, I can’t risk it. Everyone who loves me knows this, and we make plans accordingly. I have a full and active social life and I’ve never had so many friends, I have just chosen to spend my time away from people who love to get drunk every weekend. If anything, it has shown me who my real friends are. Many of the heavy drinkers and drug takers I used to know, have long since fallen by the wayside. I fell out with one of them because I didn’t go to a party he wanted to me to go to. It was a friend’s thirtieth birthday and I had only been sober six months. I said I wasn’t going and he didn’t like it and he fell out with me. I miss his friendship, of course I do. But him having a good time is more important to him than my health, and the risk that I may then go down a road that ultimately leads to my death - he wasn’t really a friend at all. I have handful of close friends and they have been around the longest.
I have bipolar 2, so not only do I have to watch what I eat, and avoid alcohol, I also have to be careful with stimulants. Energy drinks are not my friend, and they can trigger mania, as can strong coffee. Be mindful of what you are putting in your body, every single thing you put in it, affects you in some way.
How do you exercise when you can’t bring yourself to leave the house, or you don’t have the energy? I found weightlifting. The good thing about weightlifting is that you can do it on your own. It is very low impact – lifting a bar loaded with weights is very strenuous and gives you a good workout, whilst being fairly low in actual ‘effort’. I bought a bench and put it in my bedroom. I started working out in my pyjamas. I started with bench pressing because I could lay down and exercise at the same time. I know that sounds ridiculous, but eventually I got stronger. The stronger I got, the better I felt and the more adventurous I became. When you lift weights, you found that an interesting thing happens. Physically, whilst I looked a lot better than I did, I hadn’t really changed that much. But when you have just squatted 150kg for 5 reps, you feel like you can take on the world and that you are the strongest person alive. It took years, but eventually I managed other sports and exercise. Then in January this year, at the age of 39, after spending a lifetime not daring to do it, I went to a street dance class. For me, a man who maybe seven years ago didn’t leave his bedroom for eleven days other than to go to toilet, to actually go to a group dance class, without fear, and have the best time of my life. I can’t tell you how incredible that was. I left with the biggest smile on my face because it was so much fun. I’m going to try climbing and Kung Fu next.
I became a Buddhist.
Buddhism is an often-misunderstood religion. There are no deities, it is simply a way of living your life. To simplify it, it teaches that life is extremely difficult, everyone you know, including yourself will get sick and die. In the West, we shy away from death, as something to be feared. But the inescapable fact is, that it is going to happen to us as all eventually. I’ve heard people say it’s a depressing religion because of this, when in fact the opposite is true.
I will use the first instance I attempted to think about Buddhism’s teachings in a practical way. I had a cat, his name was Barry and I loved that cat with all my heart. He was awesome. I finished reading some teachings, and I looked at him (he was about 8 years old at this point), and I thought:
You are going to die. You’re going to die long before I do, I’m going to be heartbroken and I am going to miss you.
That’s where a lot of people kind of leave it, believe that it’s just depressing and they don’t want to think about that. But the truth is, and what the lesson is actually teaching, is to embrace the fact that my cat is going to die. From that moment, every moment I spent with him brought me more happiness than it had previously. I no longer took for granted that he would be there when I got home. I experienced joy, just from spending time with him. I knew that I had had the best relationship with my cat that I could have possibly had. I never took him for granted and people used to comment on our relationship, I used to be told they had never seen a cat act that way toward a person. That he seemed to truly love me.
I applied this thinking to my whole family and circle of friends. We take our family and friends for granted. We think that they will always be there, and that when they are gone, sometimes abruptly, we are left devasted. The loss of a loved one is always devasting. But to find comfort in the fact that you made the most of those relationships, is a deeply life changing experience. I am closer to my friends and family than I have ever been. I tell my mother I love her every time I see her, I hug her and give her a kiss on the cheek. I was 38 years old when I started doing this. I had always been distant with my family, afraid that they were ashamed of me, that they were embarrassed to call me their son because I was such a screw up. This was my internal fear, and it was not the truth.
If you are feeling suicidal, the world is not how you are currently seeing it. You are seeing it like a window with olive oil thrown on it. Distorted and warped. The world is a harsh place, there is no getting away from that, but when you embrace everything that is good in it, and appreciate every moment you are alive, instead of resenting it, you will notice a profound change in how you think.
Becoming a Buddhist helped my metal health immensely. It gave me joy which is more powerful than depression, it made me appreciate all life and have empathy for the suffering of others. It made me volunteer with a drug and alcohol service to help those that were in the same situation as I was. The enormous sense of wellbeing that this gives you, is indescribable. It made me stop being so angry at the world and with myself, it made me stop feeling that I was the only one that felt this way, that nobody understood what it was like. I’m not saying you have to become a Buddhist to be happy, but meditation and mindfulness practices are extremely powerful tools.
Finally, my last piece of advice – stop being so hard on yourself.
You are not Superman, or Wonder Woman or somewhere in between. You can’t change your entire life and the way you think, act and feel in a month, no matter how many YouTube videos and fitness magazines tell you that you can.
Take baby steps. If it all seems too much to change, then just change the smallest, easiest things first. Whether that being stopping drinking soda. You don’t even have to stop drinking soda, just switch to diet. Have one less chocolate bar a day, or go for walk twice a week before you think about training for a marathon.
Depression and suicidal thoughts take so much from us, there is often very little left for anything else. I think the best piece of advice that I can give you, and many people reading this will disagree, but you are in control of your own life and your own destiny. You feel stuck, you feel that nothing will ever change and you will feel like this forever. You won’t. It just takes a bit of effort. I’m not even talking a lot of effort, don’t stress yourself out because you didn’t wash the pots today. Who gives a shit. If you hate your job, get another one. So many of us think, myself included once, that we’re useless and we can’t do anything right and that we have to do this crappy job because we’re no good at anything else. It just isn’t true. Millions of people change careers every day and we’re no different. Sure, you’re not going to go from a menial unskilled job to a heart surgeon or an astronaut. But there is no reason you can’t do whatever you want in life. If you’ve always dreamed of being an artist, get a job in an art shop. The wages might be less, but what’s more important? Dreading going to work every morning to the point it makes you want to kill yourself, or taking less money to be surrounded with things you love and meeting a whole world of people you didn’t know even existed? You would be surprised how little you can comfortably live on. We’re brought up to believe that money makes us happy and it just doesn’t. Doing what makes you happy makes you happy.
I was so focussed on trying to get back the years that I had wasted, I constantly took too much and ultimately failed at most of it. Just do small things, one step at a time. If you are suicidal, then the first thing needs to be just focussing on not committing suicide. That is not something to be taken lightly. Everything else can wait. For years if it has too. You are the most important person in your world. I’ve heard suicidal people say that their children are the most important people in their world and of course that can be true as well. But unless to take care of yourself, unless you put yourself first now, your children aren’t going to have you. Unless you put yourself first, now, when they’re thirty years old they won’t remember those trainers that they really wanted, or that video game. They won’t remember that school trip they simply had to go on. They’ll remember the last time they saw their dad, and they’ll wish he was here now to see his daughter get married. They’ll wish their sister was here because she’d have made a wonderful aunt. There are all the people you haven’t met yet, some of whom will enrich your lives in ways you never even thought possible.
I’m not special, I’m not stronger than you or particularly talented in anything. I didn’t have a magical gift or find a one size fits all solution to all of my, sadly, numerous problems. All I did was chip away at them like Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. I was in a prison of my own making and all I had was time and a rock hammer.
But eventually I broke free. It took years, I was exhausted, hurt and had to go though a river of shit to get here, but I got here.
So can you.