Over the last couple of months since my TED Talk, I’ve been getting a lot of people contacting me through social media. They are mostly young people, which is great, but there’s a mix of others too. They come from all around the world. Many of them want something very simple from me. They just need someone to tell their secrets to.
I’m happy to listen.
Their secrets are almost always about their mental health. Or, rather, the darkness within it. Admittedly, sometimes it scares the shit out of me. But, for the most part, it’s something that I know a bit about. Mostly because I’ve been there.
I’m not an expert. In fact, thanks to my probably pathological inferiority complex, with a dash of mother issues and a hint of chronic insecurity, I’m often uncomfortable when people actually listen to me. I’ll save those details for my therapist.
But it’s a good thing that my growing base of stranger friends are not looking for an expert. They are looking for another human being. They just want to tell their story. I just like to listen to people’s stories. It’s a pretty simple recipe.
I’m still trying to figure out my own. I probably always will be. Maybe that’s why I do it.
Given that I talk about suicide, it’s not uncommon that the stories people share with me contain this little secret. Sometimes their need is urgent. I was expecting this, because it happens all the time.
When I wake up in the morning, the first thing that I do is check my messages. Occasionally I have to dig a little deeper, and connect people with services in their area. Every now and then I have to find out how to reach their local police, to keep them safe.
When you make a real human connection with someone who happens to be considering suicide, talking one on one, or with a little video from a stage a continent away, it can pierce that constricted space that has become the prison of their perception. That’s a great thing. But you better be ready for what happens next.
When you break through the barrier of such a perception, often calloused and polluted by years of pain, it can release a hell of lot of awfully concentrated darkness. That’s why some people cut. The bloodletting is a desperate attempt to release the sadness from their body.
Tragically, it’s also why some people kill themselves. When you can’t rid yourself of the darkness you rid the darkness of you. But you don’t have to (that’s what makes it tragic).
Because it doesn’t work that way. Everyone knows that mental illness has physical components. Anyone who should know better has to be a complete dolt to not acknowledge by now that your mind is in your brain which is in your body which is in the physical world, and the green grass grows all around all around and the green grass grows all around.
But destroying the body to escape the torture of the mind within it is a little like burning down your house when what you really wanted was to remodel.
Our psychology is not a slave to our biology. Rather, it is interdependent with it and our society. This is the holy trinity of the human experience. Each only makes sense in relation to the other two. And a change in any, affects the others.
Sometimes, problems creep up in one of these systems: our biology, our psychology, or our society. The problem will always impact and be interpreted by the other two systems, and may be either amplified or diminished in that system. This means that lots of red herrings can pop up all over the place when trying to get to the core of the issue.
Therefore, in order to release oneself from the very physical effect of mental phenomenon, you have to find the real core. That core in the case of suicide is the individual’s collapsed, hardened, darkened perceptual reflex. The external manifestations of a person who has lost hope, worth, and trust are symptoms of an internal process that needs remodelling.
I’m critical of reactive intervention in the health care system – when we are always one step behind the illness. It’s for the same reason that I have little time for those who say that we can’t prevent suicide. Suicide is a symptom, not something simply chosen as a variable independent of context. So in order to prevent suicide, we need to intervene earlier. We need to change the context.
This means being more open, and more intelligent, about how we address suicide. The first step is to overcome the stigma that suicide cannot be discussed, or that it should only be mentioned with lowered voices and knowing glances. The second step is to be there after you open up the discussion. It’s not enough to pull off the bandage. You have to be ready to control the bleeding.
This is a controlled piercing of that perceptual bubble which the individual finds themselves trapped within. If we can break through, and allow the toxic beliefs, attitudes, experiences, thoughts, and perceptions to escape, then we can start fresh and get to work rewriting the story. Sometimes this catharsis happens in a trickle, sometimes it’s a flood.
Talking about suicide doesn’t give people the idea, but it can and often does uncover something that’s already there.
We don’t avoid talking about suicide because we’re afraid of it. We avoid talking about suicide because we’re afraid of this part that comes next. We so often shy away from making a real human connection with someone because of the time and effort it takes on the back end. But it’s this very lack of connection that fuels the isolating collapse of a suicidal person’s perception in the first place.
Preventing suicide is just as much our responsibility as it is that of those who are considering it. For many, this is an uncomfortable conclusion. Our discomfort must not be their problem any longer.
As for me: I’ll just keep talking to strangers.