Wednesday, September 09, 2015

How a conversation can save a life.

Until November last year, I hadn't told anybody else this story: the story of how a conversation saved my life. Not even my parents knew this story, so know that I don't share this with you lightly.

How a single sentence changed my life

Not long ago, I posted some portraits of my friend Leigh, reconnecting with her for the first time since high school. It was during high school that Leigh's story intersected with mine: in November 2004, her older brother took his own life. Maybe a week or so later, her parents came to the school to talk to our entire year level about Ben, depression and suicide as part of a small memorial service. I cried the whole time: I didn't know Ben, and I wasn't particularly close to Leigh, but it really hit home. I had struggled and struggled through a lot of mental anguish, feeling isolated in my battle and in a lot of pain. This was before a time where R U OK? Day existed, before social media, before reading blogs that would later help me to know I was not alone. Stigma and misunderstanding surrounded the very taboo topic of mental illness more so than it does today.

I often considered suicide, and I was no stranger to self-harm (something my parents only found out about some months later, when I made the mistake of holding up an ice cream in front of them and my sleeve slipped down).

Leigh's parents urged us all to look out for one another, even those who seem okay. People with depression and anxiety become quite good at wearing masks, disguising their feelings and looking “okay”: Ben had suffered from depression a very long time, but they felt like he was doing better as of late. He simply told them he was going to the library that day.

After their talk was over, a couple of my friends, also with tears in their eyes, came up and hugged me. When they pulled away, they looked me in the eyes and said, “please, Camille, we don't want this to be you one day.” That single sentence changed everything for me. It meant that there were people around me who didn't want me to go, who thought of me and cared for me. From that point I was determined to overcome it: I began the long journey on the way to being okay.

I shared this story with Leigh for the very first time in November last year: the 10 year anniversary of her brother's passing. It was the first time I had really told anybody about that day, and I am so glad I have been able to share this special connection with her now. I write this story with her permission, both of us knowing that being open about our stories is the best way to help others who are also suffering.



When I began trying to get better, I kept track of the days I gave into self-harm, never quite aiming for suicide, but to release the ferocity of frustration and turmoil pent up inside me—I wasn't really aware of it at the time, but the pain from cutting calmed me. It gave my mind something else to focus on. First, I was able to go a month without cutting, then three. Eventually I stopped altogether, and after a long time, I threw out the tools I used to cut myself: they were carving & shaping knives used for pottery that I owned for art class. None of my scars remain. Today, I am okay—more than okay—but sometimes I have a bad episode, maybe once a year, and cutting comes to mind once more; Martin, needless to say, has been an incredible partner, keeping me safe from myself.

What if Leigh's parents hadn't come and spoken to us at school that day, or if my friends hadn't said anything to me? How different my life would be now, I am sure of it. When my parents later found out what I was going through, at first they were confused, almost mad, unsure what to do—this terrible thing was happening to their eldest child right under their roof. All the difficult conversations we had then helped us to be a very close family now: had they shut me out, made me feel as if I was doing something wrong, perhaps I wouldn't be here today, or if I was, my life would be very different. I did not need any extra encouragement in feeling as if I was worthless: one of the ways I rationalised my suicide was that I believed I was simply a waste of space, and that life for my parents would be easier and cheaper if they had one less child. It sounds completely ridiculous—it was, and is—but that's a small insight into how my mind worked at the time. I led myself to believe I was unwanted; I beat myself up for not being okay.

Two other key characters in my story are my siblings. At the time, Celine was 11 and Carl would have been 8. At every turn, the biggest thing that stopped me from making the final decision to take my own life was imagining them at my funeral, imagining their life after I was gone. Carl, one of the sweetest boys ever to have lived, would often come into my room to check on me and talk to me. I thought of how devastated he'd be to lose his eldest sister to suicide at such a young age: how something like that would damage his life forever.

Recovering, over and over

Fast forward to now: if you know me in person or have been following my blog/social channels for some time, you'll know that I love to squeeze a lot into every single day. Maybe because it's as if I gave myself a second chance at life. My life is very full, but I wouldn't have it any other way, really. Everything that exists in my life is there for a reason, a byproduct of having gone through an extremely dark time and making it to the other side.

My commitment to showing up for life extends to yoga, health and wellbeing: exercising regularly and being mindful of what I put in my body is a lifelong commitment and isn't something I take for granted. My mind and body have never been so fit. I never wanted to take anti-depressants (I feared their side effects, and I feared relying on them) and I avoided seeing psychologists because I was afraid they wouldn't take me seriously, or they would be too clinical. Yoga & mindfulness have been extremely beneficial tools to managing my anxiety and depression in a holistic way.

As other people have helped me, I have always felt a pull towards other people. A deep curiosity about their story, to get to know them, to care for them, and to help them in kind. That is what I hope to do with my time on this Earth: to help others, in whatever small way, even if it is just to say hello. If you are reading this and it strikes a chord with you: please feel free to share this with others, to talk about your own story, or to write to me. Whether we have met before or not at all, my arms, eyes and ears are wide open for you. Talking about this openly is one of the best ways we can reduce the stigma surrounding a very difficult and very real issue: around 800, 000 people worldwide take their own life every year.

Let's make it clear: mental illness is not something one can just “will” away. I do not write this as if I have been cured: I write this as a person who is managing it well. Some days, weeks and months, I don't, but I pick myself up and recover all over again. If you have suffered, or are suffering, know that simply getting up out of bed and getting dressed can be enough. Simply making the decision to survive is enough. Know that you are enough, that someone truly cares for you. We are here for you—and we'll see you tomorrow.

Thursday, 10th September 2015 is World Suicide Prevention Day. This year's theme is about reaching out and saving lives, aiming to reduce the stigma around talking about suicide. Visit the website for more details. 

Need help, or know somebody who does? R U OK? has useful phone numbers to call if you really need to talk. Find help here.

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