Preventing Suicide…..Harnessing the Power of “Storytelling”

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“So you give me the choice between the rope, the gun, the blade, or poison. And blame these attempts upon the surrendered mind….”14 year old Elsa

 

{Please Note: The language used in this post is not intended to create triggers, but rather to offer some insight on the brutal truth and reality behind this epidemic. Please take caution when reading.  Further, if you are having suicidal thoughts and need help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255}

 

Whether it be…

Standing on the ledge of a skyscraper’s rooftop…

Consuming household cleaning liquids…

Swallowing a handful of pills…

Holding the rails on the other side of a bridge over water…

Drowning in a bathtub with a pool of your own blood…

Pointing a gun to your head…

Jumping in front of a moving vehicle or train…

Hanging oneself with a rope, belt or shoelaces…

Holding the knife against your stomach as you wait for the instructions from the voice to pierce it through your skin…

…These images have been romanticized as emotionally riveting scenarios in novels and film.

However, many of these images are realities for millions of people around the world, and many thousands in the United States.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, every 12.8 minutes a person dies by suicide, and about 121 Americans die by suicide every day. These are harrowing numbers. AFSP research has found that “Suicide takes more lives than war, murder, and natural disasters combined.” It is also the tenth leading cause of death in the United States.

Admittedly, I have had ruminations of all those images and more…and unfortunately have attempted a few on that list above.

When you see those “attempts” written, it is quite effective in stirring some emotion, inside, making one feel empty, sad, angry, concerned, frightened.……perhaps also making one think, how could anyone possibly have that much pain that they would no longer have a desire to live? How could anyone be so self-absorbed, so selfish, narcissistic, stupid? How could anyone commit such a cowardly act and cause so much pain to their family and friends?

If we take the time to learn about Suicidology, we will understand that, along with depression and other mental disorders, it is a disease. It is an illness often connected to those disorders, a life-threatening illness just like Cancer…. Just like other types of “physical” illnesses.

It is tricky because an individual’s suicidal ideations may not always be easy to detect. You may be smiling on the outside, but on the inside, you are screaming your lungs out, begging for someone to help you. To care about you and to remind you that you matter. To look you in your eyes and tell you that your life matters, and your story matters. Sometimes more often than anyone is able or willing to do for you. I know that this is all I would need at times, but accepted that it may not happen. I won’t be able to explain how much I need them to tell me I matter to them, because I was ashamed that I needed that, and I was convinced that no one will take the time to listen and to understand.

I wake up every day literally calling myself a “piece of shit” sometimes out loud and telling myself that I “deserve to die.” I go to sleep every night saying and thinking similar things (and it is worse at night because it takes forever to fall asleep and it all goes on repeat).

One of my  therapists used to tell me to give a name to that voice. So, I called that voice Elizabeth. My name, Elsa, is actually a derivative of Elizabeth, originally a European name. I thought how fitting that would be, thinking of European empires controlling and dominating the world and sometimes doing some unintended and cruel damage.  At first I thought, what a stupid idea. Part of me felt it may lead to the emergence of a multiple personality disorder! I didn’t need this added to the mess that already existed. Some tactics social workers present may not work for everyone. Then again, it sort of made sense to me. I know deep inside, I don’t believe those things about me. That is why I am still here. Those thoughts about myself, those words, the vulgarity and lack of compassion for myself, doesn’t come from “me,” it comes from the illness. The illness is a part of me, and arguably over time, became an intersection of my identity, as a chronic lifelong struggle, but ultimately it doesn’t or shouldn’t define me.

I’ve been working tirelessly to try to change that for over 5 years now. I have affirmations. Some of them on my bedroom wall and some of which I have placed here on my blog within this post. But the negative cognitions have become such a strong habit from my teen years unfortunately. A pattern that is now very difficult to change. Which is why it is not just about “thinking positive” or having a “positive attitude” about oneself,  but something more.

Admittedly, it is not very easy to write nor to talk about Suicide or depression and apply that term “mental illness” in my life, and in reference to myself. It takes a lot of emotional and mental energy out of me. It’s ironic, for a writer and someone as expressive and open as I am, to aim for a cleansing of the mind and soul through writing, but feel the opposite sometimes with this topic. I have been talking more openly about my experiences in my networks online and offline now for about two years. Sometimes it is a bit obvious that people I have known in my professional networks in the DC area see me differently and perhaps treat me differently and I can tell the difference when they learn this side of me and when I am open about this. I don’t blame them. So much progress has been made but it will still take a lot of time to normalize this conversation. But we cannot be okay with this.

And every time I state in writing, in person, or in public among some audience that I am a suicide survivor or a suicide attempt survivor, I still get sick to my stomach. Even as I am writing this right now, I can feel an intense painful burning sensation inside…waves of it, radiating from my heart and all the way to the tips of my limbs and back… knowing the audience in which I am to share this, and so much of it has to do with “shame.”

“Shame” is such a wretched word, isn’t it. Used rightfully as a tactic against the most powerful of people, but also wrongfully against the most vulnerable and innocent of people.

No matter how much we try to fight the taboos, no matter how much we try to push ourselves to believe things are changing with more and more people “coming out” and sharing their stories… The “shame” remains… And the scary thing is that it is precisely this “shame” that triggers those ideations… it is precisely this “shame” that perpetuates the vicious cycle of self-destruction.

But it is my truth. It is my reality, that I must live with on a daily basis, as noted earlier, it starts with those vicious attacks that come from some voice inside that tries to tell me my existence and life is worthless, that I am worthless.  My OCD both triggers it and sustains it. It goes on and on and on throughout the day from the moment I wake up all the way to the moment I finally am able to somehow silence that voice and fall asleep.  It has contributed in shaping the way I see the world in both positive and negative ways…since I was very young…and It is a part of me…

When it has been such a big part of one’s history, it is so incredibly difficult to erase. To ask one to stay silent about it, for themselves, and for others, is truly a terrible injustice in and of itself.

Which is why we must make it easier for the next generation. It is like what my favorite professor in college told me, as I was graduating, back in 2006, the revolutionary work we are here on earth to accomplish is never about achieving things in our lifetime, …Revolution is about leaving a mark for the next generation, leaving some small sort of impact to benefit the generation after us. (He was a Marxist by the way 😉). I believe this ideal applies to many things, which I plan to do in my professional work in helping rebuild developing countries and fragile states, but it also applies to the narrative on suicide prevention.

I came across this video, where Simon Sinek speaks about the impact of technology, the Internet, and social media, on the younger generation or “millennials” and found it enlightening. Sinek discusses how millennials and even the generations to follow thereafter will continue to face different challenges that will, for example, make having relationships much more difficult with such a virtually interconnected world. Further, millennials will be more depressed and more anxious, and we have found evidence of greater suicide rates among youth, some caused by cyber bullying for example.

This concept of helping the generation to follow, is what inspires me to share my story through my blog and to encourage others to share their stories. For me, it is cathartic, but as I noted, it is also extremely painful to share. There are still conflicting emotions about it, but I tell myself to remain strong for the bigger picture, for the bigger goal, for creating that “inward revolution” that could be translated to an “outward revolution.” Sometimes we feel the obligation and the responsibility to share, to do something, once we have struggled through it. And in this case to ensure we do what we can to save ourselves, but also to save others. Sometimes it takes stepping out of our own misery and own struggles to see the bigger picture, and how it connects to the larger struggles, and how one is essentially not struggling in isolation, even though they think they are.

This, beyond all the other prevention and intervention tactics we learn from professional institutions and organizations, will be the most effective way to bring down the suicide rate: when we make it OKAY to talk about it in our local networks, when we share our own stories and welcome others to tell us theirs. Power is evident in one’s story.  There is power in the revelation of one’s authentic truth.

There are a lot of resources out there that talk about preventing Suicide. Many of which I have consulted. I think all the different programs, tools, resources, some of which I have shared here in my own Mental Health repository, which I’m still building, are good and useful. But there is a personal element behind the stories connected to suicide.

I believe in this power of story. Stories have the power to move people. But I think in this case, stories can save lives. Sharing our stories of personal human suffering and allowing ourselves to connect with others, allowing others to connect with us through stories, is so important for Suicide Prevention, as it is for so many other things in life.

I enjoy fiction and non-fiction storytelling. Fiction, in many ways, can be more powerful depending on the way it is written and how captivating, relevant, sensational and relatable the characters can be. The power can be further layered when fiction is based on a truth. Hemingway sadly took his own life, but before he departed, he shared some of his best work through writing from his personal truth and personal experiences.  I do not see myself as a great storyteller, in writing and definitely not in speech, but I have aspired for it, because of what impact stories have had in my life, and in turn, I have been training towards it, in certain ways both in my non-fiction/academic writing as well as fiction writing. I hope to emulate the art of storytelling in my dissertation as well.

I believe in the power of personal stories which is partly why I have created this space as a personal blog…and at the same time, have offered space for others to join or start a conversation with me…. I believe the personal stories are much more effective in reducing the stigma associated with Suicide and mental illness. Connecting to one’s vulnerability can be magnetic…my hope is that I can simply just be another voice added to the crowds of voices emerging that will help inspire “closeted” suicide and depression survivors to share theirs openly.

Which is why every person’s contribution, every person’s story is essential and valuable. 

As the Ethiopian proverb goes, “When spiders unite, it can tie down a Lion.”

This is what Social capital is about, a research tradition I have been studying now for several years. I had familiarized myself with Durkhiem’s well-known study on suicide (1897) when I immersed myself in the literature of social capital for my dissertation. The premise of Durkheim’s study of suicide and resulting conclusion was that in areas with lesser social capital, people were more likely to die by suicide (1897). Hence, more social capital = less suicide. If this is true, then it is clear that this is public policy problem, not a private domestic issue, which needs to be resolved through collective action.

I have dedicated  a section of this blog for people to share their stories with me and to have an informal discussion. I doubt that anyone will use it to be frank, but it remains a metaphorical gesture nevertheless, to symbolize my strong belief on the need to share our stories and my openness to listen to you. I have been hoping to create a “community” (for me and for others in need) consisting of individuals who not only have a story for themselves or loved ones suffering with mental illness, but also those who care about mental health awareness and suicide prevention. 

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Last month, from Sept 10 to Sept 16, it was National Suicide Prevention Week. That week, interestingly, I posted a few items about suicide in my social media platforms without knowing it was the national week dedicated for suicide prevention awareness, which was an interesting coincidence. I also participated in the UNRWA Gaza 5k that supports mental health for Palestinian refugee children, which happened on Sept 16th this year. It was a very moving and empowering experience, as it is every year. This was my third consecutive year participating and I was elated to see the words “moving for mental health” added to their t-shirts and promotional materials. The fundraiser was a great example of how mental health cuts across all barriers and boundaries, and even when those boundaries have been imposed on you.

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Also, it was on September 16th that I signed up for the 11th Annual Washington DC Community Walk for Suicide Prevention, hosted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The Gaza 5k and this Community Walk have become an annual tradition for me, to represent my commitment to mental health initiatives. And it is my 3rd consecutive year participating in this fundraiser as well. Here is my page for those who wish to donate to this cause and learn more about it.

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I wrote this facebook post for prior to the 10th Annual DC Walk last year and shared it on my blog as well.

In that note, I wrote that I had overcome suicidal ideations. I really did feel I may have progressed on that front. Although it was the longest interval since I had ideations, which was superb progress, a few months later it did come back. I was so heartbroken and disappointed in myself. Every relapse is double the pain of an ideation because it accompanies self-disappointment, and self-pity when you tried to convince yourself that you were getting better, which only increases the depression. But over time I realized that this is indeed a real life long battle, and I will have these relapses, but it is okay, as long as I find my way out and do not drown in the “darkness.” I think there was some pride in the idea of never having suicidal ideations again, but in the past year I have simply accepted that, just like any other chronic illness, it will come back from time to time. Because once it returned to me, sadly it was frequent and it has been frequent since then.

Nevertheless, I rely on these kinds of activities, like this annual DC Community Walk with a great resource like AFSP, for empowerment, for revival, and for additional support. I walk for myself, I walk for my friends I have lost, and I walk for family and friends and all my brothers and sisters of humanity who are suffering from suicide or impacted by it in some way.

I am hoping to beat my last year’s total funds raised as an individual walker ($600), and raise at least $625, by asking 25 people to donate $25.00. I am hoping that more friends can join me in supporting this cause this year. But it doesn’t have to be 25.  Even if just a few people can give one dollar, I think it will still serve it’s purpose, regardless of whether I can reach that goal. I know it isn’t much to shoot for anyway, sadly I am not very good at fundraising, but I would still like to try.

The bottom line…stories need to be heard, voices need to be elevated, from those who experience the ideations and attempts directly and have survived it themselves.

From these stories, we must not only be able to show why Suicide is not the right option, but respect the fact that the option does exist in the minds of millions of people. It is inaccurate to suggest it isn’t an option because the truth is that the option exists and many have taken it. We know suicide is an incredibly tragic way to go,  and we know it can be prevented, and we must be there for our brothers and sisters who are suffering to no fault of their own.

I don’t know if I can answer the question of why it’s not the right option, but I can only offer my perspective.

Until recently I couldn’t remember a day when I didn’t go without any suicidal ideations since I was a child. All my life, I have been trying to convince myself that suicide is in fact not the “right” thing to do.  Some of the reasons why I didn’t pursue it, were arguably not the “right” reasons, and evidently were not the most sustainable reasons. Religion and cultural stigma too often played a part in keeping me from acting on the ideations, which to many would seem good.

What saved me many times since I was a teenager, was thinking about my family. It was about knowing how much it would hurt my family if I did follow through with my plans.

But, I learned, at least for me, that was also not the right reason. But it kept me alive to buy time to figure out what may be the “right” reason for me to stay alive, to choose the option to live.

I was stuck, like I often am now. But to be stuck in this horrific reality of feeling obliged to live and wanting to die, is not only a miserable way to live life, it’s heartbreaking, or it should be for those who love you.

The right reason to live, is the recognition of your own beauty and your own humanity. You’re reason to live is YOU. Not Religion because God tells you not to kill yourself. Not Cultural stigma, because it will “look bad” among your family and peers. Not even your family and friends, because you don’t want to hurt them. We must choose to live for ourselves.  Somehow our illness tells us otherwise. That we are not human.

But one can argue, those reasons are “right,” because they can keep you alive. And it’s true. Any reason to keep you alive is good. The most critical thing is to understand other options do exist.

Suicide isn’t the right answer because other options do exist and it is a matter of recognizing those options exist. It seems simple.  But it isn’t. A person’s failure to recognize their own humanity is not only part of a medical treatable illness and condition, but also the unfortunate failures of a collective societal response to the illness.

Further, perhaps a person shouldn’t commit suicide because them fighting the illness and sharing their story is exactly what humanity needs.

Stories of resilience and survival wouldn’t be something that you equate to the Suicide attempt survivor. You would not hail them for their victory of overcoming their ideations. There is so much taboo even in the literature of suicidology and interventions that people who survive suicide attempts were not even given the label of “survivors” until very recently. This to me is pitiful. Mental illness is a real medical condition and a real illness. But because of the stigma, those who survive it would not be acknowledged as survivors or warriors.

To that end, sometimes we have to remind ourselves that we are survivors and that we are warriors in this dreadful fight.

Listening to the stories from the families who have lost loved ones is very important. Hearing stories directly from the survivors without attributing the stigma, shame, and other retributions to their life, is equally important.

So what helps us come “out of the darkness?” My answer from first hand experience, which may not be as clear and specific: when we are enlightened that there is in fact a clear option to live. When we know there is a choice. But it is not just knowing that an option exists but a clear understanding of an exact and detailed path to achieve that option. It is not only knowing about the consequences, but also knowing that there are better choices and exactly WHY those choices are better. That will help us keep our story going… knowing that there is still so much yet to be written….and that we have to live to share this chapter of our story, and in turn, hope that it can manifest into some sort of love, compassion, and support in service to others…

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Today, I finally got a chance to place the Suicide Prevention Decal on my car… which is pictured at the beginning of this post. I bought a stack of these to send to friends and family who have suffered this ordeal in some way. And had been meaning to put one on my car for a long time. I stalled this because of my extreme perfectionism, I wanted to make sure my car is squeaky clean before I would put it on. But today, I decided, despite my OCD, and not getting a chance to wash my car, I’ll put it on there anyway. It’s the little things that matter, the little moments of progress that add up to bigger moments of progress.

I also began this post sharing a line from a poem I wrote as a teenager that I have shared in this blog.

I was referencing suicide at a young age apparently, without my knowledge and understanding of such a concept, and without knowing “Elizabeth” existed, and without being enlightened about her influence in my life, until I started sharing the poem in college and to various audiences.

Supporting AFSP supports tackling this issue among youth, especially children and teenagers. According to AFSP, “Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for those between the ages of 15 and 34 in the United States.”

I’m passionate about reaching the younger generation on this issue, recalling when it started for me, and what I went through, without much knowledge and resources, and with tough generational and cultural barriers and lack of understanding. But I am also dedicated to reach out to the older generation who have it already internalized and to support greater awareness in the struggle.

Our stories are not over yet Which is why we must continue turning the pages….

I ask you to please join me in this fight to Stop Suicide. I know there are so many important issues and problems in the world, now, as there always have been, but I will argue that Suicide continues to be one of them.

Don’t do “nothing” when you know someone who is suffering. Don’t slam the door after you learn an individual is suffering with a mental illness. After you see this supposed “dark side.” Don’t run away. By joining me in this mission, and in this conversation, you will help me save my own life, and at the same time, help save many others…

…and we can do this by cultivating and harnessing the power of storytelling…and in turn, more importantly, the power of listening to the stories in these conversations.

 

Call to Action:

I want to ask you kindly to do any of the following four things:

 

1) Share this post/message or share my fundraising page for the Washington, DC AFSP Community Walk Fundraiser.

2) If you are able, you can donate directly to the AFSP through their main page.

OR Donate to AFSP through my fundraising page for the Washington DC AFSP Community Walk Fundraiser.

3) “Stay.” And listen to the stories. Share your story.

4) Smile. I know this is cheesy, but it’s powerful. I believe a smile from a stranger can do so much for someone’s day and life. Please take my example when I say it has for me. The basic message here is being generous through the simplest and smallest things, as the smallest acts of generosity can go a very long way.

 

Thank you so much for supporting this cause, it is helping so many people and it is helping me.  I hope you will consider/continue supporting me in my fight as well, so I can continue to be here to fight for others.

Peace, warmth, and blessings,

Elsa,

Warrior KQueen

 

 

Again, if you are having suicidal thoughts and need help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255. Take care. Thinking and praying for you. 

2 thoughts on “Preventing Suicide…..Harnessing the Power of “Storytelling”

  1. Avatar Barbara Drewry says:

    Elsa – Thank you for sharing your story! It’s so important. It really is. If I could make one suggestion, it would be to consider making more frequent, shorter posts. Keep sharing! God bless you!

    • Thank you for reading this post, Barbara. Your suggestion is a great one, thank you, I will absolutely take that into consideration. I appreciate the encouragement. Thank you again, warm wishes, Elsa

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