Guest blog: An Artist's Story
Yvonne is a Brighton-based artist who was our keynote speaker at our World Suicide Prevention Day event on 10th September 2013. This is her story.
“It seems that due to experiences in my life I have become some kind of expert, some kind of authority on communicating a particular story to people; a story about depression, about mental health and about suicide.
My father was very ill with depression and was in so much pain for so many years.
I was 13 years old when he attempted suicide. I watched him stagger around the kitchen vomiting in the sink, after taking an overdose.
I have another memory of when he refused treatment. I saw him being strapped into a chair and wheeled into an ambulance outside our house as he refused to go willingly.
I was 18 when he died by suicide. I came back to find a police car outside our house. My sister walked down the drive and told me “Dad’s dead”.
He had “done something silly”.
The world became an unreal place, I remember thinking; ‘this isn’t happening to me, this happens in films or on TV’.
Some people shunned us, but others stuck around. This is when I learnt to tell my story and to say ‘My Dad committed suicide’, or the preferred version, ‘My Dad took his own life’.
We weren’t permitted to have Dad’s funeral straight away, there were investigations, we were only permitted photocopies of the suicide notes he left behind.
To commit suicide was a criminal offense until the introduction of the Suicide Act in 1961. Even though it is no longer a crime the words ‘to commit’ have stuck. This is how I learnt about the stigma of living in a family surrounded by suicide.
The story got easier to tell as I became detached from telling it, but the reactions were no easier. The word suicide may be acceptable when used in a joke, but in the real world it can be too heavy for people to cope with. I would feel it weighing down my sentences as I explained how my father had died.
Like my father, I have depression.
Like my father, I have experienced suicidal thoughts.
Like my father, I have attempted suicide. Unlike my father, I did not succeed.
In March 2012 two days after my 37th birthday, I attempted suicide. I had taken a ‘serious overdose’. Life had thrown me upside down.
I had gone from managing my depression and trying to get off my medication, to being seriously depressed and suicidal, in a few short months.
I hadn’t been suicidal before. I didn’t know what it felt like or what signs to look out for.
Being suicidal meant my mind was not just full to capacity, it was overflowing. There was no longer any room to cope with anything. I was in so much mental distress and pain that the thought of death was a relief. I didn’t see any danger in death. I saw it as the only possible solution.
The overload on my brain meant that other, normal functions didn’t work. I had very little idea of what was going on and I was unaware of how much danger I was in.
I didn’t realise that I was saying goodbye to people and organising my effects. I was giving away things that I no longer needed. I was beginning to relax as I slowly ticked off the list of things that I needed to do. It was practical and logical. We are all going to die. I was just going to die that bit sooner.
I didn’t ‘complete’ suicide.
It took some 30 odd years from when my father died to have one new and very important word. Complete. Not commit.
I had a new way of explaining suicide. I picked it up from working with professionals who had learned Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) from Grassroots Suicide Prevention.
I remember the joy when Shauna from Rethink’s Survivors of Suicide group left a message, ‘cheerfully’ using the word suicide. One of the key things I noticed when working with ASIST trained people was their ability to use the word suicide freely and easily. I was greeted by people with whom I could have a conversation, without the shock and fear that I had experienced all my life. There was no stigma, there was no judgement. If I used the word, they used it back. This was such a relief.
There was so much care and attention given to each member of the Survivors of Suicide group. It was heart warming. Within each session there was a safe and clear structure. We were asked to check in at the beginning of each session on how we were feeling and how our week had been. We had a session of open discussion about our experiences with suicide. At the end of each session we were asked to checked out with how we were going to look after ourselves that evening, our ‘self care’. Talking openly about suicide can be extremely exhausting and we would each say something we were going to do that would make us feel good; something as simple as hot chocolate before bed, or watching something on TV.
Another specific detail that I came to rely on was being asked “Are you safe to leave?” and “Do you have a plan?”
In July 2013 I took the ASIST training with Grassroots. It was the most amazing two days of training that I have ever had. Normally I am someone who has to work hard at retaining information, someone who sits back and lets other stronger more knowledgeable people step forward.
In the world of suicide I have experience, I have opinions and I have a voice. And this voice will be heard! I couldn’t have stopped it if I had tried. Where others hesitated to use the work suicide I used it immediately and without burden. I could speak about it from more than one stand point; as one bereaved and as one who has attempted and survived.
It is oddly empowering and very weird that my darkest life experiences are now useful, like I'm some kind of accidental expert who talks about things that are normally shut away.
Not only do I have the ability to help others who feel suicidal, I can also apply suicide intervention to myself. I can ask myself ‘am I feeling suicidal?’ and if the answer is ‘Yes’ I now have plenty of ways to make sure I keep safe. The first thing on my list is to tell someone.
The following words kept me going through my recovery. They are something I found on the Grassroots resources page. I read this and I cry with relief that somebody knew my reality. Somebody knew how to explain it for the first time.
Suicide is not chosen; it happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain (http://www.metanoia.org/suicide/).
That's all it's about. You are not a bad person, or crazy, or weak, or flawed, because you feel suicidal. It doesn't even mean that you really want to die - it only means that you have more pain than you can cope with right now. If I start piling weights on your shoulders, you will eventually collapse if I add enough weights... no matter how much you want to remain standing. Willpower has nothing to do with it. Of course you would cheer yourself up, if you could.”
To find out more about Grassroots Suicide Prevention, and to learn about ASIST and other suicide prevention training programmes, visit www.prevent-suicide.org.uk
If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide and need to talk to someone, contact the Samaritans by phone 08457 90 90 90 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yvonne J. Foster: http://bit.ly/1abYjkq
Rethink Survivors of Suicide Service: http://bit.ly/1abYdcC