A Smile Can Save A Life


**CW: Suicidal Ideation**

Photographs of Dún Briste (Downpatrick Head) in Mayo are becoming a regular feature on my social media feeds.

But I knew her before she was famous.

Decades ago, when I was a teenager, an aunt and uncle of mine had a second home in Ballycastle – a tiny, rural village on the coast of Co. Mayo, on the edge of the rough Atlantic. Dún Briste was a walk of about half an hour from the house. When we visited Ballycastle, we visited the Head, which was not well-known at the time. Indeed, it’s only since the nearby Céide Fields became part of Ireland’s Heritage Trail, in 1993.

The sight of the sea stack in my various timelines, however, does not flood me with happy memories. Rather, it instantly brings me back to the time when I – aged 15 – walked, on the springy grass, to the top of the cliff that air-kisses Dún Briste. I was on my way to throw myself off the cliff and die at the foot of the stack.


I’d had enough. My own family had abused – physically, sexually, emotionally, mentally – and neglected me, my entire life. I had been let down by every element of the community with which I interacted; educational, medical, and legal. I had never been loved, or made to feel that I mattered, by anyone. And I had given up hope. I couldn’t see how I could ever escape from the desperation I felt on a daily basis. I couldn’t see any value in myself, because no one else did, either.

Hope takes energy, and I didn’t have the energy any more. I’d done everything I could to try to make things better for myself. I’d run out of ideas. I’d run out of energy. I’d run out of hope. There was no way I could continue facing horrendous day after horrendous day. I felt trapped entirely in an existence that I felt I had no control over. (Professor Rory O’Connor speaks about this feeling of being trapped in his new book ‘When It Is Darkest’.) I couldn’t bear it any longer, I really couldn’t.


I believed that the best and bravest thing I could do was kill myself. I would no longer be in pain, and no-one would miss me. In fact, I was fairly sure they’d be delighted I was gone.


On my way to the edge (literally and figuratively!) I met two women, in their forties, who were descending. One of them looked in my eyes, smiled a rich, warm, smile, and said

‘Hello. How are you?’

I remember exactly how that made me feel. I felt seen. I’d felt like she had been genuinely interested in how I was (even though I just gave the socially-acceptable, stock answer ‘fine, thank you’).


Continuing to the top of the cliff, I felt my resolve weaken. Something niggled at me. The woman who had greeted me had smiled so warmly at me, and enquired so kindly after my well-being – as though I were a valuable human – that I started to doubt my own worthlessness. She had seen, and responded to, my humanity. And I felt it.


That made me think, long and hard, about my decision. I realised that, even though nothing had materially altered in my life and circumstances, a complete stranger had felt I deserved warmth and kindness. Nothing had changed. Yet, everything had changed.


I decided to retreat from the top of the cliff, and told myself that the cliff wasn’t going anywhere, and I could fling myself off it any other day I felt like it. As you can see, I managed to struggle on for a while longer. There were many more years of suicidal ideation, there were further close brushes with death – and there were many more strangers who felt I was worth something, even if I didn’t always feel that way about myself.


My point? Well, actually I have two: Every life – including your own – is worth saving; and a smile can save a life.


If you are feeling suicidal, please call your local Samaritans:
Ireland: 116 123
UK: 116 123

France: 01 46 21 46 46
The Netherlands: 113  
US: Local Numbers here.
Singapore: 1-767
Australia: 135 247

Ireland: Text HELLO to 50808
US: Text HOME to 741741
UK: Text SHOUT to 85258
Canada: Text HOME to 686868

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