A Smile Can Save A Life

Dún Briste, Ballycastle, Co. Mayo, Ireland.
Photo by Daniel Kirchner

**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

Some Lone Parenting Realities

Yesterday, the Irish Times reported that the number of poor mothers dying by suicide is on the rise. 

Privately, a friend who works in an economically-deprived area in Dublin, told me that in the past year, three lone mothers have died by suicide in that area.

Mothers who parent alone get the shitty end of the stick in this country. Lone parent families have the highest rates of consistent poverty in Ireland, according to the most recent SILC report (which you can read here). The vast majority of lone parent families are headed by women. There are barriers to education and paid employment – and the work women do in the home is completely discounted; it’s expected that we will

*cook

*clean

*make appointments for the children

*take the children to those appointments

*do the laundry

*do the garden (if we’re lucky enough to have one)

*organise the handyman (if we can’t do the DIY ourselves)

*top up the leap cards

*keep the car on the road (if we’re lucky enough to have one)

*organise drop-offs and pick-ups

*do drop-offs and pick-ups

*pay attention to every sign and symptom of our babies, children, teens so we’re on top of their mental health and physical health

*provide healthy, nutritious meals for our children

*clothe our children

*provide appropriate shelter for our children

*ensure that they are doing well at school

*fight for everything they require if they have any sort of additional need

*pay all the bills

*organise birthday parties

*find the money for cards and gifts for our children’s friends’ birthdays

*make time to spend with each of our children on their own

*read to our children

*take care of their cultural, sporting, and academic requirements

*make sure they take their medication

*keep an eye on who they’re friends with

*get to know their friends

*forget that third drink on a weekend night, in case one of the kids gets sick and you need to take them to the doctor / hospital

*turn down invitations because you don’t have / can’t afford childcare

*monitor the kids’ internet usage

 

This list is not exhaustive. In fact, it barely touches the tip of the iceberg of the things that mothers parenting on their own are expected to do – and judged and vilified for if they don’t, or don’t do it to someone else’s ridiculously high standards.

Is it any wonder an increasing amount of us are suicidal?

* If you are affected by any of the issues raised, you can contact: Pieta House at 1800-247247, or Samaritans by telephoning 116123 for free, texting 087-2609090 or emailing jo@samaritans.ie or Aware: aware.ie; Tel: 1800-804848; Email: supportmail@aware.ie

Quitting

 

Quitting. Quitting everything – including life itself – is an attractive proposition to many people. To those of us who have survived sexual abuse, however, it can feel more attractive, more frequently, than it does to members of the general population. How often, and how strongly, you feel like quitting depends on a number of factors, but support is key to helping you get through the bad minutes, hours and days.

 

In this blog post, I am speaking directly to people who have been sexually assaulted, and who feel like quitting.

 

Sometimes, the first person you can turn to for support is yourself. Sometimes, the only person you can turn to for support is yourself. Before you consider quitting this life, please read this first:

  •  Please do not do anything to harm yourself today. Give it 24 hours, and remember that your record for getting through days like today is 100%.

 

  • Feeling suicidal is not a failing on your part. These feelings arise when the level of pain someone is feeling exceeds their ability to cope with that pain. You just need to figure out a way to either lessen the pain, or increase your coping mechanisms. Both are possible.

 

  • If your suicidal feelings are being caused by flashbacks, a useful thing to do is to ground yourself and remind yourself that even though you feel like you are living the experience again, you’re not. You are not being assaulted in this instant. What can be hugely helpful in these instances is to be aware of what is happening to you in this moment. Look around you. See who is in the room with you. Name them. Look at what you are wearing. Name it. Look at the room you are in. Name it. Describe things you can see in the room with you. Keep going until the flashback (or intrusive thought, whatever you want to call it) is gone. Repeat as often as necessary.

 

  • If the pain is too much for you to bear on your own, don’t even try. Reach out to someone who will understand you. That last bit is very important – very often, survivors reach out to people who are not supportive, or who appear to be supportive, but really aren’t. Call your local rape crisis centre. Call or text the Samaritans. They will not judge you, but they will help you. If you have a good relationship with a mental health professional or service, give them a ring and let them know how you are feeling. Ask for help. You are worth it.

 

  • When the suicidal feelings pass – and they will – don’t judge yourself for feeling like quitting. Be kind to yourself afterwards. Acknowledge that you were having a really hard time, and congratulate yourself for getting through it.

 

 

 

Mental Health Awareness Post (The Controversial One)

As Mental Health Awareness Month draws to a close (as I type, there’s just an hour left), I wanted to share something with you that has been bothering me for the past few weeks.

 

In April of this year, Donal Walsh – a sixteen year-old from Kerry was a guest on the Saturday Night Show on RTE.  Donal was dying of cancer and knew his days were numbered. In fact, he died on the 12th of May – just over a month after his TV appearance.

 

I never met Donal. I don’t know anyone who knew him personally, but he came across as a lovely bloke. He loved sport, he loved his family. He was connected to his community. And he wanted to live! More than anything, he wanted more time with his family. He was desperate to stay alive. And he was furious with people who die by suicide leaving “a mess” behind them.

 

Now, I have no doubt that Donal Walsh wanted to live. I have no doubt that he was perplexed by people who don’t want to live – but I worry about the effect his words may have had on people who are feeling suicidal.

 

I was a suicidal teen. There were times when all I wanted was to die. Death would have been a merciful relief. I used to go to sleep praying to a God I fervently believed in to let me die in the night – to please let the overdose work, to please let the poison seep through me, to let me annihilate myself.  Unlike Donal I had no loving family. Unlike Donal, I didn’t have a future worth living for. I didn’t have a team of medics who were rooting for me, I didn’t have a community that cared about me, I didn’t have teachers who were keen to do anything they could to help.

 

In short, Donal had people and a future to live for. Many, many suicidal people don’t and telling them he’s “very angry” with them isn’t exactly helpful. More guilt to add to the pain and guilt they are already suffering.  I understand that Donal wanted to live but what he didn’t seem to understand was that people who die by suicide don’t want to die – they just want their pain to end. They just want to wake up in the morning and not suffer. They want the misery to stop gnawing on their innards. When nothing else they try does that, they do the only thing they can and end their pain permanently.

 

Being angry with people who are in pain doesn’t lessen their pain.

 

It reminds me of the horrendous years I spent trying to have children. It was the biggest sorrow of my life that I was childless. I would have done anything to have a child to call my own (how I managed it is a whole other blog post!). I knew I was in trouble the day I caught myself talking myself into taking a baby who had been left outside a Prague  supermarket in his pram.  But that didn’t mean I was angry with other women who had abortions. Just because I wouldn’t have made their choices didn’t mean I had any right to condemn them. Or even be angry with them. I was jealous – but I wasn’t angry. I was furious that Fate, or God or pure dumb luck had given them a pregnancy they didn’t want when all I wanted was a pregnancy, but I couldn’t take that out on the women.

 

I have no doubt that Donal Walsh meant well, I have no doubt that he wanted to inspire suicidal teens to stay alive. Sadly,  he was not informed enough to do so in a more constructive way.