The shadow

A dark shadow hoovered above me, at first I thought it was my shadow, it kept following me everywhere, and then it occurred  to me that a shadow disappears in the dark but even in the dark I could still make out its presence. It would take me down, it grew stronger in time and always pinned me down. It grew and became more powerful and nobody ever knew what I had to do to make it through every day, with this shadow hoovering over me all day. They were oblivious and ignorant, too blind to see, I became a skilled actor wearing a smile as my prop, playing the so called normal human who never could be touched by pain and sorrow. This isolation allowed the shadow to engulf me, I was dependent on it, it became my companion, my misery. It was getting harder for me to make it leave.

One day it spoke to me, told me that it was called depression, it also went by names as having the blues, the black dog…it said that its aim was to break me down, to make me feel in despair, that for friendship with me it didn’t care. It threatened me that the world would not understand, that it would ostracise me and label me crazy, lazy, a freak and weak.

That my suicidal despair would be classified as attention seeking, selfish, off my rocket and mad. That it had me where it wanted and if I told, others would see me as this, I would lose my dignity and their respect, they wouldn’t see the human suffering that I felt. That nobody cared and I’d be punished that death was better than being humiliated.

I started to see that society didn’t see my shadow but it engaged in victim blaming. It made me feel more despair, it wounded me with its stigma and preconceptions, it made me worse with its lack of empathy and understanding.

Then one day I grew angry, who was society and others to judge and inflict more pain? To feed the shadow and reassure and strengthen its stay?

I started to speak out and fight and challenge all this with all my might.

I grew stronger when I learned to ditch the fear, it was time that I got over being scared of the dark, the dark this world leaves others in and realised that empathy and compassion can drive out the dark, that when now sunnier days are out the shadow might still be there, but it doesn’t cause harm no more, defeating depression happens when we learn to reach out to those in pain, and never make them feel alone again. We all want to be saved, stigmatising us will bring no change.

© Antonella Zottola

The truth behind suicide and the suicidal mind

Edwin. S. Shneidman states:

“In almost every case, suicide is caused by pain, a certain kind of pain – psychological pain, which I call psychache. Furthermore, this psychache stems from thwarted or distorted psychological needs’ (The Suicidal Mind, 1996, p.4)

Suicidal death is an escape from overwhelming pain.

The question we should be asking is “Where does it hurt? And “How can I help you?”

Shneidman also looks at some common truths and factors about suicide. These are:

  • The common purpose of suicide is to seek a solution to end the pain.
  • The common goal of suicide is cessation of consciousness. Dissociating from the painful reality.
  • The common stimulus in suicide is psychological pain. Pain is at the core of suicide.
  • The common stressor in suicide is frustrated psychological needs. These cause the pain and push the person into suicide.
  • The common emotion in suicide is hopelessness-helplessness. It feels like there is nothing the person can do (except end their pain via death) and nobody that can help them (with the pain they feel).
  • The common cognitive state in suicide is ambivalence. This is the tug war between life and death. Not wanting to live, not wanting to die but wanting to end the pain and death feeling like the only solution. Suicidal people feel forced into this, it is not a want but stemming from the need to end the pain. When the need becomes greater than the want, suicide wins. This is the result of great distress and great desperation.
  • The common perceptual state in suicide is constriction. Black or white thinking. All or nothing.

Shneidman states:

“Suicide is not best understood as a psychosis, a neurosis, or a character disorder. It is a transient psychological constriction, involving our emotions and intellect”. “There was nothing else to do.’ “The only way out was death’. “The only thing I could do was this’.

  • The common action in suicide is escape or egression.
  • The common interpersonal act in suicide is communication of intention
  • The common pattern in suicide is consistent with life-long styles of coping. Individuals who have lost their lives to suicide, have been fighting for far longer than we realise, it’s an accumulation of unprocessed life events that can trigger the final act. Those more prone to automatically use the flee survival response are made vulnerable.

What doesn’t help people who are suffering is the myths that surround suicide that need to be eliminated and based on lack of empathy and total ignorance.

Suicidal people are not selfish, cowards, weak or attention seeking, not only are they in great psychological pain, but did you know that the part involved with empathy is shut down? When overwhelmed our nervous system shuts down and parts of our brain become inactive. In that moment, suicidal people are not thinking, this ability is disabled, they are trying to end their pain.

Also children and adolescents commit suicide, do we think of them as weak, cowards…or do we see them as dsyregulated individuals in great distress unable to regulate and soothe selves?

Suicidal idealisation and suicide itself is common and normal, we need a relational approach to this not a pathological approach. We need to stop pathologising human experiences. We need to stop shaming people who open up to us and label them attention seeking, let’s substitute attention seeking with connection seeking. Suicide can escalate when individuals are made to feel unsupported and isolated.

If someone brings our attention to the fact they are hurting, we ask where are you hurting? We don’t say people are seeking attention when they have had an accident and are injured, the doctor or paramedic may ask, can you tell me where it hurts? Can you show me where you are hurting? and assistance will immediately be given. We also don’t leave an individual who is bleeding profoundly to bleed alone so why do we emotionally? why is the waiting list and support for people in distress so long, requiring them to have to wait years even for assistance? Why are children being dismissed because they are told they are not suicidal enough for help?

Myths not only are callous, judgmental and inaccurate but also contribute in making others feel further unsupported, misunderstood, stigmatised, punished, isolated and alone, increasing the pain and risk. This is the root of the problem and this rises suicidal feelings and the risks of suicide.

We see in films the kind act of putting an animal in pain out of its misery and suicidal people feel like they are doing the same for themselves as well as a kind act to those they love in the way of removing the burden they feel they are. They don’t want their loved ones to see them in pain and have to experience that pain every day and feel that death would give them freedom from this. They know that their death would also cause pain, but they don’t see this as worse of a pain than to see a loved one dead inside and in pain whilst alive. It is excruciatingly painful and difficult for someone to end their life, and an indication of how bad that psycheache is. Nobody likes pain, think of what we do, when we have a toothache, we reach for medication to help alleviate the pain, when we are in severe psychological pain such as deep injuries and needing surgery we are given anaesthetic to take away the pain, imagine living with this pain with no anaesthetic day after day. For a suicidal person living can feel like being burned alive each day.

Not every suicidal person wants to end life, it’s not that they don’t want to live but they fear living or life more than death. For others they may feel trapped in limbo where they fear living and they feel dying just as equally. These individuals may find themselves experiencing suicidal ideation but not making plans. This is a torment in its own right. Suicide is trying to find a solution to a problem, it is the trauma response of flight mode. Attempts are ways to self soothe when one is emotionally dysregulated and overwhelmed by so much emotional and psychological pain within. One doesn’t need to suffer from a mental illness, even if mental illness is a high risk and many lose their lives to a mental illness far too many times, this is why we must have the support we need to help those in need but the support for mental health as always been scarce and the world has long not be trauma informed.

What also doesn’t help is that we live in a world that causes systematic trauma alone through oppression and exploitation such as racism, capitalism, misogyny…and one that doesn’t meet human needs. A world where emotions are frowned upon and vulnerability which is courage seen as weakness, victim blaming is engrained in our culture and all these things woven into the fabric of our society alone is enough to make any strong, healthy or mentally healthy person, emotionally bleed.

Not all people that are suicidal are necessarily depressed because many times what is pathologically labelled as a disease is in effect an emotional reaction and therefore rather a dis-ease (as Peter Levine states) and also if we look at the word depression it means to press down, push down and this is what we are asked to do with our feelings and emotions. Many times, what we feel is dismissed with phrases such as: “just think positive”, “It could be worse”, “things happen for a reason” …making one feel alone and misunderstood and their pain further silenced. We further create more distress to an already distressed individual through hospitalisation where they can be forced by police into an ambulance, sedated and treated like dangerous violent criminals. In past, mental illness treatments were barbaric and abusive to the point they would make you suicidal.

When our survival is threatened and pain overwhelming the real aim is to end the pain, it’s to find a solution. Suicide isn’t primarily in my view about self destruction although the act itself has this element, but rather it is a form of self protection. It’s a reaction to a threat so great, the threat of never being the same, the threat caused by overwhelming fear for our life or our reputation, the overwhelming of shame. It can be a different threat to different people as all of us are individuals with individual circumstances. I believe it’s the threat that leads to what distressed individuals come to see as the only solution. It is not intentional and rational, it is determined by various social and biological forces. Like us humans it is complex and needs to be given the attention it deserves and victims and survivors of suicide or attempted suicide(s), need to be given the dignity and justice they deserve.

If something so heavy is falling on us and it threatens to crush us, chances are without support we cannot free ourselves and the weight of something we cannot possible hold alone will come crashing and potentially kill us. Something has happened or happens that has metaphorically ended a person’s life before suicide ends it physically as in kills the body. Many times, we fail to see that the person who we have lost to the world, was trying to survive, wanted to survive and intended to survive and had been strong for so long and yet we fail to see this is the case in a lot of suicides. We just label them cowards just like soldiers in wars who developed PTSD and could no longer bring themselves to function or fight. We cannot judge anyone or ourselves even by the same standards when we are faced with a threat or when we are in great distress. When are needs are not met and we are starved and deprived of these needs or need to survive.

An example is, if we are safe and regulated and have security and resources and say we are thirsty, we will drink something that is drinkable, if we were in a desert for days and the threat of death by dehydration was looking us in the eye, in despair we would drink poison just to quench the thirst, this would lead to death but our intention was not death, it was to ease the discomfort, to find a solution even if it came with repercussions. Our choices, our behaviours, our actions, our thoughts, all change when faced with things.

So we can’t judge and compare, victims of suicide with someone who feels safe and in a calm state because of this. Another example is seen even in animals, scorpion suicide was long featured in Iberian folklore, but George Bryron’s 1813 poem: The Giaour, brought attention to it. When ringed with fire and faced with no means of escape, the scorpion was said to end the threat by thrusting its sting into its own back which would see it dying. A bee will sacrifice their life to string to protect itself from threat. Suicide is an act to protect self from the threat of overwhelming emotional and mental pain.

We can also consider the IFS (internal Family system) modality, which is an approach that doesn’t pathologise rather normalises aspects within ourselves and looks into them with a lens of compassion and curiosity not judgement. It is of the belief that our mind is made up of sub-personalities, this is why we can experience conflicting emotions, because there is more to us than just one part. We are made up of many parts. That is why many suicidal individuals may have a part of them that wants to live and a part of them that wants to die with the latter taking over.

IFS claims that these parts are divided into exiles (parts of us that are wounded, vulnerable, traumatised), protectors (these are pro-active and try to protect the exile parts from becoming wounded again and experiencing emotional flooding which overwhelms us), and finally the firefighters (these parts are reactive and try to end the pain, these are the parts that can have us feel suicidal or act on suicide). So what we see, is that suicide is an act of self protection, an attempt to protect self from pain and like a firefighter the goal is to put out the fire (pain), everything else isn’t important and will get destroyed, just like suicide ends the pain but destroys the body in order to do this which results in a life lost.

I have aimed to argue and present my argument that suicide has absolutely nothing to do with a character deficit and as Aphrodite Matsakis states when talking of trauma:

“At some point in your life you have probably cut your finger with a knife. If the blade was dull, you may have suffered only a little nick. If the blade was sharp, you may have bled all over. If the blade was very sharp and the force behind it was great enough, you might even have lost part of your finger. The extent of your injury depended more on the sharpness of the blade and the power behind it than on the toughness of your skin. Given enough force, even extremely tough skin would not protect you from the knife, and anyone else in the same situation would also be injured, even if they had the toughest skin in the world. The same holds true on a psychological level. There are events in life that would almost make anyone ‘bleed all over’.

What I mean by trauma is anything that affects our ability to function, what happens inside us. Even the things like losing a job, a breakup/divorce, the loss of security, loneliness…

In addition, we need to change our language around suicide. Don’t say: They committed suicide, they had a failed attempt, they are attention seeking. Alternatives and the truth are, they died by suicide, they were in psychological pain, they are asking for support and help. People don’t commit suicide, they are driven to suicide. Let’s end the stigma and stop hurting those that are already hurt and in pain by words, myths and ignorance.

Let’s get educated and spread the love! Let’s remember those that have made attempts and survived along with those who have lost a loved one and those that have lost their lives to psycheache.

Reference: Edwin. S. Shneidman, The Suicidal Mind (1996

Copywrite: Antonella Zottola

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The Hurt and Pain behind Christmas

While Christmas is seen as a jubilant occasion that embodies the theme of family, friends and happiness, the reality is that many are plagued by deep sadness, loneliness and even despair. Christmas can bring with it painful memories and make people feel more isolated and alone.

Let’s imagine some realities; the elderly that may be forgotten or with no family, the victim of domestic abuse who may be tempted to go back to abuse because it feels better than the pain of loneliness, the child whose parents cannot afford much, the homeless on the street, the one’s who may have lost a loved one or experienced trauma around this time, those who have no family or who have removed themselves from toxic ‘family’. The one’s forever struggling of which Christmas may feel like just a day like any other.

Many of these painful feelings can make people suicidal even around this time, especially when the pressures to be and appear happy are placed upon them, when they are seen as Scrouge’s and ruining it for everyone else if they are not.

This pressure can often lead some to smile, and so a smile can been seen but the inner torment often remains hidden.

Christmas highlights what is lacking in people’s life and magnifies it, bringing feelings of shame, inferiority, a sense of failure and then feeling like one is bad if they are not in the mood to celebrate, feel happy or like the very season that seems the most painful as there is no escape from this theme. These happy images are painful reminders that can be torturous to those who have no contacts or family, suffer from mental illness, are being abused and whose life is not the epitome of joy. Where tears are to be found instead of laughter, where the tinsel may not sparkle, where there may be nobody to pull a cracker with, where loneliness and pain engulfs them even when surrounded by others.

Many clients may indeed feel like this and need counselling and support at a time which can be seen as the most painful as it forces so many happy images and so many images of family, security and happiness that remind others of all they may have lost or all they don’t have. It can also remind them of all that can make them feel guilty for not being happy, shame at all that they might lack in life at that moment and loneliness at the reminder of not having the happy family or close ones to share it with.

If family members are depressed, or things happen at Christmas, the association made will not be positive. Many hurts can be thrown in peoples faces and many expectations and pressures placed on this sense of being happy whilst the truth is for many that they could be hurting inside.

It’s important to realise how sensitive and painful this season and time can be for many others out there that may need support, understanding and validation. Let’s not forget   that Christmas isn’t always a happy day for everyone and that’s okay.

Let someone know you care, not only at Christmas but during the rest of the calendar year. Be understanding and accept that Christmas isn’t the best time of year for all out there.

Society; an issue in male depression and suicide

Depression is the illness of those that have been strong for too long.

For many years, men, in particular, have been more likely to go through with their suicide attempts. It is only now that the world is holding a light to the darkness that men have lived in, with the numerous suicides of male celebrities and the media willing to expose story-lines that challenge the realities of this subject and illness that has claimed the lives of numerous men.

Depression itself has been long misunderstood, leading to little help and support available and further damage done to sufferers.

Much medication, whilst helpful, has extremely severe side effects that can contribute to the suicidal state one feels in, and lead to the zombification of emotions. This can increase the despair for some.

Whilst there is absolutely no shame in taking them and some are helped, they tackle the symptom but do not heal and get to the core of the psychological pain and the cause. This is why a treatment of medication and therapy is ideal along with a change of diet, as diet can affect our moods and it has been scientifically proven that diet can play an integrative role; we only need to see that certain vitamins such as B vitamins can make a difference in symptoms such as tiredness and fatigue.

The next damaging thing at play is gender stereotypes and in particular, toxic masculinity, the way we tell boys and men not to cry, we kill their natural emotional being, we don’t allow them to be sensitive and this can be seen by the damaging and abusive comment of ‘man up’. We expect them never to be or feel vulnerable, we imply that if they cannot protect themselves and be strong at all times that they are then weak and lesser of a man is the negative message we give them.

We don’t allow men to be men, to be humans with all that is part of the human experience which is to feel, to have emotions, be able to freely express and talk about them. In general as a society, we have a stigma on being open about our emotions. Men are being made victims by society before being made victims of depression.

An example is when others can be quick to attack those that do so on social media and unfriend them even, comments like ‘this isn’t a place to talk about your problems’ or ‘don’t wash your dirty laundry in public’. So when people reach out, they feel shut down and alone and rejected. Men are taught to bottle up their feelings and that’s what they do until the pain is too much and they can’t see any other way out or lose hope that the world or anyone will ever understand their hell.

As a society, when people want to reach out to us, we silence or dismiss them with things such as: ‘don’t be so pessimistic’, ‘others have it far worse’, ‘don’t be a drama queen’, ‘it will be okay’… because we are uncomfortable sitting with pain, so these comments may seem helpful but are not. Comparing our pain to those that have it worse, invalidates the sufferer’s pain and means that we will never acknowledge it or give it justice because someone will always have it worse.

Pain cannot and should never be measured, nor should anyone attempt this or tell us how we should feel or what we are feeling.

Further isolation and despair is caused by those who suffer from depression because we give out the message that we don’t like hanging around those who appear ‘negative’, and this is how depressed people can feel and this can lead to them isolating themselves and feeling lonelier. This can silence them and prevent them from reaching out and fearing judgement if they do.

Then we have the stigma of suicide. Many professionals’, even counsellors, find this subject hard and unable to work with it. It is important to be able to handle such a difficult subject with clients if we are to help them. Suicide for many years has carried a stigma, victims who died this way didn’t even get a proper burial. Families of someone who has passed away in this manner find it hard to reveal the cause of death as they want to protect the dignity of their loved ones who are harshly and wrongly labelled and judged as being cowards selfish; how could they do this to their families? All become victims apart from the victim who was killed by the disease of depression, just like cancer and other illnesses kill people. One would not have acted on this if depression had not killed them with pain, a pain that they want to kill rather than themselves. Therefore, many will find it hard to admit and open up about their suicidal state, the shame of this and the shame that men ‘need’ to be so-called ‘strong’.

Depressed men like any other sufferer, have been strong for so long, this is the truth. To be human means to be vulnerable, to be human means to feel. Most of the time depression and distress and issues occur because we are being denied that right to be free, to be our authentic selves and because we live in a society that isn’t meeting our needs. We are always in competition, always expected to work insane and unnatural hours in employment, we are more disconnected than ever.

Whilst depression is mental and biological, to me personally, I feel that depression is a natural reaction to having been emotionally strong for so long and that at the core, it is an emotional disorder before anything else.

Changing our beliefs, challenging damaging gender stereotypes and conditioning, creating a healthier and supportive environment and world – one where connection is encouraged and greater awareness, knowledge and education on mental illnesses exists, alongside recognising the importance of a healthy diet in our lives can do so much. We are killing all that is needed instead of killing what is driving so many men to their premature graves.

Saving our humanity contributes to saving lives.