How to get out of a very dark hole
You would be surprised how strong you are when sorely tested and pushed to your breaking point. Each time I reached bottom and the pain and struggle were so great that I would have liked to not be alive anymore, I found a new, untapped reserve of inner strength that I didn’t know was there.
This post is not about the descent to the point where you’re seriously considering suicide. Rather, it’s about how to help someone return to life from that space. Because I've been there.
I share my story because I've seen friends posting on social media about having their doors open for those who are feeling down, depressed, or even suicidal. While that’s great, there is more to helping someone find their way out of the depths of despair than just saying passively, “I’m here for you”. Getting out of that dark hole requires more than just positive thinking, too. I speak from experience.
When I was 14 I stood on that proverbial ledge and was almost ready to jump into the abyss.
From the outside it looked like I had everything. I was an A-student, was involved in the school musical, danced ballet, and didn’t get into trouble. I was more or less a model child — and the opposite of my older sibling.
At that young age I was well aware of the laws of action & re-action and cause & effect. I was also very good at planning and seeing the future…
No one would have guessed I was in so much emotional pain that I was thinking of ending my life. I was to the point where I knew how I would do it. I wanted to quietly and cleanly end my life.
While I wasn’t yet ready to act on the plan, it's clear how far down the hole I was. That said, when I played the event out in my mind, I had a hard time when picturing my parents finding my lifeless body. It distressed me knowing that killing myself would destroy them, and I just couldn't do that to them. I felt caught in a double-bind.
I didn’t really want to die, but I couldn’t see any solutions to my problems.
I felt alone and abandoned by everyone.
I needed help, but I didn’t know how to reach out to anyone.
I didn’t trust that anyone would help me, even if I asked.
What saved me from taking my own life was my ballet teacher pulling me aside after class one day. Mrs. D. didn’t just say passively, “If ever you want to talk…” No, she sat me down in an empty room and firmly asked what was going on with me. She was concerned about my attitude and wasn't afraid to show it.
Mrs. D. was firm yet sympathetic. Non-judgmental. There was no coercion, manipulation, or shaming me into telling her. It felt safe to talk, and since she was the only adult I trusted, I let her coax it out of me.
When I told her I was considering ending my life, Mrs. D. didn’t judge me. That was crucial because shaming me when I was standing on that proverbial ledge ready to jump would have further alienated me and sent me deeper inside myself — and I already felt desperately alone in my struggles, which kept squeezing me into a smaller and smaller box. As if it didn't feel bad enough, I was also worried about the stigma of being labeled "unwell" or "sick in the head". Above all else, I did not want to be sent to an institution, which is why I had kept quiet in the first place.
Having a safe haven is crucial. Feeling accepted, too. You also need a champion.
When you’re that far down, you need someone to actively seek you out and to find you in that dark hole.
You need someone to climb beside you as you pull yourself back up again. Sometimes you need a push.
You need someone to encourage, mentor, and coach you on the way back up again.
It's not that I needed someone to do the work for me. Because doing things on one's own is how one builds self-confidence and a sense of agency and efficacy. That is part of what forms "grit".
Mrs. D. told my parents that same night I'd revealed what was going on with me. My parents never asked me about it, nor were my thoughts of suicide ever mentioned. What did happen is my dad gave me his personal copy of Norman Vincent Peale's book, "The Power of Positive Thinking". I read the book and will say it helped me...but only because I wanted to live and was desperate to find my way back to life.
That's the crux: the person has to WANT to live. They also need to be willing and determined to take the steps necessary to turn things around for themselves. Others can help but can't do the actual work.
In my experience, moving beyond thoughts of suicide and getting out of depression is not a matter of just thinking positively, although that is part of the solution. I've had to re-wire my brain to affect the chemical responses in my brain to stimuli. It included the thoughts I think, how I approach obstacles, and how I see myself.
I also needed to learn how to stand up for myself — being bullied both at home and at school for many years played a large role in my descent — and my mantra became "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger."
Beyond that, I needed to find a tribe that allows me to feel loved, wanted, and supported. Most of all, it required me to have something to move towards. In concrete terms that meant having goals. In other terms it meant hope and faith that one day I would live my dream life.
"Hope is a necessity for normal life and the major weapon against the suicide impulse." — Karl A. Menninger
It took time and effort, but all those baby steps added up. I am now living that dream life. For me, to love and be loved is what life is all about. Goals and accomplishments are merely the vehicle I use to be with others, because it's not the work but the people with whom I do the work that is important to me. And you know what? I finally feel WHOLE!
Support + compassion + acceptance + inclusion are what's needed to survive
When I was considering suicide, I thought that no one cared and that I didn't matter.
Reach out to others when you see them down. They need to know they are loved and wanted on this planet. They need to know their life matters.
Keep your door open. Keep knocking on their door, too. Don't give up on them...because they might be giving up on themselves. I almost did.
Reach out your hand and pull someone onto their feet. Walk beside them. Cheer for them.
As Robert Downey Jr. said in a 2003 interview with Charlie Rose, the beauty of self-destruction is that “if you survive it, you discover the life-sustaining forces that sustain you.” It’s true.
"No matter what kind of challenges or difficulties or painful situations you go through in your life, we all have something deep within us that we can reach down and find the inner strength to get through them." — Alana Stewart
Understand that words don't always come easily when in that dark place. In my case the root cause of depression was pain that ran so deep that only non-verbal therapy worked to bring the issue(s) to the surface to be dealt with — making art. Dealing with the issues physically, such as through sports or exercise, aided me in letting go of the issue(s) along with pain and anger. This combination is what (still) works for me, and I share my experience in the event than anyone reading might find it helpful or useful.