Last week was difficult. Hearing the news of two creative legends take their lives was shocking. I had a bright pink Kate Spade bag in college and imagined she was as cheerful as the polka dots and bright stripes she placed in her designs. Similarly, like many other Americans, I read Anthony Bourdain’s books and considered him to be a masterful storyteller, an adventurer and the type of entertainer to whom I could relate and trust.
When I found out by scrolling through Facebook about these deaths, my immediate thought was “this is a hoax, it’ can’t be.” I checked CNN and learned that what I’d read was correct. Over the last week, many of my friends and acquaintances have posted videos or narratives “outing” themselves about their own bouts with depression or suicidality. We’ve seen an uptick in the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number being shared. For some people, we are just starting a dialogue. For others, we are continuing it.
However, today I want to talk about being on the receiving end and listening to someone talk about their own suicidal thoughts. I was a therapist for seven years and have been a Life Coach for five. In this period of time, I’ve also worked at a high school, with foster kids, at two different community mental health clinics, and at an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). I currently work with my Coaching clients privately and also Coach for a Health and Wellness company. I’m sharing all of this because in all realms, I’ve heard clients address depression, anxiety, worry, overwhelm and hopelessness for the better part of twelve years. I have engaged in difficult conversations daily and weekly for as long as I can remember.
Very recently, I was Coaching on the phone with a new male client. He sounded breathless. After taking a moment to collect ourselves with deep breaths, I had a sense that something was off. I asked if he was out of breath. He paused, then said he just came in from a run but considered running into a moving vehicle and ending his life. I paused and asked him his whereabouts. He was home, pacing in the backyard. I asked him directly if he was suicidal. The next few minutes were spent with him telling me the circumstances for which he was considering taking his life. He revealed that he’d had a break-up and his fiancee had left him out of the blue just a few months before. They’d purchased a home together and were raising her daughter. He was shocked and hurt, and suspected she had been seeing someone else. This 40-year-old man was distraught and disoriented, his voice cracked and his cadence alternated between rushed speech and deliberate pauses. I asked him what he’d eaten that day and what he’d drank. He’d eaten a chocolate bar but had worked as a foreman in the field all day, then he had taken a run. While we were on the phone, I asked him to go to the refrigerator and get something to eat. He agreed and began snacking on grapes and drinking a bottle of water. Lack of food did not make him suicidal, but low blood sugar and dehydration can exacerbate all problems.
He talked about feeling unwanted, that his life was meaningless, that he didn’t know what to do, and mostly, how to be anymore. He alternated between crying and speaking quietly. For about half of the conversation, we just talked. I didn’t convince him not to hurt himself. He hadn’t talked in a very long time, he said, despite being close with his brothers, nephew, many friends, coworkers, and parents. He felt ashamed to tell them how he felt and didn’t want them to worry. We connected. We talked about times in life that seem so overwhelming that it feels impossible to keep living. We talked about the things in the house that were tempting him, and the protective measures he would take to avoid using them: his brother and mother were there, and he would sleep with his door open. He would take a few days off work to go surfing or hiking. He would call me. If he felt uneasy and suicidal later that night, he would call the suicide prevention phone number and alert his brother. (The family was in the next room when we were talking.)
I trusted him and he sounded sincere in his words. When we got off the phone, by his account, his urges to cease living had reduced.
We checked in the next day, and he said he felt exhausted, but not in such a bad place. He revealed that he didn’t need to call the hotline and was about to drive to the beach.
What happened to him? He’s still living and taking one day at a time. The thing with suicidal ideation is that each day can get a little better and a lot worse. The bad days feel unbearable, to the point that people believe they cannot make it another day. For professionals, I believe it is our job to tease out what feels unmanageable. We engage with clients to remind them of the sparkling, satisfying moments, not of the guilt and how they’d let others down.
So what’s it like to have this type of conversation with a client? It’s intense…heartbreaking and scary. It’s also my job and what I’m trained to do.
An energy occurs when someone entrusts me with their deepest, most intimate details of their lives. I am honored and grateful. I also develop deep care for my clients, regardless of the financial transaction between us.
With my Coaching clients, I make a point of asking “are you suicidal?” Many clients don’t reveal suicidal ideation because they’re not asked. When a person feels utterly despondent and hopeless, reaching out for help is yet another unmanageable task on the never-ending list of things to do. Naturally, we want people to ask us for help, but that often feels daunting for someone in this incredibly low position. The question, “are you suicidal?” is difficult to ask — because we don’t want someone to be in the place of major depression. Mental health clinicians don’t wish their clients were in this space as much as clients don’t want to be in it. But this question cannot be denied or avoided.
As the days pass and we remember the people “who had everything,” we also need to think about our own loved ones who have taken their lives. I wish they could have lived another day — and maybe that extra day would have been enough to keep them alive. I wish they would have been asked “are you suicidal?” so perhaps they could have been heard and assisted in their struggles.
I hope someone asks you this important question and you’re able to tell them the truth. I hope you don’t feel like life is better without you living in it.
I am a Life Coach. Please contact me to learn how we can start working together. You can also visit my Coaching page. Other posts you may enjoy: Endings And Goodbyes, I’m Tired of Death and You Need A Coach.