How To Help Someone Who Feels Suicidal, According To Someone Who’s Been There

Courtesy of Bryan Barks

Standing in the doorway of my kitchen, still in my pajamas, I am watching my husband search for pill bottles. His face is tired. His hands are full of the orange cylinders I’ve collected. He throws some of the bottles in the garbage and loads the ones I still need for my mental health treatment regimen into a small, teal cooler — a wedding gift from a childhood friend. When we received the gift years ago, we imagined filling it with ice and glass Coke bottles that we’d open and clink together before setting off on an adventure. Instead, we are using the cooler as a suicide prevention tool. We will fill this cooler with any potentially lethal means of suicide, lock it, hide it away. More accurately, my husband will hide it from me. From the part of me that feels so all-consuming and yet so foreign — my illness. My bipolar disorder. My suicidality. I look at him, at the cooler, and tears plunge straight from my eyes to the floor, leaving fat, wet splatter at my feet. I am sad and I am angry and yet, I feel a twinge of relief. I am safe.

For 10 years, since I was 18 years old, I have been managing periods of suicidality. Sometimes I am consumed by episodes for months, and sometimes I can go a year or more without feeling suicidal. I feel suicidality coming during depressive mood episodes or mixed states, meaning when symptoms of mania and depression occur simultaneously. My emotions change — they either overflow or drain away. I am fragile and volatile, or I am completely numb. The darkness moves in. My mind starts to lie to itself. I become preoccupied with death. Colors and dimensions are muddied and skewed. The world feels like it has sharp teeth — snarling and snapping at me. My memory fails me. A voice tells me the end is quickly approaching. It tells me my misery will never end unless I take action. It tells me I should feel ashamed for the thoughts I am having. It tells me not to tell anyone about these feelings. I panic.

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During times like these, I am desperate for a sense of security. I feel out of control. I feel scared. I feel burdensome to my friends and family, but talking candidly about my thoughts and symptoms provides enormous relief. Defying the voice that tells me to be quiet and ashamed makes me feel more connected and helps me figure out what I really need. Sometimes, suicidality requires more support. But often, the most helpful thing a loved one can do is to stay with me and help make my environment safe. Knowing my space is secure gives me the capacity to breathe. Knowing I am safe gives me the clarity of mind to take the next steps without the pressure and urgency feeling suicidal creates.

In my personal experience and through my work in firearm suicide prevention, I’ve seen that loved ones are often scared to discuss suicidality at all, much less take concrete steps to address it. But it is an act of kindness to ask someone whether they are suicidal. It is an act of love to help remove lethal means (especially highly lethal methods, like guns) from someone who is at risk of suicide. Creating a safe space for a person experiencing distress — space to crash down into the dark and wade through, eventually emerging unharmed on the other side — is important. Because there is another side. The colors come back. The world seems kinder.

Suicidality will likely come again, as it has so many times before. But it passes.

Eventually, our teal cooler came out of hiding. The medication returned to the cabinet. My husband stopped dispensing my pills. I counted out my medication myself. I arranged the different tablets in my palm, noticing their shapes and colors, marveling at the change in me.

We filled the cooler with ice and drinks and put it in the backseat of our car, as we always intended to do. Singing with the windows down, driving through the mountains, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. For life. For myself. For my husband. For the safe space he helped me create in a dark moment. For being here when I thought I might not be.

Suicidality and mood episodes fill me up, consume my life for a period of time, then recede. Suicidality will likely come again, as it has so many times before. But it passes. And even in our darkest moments, people who live with suicidality have the agency to help keep ourselves safe until the worst has passed. Each time this feeling visits, I am better at helping myself, knowing what I need from others, and working with my loved ones to create a safe environment in which to recover.

I rest my hands in my lap. A teal flash of light catches my eye in the backseat; the cooler is whatever I need it to be.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. You can also reach out to the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 or the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386, or to your local suicide crisis center.