Yes, I know I should cycle more. Yes, I know I should prioritise it. I think about it, I talk about it, and, of course, I write about it. I don’t know what to say. Last week I rode 25 miles in the countryside – the first time I had done that since, well, forever. How do I explain why it has been so long? How do I make sure I get out (much) more often? How do I ensure that I actually do what I know to be so good for me?
I don’t know what to say.
And this all sounds so familiar. I know what’s good for me, I know what works, I have the means (in my case a bicycle, and time). And yet. There is always something else. Things I enjoy, things I want to do.
I don’t know what to say.
Last time, I wrote about how the suicidal mind is one that does not see alternatives – the most dangerous word is ‘only.’ I ended by asking you to have a conversation with someone you are concerned about. In doing so I inadvertently did what so often happens when we are concerned about someone’s well being, suicidal or otherwise – I shut down the conversation and sent you away. I described what we see, what we feel about someone we are concerned about. There was even that picture of the inside of a neglected fridge to make you flinch and look away.
‘I don’t know what to say.’ I hear it often, from friends, family, colleagues and employers. How do I broach the topic? Much of the advice and guidance these days is centred around normal, low – key things, treat the person just like you would anyone. Put on the kettle. Suggest an activity to do together.
‘Be there’ for the person. What does that mean, exactly? Be available 24/7, on call, ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice? Move in together, maybe? What niggles me about that phrase is its vagueness. It fails to answer the question: what do I do exactly?
So, that is why it is important to have the right vocabulary. I don’t mean a technical lexicon, it’s more about the proper use of punctuation. Eh? Asking questions. I can feel jaws clench and eyes dart about among some of you as you read that.
There are so many times and places, so many personal and professional relationships. How can anything I suggest here be relevant in so many different contexts? I’ll leave that to you to decide. I trust you, so trust yourself.
Trust the person you want to talk to. Trust them to make this all easier than you think. You are feeling apprehensive about all this? So are they. You are worried that you’ll say The Wrong Thing. Tell them how you feel about the situation – what has made you feel so concerned. That is never, ever The Wrong Thing.
What do I say after that? This is the hard part: say nothing. You didn’t know what to say, earlier, right? This is the point – right after the conversation has begun – when the best, most effective thing to do is to remain quiet. Put your ears and your eyes to work. They are both more patient and kinder than almost anything that that coarse, pink muscle behind your teeth has to offer.
It’s hard, isn’t it, to say nothing. But that is going to be the best conversation you can have. You have said how you feel. You have signalled the fact that you have noticed (whatever it is you have noticed) and that those feelings have not silenced your concern.
In this quietness, this hesitancy, or the rush of words that have been leaning heavily on the door whose knob you have just turned, know this: there is nothing you need to understand right now. No specifics need take hold, no plans …. and most of all, no advice. There may be a clamouring tide of voices choking in your throat that you want to share. Remember this: if you are listening to their wise, clever words, you aren’t listening to him. Of course we feel the impulse to solve this thing.
The best you can do, the thing that works, is to focus your attention again and again and again (because it will fade into the clamour I just described) on the one you are with. Why so? Like this you establish trust. You are here for the long haul (and it is mostly long.)
If she is in crisis, other things apply. It’s to be practical, specific and not flinch (not outwardly, at least, there’ll be time for that later.) If you are concerned that they may try to hurt themselves – ask. If they trust you with their suicidal feelings ask them the following: ‘do you have a plan?’ Just that. Often we are full of suicidal thoughts – as I have said it speaks of the narrowing of options. The feeling, the thought, persistent and ever – present thought, that there is no other way. If the answer to the question about a specific plan is ‘yes’ then it is time to act. This is where the professionals come on the scene. Crisis management means – where possible, and with her consent – contacting people who she says need to know. They could be people who can offer practical support. Like driving, or accompanying, your friend to the nearest Accident and Emergency Department (that’s what we call them in the U.K.) Just like fractures and burns there will be specialist mental health staff there who can make a thorough assessment and provide support. In some cases this will mean immediate admission, in some cases visit from a community – based professional at home.
Either way, you will have said The Right Thing.
I remember times when the inner disputation
Was quite fierce (to pursue the game, or sign
A full stop to pain.) The call was mine –
Or so it seemed. Each voice a singular temptation:
The beguiling cries of longed for rest,
The easeful quiet, the total peace
– what a boon! finally to cease
The struggle; to know that nothingness is best.
But then, from the barely bubbling sieve
Of my active self, a tired but urgent call
To return to habit and duty; reluctantly to fall
Again into pain and heartache – and so to live,
Oh soul! Thou then stood on an isthmus break
And heard, in separate ears, Aegean and Ionian wave.
What sea? To drown, or combers once again to brave?
The vital choice was mine alone to make.
Edwin S. Shneidman (1918 – 2009)