Some thoughts on surviving

Sometimes, you hear things that just don’t make sense. Sometimes, you are hearing yourself say them. You can know completely rationally that they make no sense. Objectively, they aren’t true. But yet, your brain believes them. Sometimes, it believes them to an unbearable extent. 

Sometimes, you hear things that make sense. Sometimes you are hearing yourself say them. You can know completely rationally that they make sense. Objectively, they aren’t true. But yet, your brain believes them. Sometimes, it believes them to a unbearable extent.

The ability to believe, to trust our thoughts and to act on them over our own rational desires or knowledge is something that I suspect is unique to humanity. If an animal is afraid, it will act on instinct – fight or flight. It seems that only humans will deliberately put themselves in danger, or take actions that while obviously dangerous are calculated risks that properly executed will provide a ‘thrill’ without having the negative effect of a fatal outcome. We can push ourselves further than we know, go far beyond our rational belief in our own capabilities, and still survive. 

For most, the risks levels are based on experience, training and a knowledge of the bounadaries of one’s own abilities. This ability to believe leads humans to do amazing things. They can climb mountains, jump from serviceable aircraft (with and without parachutes attached), free-dive to extraordinary depths, drive powered vehicles past the speed of sound, and walk on the face of another world. In all these cases, humans have gone further, and done more to conquer our environment than any other species. 

All of this arises from our mind, and its ability to imagine, to believe, to dream, to expand beyond what we are and what we know.  In all of these cases, the intention is to achieve, but to achieve while surviving. To conquer is to return triumphant. 

When the mind goes wrong, it is a terrible betrayal. The ability to believe is twisted in on itself, contorting and corrupting ‘normal’ thought patterns. 

Then, survival is not a battle against a mountain or a hostile environment, but the deep seated beliefs of ones own mind. The worst thing is that there is no real way to know the difference. The drive that tells you you can make that next hold on the rock face, and keeps you clinging to it until you reach the top, is the same drive that can tell you that your entire existence is a travesty and it would be better for you to end it. 

The most terrifying experiences in life are not the fear of falling off a mountain, or the parachute not opening, those things are relatively low probability, and would be over pretty fast. They’re the constant battles with a brain that hates you and wants you to die, and the primal part of the brain that says, don’t do it you stupid fucker, and knowing that you aren’t sure how to convince yourself that you won’t end it just to get some quiet. 

It’s an abyss of fear, self loathing and desperate, desperate despair. When I hear of someone who has lost that battle and taken that step, I know the black wall of despair that they faced, and I understand. I know all the reasons why not to, and I know the argument that suicide is not the solution, but the end of the possibility of things being better, but I understand.
It’s not about feeling bad, or a bit low – of course everyone goes through rough times – please understand, this isn’t what you’ve felt on an off day. 

The words that help one stay alive have to be the ones coming from my own mind, but that mind might well be telling one the opposite. At least part of it. To mis-quote Roger Waters “It’s a battle of words, and most of them are lies”*. If it was possible to reason your way out, it wouldn’t be such a difficult problem. The problem is that reason itself is the prompter, the tempter, the pusher. It’s the appeal of a moment without pain offered by a mind in sheer torment. I couldn’t really put it any better than Stephen Fry did:

“There is no ‘why’, it’s not the right question. There’s no reason. If there were a reason for it, you could reason someone out of it, and you could tell them why they shouldn’t take their own life.” 

So what can you do? 

The good news is that in most cases, depression in its many forms is treatable, and crisis is beatable. Modern medications are pretty effective, and while they might be for the long term and require some experimentation to get right, getting treatment is important. If you go get a flu shot, or get a regular cholesterol check, then consider it the same way – it’s a preventative. It’s not really a cure, but there are treatments for the worst and most dangerous symptoms.

Talking does help, but not in the way you’d think, there’s nothing that you can really say, but be ready to listen and to encourage the person to reach out to help. There are many resources out there, and ways to get help. That’s what is really needed. 

If a person is in immediate danger, has an injury or has overdosed, call emergency services immediately.  Otherwise, try to encourage them to talk, to you at least, and preferably to a trained counselor or helpline, and encourage them to visit a medical practitioner. 

  • Do take the person seriously, don’t be dismissive or say things like “try not to worry so much”.
  • Do try to listen, and ask open questions, but don’t try to contradict their point of view, this isn’t the time to judge.
  • Do try not to be the full time counsellor if you aren’t trained. Most people with depression (in whatever form) need long term support and professional care.
  • Do be aware that the crisis is not about you, or how you felt at a certain time, try to listen more than talk. 
  • Do understand that what the person faces is as real as your most dearly held belief, try not to judge or deny statements you don’t agree with.
  • Do let them know that you care.

There are some useful pointers and links at the UK’s National Health Service Website 

The Samaritans are a phone based crisis counseling service with a good reputation for people in crisis.

Im Alive is an online chat service with trained crisis counsellors for people who are more used to Internet communications or prefer not to use phone.

*The actual lyrics in the Song Us and Them are “Haven’t you heard, it’s a battle of words, the poster bearer cried”, but they are often misquoted in the form above.