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What It's Like Recovering from a Suicide Attempt

More people below the age of 35 die from suicide in the UK than any other reason. This is what it's like to reach a point where death seems like the only rational option, but also how the experience can be a catalyst for recovery.

by David Whelan
Apr 28 2015, 12:00am

Artwork by Nick Scott

This piece originally appeared on VICE UK.

"I think it's quite unlikely I'll ever feel that low again," says Jaabir, smiling at me across the table. "I got robbed last week, quite violently. I was pushed from my bike and fell into a ditch. All my stuff got taken. I've just recovered from that physically, although I'm still shaken mentally. But because I've dealt with the major painful experiences in my life, anything else that comes up I feel stronger against."

In June 2014, 28-year-old Jaabir found himself at a great height, about to take his own life. "Everything had gotten too much," he says. A patrolling chaplain found him and, after talking to him for 30 minutes, persuaded Jaabir to step down. It was a crucial moment. "If I had known that there were people to talk to, who wanted to help me," Jaabir says, "there would have been no way that I would have been up there."

Jaabir and I are downstairs in a coffee shop near his work in central London. It's been eight months since he came very close to taking his own life. He's funny, charismatic, and speaks eloquently about his experience, keen to address the stigma and fear surrounding those who have been mentally unwell and have attempted suicide.

"Initially I didn't come forward with my illness, because I was scared of it," he says. "We don't tend to talk about emotions in this country and it's killing us. I felt really ashamed at first. I thought it made me less of a man. I only realized later that I had a support network around me."

If you feel like your head is being battered by an invisible storm but feel compelled to bite your tongue in case you upset the gentle balance of society, don't, Jaabir says. People's reactions will often surprise you. "People's reactions are something you worry about a lot when you open up. Saying, 'I wanted to kill myself' to your mum or your best friend is not easy. But the first step in my recovery was openness."

The stigma that still surrounds mental illness can latch onto negative thoughts like a leech, forming a destructive, symbiotic relationship. "I pushed everyone away," says Jaabir. "I didn't think anyone could understand, so I put on a brave face. But there's no shame in being unwell. It's not your fault. Let people know. Accept yourself in your mind."

The fear of people not understanding you can, of course, make it very hard to reach over the void and connect with somebody. "The point when I realized something was wrong was when I was in bits on my way to and from work," continues Jaabir. "I was in tears on the tube. I couldn't control it. But instead of asking for help I shut everyone out. Any friends who were concerned about me, I told them I was fine."

When he did finally start talking about his difficulties, Jaabir says people reacted in a way that "truly moved" him. "Connecting with people externalizes things that were previously very internal," he says, which helped "stop" the cycle of negative thoughts. "People are more compassionate than you think. I found myself a lot closer to my friends and family than I had been before." Since being honest about his mental health issues, people around Jaabir have "come clean," too—something he says "wouldn't have happened in the past."

Mental health issues are not an epidemic, but engendered; an inherent part of being human. They are as common as a bruise. "I think we need to understand that just because something is invisible it isn't any less real," says Matt Haig, author of numerous books, most recently Reasons to Stay Alive, which explores in detail his own battle with mental illness, starting from a breakdown at 24 while he was in Ibiza with his girlfriend.

The stigma that still surrounds mental illness can latch onto negative thoughts like a leech, forming a destructive, symbiotic relationship.

"It felt like nothing I had ever known. It sounds so melodramatic but I didn't think anyone had ever felt like that. It was intense panic combined with overwhelming, exhausting, 24/7 despair. I saw no way out. It would have been suicide, because it felt like the only way to escape—like jumping out of a burning building. But the one thing bigger than depression is time," he says. "Depression told me I wouldn't live to see 25. I'm now 39."

As VICE has reported before, 50 percent of all illnesses reported by under 65s are mental health-related, but only a quarter of sufferers received any help whatsoever. Ninety percent of those who attempt to take their own lives suffer from a mental health condition, diagnosed or not.

In Britain, 4,400 people die by suicide each year, but a further ten times that number attempt suicide. On average, this could mean someone in this country is attempting to take his or her own life roughly every 12 minutes. More people below the age of 35 die from suicide in this country than, say, road traffic accidents. Of men aged between 20-34, suicide counts for almost a quarter of all deaths. In 2012, 600,000 people reached out to the Samaritans expressing suicidal feelings. In 2014, figures from the Office of National Statistics showed that 9 percent of jobseekers between 16-25 agreed with the statement, "I have nothing to live for." 32 percent had contemplated suicide.

But despite the prevalence of wanting to talk about mental illness, there still remains a murky fear of it, as if acknowledging that we all have a sensitive organ floating in cerebrospinal fluid within our skull may open up some sort of portal into the abyss and make us all lose it. This is, of course, total, grade-A bullshit.

"The brain is a part of the body, and we should see it as such," says Haig. "Depression and anxiety have a lot of symptoms below the neck, just as many physical illnesses have mental effects. We need to talk about mental health exactly as we talk about physical health." No one, he says, is "100 percent physically or mentally healthy."

In the public eye, mental illness is often dealt with with the sensitivity of a mallet. When, for example, ex-professional soccer player Clarke Carlisle attempted suicide last December, people who had never met him called it selfish. But the only thing selfish about suicide is people unaffected by it calling it selfish. All it does is create a vicious circle of blame, adding to the self-loathing some people with mental illness experience. It may fortify their desire to keep silent.

"Depressed people don't have less fear of death than anyone else, nor are they more selfish, it's just that the pain they live with is too much to bear," Haig tells me. "That said, suicide is always preventable, with the right help." In February, Carlisle conducted a courageous and moving interview with Absolute Radio, where he described his own "self-loathing" and his "hatred of myself," but also his new found "hope" in his recovery.

"When I did decide to take my own life, I almost didn't know what I was doing. I was on autopilot," says Jaabir. "I felt like I was someone else. As hard as I tried, I couldn't find myself. I had all these negative ideas and thoughts going around in my head all the time: how useless I was in my job, how I would be alone forever. All of that compounded together.

"In my mind, I wanted my pain to be over and I didn't want to be prevented from doing it. I thought I was doing the right thing. I had planned it out and drove a long distance to do it, but it was almost like I wasn't aware of what I was doing. It was only when the chaplains who patrol the area that I'd chosen to end my life spoke to me that I exited the trance. Only then I thought, What am I doing here?"

"Depression and anxiety have a lot of symptoms below the neck, just as many physical illnesses have mental effects. We need to talk about mental health exactly as we talk about physical health. No one is 100 percent physically or mentally healthy."—Matt Haig

Mental health issues can begin at any time and not fully manifest until many years later. "When I was 12 my father passed away and then I was bullied quite severely," says Jaabir. "I felt extremely alienated. I was very hard on myself and felt I was flawed in some way. I blamed myself for being bullied and carried that self-loathing all my life. I thought it was normal, that everybody felt like that. Everyone hates themselves, right?"

But depression doesn't have to be "about" anything "any more than cancer has to be" says Haig. The reasons are numerous, varied, specific, structured, diasporic, aligned, historical, reactionary, opaque, oblique, unique and—above everything else—individual.

The National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide by People with Mental Illness revealed in 2014 that 18 percent of all suicides in the UK between 2010 and 2012 occurred in outpatients within the first two weeks of being discharged from the hospital. Diagnosis and treatment only go so far—particularly when that treatment is in the middle of a frightening, nationwide crisis like it is in Britain. But committed, adequate treatment and support in recovery is an imperative.

After returning home, Jaabir received an assortment of treatment, both from the NHS and privately. Two months later, he was back at work. "The first two months were particularly tough," he says. "I found it difficult to find any enjoyment out of anything that I used to enjoy. Tennis no longer interested me. TV shows that I liked bored me. I was very lethargic and anxious. I would snap at my friends and family quite a lot. But they stuck with me, and I stuck with them, and things slowly but surely started to get better."

Jaabir began counseling with Mind, which allowed him to "unburden" himself of his "negative thoughts" and to "pick out the patterns" that took him to "dark places." "My counseling was a mixture of CBT, psychotherapy, and counseling," he explains. "It was hugely effective. There were a lot of visualization techniques—I would draw out pictures of life experiences that I found quite painful. It was really eye-opening."

At the end of our conversation, Jaabir pauses to think. It's an interesting moment, where we both sit in silence and reflect on our own personal relationship with our mental health. "When I look back on my life," he says, eventually, "I think about how much earlier I could have caught it. I think: stick to the facts. You're not worthless. There is no evidence for that. 99.9 percent of the time these thoughts are not justified. I just wish I had realized earlier that there were people out there like me and who could help me."

Later, I speak to Haig. "I think the important thing is to recognize that whatever negative thoughts you are thinking—however strong and real they seem—are not really you," he says. "Depression is the cloud that blocks the sun for a while, but you are the sky. You can walk in the rain but not be the rain, and the weather system of the mind will change. You will not stay at this point. The hurricane will become a breeze. Hold on. You owe it for all those future versions of you."

If you are concerned about your mental health or that of someone you know, visit the Mental Health America website.

@MrDavidWhelan

More mental health coverage on VICE:

A Night in the Life of a Mental Health Nurse

The Night My Girlfriend Dissociated and Forgot Who I Was

This Is What Developing Acute Schizophrenia Feels Like