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Sunday 3 November 2019

Better to Remain Silent

We've all been there. You ask somebody how they are and - shock! horror! - they actually tell you!!! 

It can be really uncomfortable being the person that somebody opens up to. You feel awkward, and often helpless. Our instinct at such a time is to cast around for things to say in an effort to make things better, or to try to fix things. 

Almost all of our instincts are wrong. Ask yourself the question - who is it that's being comforted?

In reality, when we approach such a situation, the person we're really trying to comfort is ourselves. We're trying to find a way to reduce our own discomfort. We cast around for platitudes like 'I understand', or 'I've been there', because we think that, by drawing some sort of symmetry between us, we get some sort of cathartic 'safety in numbers' effect going. In fact, what we do with this tactic is to make matters worse. The net effect of drawing this symmetry is to invalidate the very real and valid emotional state of the recipient of our intended comfort. It's to say 'well, I've felt like this and I'm OK'. It looks to us like empathy, but it isn't.

We tell the bereaved of those who complete suicide that their loved ones were 'selfish' or 'weak', when in fact this couldn't be further from the truth. In my own brushes with completion, among my main motivations was to reduce the pain I caused those who had to live with my depression. Sure, they'd have to deal with my completion, and that would be hard, but at least it would be the end of it. In fact, this response is itself the epitome of selfishness, and it does exactly the same thing as drawing symmetries and making comparisons. It says 'yes, but what about my pain'. This is about as far from helpful as it's possible to get.

As for it being weak, this is even worse. Let's be clear here: living takes strength. There's no denying that whatsoever. What also takes strength is taking the decision to end one's suffering and the suffering of others. Suicide is not a decision taken lightly, and even to attempt to cast it in terms of strength and weakness is to trivialise the discussion and make it impossible to have, especially with those most in need of support.

What takes the greatest strength of all is recognising that you need help, and finding the courage to seek it regardless of the stigma. 

What do you say when you don't know what to say? As somebody who's been close to completion, and having spent many hours with people close to completion, here are some of the key dos and don'ts. 


1. Offer advice. 

This seems a bit of an oddity. Our first instinct is always to offer some words of comfort but, in all likelihood, this will serve only to exacerbate the problem. What almost always happens is that what we offer is empty platitudes. These generally only serve to make us feel better and have no positive impact on the person in pain. There's been a lot of talk in recent times about the efficacy of 'thoughts and prayers', and the sort of platitudinous dreck offered in such circumstances is as empty and worthless as discussing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

It's also worth noting that unsolicited medical advice is one of the biggest scourges on the mental well-being of somebody in pain, whether that be physical or psychic pain. Anybody who's lived with any sort of condition for any length of time has almost certainly done every bit of research in trying to address their issues, and offering medical advice - especially when you're unqualified to diagnose or treat - feels like somebody taking a drill to your brain (well, it feels like that to me, and some others have confirmed). In the vast majority of cases of chronic conditions, the patient knows far more about their condition than any professional, and they have the added advantage of knowing what it's like for them.

2. Pretend to understand.

You don't understand, so don't pretend to. You can't understand unless you've experienced the emotional history of the person you're talking to, and that's not possible. You don't know my pain, and I don't know yours. Emotions are chaotic and cumulative, and our emotional responses differ based on our personal histories. This leads me nicely to something else you shouldn't do...

3. Make comparisons.

It's extremely common to point to the suffering of others and engage in some sort of emotional calculus, comparing your 'piddling concerns' with the plights of those in purportedly much worse circumstances. This is a direct reflection of those worthless platitudes mentioned above, and carries an additional burden of guilt. It's the assertion, once again, that I'm being selfish, even when the intent is to form some sort of common bond. Always remember that, when somebody is opening up to you, that bond already exists, or they wouldn't open up.

4. Try to fix things. 

You almost certainly can't do this. You can't take away somebody's pain, not least because, as already mentioned, you can't understand it. It can be helpful to find practical things to do (shopping, washing dishes), as small acts of kindness can really make a difference. 

5. Presume to know what's best. 

Ask. Ask. Ask. 

This is most important when dealing with touching and hugging. For many, a simple touch, or a warm hug, can make a huge difference. I always feel a little better when I get a hug.

This isn't true for everybody, however. Some have real issues with contact, and hugs make them anxious. Anxiety is a real problem associated with many mood-affecting disorders and issues, and it isn't to be taken lightly. 

Always ask.

6. Tell somebody to 'snap out of it' or 'pull yourself together'.

This is again the assertion that somebody's just being weak, or that we can choose to be well. It's dismissive and callous.


1. Be there. 

This is the single most effective thing you can do in any circumstance. It entails simply letting somebody know that you're with them, and there if they need you. In some settings, this can be difficult. For example, not everybody is in a position to talk about their pain and, on social media, for example, this can translate into awkwardness quite easily. One strategy I've found that can be quite effective is sending random gifs (usually hugs) by direct message and checking for read receipts. It's a small thing, but you each know the other is there. For somebody you're sitting with in meatspace, it can actually make a difference simply to say 'I'm here'. These two words are my first and often only verbal response when ledge-watching. The simple act of letting somebody know that you're there for whatever works for them almost invariably makes a difference. 

There's a really quite lovely piece by Lynn Hauka in the Huffington Post about 'Holding Space', and I highly recommend it. 

2. Listen. 

Try not to tell people what they need, ask them. It's rare that an opportunity will present itself for you to do something practical to help, and such opportunities should be seized, but simply listening and acknowledging goes a long way. As a corollary to this, if you know somebody who suffers from recurrent or chronic depression, or indeed any other mood-affecting issues, it's a really good idea to ask them when they're not in the throes of crisis what would be helpful to them when they are. It can be extremely difficult to think straight when we're in crisis, but much easier when we're having a better day. 

3. Try to guide to the right kind of help. 

This isn't always possible, not least because some have had very bad experiences with professionals and have trust issues. Where possible, though, don't try to shoulder the burden alone. Always be sure that you're doing what THEY need, not what YOU need. 

4. Reach out. If you haven't spoken to somebody for a while, contact them, even if it's just to say hello. If it occurs to you to text somebody later, do it now. If you notice changes in behaviour, talk. It's pretty rare that there are any noticeable differences, but notice them and act on them. This is not to say that anybody is to blame for not reaching out when somebody does 'complete', because that would be asinine. Don't beat yourself up if you think you missed some signs. Some of the most deeply damaged people I've ever known, including several who've completed, have been publicly effervescent. 

5. Seek advice. This shouldn't need to be said, but let's be certain. It can be hard to sit and listen. Forget what you think might be the worst thing you can think of to have happened to somebody, because it can be worse than you're ready for. Some of what I've discussed with people almost broke me. Once you open the door to talking, though, it's open, and opening it when you aren't ready to see the other side of it can be damaging. 

7. Be the love you want to see in the world. 

This needs explanation? I'm strongly of the opinion that if more people were motivated by love, life would be more bearable for us all. 

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