Here’s the thing nobody tells you when your loved ones are struggling: you’re going to struggle, too. You’re going to make wrong steps and bad choices, all in pursuit of helping the people you love. It won’t leave you unscarred, unscathed. You’ll bear the physical and mental marks for a long time.
Humans are creatures of connection, of intimacy. What happens to one person in your network will reverberate across with surprising ramifications. Your emotions will move in directions you don’t expect. Your heart will be tried in ways you couldn’t have anticipated. And you will do everything wrong.
You will not draw a line.
When she came to me, crying, blood on her arms, so unhappy with herself and the world that she wanted to leave, I did not draw up boundaries. I threw myself wholeheartedly into trying to save her.
I spent nights with her, went to the doctor with her, cried with her and struggled with her. I researched movies it would be safe for us to watch. I dropped other plans, other friends, in order to help her.
When she stopped eating, stopped feeling that she deserved the nutrients that would sustain her, I felt echoes of it in my soul, too. I was violently reminded of when I hated myself enough to hate food, and I would be lying if I said it didn’t affect me. There were days I pushed food away and went on long, empty runs, dragged down again into that dark place I’d escaped from once. But I ignored the warning bells and dived in deeper.
You will not put yourself first.
It is remarkably easy to preach self-love and self-care while forgetting to do it yourself. It’s easy because it feels selfish to care for yourself when you’re trying to care for others, too. It feels morally wrong to put yourself first when people who need you have a greater claim on your time. You’ll find it simple to forget those airline warnings and fix others’ air masks before you fix your own.
I railed at my parents who told me to get out, that they just didn’t understand, that I couldn’t abandon her. I loved here and I had to save her. I had to save her, and to take a step away would be to give up on her and I just wouldn’t do it. When she jumped into the freezing river one night because nobody picked up the phone at three in the morning, and finally dragged her cold, dripping wet self to a friend’s house, still shivering hours later when I finally saw her, I felt horribly guilty that I’d been freely sleeping while she’d been suffering. I did not deserve to sleep when she felt she didn’t deserve to live.
I did not sleep enough, did not eat enough and did not talk enough. And it was too easy to do because I was trying desperately to help someone who had it worse.
You will not feel like you deserve support.
The first time I started crying unexpectedly and without warning at something trivial, tremors shaking my body, someone asked me if I was OK. I’d dropped an ice cream cone, after all, not been mortally wounded.
I did not reveal I’d been supporting someone suicidal. I laughed through my tears instead and said it must be because my period was coming. It didn’t even occur to me that I was affected deeply, because I was so out of the habit of putting my own needs first, of considering my own mental state.
When, in my peer support group, we discussed supporting suicidal friends, I had to leave the room because my emotions were welling up in me so fiercely. I remember staring at the floor, trying to keep it all in. I needed to be strong.
Our group leader came out after a few minutes and sat on the ground with me. She asked me what was wrong. And as she asked, I couldn’t do anything but cry.
She asked me how she could help, and once again I felt guilty that I was getting help offered, that I was the one with resources and a support network when one of my friends wanted to kill herself. I did not feel I deserved it.
You will feel like you’re the only one who can help.
When she told me she didn’t want a doctor, didn’t want to go to a clinic, didn’t want to be prescribed medication, I nodded and said I understood. I was her hero, I was the only one who could save her, and if she didn’t want anyone else, I wouldn’t push her there.
How could a nameless stranger help her? How could someone do a better job than me, who knew her inside and out, who was familiar with her struggles? No matter how well trained or professional a doctor would be, how could they drop everything and put her first, as I had done?
I felt like the only thing in the world standing between her life and her death. And I couldn’t let go.
I needed to let go.
Isolated, exhausted, struggling with my own revived demons, I collapsed mentally and physically. Out of sheer necessity for my own survival, I was pushed aside by other friends who were able to see what I couldn’t, who were able to go where I wouldn’t.
She was referred to specialists. She lived. I lived. Despite doing everything wrong, despite going right down with her, everyone survived, and for that, I feel lucky.
Nobody tells you that suicidal people are like sinking ships, that if you’re not careful, you’ll go down too. You’ll feel like you’re doing everything right, that you need to sacrifice yourself to save their lives, that you’re the only one who can make a difference, and you’ll be wrong.
I needed to learn to let go, to do what I safely could and then step away.