Content note: This piece contains mention of suicidal ideation and intent.
You’ve heard how 2020 seems to be challenging everything we know about coping — whether it’s anxiety, anger, uncertainty, or all the above. But the environment of stress that we’re facing now is nothing new. It’s just impacting more people now. Climate change, election, racism… if anything a pandemic has forced us to come to terms with how and why we’ve ignored these issues — and their effects on our mental health — for so long.
Because there’s also more to this deep ocean of emotion than simply #TalkingAboutIt or checking in with someone.
As I write this I’m getting ready to move to a new city. Yep, I’m moving during a pandemic — a double feature event the universe created to make me reevaluate all I’ve ever known about my own coping skills.
It’s funny, though: Whenever I talk about how stressed I am (yeah, moving is stressful), people don’t mention the pandemic (also stressful). Instead, they say, “I heard moving is more stressful than divorce or death.” And as someone with deep suicidal ideation… that f*cking scans.
To make it more clear, September is not just the month I’m moving. It’s also Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and while I haven’t known anyone who has died by suicide, it’s a topic that’s very personal because… well, I’ve spent the majority of my life in the prevention phase.
Earlier this year I wrote about how connections are built on acceptance of vulnerability, but conveying vulnerability requires having the words and courage to describe what’s going on inside you. As any ever-changing, shape-shifting person (aka pretty much everyone) would know, developing that kind of awareness can be hard as hell.
…when Chester Bennington died by suicide. Something in me responded, just a crack. Then in 2018, when Anthony Bourdain passed, the ice under my feet shattered.
I didn’t realize it then, but when I was younger and very religious, passive suicidal ideation was a form of comfort. Those “heavy” thoughts would shift into fantasies of life beyond death. It didn’t hurt that my identity at the time was “emo Christian teen,” which meant sharing these thoughts was safe. I either got the reaction “she’s going through an emo phase” or could hide it behind just being really excited about meeting Jesus Christ.
Once I became an agnostic adult, however, sharing those thoughts was frowned upon, labeled either too dark or too heavy. So, for the benefit of others, I taught myself to ignore those feelings. I ignored them for years, siphoning that anxiety and depression into other areas of my life, until 2017 when Chester Bennington died by suicide. Something in me responded, just a crack. Then in 2018, when Anthony Bourdain passed, the ice under my feet shattered.
Suddenly, after a very long time of not, I needed to tread water again.
It’s exhausting to tread and explain at the same time, so if you’re wondering what it’s like, journalist Elly Belle has written a guide that compassionately advocates for a more nuanced way of talking about suicidality.
Rates of suicidal ideation and suicide have been going up, even though stigma has decreased.
This guide was created with one of the more difficult statistical truths of the year in mind: Rates of suicidal ideation and suicide have been going up, even though stigma has decreased. We need to talk about it, yes (FYI, #TalkingAboutIt is the hashtag for social media conversations), but we also can’t expect parroting what Instagram therapists meme out to result in authentic, vulnerable conversations. Destigmatization alone cannot alleviate pain.
To develop emotional awareness, you have to be honest about the root cause. Sometimes the journey of finding the root is another way to authentically talk about it.
Here’s how we’re #TalkingAboutIt on Greatist this month (and beyond):
- If you’re having trouble articulating other emotions, you might want to lean on a more bodily experience. In a deep dive for Greatist, Julianna Ukiomogbe revisits one of my favorite studies ever: emotions and where to find them.
- For more specific emotions, we also have therapist Jor-El Caraballo weighing in on how to handle anger as a BIPOC man — his perspective is one we all can learn from.
- Writer Blair Glasser unpacks one of the most compelling and formative emotions of this year, shame, and how it’s wielded against us.
- Relationship expert Melissa Fabello teaches us how to unground jealousy and move toward compersion, the joy of seeing your partner happy with another.
If you’re here primarily as a listening partner, one of the most supportive things you can do is this: Move away from defining help solely as positive thinking or action. That’s still the stigma talking. Instead, ask the person how they want to talk, if they even want to talk, and stay with them when they can’t tread anymore.
There have been many times this year when I felt too tired to tread — when, because of the pandemic, all my flotation devices (a term Anna Borges coined to describe the tools for managing suicidality) were out of reach. When that happens, there is often only one thing left to save me: floating myself.
When you’re floating, your ears are underwater, so it can be hard to hear the other person, but this muffle is necessary for focus. If I’ve resorted to floating, it means I don’t have the capacity to tread, swim, or act on advice — and I need the other person to recognize that. To see what I’m going through, hear why I’m going through it, and just acknowledge that staying alive is all I’m aiming to do right now.
There isn’t any shame in floating, in just surviving.
If you’ve never been in the “survival” mindset before, this article on time-moving vs. ego-moving by journalist Kelly Yeo might help. Experts theorize that these two mindsets can (potentially) help people navigate difficult bumps in their mental health journeys. Although this concept is still in early stages of research and doesn’t have practical implementations, the idea of it has taught me to develop a lot of much-needed self-compassion.
It’s OK to float because I know when I put my head in the water that people I love have told me they’re ready to watch over me until I’m strong enough to tread again.
While we’re starting off September with specific emotions, there are plenty of others to come — plenty of other mental health stories that’ll be published to help you with kicking off that vulnerable but trust-building conversation you need. A conversation that could simply start like this: “Hey, I don’t really have the brain waves to explain what I’m going through right now without feeling like a burden. But this explains it pretty well.”
For those who often feel alone in this experience, I hope this series makes you feel seen.
Christal Yuen is a senior editor at Greatist, covering all things beauty and wellness. Find her musing about therapy on Twitter.