A friend of mine asks deep questions with ease. We often talk about mental health and check in with each other, sharing our experiences of surviving suicide. She’s lost close friends, and I nearly lost my husband.
She asked me, “How do you feel these days when Steve is speaking somewhere and you’re in the audience?”
If she’d asked me that question seven years ago, I would have likely given her a short answer and changed the subject to keep from reliving the pain. Because seven years ago, it was all too fresh. And I was still ashamed.
But last week, as I stood in the kitchen at my friend’s house, I was finally able to answer that question with ease. Enough time has passed, and while time doesn’t heal all wounds, it does give you space to breathe.
"While time doesn't heal all wounds, it does give you space to breathe." -Lindsey Austin (via @iamsteveaustin) #suicideprevention #marriage #mentalhealth
"Almost all people are carrying a great and secret hurt even when they don’t know it. When we can make the shift to realize this, It softens the space around our overly defended hearts. It makes it hard to be cruel to anyone. It somehow makes us one in a way that easy comfort and entertainment never can."
-Fr. Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ
Seven years ago, I was still ashamed that I couldn’t prevent the incident. I automatically said, “incident.” Let me be clear: seven Septembers ago, my husband overdosed in a hotel room while I was shopping for our son’s first birthday party.
It’s not like I was unaware that there were problems. I just didn’t realize the depth of his despair.
I was walking through the furniture section at World Market when my phone rang. The Caller ID referenced a hospital two hours away. Normally, I wouldn’t answer, but my husband was working an out-of-town assignment in that same city.
I could hardly form words to answer the nurse’s questions. I was doing my best to give accurate information, but it felt like my legs were barely holding me up. I was weak. A weakness I’ve never experienced before. Fragile. Like a strong gust of wind would have blown me right over.
She wanted to know about regular medications, when was the last time we’d spoken, what were his intentions. I hadn’t seen my husband in a week and wasn’t totally sure of his current mental state. I wondered if I was going to lose the love of my life.
As I sat in a display chair, a store associate walked by and asked, “Ma’am, are you okay?” I couldn’t fake it. I looked up at the concerned worker and said, “No. I am not okay.”
It seems simple, but admitting weakness to a stranger was a powerful moment for me.
I left the store in a frazzled hurry. I called my best friend who immediately left work, packed a bag, and picked me up. I was in no shape to drive. The shock had me frozen. Numb. Listless.
When we made it to the mental health ICU floor at the hospital, the nurses ignored the fact that we were there after visiting hours, and led us to Steve’s room. At that point, I had to ask my husband the hardest question I’ve ever asked.
I was honestly a little pissed at myself that I hadn’t asked it earlier.
But I had to know the ugly truth. I had to know the worst of the worst. I knew there was no more room for pretending if we were going to keep our family together.
“Did you mean to do this?” I asked blankly. “Do you want to die?”
And then, at the foot of the hospital bed, I slid down that cold block wall to the floor and cried.
The Hardest Question I Ever Had to Ask My Husband (guest post from Lindsey Austin) via @iamsteveaustin #suicideprevention #marriage #mentalhealth
This is going to be ugly. Your loved one has survived, but there is still grief to process. You don’t want to believe it. You also don’t want anyone else to know the horror you’re walking through. You want to toughen up and slap that mask back on and say, “It’s fine! Everything is fine! Nothing to see here! We’re all fine!”
But in your heart, you know this is not fine. What has happened is not okay. Suicide and suicide attempts should never happen. But they do. This is your reality.
Sitting there in that pool of tears is just the beginning of the isolation. People going through this kind of stigmatized trauma don’t usually talk about it. Divorce is so commonplace these days, that you could find a friend to process the experience with. But even as the statistics continue to climb, we still don’t talk openly about surviving suicide.
For me, even close family members were not comfortable talking about it. Only three people (myself included) visited the hospital, while my husband was hanging on by a thread. The advice I got from immediate family was to leave. “This is all too much. Pack your bags, and bring that baby to our house.”
It was tempting, let’s be clear. This is the deepest betrayal you’ve likely ever known. It certainly was for me. The message I was inferring from my husband’s decision was, “You are not enough. You will never be enough.”
Surviving suicide will require lots of support, including therapy. There will be moments and days when it just seems easier to give up and walk away. No one would blame you. I had those same thoughts more times than I’d like to admit. Just take this baby and start over. That version of life seemed much easier.
Yet there were other moments when I’d catch myself staring into my little boy’s eyes and I’d see so much of his daddy in him. I knew leaving would mean that Ben would only know the worst version of his father. So I stayed, I kept fighting for a better life with my little family. That was a good reason to stay, initially, but sentimental hope isn’t enough fuel for long-term recovery. Your loved one has to choose to fight for their own wholeness. They are surviving suicide, too. There’s no hope in staying with someone who chooses to remain toxic.
Thankfully, my husband did choose to fight, and over time, our days together got easier and brighter.
Surviving suicide didn’t happen overnight. I don’t think true healing comes that way. It happened through years of confession in the counselor’s office. Healing came through prayer-filled conversations with my best friend, telling her about my deepest fears. We continue to heal today, by telling each other the truth and never being afraid to ask for help.
So you’ve been sucker-punched. You can’t breathe. Your heart simultaneously feels numb and like it is going to beat out of your chest. You are angry at the world, but all you want is for someone to hold you tight.
My advice? Try to do one thing each day that makes you happy. Lean into anything that gives you joy or produces gratitude. Blow bubbles for your baby. Take a walk in nature. Do anything that reconnects you to the fact that you are here, and this will get better. Whatever it takes to stop the spiral of fear, shame, and guilt - do that.
Maybe you don’t know anyone who has survived a loved one’s suicide attempt. It’s okay: hurt is hurt. Sorrow is universal, and lament is something we don’t talk about nearly enough. If you know that one person who has found the courage to be openly vulnerable about their own great sadness, start with them. Stand in the kitchen with that one trusted friend, share a glass of wine (or bake a batch of cookies) and let your vulnerability be the strength you never knew you had.
In the wake of a suicide attempt, let your vulnerability be the strength you never knew you had. (guest post from Lindsey Austin, via @iamsteveaustin) #mentalhealth #suicideprevention #marriage
P.S. If you’re reading this months or more after the suicide attempt, and you still haven’t gone to therapy, I don’t know how you’ll ever heal. I don’t mean to sound hopeless, but surviving suicide means navigating deep betrayal and mental illness. The help of a mental health professional was the only way Steve and I were able to move forward. You can’t ignore this kind of pain forever.
Bio: Lindsey Austin is a wife and mom of two little ones. She loves nature, and often finds God there. She finds cooking therapeutic, and laughs at (most) of her husband's jokes. Connect with Lindsey on Instagram @raisingaustins.
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God’s Embrace in the Midst of Desperation
5 Ways to Beat a Mental Funk
Podcast: When You Feel Like You Can’t Go On
7 Life Lessons from a Suicide Survivor
Living with Depression & Anxiety: 7 Coping Strategies that Work (e-book)
Guest Blog – Worthy and Unashamed: Facing Mental Health Stigma in the Church Head-On
How to Help Pastors with Suicidal Thoughts