Life After Suicide Survival
Mental Health Ambassador, suicide awareness speaker. Loves coffee, red wine & real ale; book seeker and an avid Liverpool Football Club supporter.
A major element of my Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has been that of teaching myself to better trust my first instinct; and my first instinct from ManMade, The Conference, is pretty simple yet powerful and positive:-
“This would not have happened ten years ago”
This observation is not simply derived from the fact that it is ten years since I attempted to take my own life and is no mere reflection of my own experiences. It is founded in a reality that, although there is still so much work ahead, we have made significant progress.
To get a combination of professionals and those with lived experience into a room for a whole day, with people openly sharing their lives and passionately espousing innovative solutions, it is something that simply would not have happened.
Yet, we have to remember that we are still at the beginning, this is just the turning of the tide, not even the sea change, the precursor to unstoppable waves of transformation which will change the way in which future generations think about mental health and suicide.
This is what we are all working towards; Rome was not built in a day from even the beginning, and it certainly cannot be when you have to knock it down completely and rebuild new foundations. We are creating the foundations of a future in which mental health will be at the forefront of minds, something that people speak about as a matter of course.
Changing the landscape does not happen without the vision of organisations like Forward for Life and Common Unity, and that vision is nothing in itself without the energy and drive of those committed to change. What singled out ManMade, in my eyes, was the variety of the speakers and contributors; it is all too easy to hold an event in which the audience hears the same story from every speaker, just seen through a different set of eyes; this is useful but eventually you lose the engagement factor and the ability to respond positively and in an innovative way.
Yes, we did hear from those who had attempted to take their own lives, but also from those affected by suicide, some who had supported others through mental trauma, about the steps that West Midlands Police are taking to protect those with mental illness, and about the technology that can significantly advance us in tackling suicide. That type of diversity ensured a real paradigm shift from the, now staid, approach of some of the major campaigns revolving solely around lived experience.
Personally, it was a privilege to be involved with a project borne in the West Midlands; although I now live in London, Birmingham and surrounding areas are the very essence of who I am and I am committed to making a positive difference to the lives of people in my home city. By the time I was given the unenviable opportunity of delivering the final key note of the day, I had some fantastic and inspirational acts to follow.
I had been asked to speak on the subject of self-determination and the journey that had taken me from multiple suicide attempts between 2003 and 2006 to mental health campaigner and advocate, fundraiser and multiple marathoner. There were two challenges here for me; first and foremost, I really do not enjoy speaking about myself. Secondly, how would I find the balance of showing absolutely that life transformation is possible, whilst ensuring sensitivity to any in the audience who have and maybe still are finding that road to be so difficult to navigate.
What I decided on was to speak through various stages in my life since that fateful morning which I neither expected nor at that time wanted to see, that on which I woke up still alive.
Stage 1… Rock Bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life ~ JK Rowling
This was rock bottom but I needed help and wanted to live. It was when my life really begun and reminds me that I am a survivor, and no challenge I will ever face can ever take me to those depths again.
This was the raw look into the soul to make the profound promise of commitment to life and recovery; only I could do that, not others on my behalf. This was the paradoxical moment in life where I had to be strong enough to fight for life yet vulnerable enough to actually start life again. The diagnosis of Bipolar gave everything a meaning, allowed me to understand. In my eyes, I had been this contemptible and detestable person for so long but the reality was I had been really ill and lucky to be alive.
Stage 2… You would not be here today if yesterday was your defining moment
Understanding the illness was empowering and CBT challenged me to understand my triggers and, more importantly, to develop coping strategies for them. I was still very private about the illness and the suicide attempts, with only very few people knowing at that point. However, I had energy, the desire to live; I cannot describe it as purpose because I still had no growth plan, but the one thing I was able to constantly tell myself was that the past would not define me.
Stage 3… Healing doesn’t mean the damage never existed. It means the damage no longer controls your life
I didn’t speak openly about the past, I didn’t want to be judged for it; but while I was content and in a safe place, I needed more. I needed purpose if I was going to find real happiness.
It was on World Mental Health Day 2010 that I fearfully stood up in public and told my story for the first time; the response was liberating and changed everything. It went beyond supportive and pity for a struggle, it told me that I could change lives.
The past would not control my life; actually, it was the vehicle by which I could improve it and that of others. That was purpose.
Stage 4… You know you’re on the right track when you become uninterested in looking back
The last few years have created purpose and self-awareness that I never thought possible. I laid my soul out bare and could never have been prepared for the number of people who would reach out to me, some strangers on the other side of the world, others my closest friends. I was not alone in having had to battle the demons of mental illness, or in having tried to hide them.
Suicide is not my defining moment, but I am happy to be defined by my mental illness on my terms; as a survivor and someone committed to making a difference.
I am no longer interested in using the past as a symbol of regret but as the catalyst for moving forward and changing the lives of others. In doing so, I have changed my own beyond recognition.
If my focus was on my mental health, my physical had suffered and, while never been a skinny boy, I suddenly found myself ballooning to 19 stone; this would compromise my mental wellbeing. I decided to run a 10k race to raise money for a mental health charity, setting myself a three month target. Some fourteen months later, I would be crossing the finishing line at the London Marathon.
That was a defining moment; years of torture and anguish, some self-inflicted, were given meaning in the split second that I crossed the finishing line, a moment of triumph for me, those who had supported me, and anyone living with a mental illness.
Stage 5… Today and Tomorrow
Life has challenges but I have the tools to cope with everything it can throw at me:-
I talk openly when I have a problem, whereas before I held everything inside toxically
I am self aware; I know and understand my triggers
I am mindful; I accept every moment in my life, good or bad, for what it is. When challenged, I no longer jump straight into crisis mode, I step back and think about how I can change it and the new skills I can positively develop in doing so
I am physically fit, having now run 6 marathons and with more on the way. That energy transfers to mind-set
I live without fear. Rock bottom is my foundation, there is nothing that I cannot overcome
I do not see myself as an archetypal tough man, but I am resilient. We need to eradicate the requirement for toughness from the male psyche, certainly in its current interpretation. Tough is neither bottling up in silence nor facing fear on our own; it is sharing our deepest vulnerabilities with others, talking and crying. That, for a man, is the epitome of tough. Resilience is its child and creates a set of conditions which involves the people around us. My resilience is borne of the understanding of my loved ones, and we can all help to create resilience for those we love.
My target every day is simply to be a role model to others living with mental illness, to show them that even in the darkest moments, the tunnel ends and there is light beyond it. It involves a huge amount of self-awareness, reflection and hard work, but as Nelson Mandela said:-
“Once a person is determined to help themselves, there is nothing that can stop them.”
So that is my journey and the one which I was privileged to share at ManMade. We are changing the world, we are changing the way people perceive mental illness, we are challenging ingrained stigma. This does not happen without fear or bravery.
It needs leaders, voices and facilitators; it needs variety and to be coordinated. We need to get past the trend of multiple awareness days around the same subject; saturation is a mere step from disengagement. We all need to work together, tailor a strong and consistent message from different sources via different media to different audiences.
There will be challenges and not every ear will want to hear us. Language will revert to type and those with mental illness will still be belittled. But remember Rome, and create the resilience. We are tearing down the very history of how society has viewed mental health, we are challenging the very fabric of cultural behaviour and how a complete gender responds to crisis.
It will not happen in a day, but if we build it, they shall come. Events like ManMade, and the passion of those involved from organisers through to delegates, will ensure the building of a new city for future generations in which they can speak without fear about their emotions, vulnerabilities and mental health.
ManMade|The Conference was organised by Midlands-based social enterprises Forward for Life and Common Unity. Together, they conceptualised, designed and delivered ManMade, an innovative peer-led support service aimed at reducing male suicide. Initially piloted and recommissioned in the Midlands, the developers of ManMade are continually building the programme and rolling the ManMade approach across communities.
Terry Rigby – Forward For Life
Caron Thompson – Common Unity
@ukManMade // @forwardFORlife // www.manmade.org.uk
If you are having thoughts of suicide or concerned about someone else please go to The Urbrum Waiting Room
Or contact – Samaritans // Listening service – 24 hours a day, any day – CALL 116 123 (UK, ROI) // EMAIL firstname.lastname@example.org
CALM // Suicide Prevention support for Men (5pm – Midnight) CALL 0800 58 58 58 // SMS (text messsage) 07537 404717
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