Thinking about suicide

Do you think about dying? I do, quite often.

In an article published last week in the Sydney Morning Herald, Daniel Mezrani wrote about his father’s suicide. Daniel’s tone was honest and heartfelt. His message was sobering. Daniel’s father was an emergency physician, highly respected, with “three teenage children, dozens of enamoured colleagues and an innumerable network of people he had touched with his generosity, humour and passion for social justice”, yet he ended his life.

Throughout the article, Daniel approaches suicide through a social framework. “I don’t think that suicide should be viewed as a purely psychiatric issue” he writes. “The idea that suicide is always the consequence of a definable mental illness continues to dominate the public consciousness despite a growing consensus among the academic community that there is much more at play.”

“We know that isolation significantly increases suicide risk, as do other social stressors such as unemployment and relationship failure. A new paradigm in suicide prevention emerges – if we begin to see people in context, we become privy to external factors that may be causing them distress and can thus look out for more subtle cues that they may be at risk.”

He’s not incorrect. Social factors are important to a person’s risk of suicide, though mental health is very important too.

“There is no simplicity in this conclusion, but there is promise. It means that anything we do to address stigma, discrimination and hardship at a systemic level has the potential to bring down our national suicide rate. If we really want to stop people dying in this most horrific way, we need to make it easier for them to live.”

True again. More suicides are prevented through decisions at a systems and government level than through direct personal intervention.

He concludes by saying, “They are tangible reminders that things can get better, and that we are never, ever alone.”

It’s a lovely way of rounding out an article on a very difficult topic, I give him credit for that. And for the average person, it seems like a very reasonable thing to say … things do get better, no one is ever truly alone.

Except that’s not how someone who’s suicidal will see it.

Daniel succinctly encapsulated the essence of suicide earlier on in his article: “The final common pathway is not neurochemical disturbance or a discrete socioeconomic stressor, it is an anguish that feels otherwise inescapable; hopelessness manifest.”

I’ve battled with depression for a long time now, the chronic latent adversity of pathological hopelessness. Most of the time it sits on me like an emotional weight vest, making the simplest tasks feel like so much more of an effort, subtly stealing my energy, tempering my sense of joy. But there are times when I feel like I’m being crushed by a tonne of wet sand and I can’t move or breath or see. There are other times where I feel like someone has ripped out my heart and is pouring battery acid into my chest, and all I can feel is pain.

I think about suicide. Depending on where my mood is, there are times when I think about it a lot. The recurrent theme connecting all those times is hopelessness.

Shame brings isolation, inequality brings inertia, but it is hopelessness that finally destroys.

Most people have never felt the depths of despair that true hopelessness brings, and I hope they never do. Unless you’ve been there, it’s impossible to truly understand how overwhelming it is. The only way I think I could describe it would be to imagine that you’re out to sea and your boat sinks, leaving you stranded in the middle of the ocean at night in the middle of a storm – it’s dark, it’s disorientating, numbingly cold, fighting to try and keep your head above the water when the swells and the currents are constantly dragging you down.

Things can get better, and we are never alone, but when overwhelmed by deep existential despair, you can’t see it.

It might sound like I’m against addressing stigma, discrimination and hardship, but I’m not. The purpose of this article isn’t to advocate for one solution or another. I certainly don’t pretend to know all, or maybe any of, the answers. The purpose of speaking out like this is simple … I want to add to the conversation.

At the opening plenary of the conference I attended this weekend, Dr Geoff Toogood, a doctors mental health advocate, spoke about his own personal journey with mental illness as a way of starting the conversation. It’s a hard conversation, but it’s one we have to have, and it needs to be authentic if it’s going to have any real resonance. It would be much easier to simply hide away, masking the pain, pretending it’s not there, but lets face it, we’ve tried that strategy already and it’s killing us.

I can’t offer answers, but I do promise authenticity.

I also wanted to broach the key issue of hope. How do we give people hope? Hope doesn’t come from a pill or a program, but where does it come from? Can we mobilise hope? Can we give hope to the hopeless, and if so, how do we communicate hope to those who struggle the most to hear it?

I know there will be people reading this who have thought about, or might even be thinking about suicide. I know what you’re feeling. I know how hard it is.

Again, I don’t pretend to know all the answers. All I can say is that you’re not the only one, and you’re not alone. I know it’s not easy, but find even the faintest glimmer of hope – in your family, in your job, in people around you, in a faith. Hold on to it. The storm will pass and day will break.

Sometimes even the simplest connection to another person can help. If you need to talk to someone, there are always people that can help. In Australia, call Lifeline ~ 13 11 14, BeyondBlue ~ 1300 22 4636 or https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/contact-us or the Suicide Callback Service ~ 1300 659 467 or https://www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au. In the USA, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline ~ 1-800-273-TALK (8255). In New Zealand, call Lifeline Aotearoa 24/7 Helpline ~ 0800 543 354. In the UK, call Samaritans ~ 116 123. For other countries, Your Life Counts maintains a list of crisis services across a number of countries: http://www.yourlifecounts.org/need-help/crisis-lines.

Kudos to Daniel Mezrani. It’s shattering to lose someone you love so much, and it takes a special kind of person to turn that tragedy into something that will help other people. I wish him and his family all the best as they continue on their difficult journey.

Stigma, discrimination and hardship do need to be addressed at a systemic level if we are going to help lower our nation’s suicide rate.

We also need to better understand hope, how to foster it in those whose hope is dormant, and how to help those who have lost all hope to find it again.

We need to keep talking too. The conversation is extremely challenging, but without an open and authentic dialogue, many will continue to suffer, silent and alone, instead of getting the help they deserve.

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The lost art of joy – Something to look forward to

Bacon.

With only about eight hours left in 2017, I should be contemplating bigger things … the lessons learnt from the year gone by, what did I achieve, where did I fall down, what can I learn from those experiences.

Instead, I feel like bacon, so I’m cooking bacon.

Bacon is delectable. It’s one of those foods that proves God’s love. On it’s own, it’s special, but you can also add bacon to almost any other food and it will add to the gustatory experience of pleasure. The auditory and olfactory stimulation of bacon frying is distinctly pavlovian – I’m drooling just thinking about the culinary delights that await me.

As I was standing over the frypan, listening to the crackling and popping, smelling the juicy aroma and mopping up my hypersalivation, it also stimulated the rusty gears of my cognition.

Why do I drool when bacon is cooking? For all I know, the bacon could be rancid, or I could have cooked it wrong, or it could be too salty, or it could be pigeon meat in disguise.

But I have hope.

I can’t say, rationally and with certainty, that “the bacon will be good” because there are lots of reasons why it might be bad, but I have hope that the bacon will be delicious.

Hope. It is “the quintessential human delusion, simultaneously the source of your greatest strength, and your greatest weakness.
Hope is “being able to see that there is light, despite all of the darkness”. (Desmond Tutu)
Hope “smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier.’” (Alfred Lord Tennyson)

Like we discussed yesterday, happiness is someone to love and something to do. Happiness is also something to look forward to.

Hope is like joy’s air. In order for joy to breathe, it has to be surrounded by hope. Without hope, joy can not survive.

Research bears this out. Numerous studies over the years have shown that those with higher levels of hope had higher academic and sports achievements. Lower levels of hope correlate to general maladjustment and thoughts of suicide. Hope is a crucial factor in dealing with major life stressors and traumas, such as cancer and old age. The impact of hope on depression and adjustment was studied in people with traumatic spinal cord injuries, and it was found that those with higher levels of hope had less depression and greater overall mental and social adjustment irrespective of how long it had been after the injury. In another study, lower levels of hope was related to higher levels of depressive symptoms in general.

Hope is applied optimism. Optimism is the general expectancy that good rather than bad will happen. Hope is “the belief that the future will be better than the present, along with the belief that you have the power to make it so.”  Hope is the ultimate fusion of acceptance, values and committed action – knowing which direction you want to go in, having a path leading in that direction and then going, not knowing what will happen but accepting that not everything will be perfect but believing that it will be better.

So what about 2018? I can’t say, rationally and with certainty, that “2018 will be a great year” because there are lots of reasons why it might be bad.

Still, I have hope that 2018 will be a great year.

Do you have hope? Do you believe 2018 will be a better year? Do you believe that you have the power to make it so? Over the last month, we’ve explored the lost art of joy; the ingredients of joy and how these can shape our lives; the things that can suffocate joy and the things that can help joy flourish. Do you believe that you can apply these principles to experience a life of greater joy, a richer life of deeper meaning and fulfilment? In all sincerity, I hope you can.

Thank you for coming on my journey with me. On the 1st of December when I had the bright idea of writing a blog post a day for a whole month, I thought it would be easy. When I got to the 5th of December, I thought I was going to run out of ideas and I should have thought twice before committing to such a huge project. Now, on the 31st of December, I’m glad I made that ill-considered commitment. It has challenged me for sure. It’s helped me to clarify concepts, to grow in knowledge and make me that little bit more proficient as a writer.

My hope is that my 31-day challenge will not just help me, but help others who are struggling to see the light and to experience the warmth of joy in their souls. “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.

Happy New Year! May you all have a safe, prosperous, and joyous 2018.

Oh, and by the way, the bacon was delicious.

The lost art of joy – Vulnerability

 

“Masquerade!
Paper faces on parade …
Masquerade!
Hide your face,
so the world will
never find you!”

It was 1994 and I was a clown.

I say that quite literally. I was at Hillsong conference, doing a stream on drama and performance, and one of the available workshops was clowning. It was a transformative day in so many respects. We all put on clown clothes, with wig, full face paint and the big red nose, and I managed to score some of those big red clown shoes too. After the workshop, the facilitator encouraged us to leave the costume on and practice our new skills amongst the unsuspecting Hillsong delegates. So I spent the rest of the day, including riding the bus back to the main convention centre, dinner and the evening concert in full clown costume.

It was exhilarating.

I was painfully shy as a teenager. Actually, I had social anxiety disorder, debilitating shyness. I discovered drama and performance through the church youth group I was attending at the time and it helped me overcome a lot of insecurities and grow in confidence. Still, performing improv style in front of hundreds of strangers was not something I was comfortable with … until I donned the clown outfit. I had the perfect disguise – my own identity was hidden, and my new identity was associated with fun and laughter. I made hundreds of people laugh that afternoon because I could dance around, make silly jokes and sing silly song without fear of personal ridicule. I got three hundred people in the food court at dinner time to all sing Happy Birthday to someone. Sometimes I didn’t need to say anything at all, people just laughed at the shoes. Eventually I had to take off the wig and the shoes and literally wipe the smile off my face, and I was back to plain old me.

From ancient cultural traditions to the modern superhero, we’ve used masks to create new personas or hide old ones. Masks empower a temporary transformation. When you wear a mask, you disguise who you are which frees you from your own limitations, and at the same time, it projects a different persona, empowering you to act within a new set of rules that the mask allows.

I got to hide who I was and clown around because of the mask the clown costume provided me, but it wasn’t the real me, the authentic me. It was a version of me the mask had created. While the mask I wore that day made lots of people happy (including me), it wasn’t sustainable. I couldn’t stay as a clown forever. If I tried, I would have worn myself out. At best, the mask gave a surge of temporary happiness, not long term joy.

Our social connections bear a striking resemblance to my clowning experience. We live in a society which encourages masks. We are consumed with creating the right appearance, from designer clothes to botox injections. We have to say the right words to be liked by the right people, in our on-line and our real world communities. We harshly criticise those who don’t share our beliefs, who don’t fit into our ‘tribe’, and we try desperately to ensure we aren’t treated in the same way.

We fear real connection, because we fear shame and rejection.

We wear our masks, we put our paper faces on parade, hiding our faces so the world will never find us.

I have a wonderfully wise friend who, in recent conversation about this subject, said this,

“Wearing a mask all the time is exhausting. Sure, we all have to wear a mask to get through life intact … but we need to be able to take it off with people we really care about.  Otherwise we disconnect completely and that can be a very lonely place to be in all the time.”

I also love the work of Brene Brown, who has so many applicable quotes, it’s really hard to limit myself to just one … and that’s why I have two!

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

and

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

Shame suffocates deep, sustainable joy. We might be able to use our mask to inspire a temporary happiness, but it’s only through authentic connection that we can experience joy in the truest sense.

Being authentic, being real, being vulnerable is scary! But without authenticity, without vulnerability – without being real – we can’t form the connections to others that allow real joy to flourish.

We don’t have to open ourselves up completely to everyone, but we do need to practice vulnerability with those who are most important to us. By being real, and being vulnerable, at least with those of us who are the most important to us, we can enhance our connection and in doing so, grow our joy.

The lost art of joy – Regret

I took my son to see the latest Star Wars movie, “The Last Jedi” this afternoon. Don’t worry, no spoilers here. I don’t want to ruin the enjoyment for anyone.

What I can say is that one of the strong themes of the movie was regret. In this movie, Luke Skywalker, the hero of the original Star Wars trilogy, was in self-imposed exile, hiding physically and ‘spiritually’ (from the power of the force), because of the choices he made.

Everyone has regrets, the ‘what could have been’ … the one who got away, the job you could have had, the fight you wish you hadn’t, the investment you didn’t make or possibly the one you did. Like death and taxes, whether big or small, we all collect some regrets as we walk along life’s path.

Regret isn’t necessarily bad, it can be an opportunity to move forward into joy if it’s handled the right way. If regret is eventually going to lead to joy, then it has to spur us on to make adaptive changes. It’s learning from our mistakes. We might realise how we have been too busy to spend our time according to what’s valuable for us, or not given enough, or not looked after ourself enough, and we resolve to eat better, work less, or give more to others. There are so many different examples of how joy can come from acting mindfully and adaptively on our feelings of regret.

But sometimes regret becomes overwhelming, where instead of riding the wave of regret to power us forward, it dumps over the top of us and we are swamped by it’s deluge. They can sometimes merge into an overall feeling of being wrong or bad, it may cause paralysis because you mourn what you could have or should have done, and can’t seem to make a better decision going forward.

If any good, if any joy, is going to come from those experiences we may be regretting, then we have to grab our surfboard. Remember:
1. It’s ok to fail. Failure is inevitable. Without it, there can be no success. What’s done is done.
2. Make lemonade. Learning from what happened takes the lemons that you’re stuck with and makes them into something better.
3. Keep looking forward. Once you stop looking to the past mistakes, you can start focussing on future opportunities
4. Be mindful. Engage in the present moment to enhance your current joy.
5. Be values driven. You’re much less likely to regret decisions that you make if they are based on your values. But if things don’t go according to plan, you can always go back to step 1.

It’s that committed action to our values that ultimately enhances our joy, now and in the future.

The lost art of joy – Beauty

Cottesloe Beach, Western Australia, at sunset

I like to flirt with photography.

There’s a particular ambience about taking photos, especially landscape photography, at either dawn or dusk. The softer light, the interplay of shadows, all make the end of the day a great time to wander around and take some photographs. I’ve always lived on the east coast of Australia, so I don’t ever get to see the sunset over the ocean, but late last year I was at a conference in Perth, Western Australia, so I thought I would seize the moment. I analysed the weather forecasts, and on the only sunny day of my trip, I skipped the afternoon workshops and went to Cottesloe Beach. There, I sat in front of the Indiana Tea House, the chill of the icy gale creating a stunning contrast to the majesty of the sun dipping into the sea, then the pink and orange glow fading beyond the expansive horizon.

It was a moment of profound beauty, a moment of aesthetic richness in the vast tapestry of the earth’s natural grandeur.

I remember that moment as one of joy. I was cold, and I was tired and I was hungry, but those aren’t the feelings that I’ve tagged to my memory of that event. The joy of beauty trumped my usual hangriness.

That bond between beauty and joy has been confirmed in broader studies. George MacKerron, now a lecturer at the University of Sussex, used an app he created to map the correlation of happiness to activity and location. He has tens of thousands of users and hundreds of thousands of data points. The times that people recorded the highest levels of happiness and life satisfaction were during sexually intimate moments (on a date, kissing, or having sex) and during exercise. The next three types of moments where people recorded the highest levels of happiness were all related to beauty: when at the theater, ballet, or a concert; at a museum or an art exhibit; and while doing an artistic activity (e.g. painting, fiction writing, sewing).

But what about beauty links it to happiness?

I think it’s a complex answer to a simple question.

Some people believe that physical beauty, especially of people, is related to happiness of those people. The more beautiful you are, the happier you are. That might seem true, but like beauty itself, the assumption is superficial.

Beauty is not specifically related to the usual markers of happiness (colloquially known as the “Big Seven”: wealth, family relationships, career, friends, health, freedom, and personal values). It’s not something that meets our material needs or aspirations. So the observation that beauty is associated with joy means there must be something deeper to it.

Stendhal, a French writer in the 18th century, wrote, “Beauty is the promise of happiness.”

I think that’s closer to the money.

It may be that our appreciation of beauty is because it is able to encourage the feelings we associate with happiness: calmness, connection (to history or to the divine), wealth, reflection, appreciation, hope.

Beauty offers a portal directly to our emotions. It transcends conscious thought and speaks directly to our soul. It communicates in a language that can never be described in just words.

I travelled from one side of Australia to the other but you don’t have to travel 5,000 kilometres to experience beauty. Beauty is usually all around us, but so often we aren’t paying attention. Mindfulness, being in the present moment, paying attention to what’s around you, can help you unlock the beauty that’s all around you, if you take the time to appreciate it.

See if you can experience something beautiful in your every day life, and unlock the joy it contains.

The lost art of joy – Kindness

Kindness is like a campfire – it gives light, it gives warmth, and it brings people closer together.

I recently heard a story of a new mum in Canberra who returned to her car after a physically and emotionally taxing day, staying with her sick baby in hospital, only to find that an overly zealous parking inspector had added to her distress by issuing her with a parking ticket. She was initially distraught by the discovery, but when she opened the envelope, she found more than just the ticket. She also found a note from complete stranger who just happened to be passing by. The note read: “I saw your car had a parking ticket on it, I’m sure whatever you were going through at hospital is tough enough so I have paid for you … Hope things get better!”

It was such a small act, but the effects of this stranger’s kindness was so profound. The financial exchange was minimal, but the joy and hope it generated were enormous.

And that’s the thing about kindness. One of the best things you can do for your health and happiness is to be kind to other people. Altruism activates rewarding neural networks, essentially the same brain regions as those activated when receiving rewards or experiencing pleasure. Studies also show that both the hormones and the neurotransmitters in the brain involved in helping behaviour and social bonding can lessen stress levels and anxiety. The immune system and autonomic nervous systems are positively affected by the quality and extent of social networks, and increased sociability and concern for others’ wellbeing can improve immune system and stress responses.

But kindness isn’t just about what it does for us, but it’s also about what it does for those to whom it’s directed. The joy and hope of kindness is bidirectional. Like the story of the mum with the sick baby, the kindness of a stranger was a ray of light in an otherwise very dark time. Sometimes those simple acts can make the difference between someone getting through or giving up.

There are infinite ways to show kindness, but the thing that links them together is unselfishness, the “disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others”, or in less formal language, simply giving with no strings attached.

If you’re looking for some ideas on some new ways to show kindness, the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation has plenty of them. Check out https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/kindness-ideas.

The lost art of joy – Joy blindness

Light at the end of the tunnel …

Joy is a ubiquitous human experience, almost an innate function of the human brain.

Joy is a bit like vision for the soul.

Writing an entire months worth of blog posts on joy, then, is a little writing series of blog posts on art appreciation. The readers of a blog on art appreciation will be able to see the art, the blog helping them to better understand the art. The vast majority of people who will be reading these blogs on joy will be able to experience joy and (hopefully) the posts will help them better understand joy.

But what happens if you can’t experience joy in the first place? What about those people who have ‘joy blindness’, so to speak?

As I’ve been writing this blog every day, I’ve been mindful of those people who struggle to experience joy. For the most part, growing joy in our life is related to our actions or decisions, such as learning acceptance, aligning our direction in life with our values, forgiving ourselves and others etc. Hence why I have been exploring these concepts in my blogs thus far. But there are some people who will read these blogs and say, “But I’ve tried to do all these things, and nothing has worked. I want to experience joy like everyone else but all I have is sadness, anger, loneliness, mourning … I must be doing something wrong … it’s all my fault that I can’t experience joy … I don’t deserve to be happy.”

Remember yesterday when I talked about the work of Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues who estimated that that intentional actions can contribute as much as 40% to a person’s feeling of happiness, where as circumstances could only contribute 10%? In their estimates, our genetics contributed to the other 50% of our overall happiness. Yesterday I made the comment that, even allowing for the generous estimations that were used to come to those final numbers, our actions were of much greater importance in our overall level of happiness than our circumstances.

But there was a second point to come out of the work of Lyubomirsky et al, that our happiness is related to factors beyond our control more than it is related to factors within our control.

For the vast majority of people, our genes, the biggest contributing factor to our joy, work fine. But there are some people whose genes do not work the same way, which makes them much more vulnerable to the effects of circumstances or personal actions. These are the people with major depression, who do not feel joy like the everyday person. There may be sources of joy all around them, but try as they might, they can not perceive it. They have ‘joy blindness’.

Depression is an abnormally low mood for an abnormally long time. Major depression sucks. Major depression is not just letting yourself feel miserable. So often, those without depression think that those with depression are weak, malingering, or wallowing in child-like self-pity. Despite the enormous strides in mental health education and awareness that have been made in the last couple of decades, there’s still a strong current of stigma that flows through our society, adding an additional barrier to improvement for anyone living with or recovering from depression.

Depression affects a lot of people too. About one in ten people will suffer from an episode of major depression in their lifetime.

There’s a lot of good and easily accessible information already available about depression, from organisations like Black Dog Institute or Beyond Blue. I’ve also written about depression and Christianity (Part 1 and Part 2). I don’t want to try and repeat all of that information here.

Rather, I wanted to say just a couple of things. Firstly, if you’re suffering from ‘joy blindness’ – if you long to experience joy in your life but all you feel is sadness, please don’t blame yourself or beat yourself up. It’s not your fault.

And you’re not alone. The depth of despair is so lonely, so isolating. But there are others out there who have gone what you’re going through and have come out the other side. And there are people around you to help you through – whether they’re friends, family, or professionals who can help, like your GP or a psychologist. Those suffering from depression benefit from specific counselling, or talking therapies, and occasionally those suffering from depression might need medication to assist them in their recovery.

For most people who suffer it, ’joy blindness’ isn’t permanent. It’s more like walking through a long dark tunnel rather than being trapped in a cave. If you can keep moving forward, you will eventually get through the other side. I know it’s hard, because I’ve been there myself. I know that in the middle of the tunnel, it feels like there is no end, that you’ll never experience joy again.

The key is hope. Hope keeps us moving forward. If you can keep moving forward, you will overcome the joy blindness of major depression and you will experience joy again.

Don’t lose hope, and you will experience joy again.

If you are struggling with mental illness and you need urgent assistance, please talk to someone straight away:

In Australia:
Lifeline ~ 13 11 14
BeyondBlue ~ 1300 22 4636 or https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/contact-us
Suicide Callback Service ~ 1300 659 467 or https://www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au

USA:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline ~ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

New Zealand:
Lifeline Aotearoa 24/7 Helpline ~ 0800 543 354

UK:
Samaritans ~ 116 123

For other countries: Your Life Counts maintains a list of crisis services across a number of countries: http://www.yourlifecounts.org/need-help/crisis-lines.