How to hold on
Small, actionable steps for when you feel like you can’t hold on any longer.
This is a departure from what I normally do. Still, over the past few weeks, the theme of suicide has resurfaced over and over again. A few of my friends revealed that either they or a loved one was struggling with suicidal thoughts. Suicide is the 12th leading cause of death in the U.S., and except for 2019-2020, suicide rates have steadily increased since 2000.
For many of you who are regular readers of this Substack, you have probably read about my personal experiences with suicide. I wanted to follow up on that post. Sometimes when you’re struggling, hearing vague platitudes and knowing you’re not alone is enough — sometimes, you need balm for your wounds. If you have been asking yourself, “What can I do to keep from killing myself?” I wanted to give you some small, actionable steps you can take that will help you hold on, heal and survive.
One of the most important things I learned when I was being treated after my own suicide attempt is that pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice. They were hard words to hear, but they were empowering. I hope this helps.
I will be writing a post later for those with a loved one who is struggling. I know how difficult it must be to be a parent, friend, partner or sibling to someone struggling with suicidal thoughts or intentions. I haven’t forgotten about you.
Subscribe, and you’ll be updated on the next issue.
#1 Tell someone what you’re going through.
People can’t help you with what they don’t know. There is a chance that you have done such a good job at not being a burden (even though you think you are) and keeping to yourself that those closest to you have no idea that anything is even wrong. For every successful suicide in the U.S., 275 people have seriously considered suicide.1 That’s a lot of people who have been in your shoes. People are going to be more understanding than you think they will.
Start by trying to talk to your family, close friends, trusted teachers, etc. But if you don’t feel you have anyone you can trust, you can call 988 in the U.S.
#2 Go outside and exercise.
Some of the best and oldest medicine in the world is fresh air, sunshine and exercise. Especially if you suffer from anxiety, something about moving around and focusing your energy on taking a walk, playing basketball or just wearing yourself out will help regulate your emotions and make you too tired to contemplate your grief.
As an added bonus, there’s an increased chance you’ll make friends and new connections that will help improve your mood and outlook on life.
#3 Develop good mental habits.
This is much easier said than done, but shaping a new perspective on how you see the world can make a huge difference. Here are a few things I would recommend trying to help you form new habits:
Take regular breaks from social media: Tell your friends and family what you’re doing so they don’t worry. Not constantly looking at your phone, the news, and what everyone else’s lives look like will make you less anxious and depressed about your own. You might also try muting certain words or emojis on Twitter. Unfollow people who aren’t helping you be happier.
Limit your intake of the news: If you’re like me, you probably love being up-to-date on the news, but it can be draining and make your mental state worse. Try signing up for a daily or weekly newsletter that gives you the highlights from the week. When shocking or upsetting news breaks, acknowledge your feelings, but don’t engage with them by posting, sharing and living on social media.
“For as [a man] thinketh in his heart so is he”2: There is an ocean of difference between the action of “thinking” and having a thought. Part of developing good mental habits is learning to challenge the thoughts that come into your mind. Sometimes your brain is just sending off signals and trying to make connections. You don’t have to put stock into every thought of “Geez, you’re so ugly and embarrassing,” or “Everyone hates you” that goes flashing through your head. When you hear those voices, either ask for the evidence or don’t engage — then it won’t be a part of your thinking.
Get organized and write your thoughts: Keeping notes, lists of things you need to get done and your feelings written down is a great way to help resolve your feelings. I highly recommend bullet journaling because it combines all three concepts. You can do it in any notebook with zero artistic skill.
#4 Clean your space.
Reducing the clutter in your space will help you free up some mental energy to fight your battles. When you’re depressed, this feels overwhelming, but you can break it up into bite-sized steps and spread it over a few days if you need to. It will also keep you distracted from suicidal thoughts. Ask a friend to help if it feels like it will be too much. (Remember #1 — don’t pull any punches; just tell them what’s up and why you need their help.)
Here’s how I normally start cleaning if I’m overwhelmed:
Get out a trash bag and walk around the space, gathering everything that is objectively trash. Don’t bother separating trash and recycling, or you’ll never get past this first step.
Gather all dirty (or dubious) clothing and put it in the wash.
Put new sheets on the bed and make it. Commit to making the bed every morning.
Put all your clothing on the bed and sort through what you genuinely like and don’t like. (I like to do the KonMari thing here and thank each piece before I let it go.) Put everything you want to give away in a bin.
Do step 4 with your books, household tools, linens, kitchen supplies, hobby things, food, etc. You’ll notice you’ve gotten rid of a lot of stuff. Your life will be easier to manage.
Haul that stuff off to goodwill. You’ll feel happier that the things you weren’t using will be going off to bless someone else’s life.
Fold everything and put it away.
Dust, vacuum, scrub, clean, etc.
Set up a chart based on what needs to be done daily, weekly, bi-weekly, and quarterly. If you miss one of those days, don’t worry about it. Just wait until next week when the task is due again.
#5 Go to therapy.
You know who you are if you’re reading this. If you’ve been putting off going to therapy, you should go. Find a therapist who challenges you. As good as it feels to rant sometimes, a therapist should be helping you challenge your beliefs about yourself, teach you skills to cope with intense emotions and help you overcome painful triggers.
If you’ve ever been the person who says, “I’ve tried seeing dozens of therapists, but they can never help me!” or “They never tell me what I want to hear!” that’s even more of a reason to go to therapy. Think of it as a gym for your brain. You can’t grow emotionally without first being challenged.
Sometimes medication is needed. A therapist, psychiatrist and/or primary care physician can help you figure out what you need to get better. Medications are nothing to be afraid of — they can help take the worst off your symptoms, so you can work through the rest in therapy.
#6 Spend time with friends who make you do things.
When you are depressed and suicidal, you need two types of friends:
The friends who listen and validate.
The friends who don’t let you wallow in your sorrow.
It’s even better when you get both qualities in the same friend. As important as talking and letting people know what you’re feeling, sitting in those emotions and that space for too long can do more harm than good. It will make you forget that life is mostly good, not bad. So make sure to spend time with friends who will make you do stuff with them.
Go on walks, watch a movie, go to a farmer’s market, work on a hobby together, etc. It might also help to come up with subjects you like to talk about that aren’t the things that are making you depressed or anxious.
#7 Cultivate a spiritual practice.
Life is much less chaotic when you can put yourself in the context of where you sit in the universe. Cultivating a strong, consistent, heartfelt spiritual practice will give you a stronger backbone and a better perspective on life. And I want to be clear: When I say you should start a spiritual practice, I do not mean to do some yoga once in a while or plant a tree (although both are great.) I am a big advocate for experimenting with and discovering your beliefs; going to church and being part of a community; and practicing faith in the things you don’t understand.
If you had asked me five years ago, I would have given a flimsier answer to this question. Still, with more maturity and perspective, I think religious and spiritual communities are invaluable to individual mental and emotional health.
When developing a spiritual practice, keep these things in mind:
A healthy spiritual practice comes with a healthy spiritual community. You can’t be spiritually connected unless you connect with other people. A healthy community does not mean the community is perfect. People will still fight and squabble and occasionally offend each other. But healthy communities don’t show contempt for one another, they are willing to forgive, and they are constantly trying to be better. You can be one of the imperfect people in that community.
Find a community that will hold you accountable to a standard. This concept makes many people recoil, but when you are depressed, there are a lot of benefits to this. First, if you suddenly stop showing up or stop acting like your normal self, people in your community will be worried and check in on you. Secondly, self-esteem is built when you do hard things. Improving yourself and standing back up when you fail will give you more self-confidence.
Getting in squabbles will teach you forgiveness and contrition like none other. I can’t stress enough how no spiritual community is perfect. They just aren’t. Moreover, modern-day churches are one of the most diverse locations in the U.S. You get people from all walks of life, all political beliefs, etc. You will get into dust-ups and learn it’s not the end of the world. You can forgive, be forgiven, and, more importantly, your contribution actually matters.
Spiritual faith is more than just doing nice things — it’s also believing in something greater than yourself. When healing from depression and suicidal ideation, the biggest turning point for me was a religious leader telling me point blank, “It’s not all about you.” I was offended for a few months, but it finally made sense: I could stop putting the world’s weight on my shoulders and just start living. Doing service, fostering kittens and making sandwiches for the homeless shelter are all great. Still, they are empty unless you do them for a deeper purpose. Believe in great things (or at least just desire to believe in great things), and then lose yourself in doing great things.
You are special.
One of my favorite kids’ books (that I never understood as a kid but love now) is “You are Special” by Max Lucado.
It’s about a village of marionettes that give each other stickers, either gold stars if they do something good or grey dots if they do something bad. One of the marionettes, covered in nothing but grey dots, feels terrible about himself. One day, he meets another marionette who doesn’t have grey dots OR gold stars. He asks her how she managed that, and she tells him to go to the “maker” and ask him.
He goes to the Maker to ask his questions, and he responds by saying that neither the dots nor the stars matter to him because each of the marionettes is special to him. He made each with special care and attention, so none of them were inherently worth less than another. The main character happily walks away with all the grey dots falling off him.
I love this story because it’s similar to how we treat ourselves. Our sense of self-worth is too often based on how other people view us and whether or not they are putting proverbial grey dots or gold stars on us. In reality, our value as human beings has nothing to do with our achievements or failures. We have worth because we are.
So if you’re holding on for dear life right now — keep holding on. You are special. You have value. You have the power to get through this. You are loved.
I’ll have another one in the coming days for those of you who are worried about someone struggling with depression and suicide. Until then…