Harmless is a service thriving in the field of self harm and suicide prevention work. We talk often and openly about our provision of services, the events that we are attending- our academic work and research. Perhaps we should also find more time to talk about the bread and butter of our work and what it is that truly makes our work effective. This means talking about heart and soul and above all, hope. Yes, we are ‘innovating’ interventions; yes, we are evidencing our work- but the question really should be ‘what helps people to stay alive?’.
People turn to harming themselves or contemplating death over the ‘big’ things in their life. We often take these ‘big’ things to mean big events or traumas, but more essentially, these are big emotional experiences- feelings of devastation- loss, sadness, shame, fear…. No matter what their origin.
Harmless is a service that truly understands and relates to self harm and suicide. It embraces staff who have lived experiences of these issues – perhaps we don’t write about this enough. So it’s important, that, despite the clear academic rationale for our work, we embed these experiences in our work- that we always prioritise the human touch in the services that we provide.
So… What is it that helps people to stay alive and to overcome both suicide and self harm? It can be the little things. Or an accumulation of little things. It can be an act of kindness that can tip the balance in the favour of life, or a positive experience that can reduce the amount of harm someone causes themselves. It can be a thousand tiny experiences that encourage a sense of hope, or belongingness. These might not ‘fix’ the problems that someone is facing but it can be enough to help someone to keep fighting.
What years of research does tell us is that isolation and hopelessness are really crucial in people self harming, and going on to become suicidal… But we knew that anyway, right?
If each of us offer the small things, just think what a difference we could be making to someone in pain. And that’s what Harmless does. That’s why we make a difference- not just because we offer an intervention, but that we offer it at a time of need, with compassion and sincerity- that we care enough to do it and to be there when we are needed and that we are real people with real stories, doing that work.
There is always hope for people in distress. Every life touched is the potential for a life saved. So we will keep on doing what we do, and learning from it. We will keep talking to the people we help and let them, each and every one, tell us what helps them.
And we will keep believing, until people can believe for themselves again, that their life is worth living and there is hope… And that no matter how bad things feel, they can be helped.
22nd of September, 2002.
The doctor and her driver just dropped me outside A & E. I am crying, shaking and I feel very much alone. I drop my keys and fumble for them on the ground whilst balancing my heavy rucksack on my shoulder. I’m clutching to my letter – the letter that the GP had just handed me and told me to take to the hospital.
When I report to the reception desk, they are expecting me. I am told to wait with the other unfortunate souls that find themselves here at this time of night. The waiting area is full, as people hold their heads and arms in pain. I have nothing to clutch, except my heart that feels as though it is bleeding out all the pain in my body. Instead I wrap my arms around my bag and weep into it quietly.
I know people look at me. I withdraw inside myself and try to become smaller, so no one can see me. I am invisible in my mind; as is my pain.
A friendly looking nurse calls my name and I stop being invisible. I stand and follow her to another waiting area. Here, the patients sit in rows, all facing me. I am told to take a seat but I cannot move. The only available seat is right at the back and a sea of faces to go with it. Five behind five behind five pairs of staring eyes. My heart is now pounding; racing. My legs shuffle and I prepare to run. Instead, I turn to the nurse terrified and burst into tears. Everyone is staring at me, but I cannot stop. I put my hands to my face to try and hide my distress, but I cannot hide. It’s too big to hide anymore.
The nurse kindly guides me to a cubicle and draws the curtain and I am left alone. I cry.
They tell me that the doctor won’t be long; time both stands still and races past me. I am lost to it. I don’t belong in this world. I don’t breathe the same air as other people. I don’t think the same way. There is no place for me.
Eventually the doctor arrives with nurses and they look at my wounds which are all throbbing and sore now. They poke around and pinch the cuts together, and then tell me that I need to be stitched. I am terrified. I describe to them the situation I find myself in and I tell of the blackness, the panic, the fear.
I seem to have reduced myself to a grain of sand, sitting right in the middle of my head. My vision becomes tunnelled and dark, the sounds are muffled and distant as I try so hard to protect myself from the moment I find myself in. I KNOW that I am answering their questions, but it doesn’t feel like me – it is the me that I call upon when I cannot cope. The me that gives a voice to the voiceless.
I can hear myself telling them that I don’t know how else to cope, but they don’t understand. They must think that I am wasting their time and I feel so ashamed. I am desperate for someone to hear me, just to hear how it is that I am feeling. I can feel it mounting up inside of me and then it gets unbearable so I take it out on myself. It is only then in that brief moment that all the emotion gets washed away. But then, afterwards, I am left with this; with scars and pain, humiliation and shame.
I sit here whilst they sew my legs back together like a patchwork quilt. I look at what I have done to
myself and I promise myself, like every other time, I will never do this again – that this time I will find a new way of coping. I don’t know how, but I will.
But it will happen again, wont it? Because it always does. It hurts so badly, and I try to wish it all away, but I know that I must deserve this.
I’m listening to the weather forecast on the radio: highs of 18°c, the weather outside is dull, damp and miserable. The weather inside is worse.
Let me describe the room; a square, 12’ square. The walls are a smoke-tinged yellow, like the walls of a neglected public house. There are five high-backed PVC chairs that look as if they have been slashed and cut into. The foam spills out of their gouges. There is a fan, twisting and turning its gnarled head in protest, forcing the heavy smoke from one side of the room to the other.
I could lose myself in here for good, amidst the floral curtains and the pasty walls, the echoed footsteps and voices in hallways. Nothing matters in here; not the way I look, or the way I dress, or whether I wash my hair. This is not me. I should not be here.
Someone sings out from the radio: “oh baby, come on… I need you to show me how to start living my life…”
Maybe I am hearing words being called to me from outside these walls. I need someone to show me how to start living my life. I need someone to teach me how to cope, right from the start. I am a child again. I am as I was as a child: without guidance. This is my way of coping, this is my way and this is my best.
This is not good enough.
22nd September, 2009.
This was written at the depth of a despairing time, when the only thing that seemed to surround me was a world that didn’t understand my struggle. I was the girl that hurt herself so badly that the doctors just hadn’t the patience to keep ‘fixing me’, nor the care for why it was happening. I was the girl that spent hours crying quietly to herself, wishing someone would notice and help. I didn’t need much, but what I really needed was a touch of human compassion.
Instead I was the girl that mental health services labelled as ‘attention-seeking’, the girl that they said couldn’t be helped and the girl that they wrote off as an ‘expected suicide’. Today I am a therapist. After years of suffering, when human compassion was eventually offered to me I turned the corner.
Years on I now spend every day working to help others the way that they helped me; people who face similar experiences of distress and despair to get the help, the compassion and the support that was lacking in my own struggles. I am precisely the reason why Harmless needs to exist, why we have to listen to the voiceless and believe beyond everything, that people can triumph over their pain. Having hope is such a difficult thing when the world seems bleak, so I, and Harmless, hope you (after reading this) can above all else, remain hopeful for change. Distress is subjective, and whatever has driven someone to self harm, whether it is a bad day at work or abuse, it matters. Give people the chance to define their selves and to describe their struggles in their own words. Give people the space where it is ok to just be.
Self harm and despair can be overcome. If we work hard enough, if we help hard enough – recovery happens.
If you would like to read more stories of recovery, or learn more about self harm and suicide why not buy our book, by clicking here.