Who am I?
I'm not a psychiatrist or doctor in any shape or form. I also have no training in supporting others with mental problems. I'm speaking here from my position as someone who watched the topic of self harm for some years. I also consider writing this post as a form of help for myself, so please take everything I say within that perspective.
This chapter might leave you thinking about my own wellbeing.
Please be ensured that I'm taken care of. I have a family and my friends around and I'm confidently planning my future, even though it's still filled with grief.
Loosing a loved one started fairly early in my life, since I lost my brother to cancer before even going to school. For me this loss is now nearly 25 years ago and I'm very confident that I am completely okay with the situation as it is right now and if it were only for this, I wouldn't be writing this right now.
Pretty much exactly eight years ago a friend walked into my life. Two years later she became my girlfriend (from here on J.) and with that she brought me into her circle of friends, who quickly became our friends. When I went into the relationship I was very much aware of her unstable past and during our first year I learned even more about her history of earlier relationships, self harm and her ealier attempt of taking her life. I learned how one of her earlier partners and member of our friendgroup (from here on A.) was still very important to her for emotional support. While struggling at first, I came to the point of embracing this interaction and in return I was relieved to know that she had someone she trusted to talk about her problems with. During the first year I also attended J. in and our of a phase of self harm.
One year ago, right before christmas, A. was the first big loss in our group of friends as he decided to end his own life. This shocked all of us and especially J. was hit hard. The weeks and months after that were filled with grief and attempts of supporting each other. Slowly we were able to regain composure and to return to our normal life.
During this time I started working fulltime and wrote my bachelor's thesis and J. was finishing her apprenticeship. She was struggling with this and the recent past were a big bourdon, so one day when I visited her she told me about her plans of ending it all. This is where I made the biggest mistage in my life. After a lot of talking J. and I reached the conclusion that she needed to reach out for professional help, because I was neither capable nor qualified to support her in this situation. Nevertheless I would support her as much as possible. The mistake I did, was giving her the promise of her diciding when to tell others about this. Be sure that this was not easy for me.
The next month was what I thought at the time the hardest in my life of very slowly working towards stabilizing J.. Spending time together while somehow finishing my thesis, pushing her to seek help while not pushing her away from me by being to much to bare.
It all ended when after the mentioned month J. too took her life. Even though I did not have to bare the feeling of pressure of holding the promise I had given to J., I was like paralyzed. The next month I did... nothing. I took a month off work, postponed the final date of my thesis and was unable to do anything. I tried many times during that month to use the very much needed time for my thesis, but usually I would spend about 2-3 hours on a two to three sentence paragraph, just to delete it again, because it was unusable.
So to put it in a nutshell, during the last year I lost two loved ones to the most extreme form of self harm and watched them struggle with this topic for years before. Because of this I want to write down some of my thoughts as someone who has to live with the outcome.
How to handle self harm
Talking about your problems is hard.
I know that talking to others about your problems isn't easy. Especially when it's not only feelings, but actual physical problems. Maybe you're even introverted, have a problem talking (e.g. because you stutter) or simple don't like the act of talking. This is fine and if you want to reach out to professional help, they will accomodate you by e.g. allowing you to chat via texts instead. If you don't see yourself talking to professional help, try it anyways and then you can also look for things like local communities to find someone to talk to. Where I live, there's an active community on Jodel offering support to individuals in need on a regular basis.
Try finding someone you trust
This is probably the hardest thing to do. Find someone who you want to trust with your problems. This can be a friend, partner, family member, professional or anyone. When searching for someone, you don't need to look for someone you "should" be telling about your problems, but for someone who it feels okay or even good to talk with.
If you have someone to talk to, try to be as honest as possible to them. Especially in the beginning it's okay to not answer questions, to not tell everything, but staying honest and openly telling your opposite when you don't want to tell something will help both of you by allowing your trusted one to assess from the outside how you are and how you change and it makes it easier for you to stay in contact, since you avoid the struggles of digging a hole of lies.
If you ever find yourself at a point where you lied, or you have the feeling that there is a misunderstanding, talk about it. Removing a lie can strengthen the trust you have in the long run and is better than going with the lie.
Sometimes you will have a regular schedule of meeting like weekends for J. and me, but even when you don't, try talking to each other at least regularly like once a week. Making this a usual thing will make talking about problems easier for both of you.
Tell about the bad and the good
This is something that is very important to me as someone that attended someone through this topic. Finding the good things to talk about can ease the mood when you talk and also shows you and your opposite what you consider a positive thing.
It's about communicating
While it's probably good when you're talking more than the other person, these things should be about communication. So you shouldn't be just talking, but also listening for their responses and feedback. You can clearly state which topics you don't want to touch (right now) and at the same point in time maybe even open up to an outside perspective. Sometimes the forest of problems looks different from a birdseye perspective, so let them lift you up.
Listening is a concious activity.
If you're ever in a situation where someone wants to trust you with their problems, listening is one thing. Listening well is different and important.
Does someone want to talk to you?
I learned this the hard way back when I didn't understand the relationship between J. and A.. It's not important that someone talks to you, it's important that they talk to someone. Let them decide who they want to talk to about what. If you see someone struggling, it's absolutely fine to actively offer help, but don't try to force yourself onto someone to talk to. A good question for this might be something along the lines of "Hey, I see you're struggling with X, do you have someone to talk to or do you need one?". This makes it clear that you're okay with not being the person to talk too while also making sure to say that it's important to talk to someone.
Your task is lstening.
I know that if someone is talking about there problems, it often feels like you want to solve them and actively work on them in that moment - don't. Be the listener. Of course you can offer help and your thoughts, especially when asked for, but try to keep it to a minimum. Often the biggest help you can be, is just being there and listening.
You want to build an environment of trust and honesty. If someone mentions to you, that they are harming themselve, don't judge their decision to do so. They know themselve that this is not the right way to handle problems. Instead ensure that the medical side is okay and that you have an open ear for the problems underneath.
Sometimes problems seem much bigger to the person you're talking too and it helps to provide an outside perspective. Also it'd good to show that life isn't a competition and you don't need to be first, or even average in everything. It's fine to mess up major decisions in life and you don't need to be, what "society" wants you to be. Transporting this to the person you're talking to can be one of the hardest things.
During my time with J., she was struggling with what her time after her apprenticeship would hold. Some of my answers were "Us" and "who cares? Let's get you in a better mental position first". I still stand by that. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't support plans for the future, but sometimes the moment is just not the right one to care about a career or similar. I think these things should come in during or after the "Mental Health" priority I'll describe later. It's absolutely fine to take some time off from everything to concentrate on ones wellbeing.
A sad reality
Self harm comes and goes slowly and in phases. Depending on how hard the case is you're confronted with, don't expect the act itself to stop as soon as you know of it. It can get even worse at first, especially when normally hidden body parts are affected. Let them show you what they are doing (e.g. bruises, scars, not the action itself), so you have an understanding and can take action. Also don't shy away from nudity if they offer it and you can handle it. From my experience, self harm is one of the first things that will stop and it's a good first sign for achieving a better overall situation, mainly because they found another outlet for their problems (this is probably you).
If you have someone around you who is either struggling in or with their life, IMO there is a fairly clear priority order.
What is important?
This is the extreme baseline. Noone should ever fall below this line. If you think someone is in this position, actively reach out for professional help immediatly! Try to not leave this person on their own or alone.
The mental stability line is best described as "every current and concrete foreseable future action is compatible with life itself". Clear signs of falling under this line are (but not limited to), when someone is planning options for taking their life or avoiding things that uphold their life. Phrases I heard in the past were along the lines of "I don't know if I'd jump if a truck were coming towards me". Also stopping to make future plans is a dangerous plan (e.g. stopping to fill in a work schedule calendar or similar).
To repeat: this is one of the few cases, where you should reach out for professional help immediatly, even if it's against the will of your opposite!
When a person is mentally stable, the next priority is to reduce and longterm eliminate physical self harm. Like mentioned above, this can take some time and the immediate importance of this highly depends on the kind of harm being done. Your goal should be not to reduce the outlet of emotions, but to shift them to a different form (e.g. talking about problems). Some also have good first results by funneling especially anger into some kind of sport. I think that this is a good first action to reduce physical harm, but shouldn't become a way of avoiding talking about problems.
Mental health is very important, but compared to the other two it's last. Sadly this also takes the longest and not everyone will achieve it. The goal here is to actually resolve the problems as problems. This means that acceptance is okay as well as actually solving the problem. A lot of these problems are also based on perception. You can offer new perspectives and also reduce the perceived pressure from society.
The reality that hit me
You can't read their mind
You will only know what someone is telling you. Especially when respecting their boundaries it's sometimes hard to see what they actually think. I hope that you will never face the situation, but if someone wants to end it all, I think it will be nearly impossible for you to stop them without professional help. They will hide their plans from you better than anything else and you most likely won't see it until it's to late.
Learn from my mistakes
When reading everything above, you can clearly see that I didn't follow my own advice. There were a lot of signs I'm warning against in this post that I've seen myself. At the time I made mistakes and in hindisght they are obvious to me, but that's hindsight.
You're not responsible, but it feels like it
When you loose a person that way, you will always ask yourself if you should've seen something, even worse when they were talking to you, you will ask yourself where your mistakes were and you will imagine all the things you could've done differently. These feelings will tear you apart and even though it's hard, you need to accept that you won't be able to change the past and that you take no responsibility in their actions. Even if you know now what I wrote in this post, if you act differently, if you make (other) mistakes, push the responsibility away from you. It is one of the biggest steps you can do to live with the situation long term.
Even when you're doing your best and doing everything right, you can still not progress or even loose. Remember, as an outsider you're not the one deciding the game.
You need support yourself
It doesn't matter if you're just supporting someone struggling with self harm, struggle yourself or even have to endure a loss, reach out for emotional support! Everyone (yes, you too) will find someone to talk too and this topic is so heavy, that you shouldn't try to bear it alone.
One last thing for those who struggle
If you read until here, I hope you read along a little more. If you're struggling yourself, this part is for you by myself. J. left a letter telling her view on the situation and she felt like being a burdon on society and the people around her, that she loved. If you have similar thoughts, know that you're loved and that there are people out there that care about you, even if you don't think so. These people see you struggling and it will ease also their situation if you talk with them about your problems.
And if you even played with the thought of ending it all, be sure that this won't make things easier for anyone, especially not the people around you. The pain and emotional suffering I've felt turing the last 365 years is way more then I felt in the whole time with J. combined, just with the difference that I don't have the nice parts or knowledge of when it will end.
There is no problem that can't find a solution. Stay strong. Seek help. You're not alone. It will get better.
Again, to finish this post, I will leave contacts to places that will hear you and do their best to support you:
- Germany (Telefonseelsorge): 0800 1110111
- USA (Crisisline): 988
- All: Wikipedia list of suicide crises lines