Suicide hotlines and what I really needed in the moment


Connecting the dots is natural.

Every time I see a photo of a newborn celebrating a family’s newest arrival, I can’t help but think of my own experiences waiting and wandering in the hospital anticipating the birth of our son.

Every time I hear of someone’s broken relationship with a parent, it inevitably calls to mind my own familial struggles, frustrations and hopes.

So it’s not surprising that I’m once again connecting the dots, the particular memories darker than most.

Reading news of recent suicides—from Scott Hutchinson to Kate Spade to Anthony Bourdain—is forcing me to connect the dots again, remembering a bit too vividly my own history of depression and suicidal thoughts. On a linear timeline, it was a long time ago, even well over a decade, yet that shadow of myself never feels too far from the present. The memories linger and remind me how close that version remains, a slippery slope that’s always a couple steps away despite the time passed.

The news of another celebrity suicide brings with it a wave of mental health alarms. Concerned citizens will post, tweet and share the right phone numbers to call, urging those who are lost in some stage of a downward spiral to reach out and do something.

“Say something!”

“Reach out and get the help you need!”

“You are not alone! We are here if you need anything!”

Those sentiments are all well and good. Really, they are. Friends and family have the best intentions. And in a perfect world, these statements actually would be helpful. A person in their right mind would hear a phrase like “call me if you need anything at all” and would respond in kind with a phone call confessing all manner of negative thoughts and destructive activities. Then again, someone in their “right mind” wouldn’t exactly need help with their mental state.

Here’s what I remember from the shadow side of life: I was physically, mentally and emotionally unable to call you in case I needed something. From the outside looking in, the answers look simple (and they really, really are), but therein lies the issue. When you’re inside, everything is distorted. Everything.

There’s only one reason I am standing on the outside again: I had a friend who knew that everything was distorted and he entered into it anyway. To be honest, I’m not even sure he knew what he was doing. He didn’t have all the answers. It’s not that he was trained for such emergencies. He was simply willing to enter into a situation he didn’t understand, and he remained present long enough to lead me to some real help.

When I see the advice flying around, it heartens me to know that concerned citizens are out there. I’m thankful for such services that exist to support those who seek help—suicide hotlines, recovery groups formed around an identified need or addiction, counselors who specialize in mental health.

However I also know that a great many, those teetering on the edge between this life and the next, are unlikely to dial those 11 digits or get dressed to go to that group that meets in the church basement. What they likely need is someone who will roll up their sleeves and enter into the void for them, someone who can bring that outside perspective into what feels like a bottomless pit.

What is needed in these moments is a real, meaningful connection.