Loving Someone Who is Chronically Suicidal

Note: This is a reflection on living with a loved one who chronically wishes to die. There are no graphic details.

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It has been so very hard to write these past months since my son, Blake, was released from his second hospitalization. I’m pretty sure I’ve been on autopilot. I don’t experience joy in the same way I used to. I find myself drifting off when I’m with a group (the few occasions that I am now). I am delighted to hear what is going on with my friends’ children: the upcoming weddings, the new jobs, starting a new education, traveling. Yet there is just this sadness in me that lingers. It touches everything, leaving its residue. I don’t take new patients into my OCD and anxiety psychology practice. I’m sure many people think that I just have a long waitlist. The truth is, it would be unethical for me to take on more when I’m struggling myself.

Yes, I am depressed. I know it. Yes. I’m in treatment myself. Have been for a long time. Thank goodness for therapy. It sustains me through the ups and downs. It keeps me moving on through the unknown.

I’m struggling whether to tell you today about the sense of abandonment or what I’ve finally come to that is providing me a measure of peace. Probably the latter today. With the abandonment part comes a lot of anger and I can’t find it in me today. No. I’ll tell you instead about the peace.

A couple months ago we ventured away for a family overnight. In the bathroom as I prepared for bed, I wondered to myself how one actually copes with having a chronically suicidal loved one. What is one to do when their loved one is chronically in emotional pain, shares about it frequently, and could leave this world at any moment? 

“How do I keep going? How does one come to terms with this?”

My therapist hadn’t been able to answer that question when I’d asked her about it the previous week. It felt to me like an unending grief – like I was watching my 22-year-old son die from a life threatening illness and I could do nothing to save him. Part of me wanted him to “snap out of it,” though I knew that was unrealistic, even unfair to suggest.

Just then, in the hotel bathroom, it washed over me that, indeed, my son did have a potentially life threatening illness – it just wasn’t a physical one. 

“So how do people manage when someone they love dearly has an illness that may end their life at any time?” I wondered, thinking of a particular colleague whose spouse was painfully terminally ill. 

I rolled into bed, considering this. It occurred to me that, when you love someone who is seriously ill, you stay with them through their pain. You empathize with it as much as you can; you don’t discount it or disregard it or blame them for it. You accept that it is part of their illness. And while you desperately do not want to lose them, you accept that death may be part of the equation at any time. If that’s the case, you appreciate each and every positive moment together that you can, knowing that it may be brief. And while you don’t want to lose them, you respect their right to choose what interventions are acceptable to them.

When I awoke the next morning, I recognized that I had a new perspective on living with my son. It is what guides me and helps me to keep moving through the unknown. My son’s illness is potentially life threatening. In fact, somehow I have fully and radically accepted that I may lose him at any time. I don’t want that, but I have no control over it. My job is to accept and hear his pain, no matter how difficult that is. I can hold hope for the best, while helping him pursue the treatments he is willing to accept. And, maybe most important of all, I can cherish the moments of joy that we have – and we do have them sometimes. 

Somehow they are all the more precious.

*If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please consider reaching out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, or the equivalent in your country.

Eight Years

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WordPress informed me that in July I hit eight years blogging here at “OCD in the Family.” Unreal. It gave me pause to think back a bit (oh, and also to update my “About” page). I remember where I was when this blog was born. Blake had just turned 14. Michael was 16. And I was in a place where I felt powerless to help my treatment-refusing son, to be a good mother to both of my teens, and to have a healthy marriage and family life. Now my boy are both young adults, trying to find their way in this world.

Over these years, the blog has evolved. It has shown our ups and downs, it’s grown to cover the topics of depression, suicidality, hospitalization, treatment, and life as a therapist who specializes in Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and anxiety disorders. I’ve learned much – and my learning continues.

One very special thing over the years has been the connections I’ve made with readers. Some are fellow bloggers who I’ve actually gotten to meet in real life, others are regular commenters who I’ve grown so fond of over the years, some comment from time-to-time or only once, and others leave a “like” or just their imprint in my daily stats. However you’ve been here, reader, I am so grateful that you chose to stop for a moment and visit with me.

I plan to continue to share our family journey, wherever it goes. I’m honored if you come along.

Are Things Better?

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This – or a variation of this – is the question I keep getting asked in the almost month since my young adult son, Blake, came home from his second hospitalization. Blake was hospitalized with severe depression after a recent spike in his Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and related intrusive thoughts. He made a plan to end his life, and he’d planned to carry it out. Yet, that is not where the story begins, nor is his release from the hospital where it ends. They are pieces in a long journey.

I can’t speak for my son and what it is like to be him. I can, however, speak as a mom who has watched her child suffer for a very long time. There have been twists and turns on this road over time and lots of things have contributed to where we are now as a family. The bottom line is that my son came to the point a while back where he decided that this world was not for him. He’s been clear about that with us. He lost hope somewhere along the line that he would ever feel better. And we have been living with this as a family for some time. His hospitalizations did not represent a sudden departure from the life we lived with him. They were just the most obvious signs to the outside world. To many, I guess it appeared we had a sudden crisis along the road and that the hospitalizations were about addressing that. Maybe they were. But they didn’t “fix” a problem; they just kept my son safe for a period of time. Maybe they even reinforced his view of himself as a failure.

So now people ask me, “Are things better?” or “Is he feeling better?” I understand that they care and that they are being kind. And I feel like I disappoint with my answer. Bluntly, the answer is, “No.” That’s not what I answer, though.

“It’s going to be a journey,” is what I say. That’s the truth. Simple. Pure. I don’t know what direction my son is going to go in. It kinda kills me as a mom to move through life knowing that my child, who I love dearly, believes that each day he is here is torture. But, this is not the end of the journey. Not now. I don’t know where it leads, only that it is.

Just an Update

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Hello Dear Readers,

It’s been a little while since I’ve written and someone just reached out to me to ask how things have been since Blake’s hospitalization. I’m guessing this person is not the only one who has wanted to know so I’d like to share a little update. This style is uncharacteristic for me on this blog, but I’m so very tired lately, and it’s the easiest way for me to share with you what has been going on.

Not long after my last post Blake returned home and started in a partial hospitalization program (for OCD, anxiety, and depression). That means he went five days a week for six hours each day. Without sharing too many details, I can say that it did not go well for him and he was admitted back to the hospital within a couple weeks of being released. This second hospitalization was longer and he is now home again. We are working as a family to put together the pieces of what aftercare will look like.

I can share my own personal experience of this as being scary, confusing, and an emotional roller coaster. When your young adult is admitted to a psychiatric ward and held, they (and you) lose control over exactly what happens and when they get to leave. There are twists and turns on a daily basis – he’s going to be trying this procedure. No, wait, he’s not. He’s on this medication. No, we changed that two days ago. We’re recommending this program. No, we’re not. We think it’s this diagnosis. No, we changed our mind – it’s this. Oh, can you pick him up in two hours? He’s coming home.

My head has been spinning and it’s not been easy to regain my balance. I’m decreasing my workload as much as I can to attend to my family. As many of you know, I’m a psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I can tell you that none of my education, training, or experience has prepared me to face this situation more than anybody else. I don’t like that. Sometimes it feels like Blake has been moved from professional to professional and there’s no one staying involved long enough to keep things moving forward in a logical direction. It feels like we, as a family, have been tossed around – and now it is our job to sort out what’s next with the leads we have been given.

I’ll keep you posted on our progress. We are diving into uncharted waters. I hope that, someday, I can use this experience to help make is less scary and confusing for others.

All my best,

Angie

There’s Nowhere Else…

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Please be aware, short reference to suicidal ideation below:

I can see her waiting patiently out of the corner of my eye, as I listen to the social worker’s voice on the other end of the line. She can’t see or hear me; my camera is off and my mic is, too. I can see the fuzzy blackness covering the square that would be me in this telehealth call. She looks uncertain about what to do as she waits. The social worker on the phone talks on, giving me updates and directions. I dutifully take notes, painfully aware of the time that has lapsed since I darkened my screen and left this mom, mother of one of my young patients, waiting. I hang up the phone. Six minutes have gone by. I turn my camera and mic back on and she looks at me with concern and with what I imagine is a question that hangs between us.

“Is everything okay?”

It is not like me to abruptly leave a therapy session, and the call came in so early during our meeting I hadn’t yet been able to tell her. This has been a week unlike any other. I’ve told each and every patient or parent that I might be interrupted. I’ve mastered the drill by this point – a family member is having a health crisis; everyone is safe; doctors call me unexpectedly and I have little control over when that happens; if it happens, I’ll turn off my camera and microphone, take the call and return as quickly as I can; please forgive me if it happens. But this time, I had no opportunity to share, the call came so close to the beginning of our session. Then I tell her more than I’ve told any other person I’ve met with this week, pausing only for a millisecond in my head to debate whether it is appropriate.

“My son is in the hospital,” I say. Now it is out there. “I deeply apologize that I didn’t have the chance to tell you that I might get a call.”

“Was it planned?” she asks.

“No,” I answer, “though things are stable. I just get calls from doctors and I don’t have any say when they do that. I’m so sorry that this took from our time. I will make that time up.”

“Are you sure you’re up for being here? We can reschedule.” I see the caring and concern on her face.

“Honestly, there’s really not anything else for me to be doing right now. If I wasn’t working, I’d be sitting around waiting for time to pass,” I tell her. Then I lean in to the monitor, “Right now I’d like to be here with you, if you’d like to be here with me, too.”

She decides to continue and this honestly is exactly where I want to be.

Blake has been in the hospital for eleven days as I write this. For those of you who’ve followed this blog, you’re aware he’s struggled with depression and OCD. At times, it has been confusing which is more pressing. He’s been open, for the first time in a long time, to participating in treatment. He’s been working with a couple therapists and a psychiatrist. While he’s been the driver of his treatment, he’s also felt little hope or joy. He’s found nothing he wants in life. Depression is a thief that way; it robs us of seeing any possibility life might hold for us. Still, he continued on, trying a new antidepressant. Then, OCD’s intrusive thoughts took hold, constantly locking him in a fight against the torment. Simultaneously, his muscles started twitching uncontrollably, making him that much more uncomfortable. It took a while to realize that the twitching was a likely a side effect of his medication. The entire experience led him to hatch a plan to end his life – a plan he luckily shared with my husband and I, and later with his therapist.

Now our journey will take a new direction. Blake is scheduled to begin a Partial Hospitalization Program for OCD and anxiety shortly. He has never had treatment this intense ever in his life, and he is understandably scared. I have never had such brain fog in my life as I have this week, nor have I ever recognized so starkly the incredible beauty and supportiveness of those around me. I’ve had little energy to interact with others beyond what I “must” do, but those interactions have made me appreciate the power that exists in supporting one another.

And so, dear reader, thank you for coming to visit with me today. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be than here with you, if you’d like to be here with me, too.

Three Things I’ve Learned in Suicide Prevention Therapy

*This is not meant to be advice; it is simply something I’m learning as our family navigates having a family member with suicidal ideation. If you are thinking about suicide or have a loved one who is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (In the United States. In other countries, please reach out to a similar service in your country).

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The hubby and I began participating in therapy with a specialist from a suicide prevention center just a few weeks ago. Our son, Blake, had been sharing a good deal of suicidal thoughts with us and, since he was not interested in any ongoing treatment, we recognized we needed support ourselves. So far, we’ve done an intake meeting and two sessions. Although I’m a psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety and OCD, it’s a completely different story being a patient. I am learning, for sure, so I thought I’d share three nuggets I’ve gotten so far:

1. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that someone is talking about suicide.

Emphasis here is on “talking.” It was terrifying to me when Blake shared the thoughts that go through his mind, how much he suffers, how much he thinks of dying. I became alarmed at the very presence of these thoughts. However, our therapist (and others) have told me that it is actually a positive thing that Blake is talking about his thoughts. Talking and sharing are attempts to reach out and connect with others. This is a better thing than keeping these thoughts all to oneself – and not connecting with others.

2. It’s important to listen, not try to problem solve.

Many times when Blake has shared his pain with us, the hubby and I have worked to problem solve with him about ways to cope. We’ve also tried to shine a light on the bright side of things that he may be overlooking. What I’ve learned is that the most important thing I can do when my son shares his thoughts and feelings – even though they contain very dark and frightening content – is to listen and accept them as his. It is not my job to problem solve. That’s not where he’s at; he’s in sharing mode and he simply wants to be heard. As far as pointing out the bright side, our therapist noted that, for someone who is not ready for that, it’s kind of like shining a light in the eyes of someone who has been sitting in the dark. It’s going to be jarring and unappreciated. So, I’ve been working on listening and simply hearing.

3. An increasing number of conversations about suicidal ideation does not necessarily mean the person is about to act.

In our last session, I noted to our therapist that the freqency of conversations seemed to be going up. Our son was having more conversations with us about his pain and his thoughts of death. He wasn’t sharing intent to act, he was just sharing more often. It was emotionally exhausting, at times, and I was concerned what it meant. The therapist reminded me that we’ve shifted our conversations from problem-solving and pointing out the bright side to actually just listening and accepting. She noted that the increased frequency may simply mean it’s become more safe to share and that, when a person feels like they will be heard, they’ll take the opportunity to talk more often about what may be going on in their head. So, although it feels scary to me to be hearing my son’s thoughts more, it may just be that he feels more accepted in voicing them now than he did in the past.

We still have a way to go on this journey, and we have to listen to our son to ensure we are not missing signs of intent to harm himself. On the way, I am learning, and I hope our experience can help others.

Suicidal Thoughts in the Family

*If you are thinking about suicide or have a loved one who is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (In the United States. In other countries, please reach out to a similar service in your country).

Image by Krzysztof Kamil from Pixabay

“I called the suicide hotline the other night.”

Blake casually drops this line as he and I sit lazily on the patio chairs and cushions in our yard. I do everything in my power to keep myself from reacting too strongly. I want to encourage him to keep talking, not shut him up with my own anxiety.

“You did?” I ask. “When was that?”

“Saturday night. I just couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop thinking about what a failure I am and I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll check this out.’ Honestly, I expected it to be a waste of time, but I’m actually glad I called.”

“I’m so glad to hear you called,” I say. “You must have been feeling pretty awful to reach out.”

“Yeah. I tried the text line first. But there were a lot of people ahead of me. I waited over half an hour. I decided I’d try the actual phone line because the service suggested it as an option. I thought I’d wait even longer, but there was someone on the phone with me in about three minutes.”

He pauses a bit, then he continues, “I thought it would feel stupid, but I have to say, it felt so good to tell a stranger how awful I feel. I told them about stuff that I’ve never told anyone else. I felt like what I’m so upset over is so petty, but the person on the other end of the line said, ‘That sounds so hard.’ It felt so good to hear that.”

We go on to talk about more of the particulars. My young adult son shares how he struggles to decide if he should live or if he should die. I tell him how courageous he is for reaching out, and for being honest with me now. But afterward I am hurting so much. I want to cry and feel the relief of deep, cleansing sobs, but the tears won’t come.

It’s well after midnight and my husband is asleep. I turn to the internet. I’m not sure what I’m looking for, but my son (my beautiful son) – the one I carried when he cried as an infant, explored the world with, delighted in each new step he took, soothed through huge spikes of anxiety and OCD triggers, and championed through his many brave steps – frequently feels that his life is not worth living and that he is not worth the effort of saving. I’m looking for something to help me help him see that it IS worth it. I feel desperation…and then I realize – it’s not my choice to make. It is his life and I cannot coax, cajole, or convince him to stay here. It is selfish of me to do so because, while I’m thinking of him, moreso I’m thinking of my own pain.

And that is when I realize that I am the one who needs help. I have to take care of me right now. It’s not about saving him. Yes, he could use help and support when he chooses it. But right now it’s about taking care of me so that I can live with a family member who I love fiercely and who is frequently contemplating suicide. That is a lot to navigate alone and, until now, I’ve pretty much done just that.

Maybe it’s because I’m a psychologist and I think I’m supposed to know how to handle suicidal thoughts, but I suspect that it is also about being a mom. As parents, we are supposed to take care of our children. We worry about them from the moment they are conceived until we draw our last breath. When they struggle, we look to get them help. We forget that we must be in good shape to be a support.

The next day, I call the suicide hotline myself. It had never occured to me that I could call the hotline as the parent of someone who was dealing with thoughts of suicide. As much as it sucked to make that call, it felt so good to be heard and held by another. That call led me to reach out to a suicide prevention center and today, in less than an hour, I will have my first consultation session with a specialist. It’s not for Blake. It’s for me – so I can learn how to take care of myself. I’m nervously optimistic. I’ve lived with my son’s suicidal thoughts for so long, never considering how I was doing. Let’s see where this journey leads.