Psalm 42 - and the bottomless pit
“As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and see the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?” – Psalm 42: 1-3. This article first appeared on Hazz's blog.
This photo was taken at my mum’s wedding when I was fourteen years old. It was 2008 and approximately two weeks after I first tried to take my own life.
I stumbled across this photo accidentally last Wednesday. Incidentally, that particular Wednesday was ‘World Suicide Prevention Day’. So I did the maths and remembered the events of early 2008. It was then that I couldn’t stop staring at it. Looking back over six years into the eyes of my fourteen-year old self and wondering what I was thinking right then. I remember distinctly how I was feeling. Later that day at the reception, I got roaring drunk and ended up in a heap on a bridge in Leamington, sobbing into my bridesmaid dress. The only way I can recognise myself in this is in a third-person context. I look at her like a little sister. I want to jump inside the photo and tell her it’s all going to be alright. And I know that the reason I want to do this is because I know she is going to attempt it again. And again. Little does she know that she has only just slipped into this bottomless pit and it is only going to get deeper and darker. But then again, little does she know that almost exactly four years later to the day, this fella called Jesus she’d vaguely heard about as a child would meet her at the bottom and heave her out.
This is going to be my most intimate and personal blog entry yet. (In case you hadn’t already gathered). A lot of the things I am going to share have never been shared with anyone before. Up until now, they have strictly been between me and God. But in the light of World Suicide Prevention Day and the coincidental discovery of this photograph, it feels right to share it now. According to a recent investigation conducted by the World Health Organisation, somebody in the world commits suicide every forty seconds and a disproportionate amount of them are teenagers. In fact, a quarter of the recorded deaths of 15-25 year olds are suicide.
I’ve watched a few ‘Ted’ talks recently discussing the issue of suicide. Two suicide survivors named John Schramm and Mark Henick stirred something deep in my soul with their remarkable stories. They implored others to share their stories in a bid to demolish the stigma and taboo surrounding suicide. So here I am. ‘Breaking the silence’, as they say. Anxious and scared sh*tless to be quite frank. But it is something we all need to hear, whether you’re a Christian or not. It is a conversation that is essential and I hope this will simultaneously prove a testimony to the healing power of God.
Obviously this issue isn’t exclusive to Christians but in this blog entry, I am appealing primarily to my brothers and sisters in Christ. Why? The ultimate by-product of mental illness that causes people to commit suicide is a sense of absolute and unequivocal hopelessness. And we Christians are the only people on earth who know the cure. We know the guy who brings hope. Probably about time we started introducing him to the hopeless.
I guess I’ll start by giving you a personal account of my experiences and struggles with suicidal thoughts and actions. I won’t be sharing the details of the events and people that led me to that place of darkness because, to be honest, it’s not relevant. We shouldn’t waste time trying to identify a cause because you cannot always rationalise something like this.
I was fourteen when I first overdosed and went into hospital. It wasn’t an impulsive decision; I had considered it carefully and even wrote a letter (a poor one). Thankfully it was early enough not to warrant my stomach being pumped so I was hooked up to a drip and the tablets were flushed out of my system via good old-fashioned vomiting. I was monitored in hospital for three days with my mum by my bedside. It was at this point that my dad was first introduced to my whole ‘situation’. I remember my dad watching in stunned silence as the nurse unfolded my arm to adjust the drip, consequently revealing a series of cuts on my wrist and my arm. The second thing I remember is watching Madagascar on the snazzy, touch-screen TV over my bed. I know. Slightly bizarre. Now every time I see those penguins I immediately recall unpleasant night-gowns, projectile vomiting and blood-tests. I’m not gonna lie, kinda ruined the movie for me. (Side note: Hi. I’m Harriet and like Chandler, I make jokes when I’m uncomfortable) Bear with.
Several weeks later in a desperate attempt to prevent his daughter from a second overdose, my dad described to me the pain of committing suicide via overdose on paracetamol/ibuprofen etc. I listened. But sadly it was not enough to prevent me from trying again. Although the second time I drew myself a bath, complete with bubbles, and then took the tablets. I think my theory was that I would pass out and drown before any major pain. To this day I still have no idea why I felt the need to pour in some Radox. Because if you’re going to be found dead in a bath you might as well smell like a fusion of jojoba oil and chamomile. (Refer to previous side note. Seriously, if I’m going to do this, there will be banter). To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure if it’s wholly accurate to label this a suicide attempt because I’m happy to tell you that after an hour or so of soaking in sadness and chamomile, I changed my mind. I got myself out of the bath and rang the hospital to tell them what I had done. Unfortunately, I had already taken enough tablets to warrant another trip to the hospital but it was my choice to go.
The third time I overdosed a year or so later, it was more an act of reckless self-harm. I took another heap of tablets after a spectacular bender and once again found myself knocking on mum’s bedroom door asking if she wouldn’t mind awfully giving me a lift to A & E. I was beginning to develop a name as a regular visitor to the children’s ward at Warwick hospital. You see, I had been cutting myself on and off since I was twelve. It started off quite honestly as a childish phase of scratching my wrists with a safety pin but by the time I was fifteen, it became a regular activity to smash up school sharpeners, pry out the blade and hack at my wrists, arms and thighs. It was quite an arduous pursuit actually, often causing more damage to my fingers and hands from flying plastic shrapnel.
I self-harmed in less explicitly obvious ways too of course. Severe binge-drinking and drug taking. You might think it somewhat dramatic to consider casual sex an act of self-harm but for me it certainly was. It was just another means of systematic self-destruction. I was just so drunk and/or high all the time that I simply didn’t care. I think that right there is one of the most dangerous attitudes to adopt towards life. Along with hopelessness there is sheer ambivalence. You just stop caring. I didn’t care about myself. I didn’t care about my future. There was no value to my life. It was cheap and disposable. This became so transparent to me the day my mum staged a very tearful intervention after one of my spectacular episodes. I believe it was not long after I had been attacked by strangers in the street who tried to bundle me into their car. My mum said, “What is going to have to happen to you for you to realise something needs to change?” I was ambivalent. I didn’t know and I didn’t care. Totally numb. Up until I met Jesus, I was the girl who deliberately walked the dangerous route home alone in the early hours of the morning. The girl who got drunk and sat in busy roads. Or the girl who dangled off multi-story car parks in the hope that the combination of immoderate vodka consumption and gravity would cause me to stumble and fall. In fact, in March this year a young woman leapt from that very car park and killed herself.
How does it feel to be suicidal? I think, for me at least, it was like having your heart in the permanent grip of a squeezing fist. Complete and utter agony yet you’re completely incapable of expressing it because also, in reality, you feel nothing. Aching pain but emptiness. You know inside you’re screaming at the top of your lungs imploring and begging for someone to hear you but you’re just submerged in a cold and seemingly eternal silence. I wrote in my diary when I was fourteen that I felt like I was living in a bubble that I could never quite break out from or allow anyone else in to. You lose all concept of time because all of your energy is driven towards simply finding a reason to get up in the morning. But I was not depressed. I had a wide social circle so I wasn’t alone very often. I had a lot of good days filled with fun and laughter. But this fist kept squeezing in my chest and I knew that I was seriously hurting. There was something deep within me that knew something was seriously wrong. A hopelessness. I don’t know to be perfectly honest. It’s difficult to fully articulate how it feels. I felt like I was already dead. I know this is a bit of a cliché – an age-old phrase – but I was living rather than alive.
I’m going to tell you about one final event. The last time I ever truly contemplated suicide. I don’t know why I’ve never shared this with small group to be honest because it is one of the most powerful testimonial moments in my life that never fails to move me to joyful tears when I reflect on it. It was my first year at University. I was eighteen years old and completely and utterly lost. I have never, ever in my entire life been so intensely lonely. The first term in that Keynes bedroom was singlehandedly the most miserable few months of my life. I’d frequently walk to Essentials, buy a deeply questionable amount of bad wine and sit alone in my room getting drunk and chain-smoking out of the window. I’d just scroll through Facebook looking at all the fun the other freshers were having, listen to sad music and cry. I hated home and much to my painful disappointment, University was even worse. I decided in December that I wasn’t going home for Christmas because I was going to kill myself. Properly this time, you understand. Self-harming wasn’t, pardon the pun, cutting it anymore. I was absolutely convicted in my belief that I was not ‘good enough’. I knew that, I mean logically, things would improve for me and I would get past this eventually. But it just didn’t matter. That fist around my heart had returned four years later, stronger than ever, and quite frankly, it just hurt too much. So I got the bus from Keynes into town everyday for a week, blasting out Bon Iver all the way. (Madagascar and Bon Iver. Officially ruined.
Some of you reading this have finally discovered why I’m all NOPENOPENOPE when Skinny Love or Perth starts playing). I strategically bought as many boxes of tablets as I legally could each time until I was suitably stocked up. By the weekend I was hammered on terrible wine and ready to give this whole suicide lark another bash. All that went through my head was, ‘this is really it.’ Why? I hadn’t made any real friends. I knew that once I took those tablets, if I passed out – no one was going to find me. No one would have noticed my absence for a few days and by then it would be too late. I got half way through the second box when something stopped me. Thankfully a coherent thought occurred in my highly inebriated brain. I’d love to say it was a profound, holy whisper of God. A stunning demonstration of serene and divine intervention. But in reality it was more like the voice of my mum! It just said, “Oi Hazz, if you really wanted to kill yourself you’d do it sober. If you really wanna do it, just do it in the f** morning, alright!?” And I thought… Fair enough. Then promptly passed out on the floor. Needless to say, I woke up in the morning with a murderous hangover, saw the unopened boxes on my desk and wept with joy. I kept saying thank you over and over and over to a God I wasn’t quite sure I believed existed. Three months later, I met him.
So why on earth have I just put myself through this and why am I sharing this with you? Well, there are several reasons. As I’ve already mentioned, it is an act of defiance against the cultural tendency to stigmatise suicide. I have to be brutally honest here, compared to other suicide stories I have heard, mine is quite unremarkable. John Schramm, who I mentioned earlier, actually threw himself off Madison Bridge and lived to tell the tale despite horrific injuries. I took a load of tablets on a few occasions. I didn’t jump from a stair banister only to survive due to a poorly designed, home-made noose. Perhaps I was a serial self-harmer with suicidal tendencies and nothing more. But the point is I do feel like I know what it feels like to want to die and I know how hard it is to get help. So listen up. I want to get practical now and say what I really want to say.
THINK ABOUT IT. TALK ABOUT IT. DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.
Those who are suicidal feel isolated and alone in their suffering. Why? Because our culture isolates them. We ignorantly attach the label of ‘taboo’ to a topic that is in such desperate need of discussion. You read those alarming statistics. It is completely unacceptable that we do this to each other and allow this to happen. People who have suicidal thoughts are convinced that they are crazy simply because no one has the honest courage to talk about it. I am absolutely terrified to tell people about my overdoses. Why? Because I can see that look in their eye that fills you with panic and regret because they are looking at you as if you were a completely different person. Most people who have attempted suicide are in many ways perfectly normal. I think one of the main reasons I’ve found the courage to share all this now is simply because I’m fairly confident that most people who know me know that I’m quite nice and normal! They have a personality, an intellect, a sense of humour, people-skills, principles etc etc. Yet people look at you like you ought to be strapped up into a straight-jacket and herded off to a mental institution immediately. It is a horrible feeling and I can’t tell you just how disheartening it is. You believe that look in their eye and perhaps, in future, you should just keep your crazy, abnormal thoughts to yourself. The only context where it feels vaguely ‘ok’ to talk about it is within the highly organised hourly slot at the therapist’s office. This is also unacceptable as far as I’m concerned. Jesus told us we were beacons of light intended to disperse into all darkness. He never said that certain ‘darkness’ must be confined to a single space. We are beacons of light, continually carrying the gift of hope to pass on to others. Yet when people bravely reveal their own personal ‘darkness’ in a cry for help, we retract our light by sending them and their hopelessness elsewhere. Suicidal thoughts are like a poison. They seep into every crack and crevice of your soul. It’s invisible, it’s sly and it’s cruel. It is also an everyday reality for millions of God’s children on this earth. We have an obligation to address it as God’s holy witnesses in this broken world. It starts as a mere conversation. But in reality it is a conversation that saves lives. Not only those who are suicidal but those of their family and friends who would suffer tremendously at the potential loss of their loved one. It doesn’t take a lot to give a sad person a hug and ask them, seriously, how they are doing.
THE ENEMY PLAYS A HUGE ROLE
This year I have often felt like I’ve been fighting a battle with the devil. He is that persistent voice in your head that tells you over and over that you are not good enough. That voice that jeers, “Where is your God?” We see the enemy so transparently throughout the world. Poverty. Corruption. Violence. Terrorism. Genocide… Need I say more. This world is so deeply broken and sometimes the enemy makes an appearance that is undeniable and he is easy to identify. But I sometimes feel that we are not so acutely aware of his role within the context of mental illness. And this is where he devours so many. It is guns and it is nuclear bombs but it is also that invisible force that spreads through hearts and minds, pulling out wires and corrupting the soul like a virus. It was the voice in John Schramm’s head as he leaned over Madison Bridge, telling him to jump. It was the voice in my head that told me I wasn’t going home for Christmas. But remember, God declared war on that voice. Yes, John jumped. But he also survived and is now alive to share his incredible story. Yes, I took some pills. But I was home for Christmas. God not only declared war on that voice. He won.
Here is something I wrote earlier this year in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral when I was struggling. I have no idea where it came from. The Holy Spirit just went on a mad one.
------ I know you are fighting for me and with me. You are my protector, my Father and you are angry that the enemy is attacking me when I am most vulnerable. But you will not let him win. He cannot win because you already won the war. He cannot defeat me because he cannot defeat you. I am yours. Every single piece of my being is yours. You are preparing me and training me for much greater things that I cannot understand yet. You are making me a mighty woman of God through these trials. My past, my pain and my suffering have all led me to you and into a relationship that is bigger than all circumstances. It made me who I am today – in you – and that is something to be celebrated and not mourned. Where I could have been destroyed instead of wounded, you loved me and protected me. Where I could have been swallowed by the waves, you kept me floating. Where the enemy could have smashed my heart and my life into pieces, you gave me a shield and you held me and you whispered to me to keep going. As I go back and re-enter dark places, you walk with me and hold my hand. And when I open the door to that hurt, I see that you are already there. Opening the curtains, pouring in light and love and I see you picking up the pieces in your hands and telling me they don’t matter anymore but you’re going to make them into something beautiful. The pieces don’t fit anymore because I am a new creation but you will transform them into a mosaic, combined with the new to make a masterpiece. What the enemy meant to destroy me, you will make a symbol of your unchanging victory. Being broken, being scarred and being in darkness was the greatest gift you ever gave me. It showed me how you love, how you heal and how the world needs to know this more than anything. You are the only one who can fix us. You are our living hope. As I struggle on the battlefield, wounded and exhausted, I will remember who you are and what you have done for us. You fight beside us and you win. You are my refuge and I am furiously loved. -------
This is the reality of our God. This is the reality of grace and you know, I’m not sure I would have been capable of writing that if it wasn’t for the acceptance and freedom I experienced with my small group. They let me talk honestly about every ‘crazy thought’ I was battling and they listened. They didn’t have that judgemental and condemning look in their eyes. They just listened to me like it was another ordinary conversation and it was the most soul-satisfying breath of fresh air.
Join me in declaring war on that voice that seeks to corrupt our identity in Christ and force us into despair and hopelessness. We cannot silence it completely without the help of God but hey, we can certainly make it considerably less easy to be heard. When that voice asks any one of us, “Where is your God?” Let us respond with these words from the book of Micah. “Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me… He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon his vindication. Then my enemy will see, and shame will cover her who said to me, “Where is the Lord your God?” (Micah, 7:8-10)
APPROACH WITH EMPATHY, NOT JUDGEMENT
After some pretty hefty research I discovered that suicide in the Bible is somewhat of a grey area. There are seven cases of suicide in the Bible. Abimelech (Judges 9:54), Samson (Judges 16:29), Saul and his armour bearer (1 Samuel 31), Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23), Zimri (1 Kings 16:18) and of course, Judas (Matthew 27:5). Apart from Samson whose death is more often considered a selfless act of sacrifice, none of these cases are looked upon favourably. Excluding Samson, these men were considered desperate and cowardly in their suicide. But let us focus here on what is most certainly not a grey area in scripture. Do not judge. You need only vaguely flick through the gospels before you encounter good old JC banging on about compassion, impartiality and understanding. Arguably, suicide is a sin. To be honest, I believe it is. However, it is not the unpardonable sin. It is sin like any other and therefore washed clean by the power of the blood of Christ. And unlike some other sins, it is painfully preventable. We have all had dark days. For some they are very dark indeed. There should be no limit to our capacity to empathise. Maybe you have never contemplated taking your own life – perhaps the mere subject is something completely alien to you (God bless you if it is! You are blessed!). But surely you know what it feels like to be low. You need only expand your perspective to have some level of understanding, obscure though the connection may be. Ultimately, only God can fully understand the inner workings of our complex emotional spectrum. We see this everywhere in scripture (Exhibit A: Psalm 139).
Come to me for understanding since I know you far better than you know yourself. I comprehend you in all your complexity; no detail of your life is hidden from me. I view you through eyes of grace, so don’t be afraid of my intimate awareness. Allow the light of my healing presence to shine in the deepest recesses of your being – cleansing, healing, refreshing and renewing you… When no one else seems to understand you, simply draw closer to me. Rejoice in the one who understands you completely and loves you perfectly. As I fill you with my love, you become a reservoir of love, overflowing into the lives of other people.
We may not be able to speak to someone as deeply as Jesus can. We cannot restore the soul. We are not even asked to, it is not our responsibility and far beyond our capabilities. But like I’ve already said, we are expected to be witnesses. We are expected to demonstrate God’s capabilities. Consider this cry from Psalm 88 for a moment. “I am shut in so that I cannot escape; my eye grows dim through sorrow. Everyday I call upon you, O Lord; I spread out my hands to you. Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you? Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?” (Psalm 88:8-12)
And what is the answer to all these questions? Yes, of course. Yes! That’s what we believe, right? Yes! And do we as Christians demonstrate this? Do we demonstrate it in our approach to mental illness? I’m not so sure.
We cannot help to gather God’s lost sheep if we are not willing to go out into those places where they are lost. We cannot claim to carry Jesus’ gift of hope when those who need it so desperately do not know they can have it too. Are God’s wonders known in the darkness? Yes, in a select few chosen ‘areas of darkness’ - those less ambiguous territories where we are more confident to enter and proclaim the gift of hope. But darkness comes in various shades just as evil comes in many disguises. And we have to be the light in ALL shades of darkness and the good amongst ALL forms of evil.
This past year has been a tough year for me where I have revisited many places of darkness and hopelessness. I still think about suicide. Quite often actually. But please, please, do not confuse ‘think about’ with ‘contemplate’. They have completely different definitions. All contemplation remains back in that Keynes bedroom with my old identity that I am no longer familiar with. To be brutally honest, I sometimes think my habitual ‘thinking about suicide’ is quite simply an issue with ‘novelty.’ To some people, things like sex and drugs are a tremendously ‘big deal’. Why? Because they haven’t experienced it. It’s new. It’s unknown territory. It’s almost a bit shocking. I am not one of those people. Unfortunately I have extensive experience in both fields. On the other hand, some people consider sex and drugs an ordinary part of everyday life. In this sense, for me, suicide is kind-of ‘normal’. There is no novelty to it so it doesn’t seem unnatural to me to think about it occasionally. For several years of my life, self-harm and overdosing were legitimate and fairly standard courses of action when I was feeling low. I look forward to the day when it’s not such a recurrence in my thought pattern and I have faith that God will remove this as a ‘potential option’ (although one I never consider, you understand). However, it is all very different to how it was before.
A few months ago, my friends and I took a trip to Dover to celebrate finishing our degrees. I had said I didn’t know why but I had wanted to hike up the White Cliffs. I think I know at least a part of that reason now. Like I said, it had been a tough year where I was ‘thinking about’ suicide more often than usual (NOT contemplating). As I stood on top of those cliffs, staring out at that incredible view of the Channel on a gloriously sunny day, surrounded by friends whom I love dearly and I know love me too – I had a wonderful revelation. I sheepishly approached the edge, peered down at the white chalk, glancing down at the sea below and… I… Almost… Pooed… My… Pants. Again, not exactly a profound, divine whisper of God but only two words resounded in my head. "[unprintable!]"
Hahahahaha. Oh my. I’ve never been more thrilled to feel like a coward. I am so far from suicidal it is unreal. Even standing at a safe distance several paces away, my legs shook like jelly. I saw God looking at me with a faint and loving chuckle on his face. As I stood on the White Cliffs of Dover, unnecessarily fearing for my life, I realised that the curse of ambivalence had been well and truly lifted. I realised that I cared. I really, really cared. Turns out I’ve grown quite fond of living! I said earlier that when I was younger, in spite of my good days with laughter, there was something deeply embedded in me that caused me to feel permanently low. I had a deep-seated sense that something was very wrong. A hopelessness. When I became a Christian, my struggles and issues did not magically dissolve. Far from it in fact. God has moved me to face those things head on and experience trauma, both pre-existing and new. Honestly? It still hurts. Of course it does.
When I glance down at the numerous scars on my wrists and my thighs and dwell on what I have put myself through, it’s hard not to ache with it all. And of course, people stare, they make narrow-minded assumptions and sometimes they will even verbalise them quite candidly. I don’t mind if people ask me questions about it because then I can be honest with them, explain why I did it and why I don’t hide them. It can be an invitation to finally have that all important conversation. And who knows? May be they are suffering in the same way and maybe I can help. But my attitude towards these things has changed dramatically. In fact, my entire outlook on life has just… reversed. Now, in spite of my dark days - and I mean really dark days - days that have even caused me to do things of a ‘self-harmy’ nature (totally legit adjective) There is something deeply embedded in me which keeps me permanently positive. A deep-seated sense that, actually, it’s all going to be alright. A hopefulness. And that my friends, is Jesus.
So concludes the profound cry for help that is Psalm 42. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God. For I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” Struggles with suicidal tendencies may have robbed me of my appreciation for certain amusing animated children’s films and the musical genius of Bon Iver, but it did not rob me of my life. It did not rob me of hope. And what of the Bottomless Pit? How do we escape it?
Self-pity is a slimy, bottomless pit. Once you fall in, you tend to go deeper and deeper into the mire. As you slide down those slippery walls, you are well on your way to depression, and the darkness is profound. Your only hope is to look up and see the light of my presence shining down on you. Though the light looks dim from your perspective, deep in the pit, those rays of hope can reach you at any depth. While you focus on me in trust, you rise ever so slowly out of the abyss of despair. Finally, you can reach up and grasp my hand. I will pull you out into the light again. I will gently cleanse you, washing off the clinging mire. I will cover you with my righteousness and walk with you down the path of life.
Thank you for reading. I pray that these words have touched you in some way. I love you and God bless you.