Written in September 2022
Last week I caught up with an old friend with whom I'd lost touch over the pandemic. It turned out we had both had a hell of a lot going on in our lives, but happily we were both now in a much better place. Not having had contact for two years meant we both had the chance to reflect on that time, and see just how far we had come. It was really valuable to look back and compare the state of things now and a year or two ago because it showed just how much flux there is in life. When we're in the thick of it, we don't always appreciate our own resilience, our coping skills, or how well we've actually managed a situation, so looking back lets us see the positives and find gratitude for the things or people that have helped us get where we are.
In 2020 I broke up with a long term partner, but we co-habited for a further 9 months and remain friends to this day. In fact we both ended up moving out of the area where we'd lived on the same day in 2022, and he helped me a lot with moving heavy stuff. Being single for the first time in seven years felt right for me; I needed to have the space to work out who I am now, because in those seven years I'd developed chronic health problems and been diagnosed autistic (with self-identified ADHD and dyspraxia). Becoming the person I am took time, and it's always going to be a work in progress because people will always change.
Then, in May of 2021 my father died. He had been ill for a long time with Parkinson's, with mum caring for him to an amazingly high standard. He developed an infection, went into hospital for treatment and ended up needing further care in a nursing home. Unfortunately as he'd been immobile for so long at this point he never managed to stand or walk again and in the end he refused food, drink and medication. 6 weeks after the infection started he was dead and we were fortunate enough to spend a last day with him, and be spared potentially years of gut-wrenching experience of him being in a home, rather than at home. None of us would have coped well with that, not least dad himself.
In September of that year I experienced a huge burnout and became dangerously suicidal. I think the cumulative effect of the events of the previous year, all of which occurred during a pandemic (with the associated lockdowns, isolation, anxiety etc.) caused this burnout, aided by my alexithymia which meant I wasn't aware of how serious until it was nearly happening. In fact, the week before everything went hideously wrong, I had been saying that I was fed up with feeling suicidal all the time but me saying this didn't seem to concern anyone, so I had no way of relating to how serious things were.
It was only really the thought that I couldn't burden mum with losing a child so soon after losing her husband that got me round to her house instead of enacting the new plan I'd made. Previously, my plan had built-in “out” points; obstacles I had intentionally put into the plan to give me several opportunities to abort it, but this time my brain came up with a new, very easy and foolproof plan for suicide that gave me no chances to change my mind. That was terrifying in itself, but I managed to get myself to mum's and she took me to hospital.
I remained suicidal in varying degrees for seven months, at which point I made a deal with myself to relieve some of the crippling pressure that comes from thinking about suicide every day. I had one year to turn my life into one I could face living. If I could enjoy living it, even better, but I just had to make it bearable. Then, if I got through the next 12 months having made a genuine and concerted effort to change things, and my life was still a write off, I could end it knowing that I really had tried to improve things for myself.
Later in 2021 mum was diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent a bilateral mastectomy in February 2022, with radiotherapy in April. I'd received notice in January that I had to leave my home, and ended up moving in with her in April, so the timing meant I could take her to appointments and look after the house etc. while she recovered. She is an amazing person and I am in awe of how well she coped with everything, and continues to cope.
Now, in 2022 I am in a very different place to where I was this time last year (ok not physically, as I'm back at mum's where I spent a month after the suicide issue and where I now live) and it is because I have put the effort in to make positive changes in my life. I recognise that the major factor in me being able to do this is the support I have had from mum, in every sense of the word. She has supported me in practical and emotional ways and without her I have no doubt that although I might still be alive and coping, I would not be anywhere near the position I am currently in.
Last night I was talking about some of this with someone very close to me, and that conversation (as well as the one with my friend and with my counsellor) has helped put the last couple of years into perspective. He sent me a tongue in cheek meme about positive thinking, and said that he thinks the best way to get out of suicidally bad situations is to make a huge change, and he's exactly right. Positive thinking is most effective when you actually have something to be positive about, and it's usually the case that you need to change something to bring positive experiences into your life.
I realised that I have used this tactic a lot; if it's all gone to shit just turn your entire life upside down and see where things end up. Yes, autistic people love familiarity but when the familiar is hideous and you're on the verge of taking your own life what's the sense in maintaining a shit status quo? If we're in control of the change and it is something we want to do, we're actually very capable of making those changes. It may take us longer to overcome some obstacles, and for that change to become comfortable, but we can do it. It doesn't always have to be a complete shake up either, often just making one change enables you to make others. Joining a group, volunteering, starting to read again after a long hiatus... all these things can lead to other things.
So, although I must acknowledge the privileges I have which have enabled me to make changes, I also need to acknowledge that it is me who has done the hard work, who has made the changes, who has challenged my thoughts and who is going to ensure that the benefit of living a life I want to have touches other people in a positive way too.
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