Suicide and Self-harm: What’s so terrible about looking for attention?

Wanna hear a story?

This time two years ago- give or take a week or two- I couldn’t take it anymore. I gave up. I phoned in sick, went to the doctor, and left with a diagnosis of depression and anxiety, a prescription, and a note saying I’d be unable to work for a while.

I’ve had better days.

It was, hands-down, one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. I had no idea how I’d pay the rent. I felt like a fraud, a whiny-ass white girl with a couple of college degrees who couldn’t cope with a perfectly acceptable life. When I walked into that doctor’s office, I knew that he’d tell me to suck it up and deal. When that didn’t happen.. well, I had some feelings about that.

I wouldn’t have been able to do any of it without friends who had my back.

You see, a week before that day I knew that things were getting rough. Rougher. There were a lot of things I found almost impossible to cope with at the time. Stuff that I’d take in stride now, but that felt monstrous from inside the jerkbrain that had taken over me. Going to work. Eating. Sleeping. Some more serious things- a member of my extended family was sick and not getting better.

When I couldn’t cope- a week before the day when I really couldn’t cope- I called my friends. My Team Me. I told them how I was feeling and asked, if they wouldn’t mind, could people.. stay with me, that week? And they did. The same afternoon? They split the week between them with everyone taking a day or two, and a couple of hours after I got up the courage to send that first message to them (no easy task, that), the first of my incredible relay team was at my door.

I have some wonderful friends.

This meant a lot of things. One of those things was that, a week later when I finally couldn’t take it anymore, I wasn’t alone. I woke up that morning after a couple of hours of fitful sleep, full of a deep sense of dread, terror, panic. I was brushing my teeth when I cracked. And my friend was in the spare room. He woke up when I knocked on the door and it was when he hugged me that I really started to cry. When I said that I just couldn’t cope anymore, he told me that that was okay. It was okay to give up sometimes. I’d be okay.

My friends were waiting for me when I got home from the doctor that afternoon. I remember sitting on the sofa between the two of them, listening to them talk about video games, feeling safe for the first time in too long.

On the day that I couldn’t cope anymore, the attention of the people I loved kept me going.

She Was Just Doing It For Attention

Since the tragic, premature death of Robin Williams, everyone’s talking about mental health and illness. Williams was a brilliant man, who lived with a bipolar disorder that would fuel his creativity and, eventually, kill him. Or so it seems- I didn’t know him and I’m not his doctor or his therapist.

But one thing I’ve been hearing a lot is this: mental illness isn’t just something people fake for the attention, and neither is (attempted) suicide. It’s real problems, real diseases. I want to say that mental illness is something very real, and that people who are sick- just like healthy people- often do things for attention. And that is okay.

In case you haven’t noticed, humans are a social species. The vast majority of us need other people to keep us feeling.. whole. Loneliness hurts, even when we’re entirely healthy. When we’re not- when we’re ill, or our lives are more difficult- then loneliness can eat you up.

And when we’re ill- especially if that illness comes from inside our brains- and vulnerable, then sometimes we’re unable to simply use our words and ask for the help and company we need. I was lucky two years ago- I had both the self-awareness and the experience of using my words, as well as friends who I knew would respond well to that. It turns out, though, that mental illness doesn’t wait around for you to learn how to describe what you need before it gets to you. Jerkbrains aren’t polite. They show up when they damn well please, break into your house and shit all over your nice sofa before you’ve even had a chance to make your morning coffee.

Sometimes people who are sick- or people who are vulnerable or traumatised or even just plain lonely- do fucked-up, self-destructive things. Sometimes those things are a cry for help or for attention.

I figure, if someone’s sick or lonely or vulnerable or traumatised enough to be willing to harm themselves (or risk killing themselves) for the possibility of some help or attention? We might want to do something other than mock them for that. Maybe we should start paying attention.

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Suicide and Self-harm: What’s so terrible about looking for attention?
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11 thoughts on “Suicide and Self-harm: What’s so terrible about looking for attention?

  1. 1

    Aoife, thank you for speaking out. My respect to your friends too. Attention is a basic human need. Not all “crazy” behavior is a call for attention, but when it is, it should be respected and not trivialized.

  2. 2

    The really sad, and scary, thing about Robin is that he had access to all the tools. He was wealthy, so doctor bills weren’t a problem. He wasn’t alone in the world, his wife was in the house, he had three children who apparently had a good relationship with him. He was one of the most loved people in the Bay Area, so he could have filled his house with friends at almost a moment’s notice; and he wasn’t embarrassed about getting therapy, he spoke publicly about his adventures in rehab quite often. So if someone with all the resources in the world still can’t cobble together a plan to stay alive, that makes it all the more scary to think of all the people struggling with money, or who have difficulty with relationships, or who feel ashamed to ask for help.

    1. 2.1

      I think part of the issue with him, as I understand it, was he also had serious health problems of some sort, and wasn’t terribly long for this world in any case. Part of his thinking may have been “I want to go in my own time and on my own terms, rather than just withering away”.

  3. 6

    It seems relevant to me that you live in Ireland, where you have universal health care, rather than the US, where we can’t even get the weak tea basics of broadly-available health care right.

  4. 7

    Good afternoon Aoife,

    You have good friends.

    I’m an educator who works with students dealing with a variety of brain diseases. I use that term, rather than the more common, mental illness because too many people want to separate people suffering from depression, mania, alcoholism, schizophrenia, &c. from those with liver cancer, heart disease, &c. No one asks a person with liver cancer to just suck it up, but our society too regularly asks a person suffering from depression to do just that.

    I do my best to educate people that the brain is just another organ like all the rest and that there are diseases specific to that organ that we can do our best to address, treat and sometimes cure.

    Do all you can to make today a better day,

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  5. 8

    I’ve been struggling to say something about this post since it went up. I hits very close to home, and at a time when I’m struggling with these issues yet, a fucking, again.

    My depression, that lying bastard part of my brain, came very close to killing me. This was many years ago, and in the subsequent time I’ve realised that my suicide attempt was indeed a classic cry for help.

    “I tried to kill myself last night.”

    Those were the first words I had ever spoke to my mother about how much I’d been suffering. I couldn’t speak about it, I couldn’t add to the burdens she was already carrying. I would not be the weight that sank her. But then the knife broke my skin, a sudden painful pop that shattered my lack of affect. I saw a gory vision of my mother, sobbing, on her hands and knees sopping up my blood with a tea-towel. And I realised that speaking was the lesser burden.

    It was a near thing, but I got help. I survived and since then the nadir of my moods hasn’t quite reached the same depths. Practice make perfect I guess.

    But these last few days I’ve been reading a book in which the main character is in deep, deep trouble. He as a whole team of people trying to help him from afar. I’ve been crying my way through it. At first I couldn’t figure out why. The book is good, the writing tight and compelling, but what should have been tense, nervous excitement at the protagonist’s dilemmas was causing me out of proportion grief.

    And then I realised: there will never be anyone to rescue me, I am on my own.

    I’ve chosen to surround myself with people who don’t understand depression. They can’t understand it, never having experienced it. For example, I fell in love with my wife in part because of that lack of understanding, crazy as that might seem. She is solid and stable and almost unnaturally steady in her emotions. Even if something horrific happened to me, I know beyond any doubt that she will get through it okay. There’s a comfort in that.

    But it also means that I’ve given up trying to talk about how I feel. It’s not that she doesn’t care, far from it, but the gulf between our emotional experience of the world has proven to be uncrossable. And do you know what? I’m glad of it. I wouldn’t wish depression on anyone, least of all those who mean the most to me in all the world.

    Fuck. I thought I had a point when I started this.

    Maybe it’s this:

    To those who don’t understand what it’s like to see the world filtered through the not-so-fun-house mirror of depression, this is as true a statement about it as I’ve ever read:

    I figure, if someone’s sick or lonely or vulnerable or traumatised enough to be willing to harm themselves (or risk killing themselves) for the possibility of some help or attention? We might want to do something other than mock them for that. Maybe we should start paying attention.

    Thank you Aoife

  6. 9

    […] “Sometimes people who are sick- or people who are vulnerable or traumatised or even just plain lonely- do fucked-up, self-destructive things. Sometimes those things are a cry for help or for attention. I figure, if someone’s sick or lonely or vulnerable or traumatised enough to be willing to harm themselves (or risk killing themselves) for the possibility of some help or attention? We might want to do something other than mock them for that. Maybe we should start paying attention.” Suicide and Self-harm: What’s so terrible about looking for attention? – Consider the Te… […]

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