About 5 years ago I was at the local pub on Christmas Eve, a tradition that always confused me because the entire town felt under the weather on Christmas Day when they should have been excited that Santa had come. I had joined in on the festivities, but I didn't want to be a late addition to the Naughty List, so I decided to head home early. As I was leaving a boy tapped me on the shoulder.
Exactly a year earlier I saw this boy at the very same pub. He was in the grade below me at primary school, so I recognised him but I didn't know his name. We did the awkward head nod of acknowledgement and went about our nights. We then ran into each other continuously over the next few weeks. I found it strange that someone I hadn't seen for over a decade was suddenly popping up everywhere, from the shopping centre, to the local cafe, to the pharmacy. It was around the 8th time (after the 8th awkward head nod) that I said what we were both thinking:
"Are you stalking me?"
He laughed and confessed he was going to ask me the same question. Exactly what a true stalker would say! I was suspicious. We asked each other the usual catch up questions, and then I told him I had to leave to feed my horses. His eyes lit up. Most people who find out I have horses ask if they can come to see them, and he was no exception.
I received daily messages from him asking to visit the horses. They were only 5 minutes up the road and I was feeding them every day twice a day, but I always seemed to be in a rush, and I must confess, I felt slightly uncomfortable spending the afternoon with someone who was practically a stranger and who 3% of me suspected to be a stalker.
Finally I agreed. On the drive to the property he confessed that he was terrified of horses - and this was no lie. My miniature pony only came up to this 6"1 boy's knee, but that didn't stop him from trembling. When my normal sized horse walked up to him I thought he was going to pass out.
He settled into the experience and we spent the afternoon brushing the the horses and talking about life - it is easy to open up when you're surrounded by such peaceful creatures. I told him about my dreams for my horses to help people going through a hard time, and he told me about his hard times - relationship issues, stress from studying... typical 21 year old problems.
He continued to message me over the next few months asking to visit the horses, but I was always in a rush, or didn't feel like talking to anyone after a long day at uni or work. I never ended up taking him for another visit, and eventually he stopped asking.
Flash forward to me leaving the pub on Christmas Eve and it was this boy who tapped me on the shoulder. He said he wouldn't keep me long, but that he wanted to say thank you. I was confused. He had already thanked me for that afternoon we spent with the horses, and I hadn't done anything else for him to be thankful for.
He told me that he was planning on killing himself that week.
He told me that knowing he could meet the horses gave him a reason to wait.
He told me that the time he spent with the horses gave him hope.
He thanked me for talking to him that afternoon.
And he told me I saved his life.
Most people would feel relieved, or happy, or proud to hear what he said, but I was completely consumed with guilt and shame.
I felt awful that I had never taken him back to the stables. I was ashamed that if it wasn't for him being so persistent, I probably wouldn't have taken him there in the first place. My stomach turned at the thought that I never checked in with him after he told me that he was having a hard time. Taking him to the horses was an effort for me, but for him it was everything. Actually everything. In my mind he had nothing to thank me for. He had everything to thank my horses for.
In the presence of his pain, the horses stood with him, with no judgement, in no rush, and with no awkwardness or agenda. He wasn't getting in their way, or stealing their time, or making them feel uncomfortable. They would have given him all the time in the world with no complaint. They would have greeted him when he returned with a welcome nicker.
I went home that Christmas Eve feeling like I belonged on the Naughty List. I was hard on myself for not picking up the warning signs, and for not spending more time outside of my own selfishness. I saw his problems as generic, but they were insurmountable to him. I wondered how much more severe my guilt and shame would have been had he have taken his life. I was lucky I didn't have to live the reality of that thought, but some others are not so lucky.
I made many promises to myself that night. One of them was that I would always have the warning signs in the back of my mind, that I would never be afraid to ask the question, and that I would know exactly what to do. I ask you to make those same promises to yourself.
When someone you know attempts or commits suicide it is not unusual to carry guilt and shame, to wonder if you could have done more, or if you handled the situation the best you could. Sometimes we miss the signs. Sometimes we don't. When we do see them it is normal for panic to set in, it is normal for your mind to go into a spin, it is normal to not know exactly what to do. So here is what you need to know:
The Warning Signs (Courtesy of Beyond Blue):
What do we do when someone is displaying the signs?
1. Let the person know you are concerned
People need to know that there are others who care about them. Don't feel awkward to tell someone how concerned you are and how much you value their life.
2. Ask them if they are having suicidal thoughts
Some people worry that asking this question will increase the chances of the person committing suicide... it won't. Asking shows that you care and it gives them a chance to talk about their feelings. Be direct and unambiguous by saying: "Are you thinking about suicide?".
3. Ask them if they have made any plans
If they answer "yes", do not leave them alone. Ask them if they have a time, place or method? If they do, check if they have the means to carry out the plan. Remove access to objects that they can use to hurt themselves.
4, Take action immediately
Tell them there are options other than suicide and that help is available.
Call 000 or Lifeline on 13 11 14 if their life is in danger.
Inform the authorities that the person is suicidal, that they have a plan, and that you fear for their safety.
5. Encourage them to get professional help
If the person tells you that they don't have a plan and are not going to act on the suicidal thoughts, make an appointment with the GP, counsellor, psychologist, or employee assistance program. Contact a family member or friend immediately. Contact lifeline on 13 11 14. Support is essential for someone contemplating suicide.
6. Look after yourself
It can be emotionally taxing to support someone who is suicidal. Seek counselling or find someone you trust to talk to about your experiences once you have dealt with the situation appropriately.
If you are reading this and you are having suicide thoughts, remember that there is hope, you are here for a reason, and support is available.
Lifeline - 13 11 14
Kids Helpline - 1800 55 1800
Suicide Callback Service - 1300 659 437
Call 000 for emergency medical or police attendance
Get Help from HEAL Psychology - 0420 990 234
Samantha Tassini, Psychologist and Founder of HEAL Psychology shares her experience as a therapist and in helping people heal with horses.