‘Get­ting Help Is Nec­es­sary and Does Not Make You Weak’

Cosmopolitan (South Africa) - - REPORT -

Twen­tytwo-year-old pho­tog­ra­pher and UCT grad­u­ate Alix Hodge has strug­gled with men­tal health her whole life, but has only re­cently learnt how to re­claim her life. ‘My oicial di­ag­no­sis is long-term de­pres­sion with mild Asperger’s (that went un­di­ag­nosed un­til my late teens), also pre­sent­ing with manic ten­den­cies and acute PTSD,’ she says. ‘It sounds aw­ful writ­ten down like that, but it’s ac­tu­ally very help­ful to have la­bels be­cause they make things more man­age­able.

‘Some break­downs are very diicult to re­mem­ber. The episode that led to my most se­ri­ous sui­cide at­tempt, which landed me in the ER, was one of those times. My god­fa­ther had died, I had moved schools and was strug­gling to make friends, I’d ex­pe­ri­enced my †irst heart­break, and I heard a ru­mour that a boy who

I had been in a psy­chi­atric clinic with had killed him­self. It was an over­whelm­ing time. I re­mem­ber think­ing, “Fi­nally, a good-enough rea­son to die” – as if sui­cide be­fore this wasn’t an op­tion be­cause I had no “right” to do it.

‘Dy­ing at that point in my life seemed to make sense. This hap­pened six years ago, and I can ret­ro­spec­tively ac­knowl­edge the ma­jor rea­sons that lead to me over­dos­ing. But what I re­mem­ber is the relief: enough aw­ful things had hap­pened to war­rant my own death.

Spi­ralling out of con­trol

‘My child­hood was a very dif­fi­cult time for me. In high school, bul­ly­ing, school pres­sure and fam­ily is­sues made me feel de­pressed, and I of­ten had sui­ci­dal thoughts. I felt ter­ri­bly lonely. I be­came self-de­struc­tive, de­vel­oped an eat­ing dis­or­der and harmed my­self.

‘Dur­ing this dark time, one per­son who re­ally sup­ported me was my god­fa­ther. He en­cour­aged me to write and ex­press my­self through fic­tional sto­ries – and this prob­a­bly saved my life. It was the only thing I could do to con­trol my thoughts in a healthy way.

How to move for­ward

‘My sui­cide at­tempt still haunts me, and it has per­ma­nently af­fected my mind and my body. But it did teach me some­thing very im­por­tant about sui­cide it­self: it’s never a quick de­ci­sion. It’s a process and, I be­lieve, some­thing that’s pre­ventable. What I have learnt, and had to learn in or­der to sur­vive, is to ask for sup­port and to fo­cus on healthy mech­a­nisms to cope. For me, th­ese in­clude writ­ing, film­ing and art.

‘Many peo­ple think an at­tempted sui­cide will be a turn­ing point – that it will lead to self-im­prove­ment. This is not al­ways the case, and wasn’t for me. Af­ter some­one has at­tempted sui­cide, they need time to heal. Sup­port, com­pas­sion and pa­tience are es­sen­tial to help a per­son move for­ward.

‘Af­ter a sui­cide at­tempt, peo­ple are of­ten made to feel guilty and ashamed. Those close to you may say things such as, “How could you do this to me?”, “Can you imag­ine how scary it is for us?” and “It’s the easy way out, how could you be so self­ish?” As a sur­vivor, I can tell you I felt guilty enough. We do not need loved ones, who of­ten speak from a place of fear rather than mal­ice, to make us feel bad about our­selves.

‘There is also a lack of un­der­stand­ing about psy­chi­atric med­i­ca­tion, and it’s of­ten as­sumed that it will “change your brain”. That is the point, though – my brain doesn’t pro­duce the right chem­i­cals to keep me sta­ble, and I need a mix of an­tide­pres­sants and mood sta­bilis­ers to func­tion in a healthy way. Med­i­ca­tion changed my life and makes it more man­age­able. Find­ing the right com­bi­na­tion of meds can take a long time. Some types of med­i­ca­tion may not suit you, and that’s okay. It’s a process, and it may take months to find some­thing that works for you.

Learn­ing to heal

‘I still go through bad patches, and some­times be­come dis­tant or lash out at oth­ers. My fam­ily and friends have had to learn to un­der­stand that al­ways be­ing present can take up too much en­ergy when I’m bat­tling with neg­a­tive thoughts. What helps me to get out of th­ese slumps are my loved ones. They’re re­cep­tive; they lis­ten and they of­fer ad­vice. Some­thing as small as spend­ing time with you when you can’t get out of bed can make a huge dif­fer­ence.

‘My psy­chol­o­gist has been a huge sup­port to me. In­stead of try­ing to rely on my fam­ily and friends to be my ther­a­pists (which isn’t fair – they can be un­der­stand­ing and sup­port­ive, but they’re not pro­fes­sion­als), I had some­one to help me deal with my trauma and find ways of cop­ing. I’m still work­ing on heal­ing my­self, and hav­ing th­ese sup­port struc­tures makes it eas­ier to cope with life.

‘Af­ter I at­tempted sui­cide, I was made to feel ashamed by the doc­tor who ad­mit­ted me to the emer­gency room, as well as the nurses – they called me self­ish be­cause there were peo­ple in the hos­pi­tal who were “re­ally sick”. This is not okay – men­tal ill­nesses should be taken se­ri­ously.

‘I hope my story will help sur­vivors to reach out for sup­port. I find it cathar­tic to talk about my ex­pe­ri­ence. Af­ter my sui­cide at­tempt, I was en­cour­aged not to speak about it to any­one. Now I see how dan­ger­ous that is – you won’t be able to move for­ward if you don’t ex­press your feel­ings.

‘I want to lift some of the shame as­so­ci­ated with sui­cide – of­ten peo­ple are un­sym­pa­thetic and tend to judge you with­out fully un­der­stand­ing the sit­u­a­tion. This needs to stop.

A sup­port struc­ture is es­sen­tial

‘For many peo­ple who suf­fer from men­tal-health is­sues, ac­cess­ing care is a huge prob­lem. Psy­chother­apy can be very ex­pen­sive, but there are af­ford­able ways you can get sup­port. There are many lo­cal or­gan­i­sa­tions that of­fer ad­vice, such as the South African De­pres­sion and Anx­i­ety Group – and NGOs such as Hope House Coun­selling Cen­tre in Cape Town will help you to find af­ford­able, long-term help.

‘You can’t heal on your own. Speak­ing openly about what hap­pened has al­lowed me to reach out to oth­ers who are suf­fer­ing or have sur­vived a sui­cide at­tempt. Get­ting help is nec­es­sary and does not make you weak – it shows strength!

There’s al­ways hope

‘I’m ex­cited to make films and write screen­plays that fo­cus on men­tal­health is­sues in South Africa. At the mo­ment, I’m writ­ing my th­e­sis – and I also write my own sto­ries. I’m de­ter­mined and am­bi­tious, and I want to be suc­cess­ful.

‘I take things one day at a time, be­cause I can’t plan too far ahead. I have to be very care­ful not to slip into de­pres­sive episodes, but I’m ex­cited about my fu­ture. I’ve lost friends through sui­cide, and

I of­ten think about how lucky I am to have found sup­port, through my friends, my fam­ily and ther­apy.

I used to think that sui­cide was the only op­tion, but there is al­ways help – you just need to know where to find it. Be kind to your­self and reach out for sup­port be­cause you de­serve to live!’ ■

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