‘Getting Help Is Necessary and Does Not Make You Weak’
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 oicial 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 diicult 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!’ ■