Just a heads up, this article is going to be heading into some ‘heavy feelings’ territory.
My girlfriend and I have a strange new nightly ritual.
She’ll close her eyes and sing a little song, while I retrieve her sleeping pills from the latest hiding place. Then I hand one to her and hide the rest.
The songs are usually pretty good — she’s a singer after all. Over a borrowed pop song melody, her made-up lyrics will riff on the weirdness of the situation:
My boyfriend is fetching the sleeping pills,
I’m not allowed to keep.
‘Cos I may be suicidal,
but a girl’s still gotta sleep.
You see, three months ago she told me she was afraid she might try to kill herself.
We were standing on the nature strip outside her house. I’d been loading the car, about to head to work.
As she said the words, I noticed the passers-by on their morning commute, stepping politely around the couple engaged in a deep, tearful conversation. I remember thinking, “Gosh it’s a sunny day, isn’t this strange?”
Her confession wasn’t a complete shock. I’d known things hadn’t been great for her for some time.
I even knew she’d been thinking about her own death — in an abstract way.
When we first got together, we’d bonded over the fact we had both spent time in the darker parts of our minds. When she mentioned abstract thoughts of death, I thought, “Oh, she’s in the hard place. I’ll be here for her while she works it through.”
But that day on the nature strip she gave me new information. Those abstract thoughts of death? “They’re not so abstract anymore. I’m thinking about actual ways I could do it. And I’m scared.”
This is kind of what it felt like, hearing my girlfriend tell me she was suicidal.
I’d known for weeks she was struggling, and I’d been worried, but I thought I’d understood the shape of it. I thought I could see what the problem was.
There was so much I hadn’t been seeing.
And I had no idea what to do next.
‘This is on me’
This isn’t the story of how my girlfriend figured out how to live again. She tells that much better than I could.
In the months that followed, the thoughts of death didn’t stop, the cloud didn’t lift.
We asked for help, from many parts of the mental health system. We both work in this system, so we know what the options are — but that didn’t help much.
What became apparent very quickly is that of all the options — GPs, psychologists, psychiatrists, hospital — none of them had ‘the answer’. If you’re lucky what they suggest might eventually add up to the answer, but you have to do that math yourself — something which can take a lot of time, energy, and money to do.
It can be done. You can even do it alone. My girlfriend has made it through more than one suicidal crisis without me, without any supportive partner. People make it through this stuff every day. It’s just really, really hard.
Even with someone in your corner, it is very easy to feel overwhelmed, lost, and all on your own here. And as I watched my smart, resourceful, persistent girlfriend get more and more frustrated with her attempts to find something that would help, one scary thought began to work its way into my brain:
I’m all she’s got here. This is on me.
From boyfriend to carer
Three months after that nature strip conversation, things haven’t gotten any easier. Every morning at 3:00am my girlfriend wakes up, filled with terror. I tell her, “You have to wake me up, I’ll sit with you.”
So this becomes our other nightly ritual. At a party one night, a friend starts describing to me the trouble her new baby is giving her and I quietly think, “I can kind of relate?”
It’s in the little everyday decisions that I shift from partner to “carer”. “Do I skip that much-needed night out with friends? She says she’ll be fine at home alone, but what if she’s not?”
And that shift in roles doesn’t go unnoticed on her side. She stops waking me at 3:00am, because she’s tired of making me tired. She stops telling me when things are bad.
It’s over coffee with a friend that I have something of a breakthrough. I tell him how exhausted I feel, how desperate it all feels. He simply says: “It sounds like you think you’re responsible for keeping her alive.”
Honesty is harder than you think
We talk it through with our therapist.
This isn’t working. I’m paranoid she’s not telling me how bad it really is, so I’m second-guessing her, putting my life on hold.
She sees me doing that, hates feeling like a burden, and so doesn’t tell me how bad it really is.
A lovely, vicious cycle.
Where we get to is this: we still don’t know how she’ll get through this — that’s her job, and I’ll help in whatever ways I can.
Here’s what we decide.
We’ve both got to be honest. She needs to tell me when things get really scary for her, so I can do what I can to help. In turn, I need to tell her when I’m feeling worn out, so she can make other plans.
Don’t have it all figured out. This whole time I’ve been thinking, “I’m supposed to be the one who has it all figured out”. I’d started to think I really did have all the answers (because the alternative was much more frightening). But the truth is, I’ve been acting just as much on instinct and fear as she has.
My girlfriend has one particular mental health professional who always seems to make her feel worse. She’s been coming home in tears from their sessions. So I’d told her, “You shouldn’t go back there, it’s not helping”.
The thing is, my telling her that didn’t help either. She just felt more trapped. She knew that professional wasn’t helping, but she also knew she was desperate, and that starting all over again with someone new could leave her feeling even more lost.
We agree that instead of saying, “This is what’s best for you”, I could say something more honest like, “Hey, I’m scared about you going back there”.
This doesn’t fix the problem, but neither does pretending I have all the answers.
Responsibility to, not responsibility for
Having tried all the obvious options, we get creative. We spend a week at a friend’s country house. We call it a “hospiday” (a hospital holiday).
We even do a week-long course on “alternatives to suicide”. We learn how to have more present, honest conversations about the scariest things our brains can throw at us.
In some ways, this is the lesson we all have to learn to make any relationship work. You can’t control each other.
When one of you is suicidal, that lesson becomes far more urgent, and a lot harder to navigate. But we muddle through.
A few months after that day on the nature strip, things shift. Neither of us knows the exact moment when.
One day my girlfriend feels like sleeping alone at her house. She doesn’t even wake up until morning.
Not long after that, our relationship slips back into the easy rhythm we had before all this happened.
This strange and tender passage in our relationship fades from view, but it isn’t gone. It’s this profound shared history. An extraordinary time.
Graham Panther is a consultant in Australia’s mental health system. He runs The Big Feels Club, a global club for people with “big feelings”. He co-wrote No Feeling Is Final a new memoir podcast from the ABC Audio Studios about mental health, identity, and why we should stay alive.