Last year, my dog, Haylie, was diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma. I was told she needed to start chemotherapy or she had less than a month to live. When facing the possibility of losing her for the first time in 12 years, my response was: I want to go with her. I wasn’t in the best place with my depression at the time, this dog is my world, and she had been the reason I’d chosen to live during suicidal periods in the past, so it wasn’t entirely a surprise to my treatment team. They knew how to handle it and got me through it safely.
Haylie completed chemotherapy two months ago. In the time between her diagnosis and her completion of chemo, I did a lot of work both on my own and with my therapist to identify other reasons to live outside of her and to make a few positive, exciting, purposeful changes in my life that would encourage me to continue living when the time comes that I lose her.
This week, Haylie began acting very sick; very lethargic with rough, heavy, forced breathing, not eating or drinking water. I took her to the emergency vet and was horrified to find out her airway was closing up. They hospitalized and intubated her and it once again looked like I was about to lose the one being that had been a constant in my life for more than a decade. My thoughts immediately became: I just want to go with her.
This was devastating to me. And terrifying. And frustrating. I had worked so hard to bring myself to a place where I had a life I felt was worth living outside of her; and it all fell away when faced with her loss.
The first and most important thing to focus on in a situation where suicidal ideation surprises you is making sure you’re safe. Be around someone else if you can, you don’t even have to share what you’re feeling, but being around someone else can serve as a buffer. If you can’t make sure you can stay safe, please reach out for help by calling 911.
Next, someone in my support system reminded me of the second most important thing when suicidal ideation surprises you: remind yourself they are only thoughts. They are a response to the situation you’re in, and they do not have to become actions. You get to make that choice. You are in control.
The third most important thing once you decide you can stay safe, is getting in contact with your clinician immediately, whether that be your therapist, psychiatrist, or someone else you trust with your mental health like your primary care provider. Make an appointment to address these thoughts and what triggered them as soon as possible.
Fourth, use your coping skills. This can look like taking a walk, journaling, calling a friend, sensory therapy by playing with slime or Play-Doh, reading, taking a hot bath, talking to a parent, cooking a meal you love, meditating, or any other number of distractions that can redirect your thinking and help you care for yourself and show some self-compassion.
Lastly, lean on your support. Share your thoughts with someone you trust and with your clinician so they can appropriately support you and help you with ways to move through your feelings and get to the other side safely. Triggering events are exactly that — an event, meaning there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you put effort into working through these feelings, they will also have a beginning, middle, and an end, and don’t have to indicate a spiral.
It can be scary when suicidal ideation surprises you out of nowhere, especially when you haven’t had those type of thoughts in quite some time. Taking good care of yourself using your coping skills through processing those thoughts with those you trust will help you on the path to uncovering where they came from and how to address them.
As always, ensuring you are safe is the most important piece of mental health. If you cannot stay safe, please reach out for help by calling 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255.