It’s time to talk, but what if you can’t? The silent crisis

Written: February 5, 2020

In depressive episodes, I often experience such profound exhaustion that being with other people becomes impossible.  Talking depletes my minimal reserves of energy even more. Thinking with any form of clarity is hard enough. Even texting or emailing requires thought, and huge effort.

All I can do is to retreat to the safe haven of my home. I rest. I try to eat comforting food. I try to sleep as much as I can.  I watch episodes of “Friends”. I practise self-care.

It is the opposite of what we are encouraged to do, though. We are, quite rightly, encouraged to talk and seek help. Self-isolating can be extremely risky, particularly if you are having suicidal thoughts.

For those of us who find solace in retreat, it’s important to find some way to stay connected to people and to the world. Connection becomes of paramount importance.

During a depressive episode last year, a close friend used to text me three times a day. I never replied.  Afterwards he told me: “I had no idea if my texts were helpful or not. I just couldn’t bear the thought that you might feel alone or that no one cared.”

I told him that the accumulative effect of the texts had been profound. I did not recognise at the time that the short messages were having any effect. It was only afterwards that I realised the impact – the regular texts had made me aware that someone was always with me.

We see this with clients at our Suicide Crisis Centre, too. We build a strong connection with them through our face to face contact with them. So when they are retreating from us, at a time when they are at risk of suicide, our text messages can have a significant impact. We are often told afterwards “It made such a difference just knowing that you were there”.

I always encourage people to keep texting or emailing a silent friend or loved one.  It is very likely to have an impact, despite their ongoing silence.

Friends sometimes smile at my continued love of the sitcom of the same name. But isn’t that a way of keeping connected, too? On some level, I think it probably reminds me of my university days, surrounded by friends, enjoying laughter and good times. During the depressive episode last year, my friend used to watch repeat episodes at the weekend, hoping that I was watching them, too. It was another way in which he kept “connected” with me.

If the person in silent crisis can tolerate having other people around them, your silent presence can have a powerful effect. Just being there can be enough. It communicates so much – that you care and you are there for them.

In the depths of my crisis, I recall wanting to reach out and phone someone – just to feel another presence, but not to talk. The prospect of having to talk prevented me from making that call.

If someone phones our Suicide Crisis Centre but doesn’t speak, I always remain on the line. It may be twenty minutes or so before the person can speak. During that long period of silence, I will say a few words from time to time, to reassure them that I am still there, and will remain there. They often tell us afterwards that other crisis services terminated the call quite quickly. Perhaps they assumed there was a fault on the line, or that it was a hoax call.  

It is so important that crisis services and telephone helpline staff give time to a silent caller. Perhaps many of them are so under pressure that they feel they cannot spend the time waiting for the person to speak. It may, after all, be a fault on the line.

Perhaps those of us who experience silent crises need a simple code word or phrase that would alert services that we are seeking help, but we cannot find the words to express that. We simply need them to be there with us.   

I hope that if I experience such a silent crisis again that I will make that call, and find the words to say: “I can’t talk. Please just be there”.

Joy Hibbins is the founder and CEO of Suicide Crisis, a charity which runs a Suicide Crisis Centre :

Author of “Suicide Prevention Techniques: How A Suicide Crisis Service Saves Lives:

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