Surviving After Suicide - Deborah Wickens' story | NELFT Talks

Surviving After Suicide - Deborah Wickens' story | NELFT Talks

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Surviving After Suicide - Deborah Wickens' story

We need to be brave enough to have the scary conversations, to tell someone we are worried about them, to ask them how they feel, to actively listen, to offer support and hope and help them reach out.

First, let me tell you about John. I met him when I was a student nurse on placement – before we’d even met, his colleagues had told me we’d be perfect for each other. A prediction I was, at first, inclined to dismiss, but thankfully they were right. John was kind, wise, caring and very funny. He was a nurse for adults with learning disabilities within the Redbridge PCT (now known as NELFT). He loved his job and everything he did at work was based around the putting the needs of his service users first. He felt a great responsibility towards them and towards the staff he managed, something that I have tried to replicate in my own career.

At home, he could cook up a mean curry (even if he did leave every dish in the house for me to wash up afterwards) and his passions were Manchester United and travelling. John was permanently exhausted from working long hours, but I will never forget him dragging me out of bed at 6am on our first day in Rome when I’d just finished a run of 5 nights in the Intensive Care Unit.

But John’s dedication to his work was also his curse. He found it very hard to switch off and his quest for perfection could exhaust him. I remember the doorbell ringing early one Sunday morning. John had been lying awake all night worrying about an upcoming CQC inspection and left the house to – well by the time he came back he didn’t know – run away, take his life, he couldn’t say.

Despite working in the health service I didn’t know what to do. I felt helpless. I called our out of hours GP service and took him to the hospital as advised. But by then he was ‘Safe’ and no longer expressing ideas of suicide, so we were sent home. For a long time after this, John remained withdrawn and lost. Then, the period of recovery began. I recall a long period of recovery, reading every book I could about depression and how I organised perfect meals and took him for long walks.  I felt helpless and hurt that I wasn’t enough for him to be happy.

Lesson: It’s hard to separate your own ego from the struggles of someone you love.

We returned to what I thought was normality for a year or so after this terrifying episode but around Christmas 2008 I was aware of the pressure building up again. John was acting up as manager at work in very difficult circumstances. His work phone never stopped ringing and staffing problems meant that he was working very long hours, at one point he worked 48 hours straight.  He was exhausted and fragile. I recall conversations where I told him I was worried, asked him to take time away from work to regroup, but his concern for those in his care took priority over that of his own health. He felt they needed him. I can remember thinking about that previous incident and worrying, ‘Could he? Would he hurt himself?’ but I was never brave enough to openly broach this with him, just to hint and skirt around the issue. Something I regret now.

On the morning of 29 December 2008, John was on an early shift. Unlike most mornings, I didn’t get up to take him to work. Another regret.

At 7am my alarm went off and as I always did, I reached for my phone to read my usual text “At work, see you later, love J xxx”. Except this time that’s not what my text said. This time it told me that he was at Stratford Underground Station, about to take his life in front of a tube train. He told me he loved me, he told me he didn’t deserve me and then he told me he was gone. I can still recite every word of that text and it still hurts each time I recall it.

There are a blur of memories after that, the shock and disbelief, the guilt, both for John and what I could have done differently for him and for all those impacted by his actions. The driver – someone I still worry about – the commuters on the train platform, John’s family, my family, his colleagues, our friends. When someone dies by suicide, the ripples roll on and on. It’s shocking and it’s violent and it opens up to those in distress that suicide is a possibility. The likelihood of dying by suicide is up to 65% higher if someone in your close circle has died in the same way (BMJ 2015).

Recovery is a long journey. I had wonderful support around me (the positive message I eventually took away was that I have the best family, the best friends & the best colleagues in the world). Despite that, I’d say it was at least 4 years until I had established a new normal with new strengths and coping strategies.  A moment that still sticks with me is being told by a well-meaning colleague a year after John had died that my grieving was “abnormal”. That hurt so much. Losing someone to suicide felt like a failure and now I was made to feel like a failure at grieving too. In fact, there is an abundance of literature acknowledging the additional challenges of grieving after a loss by suicide.  Suggestions are that 4 or 5 years is an average period, but the reality is that it’s different for everyone and, in reality, it is a pain that stays with you for the rest of your life. You never forget, nor do you want to forget. There are times when it still hits me like a sucker punch.

I remember at John’s inquest wanting to do something to make sure no one else would have to go through this earth shattering experience again. I wanted to make sure that, in my own organisation, we support our colleagues who are stressed and distressed as best as we possibly can.

I never would have chosen the life I have now. John should still be here, there’s so much I wish he could have experienced. He made my life better.

Now my focus is wider.

We need to be brave enough to have the scary conversations, to tell someone we are worried about them, to ask them how they feel, to actively listen, to offer support and hope and help them reach out.

I’m lucky to work in a Trust with a strong mental health background and we work hard on integrating mental and physical health needs. I work in physical health where I specialise in caring for patients with chronic and complex wounds. But I’ve learned to acknowledge the impact that physical health can have on mental health. I spoke with a patient just a week ago who told me of his suicidal feelings after a lower limb amputation. I sat with him and let him speak; he hadn’t wanted to scare his wife.  I listened and acknowledged his feelings and congratulated him on having the courage to express them. Then we talked about what support he had around him and where we could access support for him.  Some of that was help with his feelings and some of that was practical help so he could achieve some small goals throughout the day, including getting out of his home where he felt trapped.

Every year, on the anniversary of John’s death, I take a stroll down to the bottom of the garden where I planted a tree and laid John’s ashes. I sit down and have a chat with John about my life and how I wished he were still here with me. I never would have chosen the life I have now. John should still be here, there’s so much I wish he could have experienced. He made my life better. But I have a new ‘me’ now and I’ve been shaped by these experiences. It’s made me braver, both in taking chances to lead my best life, to travel to places, to have the adventures I wished I had had with John, but also braver when I’m with others to acknowledge and address the pain and difficulty we all face at times. Every day, I strive to be a true friend & a true professional who listens and supports emotionally and practically.

As I approach the 10 year anniversary of John’s death, I am planning a celebration of his life with a few close friends, nothing too big. I suppose the takeaway message I’d like to leave would be that, if you are struggling, please tell someone, whether it’s a friend, a sibling, a colleague or your partner. If you’re worried about someone, talk to them.  We are not alone and help is out there for those that need it. By simply taking the time to reach out to someone in need, you could make a huge difference

Thanks to Debbie for sharing her story. If you are experiencing feelings of suicide, please get in touch with the NELFT Mental Health Direct team on 0300 555 1000 (24 hours a day). You can also contact your local Samaritans centre on 116 123

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