Through the Valley

Three years ago, a friend whose brother had recently attempted suicide shared this thought:

We can heal [our relatives and friends] by healing our relationship to suicide and other sensitive topics. Our dialog within and among ourselves is transforming the world around us, one heartbeat at a time with courage to face topics like this, openness to those in need, addressing areas in our lives before we are in crisis…

What does your self care look like? What emergency plans do you have in place? Who can you call upon in desperate times? What resources can you draw upon? What actions walk you away from the cliff edge?

I still resonate with these thoughts and questions about self-care during and after desperation, and “addressing areas in our lives before we are in crisis.” That “before” is like the prevention and mitigation part of an emergency plan. So many of us go through and struggle to survive emergencies before we start building our ability to absorb shocks and adapt in a healthy way.

I grew up with two young men, one at church and one from school, who committed suicide before they were 21 years old. Over the last few years, the US news media cycles through stories about children and teens who become so desperate that they feel the only way to redeem their life is to end it. Certain demographics are particularly vulnerable to suicide, and I’ve heard many more stories of attempts and deaths since getting involved with social justice communities.

But you don’t have to be a deep backstory for severe depression to enter your life. Anyone who comes to feel deeply isolated, oppressed, abandoned, and option-less might seek relief or release. Beyond life circumstances, drug use and a range of psychoses can also artificially narrow people’s awareness of what’s possible, how likely it is that they or their circumstances will improve, or the networks of support that could walk with them.

I’m glad that my friend’s family chose to ask questions about suicide, self-care, and how they could support their brother and son; they could have hidden in embarrassment or withdrawn in fear, but chose instead to stay open to him and to supporting him. Any family that’s able to do this is remarkable and a solid treasure in the lives of their relatives.

There are three pragmatic activities that have helped me and others pass through the kinds of experiences that can precipitate youth and young adults’ suicide attempts. They aren’t the extent of self-care and don’t resolve deep traumas, but they have helped us.

Observe the ESS Rule: Eat, Sleep, and Shower

Photo of Scandal's Guillermo Diaz as Huck (ABC)

Scandal’s Huck (Guillermo Diaz) responds to trauma by shutting down his self-care routine. (ABC)

For most of my time in the United States, self-care hasn’t been optional. In my first town, I lived far from blood relatives and also lived alone, so if I didn’t cook or buy food, there’d be no dinner. I took care of my basic physical needs because if I didn’t, there was no one else in the house to do it for me and if I’d crashed there would’ve been no safety net.

About three years ago, I realized that my taking care of stuff like tasty food, proper sleep, and the odd extra like nice-smelling shower salts had more benefits than keeping me in a steady routine or making my interactions with others more comfortable for everyone. The Eat-Sleep-Shower process also helped me to feel more present and “in my body” rather than distancing or in observer mode. Because these practices helped to keep me present, I was more tied to Earth and my life here and I didn’t feel like I needed to avoid or escape the life I had.

Although I’ve never felt suicidal, I have noticed that when basics like adequate sleep get rushed off my daily, it becomes progressively easier for me to float through life or dissociate from my relationships. Friends who have experienced severe depression tell me that Eat-Sleep-Shower practices help to ground them too, even though they also require effort upfront.

Beyond the Basics, Nourish Yourself

So let’s say you’re just starting to feel squeezed. Or perhaps squeezing is well underway and you’re in its tight grip. What if you could pick one thing per week beyond the basics that nourished you? Just one thing?

I’m feeling extra nourished today because I was able to eat lunch at home with my favorite person. Our meal included a spinach-baby kale salad with bell peppers and cucumbers; giant olives; fresh French bread smeared with artichoke bruschetta and soft garlic cheese; and a slice of lemon pound cake from a coffee shop that doesn’t pay me to advertise it here.

Sometimes a tasty meal is all it takes; sometimes your company is the special factor. Nourishment might be a visit to a favorite site outdoors. Could be a sensory or physical activity like coloring a drawing or pruning plants. Maybe a ritual practice such as meditation or prayer. Perhaps some exercise, a walk, or a bike ride. Anything that fits for you, and that reliably centers you and reconnects you with yourself.

Doing just one of these things per week creates a hinge that steadies me as I move to and fro, something recurring that I can count on whatever my stress or sadness level might be. If I’ve been out of balance for a while, I make nourishment once-per-week my minimum standard and work up to nourishing myself at least one each day. For example, for years during grad school, I made a scented foot bath every Friday evening. This ritual fit for me because I’m sabbatarian and the weekly Sabbath disrupted my usual schedule anyway. When I missed my foot bath because I was traveling or over-committed and I didn’t add other nourishing practices back into my week, I felt less steady and this always influenced how adaptive I was when change or challenges came to me.

Review Your Connection Network

The quality of my connections also influenced how well I adapted. Some years ago, I moved away for an internship. I had a great time away, but when I returned home, my local connection network had changed and so had I. I felt so different and so disconnected from my wider circle, and I suffered for it. I hadn’t realized how much my experiences had changed me or how much of a process re-entry would be, and I didn’t have coping strategies ready to go.

After flailing for a little while, I decided to work on rebuilding my face-to-face network. Reaching out to new people did take a lot of effort on my part and I know that I was fortunate enough to have that effort to spare. As much as I loved quiet time at home, I also needed people to connect with, to call or Skype with; to come and sit with me; to not only ask how I was doing but also care enough about my responses to support me in analysis and creative solutions; to call me out to eat, join them at the latest Marvel movie, or in a walk at the park. Human connection may be the hardest life-brick for people in transition or crisis to lay down, but it’s also what allows for our greatest healing.

When I needed support, I researched new groups and reached out to folks who could be available and open to me. (By contrast, I’d reached out to some people in my internship town as well, and didn’t hear back from several of them. Social relationships in this culture can be so tenuous that merely being responsive to a call, comment, or note is one way to have an out-sized positive impact on the people around you. This is especially true for organizations whose mission is to provide helping services or social support!)

As the individual in need and reaching out to others, I had to trust, if only for an hour at a time, that the new people I was opening up to could and would show up with and for me. They did. Our assumptions about relationships matter a great deal, and how much we feel free to trust is dependent on the energy we have. Whatever your energy baseline might be because of depression or illness or personality, steady self-care is a way to ensure that you can live at least at or above that baseline. It’s tough to make the leap out into a new circle if you’re worn out just by standing up.

Map Out a Path Away from the Cliff

When you do have that energy to spare, use it to plan for those times when you won’t. What do you need to build your reserves, to nourish yourself, to strengthen your network? Thanks to my valley period, I have people to call, some face-to-face and others scattered across the country and world. I know the activities that nourish me and I have strong reasons for keeping them on rotation in my daily life. I also now know enough to locate other resources, like free local support groups and national call-lines that I wouldn’t have heard of otherwise.*

I could have told you lots of stories in this post. I could have talked about the topic from a spiritual or metaphysical perspective or explored the business-professional-productivity angles. I didn’t talk about health insurance or psychology or ready access to mental health services. I didn’t discuss depression or preconditions and family customs that complicate how different people respond to their valley periods.

But when I was in extremity, none of those things were on my radar. Neither metaphysical models nor spiritual advice of the Just Keep Trucking variety helped me move ahead, and very little trumped survival. Attending to the practical and the personal helped me and many others most. It helped that I was affiliated with a university campus at the time, but none of what kept me standing involved insurance or money. People walked with me through my valley and that is how I made it. Three years later, my friend’s brother is also doing well, and his family remains with him.

What about you? What has self-care looked like in your life? What resources can you draw on when you need support? Do you have an emergency plan?


* The American national suicide prevention phone number is 1-800-273-8255. Every US state has its own line as well. There are international lines in many countries, some of which are tailored to specific groups like abuse survivors, teenagers, and sexual minorities.

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