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Article: The Traitor Hope – reflections on toxic positivity 

In this blog NSPA Lived Experience Influencer Alice Brockway shares her reflections on hope.

I knelt on bloody knees in a forest full of plants and creatures I didn’t know. Ahead a bubbling voice called out to me. It described a world of beauty, promised tastes and colours and people and love if only I would stand and follow. I pushed my knuckles into the soil and begged my legs to move but my body collapsed and my mind swam. There I knelt, unable to move. Over and over the voice called and over and over I strove in reply, growing more desperate and exhausted with every rise. Finally, with the broken parts of me seeping into the ground, I turned to the figure who had been waiting by my side, their hand outstretched, ready. “You will never reach those places, and you will always carry pain, but you will be alive.”

There is an interesting absence in the peer support group I attend – you will almost never hear someone tell a fellow attendee that things will get better or be alright in the end. In the worlds of suicidality and severe mental illness those are dangerous promises to make. Yes, there are plenty of people for whom these dreadful levels of distress are a temporary experience, but there are also plenty for whom recovery or the recovery of a loved one is simply not a plausible future. For many of us, these experiences have woven themselves into every aspect of our lives, often right into our biology. We cannot escape them. Our capacity for core parts of life such as work and health are permanently impacted, and our life expectancies are shortened, even if we don’t end our lives by suicide. That is the reality and we have to live with it. 

And we do live

Many of us have wonderful, amazing things in our lives, things we find joy in, things that we are grateful for. With any luck the longer we live the more tools we have to keep the suffering at bay and the more time we get, but it’s hard to trust. When my depression hits its darkest I experience hope itself as a bad thing, a lie lulling me into a relentless cycle of emptiness and cruelty, and I feel like a fool repeatedly falling for it. It’s a logic that says hope is just a tool for the systems that need you to keep going, including the systems of the brain and body, even when it’s not in your interest to do so. It’s a deeply cynical position, but what I really struggle to reconcile in my efforts to stay well is that there is some truth in it.  

Navigating the conflicts

I am writing this in December, saturated in a holiday season that is an absolute triumph of consumerism over wellbeing. It brings issues of debt, domestic abuse, isolation, and burnout. There are so many ways in which our desires for connection and love are manipulated, and people stigmatised for wanting to opt out. It’s corrupt and harmful… 

…and sparkly. I love that everything is made sparkly. I like the dark city streets lit up with colourful lights, the fact that there are so many opportunities to sing with people, and I am really, really looking forward to extra cuddles with my nephews. I cannot feed the world or bring peace to mankind (I can’t even bring peace to the dinner table) but maybe I can have a good day and maybe that’s enough.  

When we hope for things grounded in reality – that the cards will arrive on time or that the jumper will fit – we can stop striving, start to be, and enjoy life. There is a peace that comes with accepting the conflicts and pain, and the limitations they bring. I recognise it in religious and spiritual writings that urge us to embrace the present and accept what’s in front of us. To place your hope in an idealistic fantasy is to rob yourself of the good things you might find right where you are, however small or transient they may be. The apparently never-ending stream of coaches and influencers peddling ‘if I can do it so can you’ cure-all nonsense is like a noxious cloud marring any patch of blue sky you might find. “If it isn’t amazing or perfect” they claim “you just aren’t believing/grateful/committed enough.” Faith healing via Instagram.  

Real healing

I just want to live. I want to breathe in and out, to hold the people I love, sing songs that make me happy, and occasionally embarrass myself after a little too much wine. I have worked so damn hard to get beyond constant survival mode to a place where I can actually enjoy things. If you don’t understand the achievement in that then why would I listen to your “10 steps to the future you really want”? In the world of suicide prevention a single step can be the difference between life and death. I don’t need to think myself happy or manifest my dreams. I just need to keep going in the right direction. That works. That’s the reality and you know what? Step-by-step, it builds a life worth living.  

If you’re struggling and would like to talk to someone, please visit our support page for a list of organisations offering support, including over the festive period: Support – NSPA

About The Author

Alice is a Manchester based Lived Experience Influencer with the NSPA. She has a background as an actor / creative and is currently doing academic work around mental health in actors. More broadly her work involves supporting and improving mental health in all performing arts workers through her organisation Playing Sane. She has done a lot of teaching and facilitation over the years and passionately believes that mental wellbeing and suicide prevention should be embedded in practices from earliest stages of training.