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“What happened when I checked myself into the UK’s only suicide sanctuary”

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Sarah Baba
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The Maytree is a respite centre in north London that offers help and support for those in suicidal crisis. Here, freelance writer Sarah Baba shares her experience of checking in for five days

Last Christmas, while other people were opening presents and pulling crackers, I was in hospital.

I had spent the past 18 months suffering from severe anxiety and depression, and I had finally reached my crisis point. I was on Prozac and had shelled out for private talking therapy with no less than two different counsellors, but I still found myself haunted by suicidal thoughts.

After being put on the waiting list for specialised help from the NHS, I found myself doing what most of us do when we’re unsure of something – I took to Google, and began researching how to cope with feeling suicidal. It was then that I first stumbled upon The Maytree – the UK’s only ‘suicide sanctuary’ – and, curious, I rang the number listed on their website. At this point, I didn’t feel ready to take my enquiry any further, and I didn’t follow up on that initial call.

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But by March, I had begun to completely unravel.

After ending up in hospital for a second time, this time after taking an overdose, I took the plunge and rang The Maytree again. This time, I was prepared to go through the necessary steps to secure myself a place at the sanctuary.

First, I spent a few days on the phone to their volunteers, to test the waters and see if I was ready to talk about my problems and open up to new people. I spoke to three different volunteers in total, and with each call I became more comfortable; it was more of a chat than anything else, with the volunteers asking me how things had been, and how I was feeling.

They were listening more than anything else, offering comfort and kindness when I needed it the most. They had a way of making me feel safe, not scrutinised, and said they could understand how things must have been scary for me over the past few months.

Freelance writer Sarah Baba checked into The Maytree for five days

After the calls, I went into the sanctuary for an assessment, which was really just a longer, face-to-face version of the chats I’d been having on the phone. It was about 45 minutes with one of the sanctuary’s coordinators, but it went really quickly. The coordinator, a kindly Mancunian, wanted to know more about my problems and why I had been bottling everything up, and how it had all escalated to the point of my overdose. I told him how hard I had found it to access help on the NHS, the guilt of being a burden to everyone around me and how trapped I felt, like there was no way out.

Two days later, I was back ringing the same bell on the same door. There was a moment where I thought I had the wrong house, since The Maytree is positioned in a row of similar-looking terraced properties. Luckily, I didn’t.

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Things certainly felt very different that Thursday in April, with my suitcase by my side. The reality was sinking in that this would be my home for the next five days. Everything that had led to me crumbling – the dark days, the hospital visits – came to the surface of my mind. 

A few seconds after I had rung the bell, a woman greeted me at the door. At the sight of her cheery face, a strange calm took over me – the first time I’d really felt calm in the past 18 months.

The warmth of the volunteer, who ushered me into the living room asking if I wanted a cup of tea, made me know it was OK to stay here. What helped was the normality of it all; the very ordinary home setting, being talked through the basics, when mealtimes were (1pm for lunch, 6.30pm for dinner), how to choose a room. I got to choose a room? After over a year of hitting so many brick walls when seeking help for my mental illness, I was grateful just to be at The Maytree, let alone have the choice of what view I could look out onto.  

Sarah’s bedroom at The Maytree

I chose the first floor room, which had a rustic feel. I liked the brightly coloured, patterned throw on the bed and the little shower room, as well as the view out across the rooftops of North London.

Those initial few hours felt a little like your first day at a new job. You hover about not sure if someone is supposed to be leading you in for a meeting, or whether you can make a cup of coffee. But it got easier, mainly thanks to the skilled volunteers who had a knack of being able to engage me in light chit chat that felt natural and friendly, so much so that I didn’t even notice as the conversation shifted to more personal areas. 

I remember Sam was the first to ‘get me talking’ over a lunch of salads, cheeses and hams at the kitchen table. The other newly arrived guest was getting herself settled into her room; there was never any pressure to come down for meals, it was all very flexible. So, it was just Sam and I, plus a grouchy cat from one of the neighbouring houses that wanted our leftovers. I have a cat at home, so the site of the furry body was immensely comforting to me.

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Sam was really perceptive and sharp. He picked up on my body language, and knew I was feeling uncomfortable as the conversation turned to me. But he had an ability to make me feel OK about that, joking a lot and making me laugh until he had eventually coaxed me out of my stiffness. When he asked questions, it wasn’t in the very structured way I’d been used to from my many assessments in the merry-go-round of the NHS mental health system. He didn’t bombard me with the usual questions of ‘how long have you been feeling like this?’ ‘What were your first symptoms?’ ‘On a scale of 1-10, how often do you…?’ It was just a conversation, and it felt very natural.

“You like being busy then? Are you a bit worried about how you’ll feel at the Maytree? We don’t really have timetables and structures, it’s about you finding time to do what feels right for you,” he told me. He’d figured me out after just 20 minutes over a light lunch. 

As Sam had realised, empty time terrified me. My anxiety often swelled out of control when I wasn’t ‘doing’ anything. Rather than retreating, I was surprised at how easy it was to confess to Sam that yes, that did terrify me. I was afraid of space, and of having other people’s eyes and ears on me. 

“I was afraid of space, and of having other people’s eyes and ears on me”     

After that first, very informal conversation in the kitchen, I went to my room and had some time to think. I had brought a notebook with me, as I find writing is a way of both capturing things and letting my thoughts go. So, I jotted down some of the insightful points Sam had raised, especially about how structure, tasks and to-do lists are my security, my way of gripping control. How without them, I spiral very quickly when left with only my own thoughts. But also how unsustainable that is. 

I decided that one of the things I wanted to get out of my stay was to learn to be OK with being still. To see what it feels like to ‘be’, and not ‘do’. To stop running, and hiding, and distracting myself from everything in my head.

After about an hour, I felt ready to brave going downstairs again. That’s when I met the new batch of volunteers. You get used to the familiar sounds and patterns of the house quite quickly. There’s a bustle each time the next round of volunteers arrive. They work in three hour shifts, so there’s a bit of a flurry as volunteers arrive, have their handover chat with the coordinator to catch up on how the guests have been doing, and anything that they should bear in mind to help them during their stay. Throughout my visit, there were typically three volunteers and one coordinator on every shift, and they were available 24/7, right through the night as well.

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This time, one of the volunteers, a man in his 30s, asked if I wanted to chat somewhere; the garden, or maybe upstairs? This was the first of about three ‘formal’ conversations I’d go on to have every day over my five-day stay. I say formal, because it’s clear the chat is about helping you sift through things in your head, and not a casual natter, which are some of the other conversations you experience at The Maytree. For example, we’d often stay sitting at the dinner table, chatting long into the night after eating most evenings.

However, the first couple of these formal conversations were challenging. I remained stiff and wary, unused to a kind stranger wanting to be in a room listening to the contents of my busy mind. On my second day at the sanctuary, I cried for the first and only time because one of the volunteers was so kind to me, and I just wasn’t used to that feeling. She was quite different to me, very tactile and able to talk freely about her emotions, and she asked if she could give me a hug. I said no, and felt awkward, but I was mainly just overwhelmed by how kind she was being. 

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Over the next few days, however, that kindness continued to seep through from my chats with other volunteers and coordinators, and I soon learned to open up. It was different from having formal ‘therapy time’, but the conversations were all incredibly therapeutic. The volunteers at the sanctuary were very real, very human. They let you see their vulnerabilities. Some shared with me how they had also struggled with opening up, or found themselves creating busy schedules to avoid time with their thoughts. And that made things so much easier; I felt comfortable and safe talking to them.

In comparison, when you speak to a therapist or clinical practitioner, they can feel quite separate to you, and you don’t want to share your thoughts because the conversation is so one-way. But by the end of my second day at The Maytree, I had shared more than I had during the whole of my illness. That human connection, plus the impact of someone wanting to listen to you, volunteering their time and really caring about what you’re saying, is a very powerful thing.

But there were other conversations at the house that equally left their mark, such as the organic ones that started over dinner and wound around everything from football to politics, to family struggles, relationships, episodes of violence and sadness. These conversations usually involved the other guest who was staying at the house at the time. There was space for four guests at a time, but there’s an ebb and flow that means the house is not always full.

“I had brought a notebook with me, as I find writing is a way of both capturing things and letting my thoughts go”

My housemate at The Maytree was a brilliant, funny and strong girl. She was a few years younger than me and had a child. It helped that we had arrived on the same day and been ‘newbies’ together; we shared so much in such a short time. We helped each other, laughed, cried and struggled over jigsaw puzzles. She was as important to me as the volunteers, and that shared experience is something that really holds the sanctuary together.

The remaining days were spent in a mixture of formal conversations, informal chats across the kitchen table or time spent working my way through a mindful colouring book while my housemate tackled a 500-piece English landscape jigsaw puzzle. In between this, I made sure that I took time to be by myself. 

I went for a run around Finsbury Park one day, and strolled down to a coffee shop for some warm banana bread on another, my notebook in hand as I jotted down the things I wanted to remember. I wanted to be kinder to myself, and to stop blaming myself for the things that I had been through over the past year and a half. I knew that I needed to accept myself for how I was, and not be ashamed of what’s happened to me. Once I had finished writing I browsed the gift shops, looking for a card to write a long letter to my wonderful housemate as our final day approached.

The garden at the sanctuary was another favourite spot of mine. If it was sunny I’d sit out there for an hour, watching the cat meandering around the fences, or looking up at the sky. Just simple things that I hadn’t seemed to be able to do with the noise of my depression drowning out anything else. 

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A sunny spot in the garden at The Maytree, one of Sarah’s favourite places in the sanctuary

Throughout my stay at The Maytree I slept much better than I had in my own bed, but on the last night I tossed and turned, worrying about what would happen when I left and returned home. I hadn’t had any anxiety or panic attacks during my stay there; it was just a calm place to be. 

But thankfully, I haven’t had any suicidal thoughts since leaving the sanctuary, and now I’m back in the office and nearly working my usual full-time hours.

The Maytree gave me calm, space, time and kindness. It let light in through a crack in the ceiling, and I knew there was a world outside. One that I wanted to be part of. Over the coming weeks, with the help of six supportive letters from the Maytree volunteers, the reflections I’d captured myself and the new drive I had to find help, that crack of light has widened. 

It’s the size of a house now. A terraced house in North London. 

Extracts from letters sent by The Maytree volunteers to Sarah, after her stay:

“On the last day you said our chats had reassured you that are normal. That stayed with me. You are normal.

“Your pragmatic, solution focused side helps you bypass emotion until it all gets too much… I really do hope you find the right support to learn to feel emotions as they come up. I also hope one day you learn to like yourself at least 50% as much as I like you, and you like other people.”

“I hope that during your stay, and in learning to trust and let others in to see the good in you, you also got to see the good in yourself… and those pesky emotions too.”

“You said you had valued having space from all the noise and that you had felt heard by the volunteers, which allowed you to feel less angry with yourself. Just that shift is a huge one, I hope you realise this. You show so much self-awareness and self-understanding, that I wanted to stand up and cheer (I didn’t as you’d have found that far too cheesy) but the sentiment is real.”

“I hope you met some people at The Maytree that have also lived with that feeling of self-judgement. Emotions can be hard to handle when you’re a sponge, but I’d rather spend time with people that want to do something meaningful and have your capacity to care than a lot of people I come across every day.”

If you, or someone you know, is experiencing any of the issues discussed in this feature, there are a number of charities you can contact for help and support.

The Maytree suicide respite centre can be found online here, or the centre can be contacted on 020 7263 7070.

Samaritans (116 123) operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org.

Mind also provide advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. You can find more information on their website.

Images: Unsplash, courtesy of Sarah Baba