Our Includability Ambassador talks candidly about experiencing dark & harmful thoughts, surviving suicide attempts and learning to manage potential spirals
Trigger Warning: This article contains true descriptions of attempted suicide and mental health struggles!
Since childhood, Gunraj Arora could never quite fit into the life plan that was laid out for him.
He always feared he was one mistake away from losing his successful career as a commercial and property solicitor, which he feared would lead to losing his beloved partner and would then lead to everything he knew about what a good life meant being taken away.
In 2010, these thoughts plagued Gunraj to the point of causing him extreme anxiety. The thoughts progressed from a catastrophic fantasy to spiralling into an intense, inescapable loop which he perceived to be fact, and the only way he could see to end the spiral was to take his life.
It led to him making two major attempts on his life before his survival instincts kicked in and he walked to a hospital where they enacted a care plan that allowed Gunraj to feel loved and cared for in a way he had not felt before.
Gunraj now offers coaching and a mental toolkit to help others challenge these types of dark thoughts to prevent spiralling situations.
Trying to Find his Way
Gunraj grew up as a Sikh male in a white, middle-class environment, he wanted to fit in with his peers but found it wasn’t that simple. The sense of not being good enough and not quite fitting in with those around him led to various challenges about the way he felt about himself, and how he interacted with others. He would get angry with people, including his teachers, because of his fear and frustration.
He believes the frustration stems from being sold a story of what ‘success’ means. He was told from a young age that he must get a good education in order to get a good job, a good job meant having money, a family and a comfortable lifestyle. He felt like he had to measure up to a certain standard if he was going to have any ‘success’ in his life.
Recognising something was off with his behaviour, his parents took him to a child psychologist at a young age, but with no expectation of confidentiality and with his parents still in the room at sessions, he was unable to fully open up about what was troubling him.
At the time he felt this was the first recognition that maybe there something was wrong with him and once he had established that belief early on, it became reality for him as time went on.
First Experience with Overwhelming Thoughts
When Gunraj was in his teenage years and started to feel the pressure of his GCSE exams, he was starting to notice dark thoughts creeping into his mind. He experienced thoughts and feelings around, ‘is life worth living?’, reinforced with the implanted belief there was something wrong with him.
He experienced these thoughts for a while, but when Gunraj was about to sit his A-Level exams the dark thoughts elevated from something he was largely ignoring to something he wanted to act on. He recalls taking inspiration from any depiction of suicide he saw in media he came across to “loosely” attempt to take his own life.
He describes that he was constantly reinforcing to himself that he was not good enough despite no actual evidence of academic deficiency. He said:
“It was always this sense of panic and fear that no matter what I do, I'll never be good enough and what's the point in living this miserable life? You're trying to get to something better but you're not going to get there.”
It was at this point where the thoughts he was having were becoming a constant burden. They had progressed beyond misplaced self-doubt and pressure to do well. They were creating a suffocating headspace where he started to think of harming himself.
In an incident he views as a less serious attempt due to the eventual escalation of his thoughts and feelings later, Gunraj attempted to take his life by piping car exhaust into the cabin of the car. He recounts the incident and why he classes the first attempt on his life differently to the others.
“I remember seeing a film or a documentary about somebody who put an exhaust pipe from the car exhaust into the car and managed to suffocate themselves,” Gunraj said, “I remember trying that by taking this tube and putting it in a car in a rundown industrial estate as a way of trying to end my life.
“It struck me at the time the stupidity of it because the car window was open because that's how I had to get the pipe in. Now I'm just looking back laughing at myself. You're trying this but you're getting oxygen into the car, this isn’t going to work!”
Gunraj battled with his thoughts on and off on for years. His mind would still take him to dark places whilst he was at university and feeling the pressure of his exams. Although he felt he wasn’t going to act on any of these thoughts, he said they were still prevalent. He also did not seek any counselling during this time to help him challenge or process what he was experiencing.
When Gunraj qualified as a solicitor and began working at a firm earning good money and got engaged to his dream girl, he was finally on the path that was sold to him as a child. But something kept holding him back, it was the feeling of Imposter Syndrome - thinking he was not good enough for the position he was in and the profile of projects he was being handed at work.
By every metric anyone could measure from the outside, Gunraj was living what most of us would class as a successful life, but Gunraj’s mental state began to decline. The more success he appeared to be enjoying was directly proportional to the level of fear he was feeling.
“There was this realisation or recognition that when I suddenly met the girl of my dreams and suddenly got a job of my dreams that I was feeling rubbish in myself. I was feeling like a complete failure, yet the whole world was telling me I was a success.”
A Major Choice
When he first experienced dark thoughts which led him to harm himself in his late teens, they stemmed from the fear that he was not measuring up to what was expected of him to lead a successful life. At the age of 25, he had the life that was envisaged for him and now he fears committing any mistake could mean that success being taken away in an instant.
He describes his thought process at the time started with a simple inability to concentrate at work which soon escalated in his mind to getting in trouble for not concentrating, to losing his job, to losing his then fiancé because of losing his job and status - to not being able to live the life as he knew it.
His thoughts would loop around again and again, escalating into an inescapable scenario for Gunraj in which he would sit at his desk feeling numb and powerless to see anything beyond the loop and found it harder to distinguish between figment and reality. He got to the point where he felt his only escape to the misery he felt was ending his life. He said:
“The real suicide attempts came when I was about to become qualified as a lawyer. I had become engaged to the girl of my dreams and my whole world imploded. It is really bizarre because I seem to have had everything in my life in terms of success, but my psychology was at its worst, and I could only see the end in sight.
“All you can see when you are in that state is despair and misery because your brain is just caught in these loops. You can't see anything good. You can't see any possibility of good as you're just seeing that loop. There becomes no option other than just to end it unless you want to live this miserable existence.”
Gunraj was aware that something wasn’t right with his mind and sought help from his GP. At the time, he was less than impressed that a potential diagnosis could come from the results of one questionnaire. Nevertheless, he was diagnosed with a mental health condition that day and was given medication.
Unfortunately for Gunraj, the medication he was given did not stop his dark thoughts from overwhelming him. The pills, and some unhelpful information on the internet, provided inspiration for how to act on his thoughts as one day he lined up 20 paracetamol tablets on his desk and consumed them all one by one with a bottle of whisky.
He woke up the next morning feeling very hungover, groggy, with a painful liver, and his thoughts still spiralling out of control. He says he was displaying some physical signs of depression and anxiety at that time. He stopped eating well and exercising and stopped enjoying activities he would normally do.
Looking back, what Gunraj realised he needed at that point was to talk out his situations and have some support, but he felt he could not approach those closest to him for fear he would only be dismissed with a ‘Man-up’ attitude or questions like ‘What’s wrong with you?’ from his family and feared reaching out to his partner would result in separation.
He says if he had reached out to someone, circumstances could have been different, but he thought the only response he would get in return would be, ‘You are doing great! Why are you feeling this way?’.
“I could have connected more, but there was so much shame about the fact that I was feeling this way,” he said, “I had everything; I had money, I had security, I had a great partner. I had all the things that you would say were great.”
It was then that Gunraj started to plan his next attempt at taking his life, one in which he thought would get the result he was looking for.
He returned to searching for ways to harm himself online and arrived on cutting as a method. It took a day of planning, but he decided to check into a hotel after work one evening in 2010. He acquired razor blades; he drew a bath and cut himself in the bath while under the influence of medication and alcohol.
Once he had a plan in place, Gunraj did not experience any relief from the low mood he was feeling, even as he thought the end was now insight. Instead, he felt sad that he was leaving people behind that cared for him. He wrote a note to the special people in his life as a way to show them this was not their fault, and they shouldn’t feel guilty for Gunraj’s struggles. He said:
“I remember being quite sad and I remember feeling like there are people here that I'm really going to miss. I think that's why I wrote the note which hadn't come to me before. I wanted people to know, especially my fiancé at the time, just how much I loved her and the fact that this was not a reflection of her. It was just a reflection of the fact that I can't get out of this and therefore I can't see myself living life in the way that I can.
“I remember just feeling quite sad that I'm gonna miss these people, but also the sense that I want them to be able to live and be happy and do what they want to do because they've got that within them.
“I checked myself into a really posh hotel. I got blades and I cut my wrists. I lay in a bath, filled the bath up. I cut my wrists and I still don’t know to this day how I woke up the next morning, but I did wakeup.”
He spent that night drifting in and out of consciousness while in a bathtub that was running thick with his blood. He was woken by his father and sister coming into the room and to his aid. They got him out of the tub and back home.
Gunraj was checked into the Capio Nightingale hospital in London soon after. He received treatment for a time, but it did not change his mindset at that point. The dark thoughts were still plaguing him, and he was still intent on harming himself.
Just before he left the hospital, one of the consultant psychiatrists attending him said something to him that Gunraj believes may have saved his life. He said, “I realised it was then completely set that this was what I wanted to do.
“Fortunately, I'd had a bit of support from psychiatrists and one of the psychiatrists said to me, ‘If it ever gets too intense again, to the point it did in that hotel room, just come here immediately.’ - and I would say she saved my life by what she said to me.”
The support Gunraj received was helpful in one way as he realised his alcohol and medication consumption was not the root cause of his problems. He was not using them to mask pain or trauma, only as means to an end he was moving toward at the time.
It was only a matter of weeks before he was back into his old routine with the same psychology persistent as ever. He was back at work, commuting every day, seeing his family for dinner, and living as he was before with his mental state unchanged - growing more volatile as he was not getting the result he set out. He was constantly self-fulfilling his low state as he could not find a way to escape. For Gunraj, this is where he hit the lowest point of his life.
“I like to think that I was a ‘smart guy’ and yet I was trying to do something that probably wasn't very smart. You self-fulfil that unworthiness. That point where you are attempting to end your life, knowing as a smart person it's not really a smart thing to do makes you feel even lower. It was definitely one of my lowest points.”
Gunraj took his time planning for his next attempt. He was aware his previous attempts were not successful, and he was looking for a ‘fool-proof’ method. He planned for days until he came up with his next idea as he went about his daily routine. He said:
“I was taking the train to London for work every day and you would intermittently hear the phrase ‘person under a train’. What you knew by that was that somebody had thrown themselves in front of the track and the train had killed them. I had worked out that was going to actually get me the result.”
Once the method was planned, he took his time before he acted upon it. He was still not letting anyone in on his plans however, he would spend evenings with his partner and have dinner with his family and would not open up that he was still feeling the same as he did before and was about to make another attempt.
He says he felt calm on the day he decided to make his attempt. He determined that lunchtime was the right time for him. He had gone into the office that morning and worked as normal until his planned time came.
His planning did not include writing a note this time, but he thinks he left a message to his partner before his attempt.
When he got to the train station, he stood near the platform edge and waited.
The first train passed.
In his mind, this was the test, he would step in front of the next train and the thoughts would stop.
As the next train approached, he did not step out.
Gunraj stood frozen at the platform edge, frozen. He chalked this up as a moment of hesitancy and decided the next train that passed would be the one, he would step in front of.
The third train passed and Gunraj still stood on the platform.
A new thought had broken through the looping thoughts of darkness and misery. It was the words the psychiatrist said to him when he was in hospital telling him to come back if his feelings were ever too intense again. Those words took him back from the platform edge, up the stairs and out of the train station.
He checked himself back into hospital and asked for the consultant that attended him last time. She attended him again, showed him an empathetic attitude and gave him the reassurance that the treatment plan would give him some help. Gunraj responded very positively to her, and he felt relief that feeling something different was possible.
“I felt loved. I felt cared for,” he said, “And that's why I say that lady saved my life because you could just tell it wasn’t just a job to her. It was a genuine value for life, and it was those words that my brain remembered that took me away from the platform edge and up to see her.”
The Road to Recovery
Gunraj spent several weeks in hospital and attended group therapy sessions which helped him see different perspectives than the story he had been sold on as a young man and formed the basis of his negative thought patterns. As a football fan, he connected with a high-profile senior person within the sport while he was in hospital. He realised if something like this could happen to someone he saw as more successful than himself, then perhaps his thoughts required adjustment.
What was perhaps most helpful to Gunraj during his stay was opening up during the group therapy sessions and being listened to without judgement, and the mental toolkit he learned that helped him identify troubling thoughts and recognise them as fictitious and could challenge them better when they surfaced. He said:
“We used to have these different group sessions and I remember during one session I had the courage to explain my story and I broke down. I was expecting people to shame me because that's what I was used to seeing, especially from my family in terms of any discussion around how you're feeling.
“I had some recurring thought patterns, but now I had some tools and I think that was the difference. One of those - at that point – was mindfulness, it wasn't as well-known as it is now, but there were mindfulness sessions during that time that started getting me to be able to observe my thoughts and my feelings better. Also, there was a large cognitive behavioural therapy component so I could see the loops and see those beliefs forming and start to challenge them.”
When he left hospital this time, extra steps were taken to ensure he was eased back into work and he was encouraged to keep lines of communication open, so those closest to him knew when he was having good and bad days and when he needed extra help.
It has been around 12 years since Gunraj last attempted suicide but that does not mean he has not suffered from poor mental health since then, and opening up with his family has taken time. The thoughts that plagued him still resurface on occasion. However, the techniques he learned in hospital helped him not to let the thoughts spiral into inescapable loops.
Part of how he manages his thoughts and feelings is also maintaining his physical health. Returning to his healthy diet and exercising regularly helps him manage his own continued recovery.
“I was conscious of eating better, which I had been doing, and trying to do exercise and move my body, those habit patterns, I think from around mid 2010 is still what I keep up to this day,” he says, “I started the foundation, the framework to looking after myself and managing my time with work and managing those components and doing the basics, which involved trying to eat well and move the body well. Those changes certainly did take hold after that point.”
Gunraj now offers coaching and is a mindfulness practitioner to businesses. He is known as the ‘Socially Conscious Lawyer’. His unique experience helps others who struggle to see past their negative thoughts and insecurities.
He hopes sharing his story will help others going through tough times.
“It's not just our thoughts that are the problem, it's our belief about the thoughts and when you start acting on those dark thoughts and that's what leads you to a dark place.
“However difficult my situation was I feel it was god’s grace in giving me the opportunity to learn how to manage this being that we call the human better so that I can support others to do the same.”
If you have been affected by Gunraj’s story, please get in touch with us directly or contact the following organisations.
Gunraj is also available to contact through the Includability website as our Ambassador. He is available to speak to your business and a free coaching session with him is available as part of your Includability Committed Employer membership benefits.