Suicidal thoughts: Sylvia Huitson has 'been there, done that got the T-shirt'

Sylvia Huitson suffered through an abusive relationship for 10 years before packing up and leaving her partner.
Andy Jackson/Fairfax NZ

Sylvia Huitson suffered through an abusive relationship for 10 years before packing up and leaving her partner.

Sylvia Huitson was 22 when she fell in love. It changed her life, but not in a good way. 

The relationship was abusive. It lasted 10 years, produced two children, smashed her self esteem to smithereens and took her to the brink of suicide.

The New Plymouth woman, now 62, realised very early on that her new lover was dangerous, she says. 

"We had an argument about something and he got my head and banged it against the wall six times. I guess that was my opportunity to say I'm not putting up with this, I'm out of here."

Suicide prevention should be the hot topic for everyone
Active Intentions counsellor Sylvia Huitson holds workshop to address anger, violence

But it was the late 1970s and domestic abuse wasn't talked about much. So, she thought she must have done something to deserve it.  

"I know people say it's crazy, but when you love someone you'll put up with pretty much anything."  

Her partner destroyed her self esteem, leaving her a "blathering idiot", she says.

"If I bought the oranges and they were sour it was my fault. I was ashamed. I did feel it was all my fault."

Active Intentions counsellor Sylvia Huitson is a specialist in suicide prevention.

Active Intentions counsellor Sylvia Huitson is a specialist in suicide prevention.

It's difficult for people to understand why a woman would stay in that situation and it's difficult to explain, she says.

"You stay for all the wrong reasons. Back in those days there weren't very many single parents and you were the scourge of the Earth. And I didn't want to break the family up because I thought the best thing for the kids was to have their dad, because he could be a good dad when he wanted to be." 

Huitson's partner would come home from work at 4.30pm and Huitson would get diarrhoea every afternoon at 4.15pm. Every. Single. Day.  

She considered killing herself.  He told her he would kill her if she left him. And he told her he would kill himself if she left

"You're so messed up you don't know what to believe, so yes you believe if you go, he's going to kill either you or himself, and then the kids will have one dead parent and another in jail. All of that stuff messes with your head."

But then one night, while their father was in the shower, Huitson put the kids and the teddy bears in the car and took off.  

At the time she expected her partner to chase her down the street, naked, yelling and screaming. He didn't.

She left for the kids - her youngest was pretty much falling apart, she says.   

Huitson won't talk about her children, except to say they have broken the cycle of violence. "I'm so proud."

After she left, Huitson went to a group that she jokes was a "battered women's group".

"I had to fix my self esteem, which was right back to nothing. I had to start with I can brush my teeth, I can read, I can drive my car. Really basic stuff to try and build up my self esteem. I didn't even know who I was."

Huitson says she draws on her own experience to help others.

Huitson says she draws on her own experience to help others.

But a couple of years later she decided to go to university. With two children aged under 10, she got her degree in psychology and her counselling qualifications extramurally, she says. 

"It made me feel worthwhile. Like I wasn't a waste of space."

While getting her qualifications she joined Lifeline where she learned to counsel people out of suicide. During her first week she answered the phone to someone who was suicidal.

"You feel in shock. It was really, really, scary and hard to know what to say when you first start. It was important to let them talk and be understanding." 

Ad Feedback

Huitson knows why she was suicidal and she knows why she didn't go through with it.

"So I try to use that when I work with people, because I've been there, done that, got the T-shirt."  

She is New Zealand's representative on the International Association for Suicide Prevention and says there should be more talk about suicide prevention. And that prevention should start early in people's lives, she says.  

As a child Huitson was bullied and she thinks that is significant, because it shows when things start to go wrong.  

But, she was never bullied for a large, deep scar she has on her left arm, the result of falling off a three wheeler truck when she was seven.  

"I broke the bone and that severed the artery. They thought they might have to amputate, but they fixed it. I don't feel bad about it because I think early on I accepted it is what it is and I can't do anything to change it. That shows if you can accept something it doesn't affect who you are. 

"They'd bully me for other stuff. That says it's not about me, it's about the bully finding something that hurts you, that makes you sad."

But she feels everything that has happened to her has happened for a reason.

"Including being made redundant twice. They say you shouldn't tell people your private business if you are a counsellor, but I've got my life back on track so I think I can make a significant difference."

Life can be fantastic, she says. 

"I have been right round the world in the last 10 years and done some amazing things. And if I had given in when I was suicidal that would have been the end and my family would have been devastated. So there are choices and it's important to know we don't have to take the suicide option, we can find things in life that make that better." 

Her original plan was to be an accountant. Instead she turned to counselling, and has been self employed for 10 years. 

"This gives me the most pleasure, because it's a hugely rewarding job. People feel better going out than when they come in."

So, retiring isn't on her radar just yet. 

"I think I'd be bored. My brain is a bit manic in a way."


Lifeline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 354

Depression Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 111 757

Healthline (open 24/7) – 0800 611 116

Samaritans (open 24/7) – 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

• Your local Rural Support Trust – 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)

 - Stuff

Ad Feedback
special offers
Ad Feedback