In our story series ‘How Are You Today?’, we have a meandering, mental-health focused chat with some of our most well-known New Zealanders. Check out previous chats with people like Hayley Holt, Roseanne Liang and Jacinda Ardern. Today we chat to Kiri Allan about breaking free from suicidal ideation and why she now feels liberated after coming through the darkness.
Trigger warning: This story contains discussion of suicide
Kiritapu Allan is a public figure and former MP whose previous ministerial roles include being Minister of Justice for the previous government. The past few years of her personal and professional life have been a mixed bag; a cancer diagnosis landed the same day as she lead the emergency response to a tsunami in 2021, she kept getting promoted into higher roles and when Jacinda Ardern resigned in early 2023, she was one of the public favourites to take over.
But behind the scenes, Kiri was battling suicidal ideation and on the night of July 23, had started a process to end her life, and during that night, a series of events saw her crash into a parked car, an accident that lead to police charges and then her resignation as an MP.
A former lawyer, Kiri has now started her own consultancy company and when Capsule caught up with her, she was fresh off a busy week at Waitangi, as part of the Iwi leaders forum. She talks to Capsule about going public about the emotional events that lead to the car crash, how she has broken through a decades-long battle with suicidal ideation and the message of hope she wants to get across to people facing their own dark night of the soul.
Kia Ora, Kiri! How are you today?
I’m exhausted [laughs], but energised while being exhausted, because we’ve just come off a big Waitangi week, but really tau is how I’d describe it. I’m feeling really peaceful and happy; I describe it as coming back Te Ao Mārama, after being in Te Ao o Te Pō – so going from the world of darkness, into the world of light.
You’ve been back in the public eye a bit over the past couple of weeks, how has that felt?
Being in the public eye again recently, for me personally, I knew it needed to be done at some point and time… it felt like ripping off the final Band Aid from a painful period but it had to be done. It was necessary; both for me to acknowledge that the public had questions unanswered about my exit, and I needed to do it for myself in order to enable me to come back to that Te Ao Mārama. Following all of that is an ease, a weight off and essentially, in some sense, a feeling of liberation is how I’d describe it.
‘The feeling is one of coming home; coming home to myself… and coming home to our people.’
In terms of being around people, it feels really nice. The feeling is one of coming home; coming home to myself, coming home to the things I do that make me feel like me, and coming home to our people.
With both of the chats you had, they obviously have to dwell a lot on that evening in July because that’s the news value –––
That’s the clicks, mate. [Laughs].
Oh absolutely! But one of the things that I think has been glossed over is that yes, the night took a turn for the worst because there was a crash. But the reason there was a crash is because you made a decision to stop the process of ending your life and to get help. And I want to talk about that, because a lot of people have a dark night of the soul – and not everyone survives it. And you did.
That night, in particular, there was a pause where I went ‘Faaaar out,’ and tried to find some solace, that was disturbed by a car crash! When you’re in those depths of despair, it’s hard to see any cracks of light. But I describe that period as cracking every part of me open… you have to strip everything back to get to the source of how you got to that position.
‘When you’re in those depths of despair, it’s hard to see any cracks of light.’
And it’s not just a work thing, it’s not just a family thing… if you’re in that mindset, there’s probably a long whakapapa to how you get there. And so for me, that was a really hard process of stripping apart everything – and I’m talking about everything – to find that source of trauma and realise that it hadn’t just birthed overnight, it had birthed over a lifetime. The bit that people saw was just a moment of time.
I remember one day, I was in this room and I was singing loudly to some music, probably dancing like an idiot. And I felt this real sense of joy and happiness in my soul, in my body, and pausing, like ‘what the heck is this?’ I realised that the cracks of light were starting to seep in.
‘I had believed that I would never experience feelings of joy and peace as an adult.’
In my mind, for a long time, I had believed that I would never experience those feelings of joy and peace as an adult. So I learned that for me to stay in the world, I had to find glimmers – even if they were so minor, even if they only lasted for a second – and I would stay. But if I’m honest, if things didn’t end at one point, they would end at another. It felt like an inevitable outcome for me, it was just a matter of time. And that’s a sense that I’d had for a long time, probably a lifetime.
That night, I reached out to get some help. There was a small group of people who wrapped themselves around me for many months. They genuinely saved my life, and that’s a massive commitment they made, sacrificing time with their family. And so emotionally tiring for them, wondering if your mate would be there tomorrow.
I had my 40th over summer and my bestest pal cried when I hit that day, because she was fearful that I wouldn’t make it to that milestone.
Did you think you would make it to 40?
No. Not at all. Or if I did, I wouldn’t… [pauses] Like I said, the end was an inevitability.
When did it stop feeling like an inevitability? Or is that still daily work?
Okay, so this is the interesting part. Because that was quite an instantaneous reaction that I had to anything and everything, and then [it changed], and became ‘I just want to jump in my truck and run away.’ And that’s a massive transition.
There are particular triggers for me where I would normally just go straight to ‘Ah well, I’m out.’ And that hasn’t happened for some time. Now it’s ‘jump in my car and go hide for a bit.’ [Laughs]. A huge difference. And I’m not afraid of that being my inevitable outcome any more – I don’t believe it is.
‘I couldn’t have reached the heights of whatever my ancestors planned for me unless I did that hard, soul-destroying remodelling work’
And I think without an absolutely horrific and dramatic ending to my political career, I know I wouldn’t have pivoted and done this work… that is critical to bringing me back home. I couldn’t have reached the heights of whatever my ancestors planned for me unless I did that hard, soul-destroying remodelling work of going to the depths of your fears. I see that as a massive intervention by my tūpuna to get me back on track. I think they probably tried with a range of more gentle interventions – which I could sense and feel, but did I act?? No I did not [laughs]
You’ve talked about how the final bit of policy you had to announce was a shift away from your values and I wanted to talk to you about forgiveness. Partly, who is able to get a second chance in our society, and also about self-forgiveness. In previous interviews, you’ve used the word ‘shame’ a lot and I wanted to see where you were at with forgiving yourself.
Brené Brown has written a lot about shame and about how the opposite of shame is forgiveness. And you can read a thousand books on that, but feeling that at a soul level is something completely different. A lot of last year was sitting with horrific shame and guilt, but it didn’t derive from that night, it was about a whole series of decisions and choices and ways I had operated in the world.
In order to get me back to forgiveness, I had to realise that we all do the best we can with the tools we’ve got. There are a range of reasons why I don’t think I had the tools I needed to navigate the world in a healthier way, so a large part of it has been expanding the tool belt to be able to operate in different ways…
Every time I screwed up, [I would think] ‘Oh you’re just useless, and you’re never going to get better.’ Forgiveness was the key to unlocking that soul liberation. And it’s critical. Because so many people who were in that same position [I was] have that sense of self-loathing and self-hatred, and don’t have the tools to pivot, make different decisions, and feel peaceful inside.
When it comes to people getting second chances, let’s be frank – society gives different people different opportunities, whether it’s to get a second, third, fourth or fifth chance. People are not seen, helped, recognised or held by society in the same way, so getting those opportunities for re-entering, or coming home… they don’t come from the same place.
How many of our Māori or Pasifika kids get written off by the age of six or seven, because the expectations are so low? And you know when you’re young, you’re on a path that will not be forgiving of you. That’s a systemic experience for many of our population.
I was in the Māori unit at high school, and we all got sex education a couple of years earlier than the rest of our school. And I remember we asked, ‘why are we doing this now, Miss?!’ and she said ‘Well, most of you will be pregnant by 16, so we’re trying to stop that.’ ’ The expectations put on us were so low, and the opportunities for forgiveness – when expectations for some people of certain backgrounds are so much lower than others – make the pathway to forgiveness at a broader, societal level a lot less.
What do you want people to take away from this chat?
Hope. When you’re in the depths, you won’t feel it, you won’t see it. And unless people have been there themselves, a lot of people don’t know what to do, what to say, how to act.
I promise, promise, promise – and everyone makes this promise to you, and you don’t believe it – but coming from being literally on the brink, and never believing that there would ever be a crack of light, I can promise you, that light will come.
Do the work, go deep inside, and heal that place within you that is scared, hurt, vulnerable, that place that you’ve been running from forever. And that is where the light, and the liberation seeps through. The world becomes a much more beautiful place, and you find your way home to that person that your ancestors dreamed of. So hold on.
Photo credit: Terry Gotlib