Our Failure To Treat Suicidal Thoughts, Ctd

by Chris Bodenner

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A reader appears adrift:

I need help understanding this issue. Put frankly, I don’t know that I buy the imperative that we should be making a thing out of preventing suicide. Loved ones are hurt by suicide. But what else? I am not exactly suicidal, but it’s not at all infrequent for me to be acutely aware that I have no preference for being alive over not being alive.

I don’t know. I’m having trouble putting words to this. Maybe it’s our cultural aversion to death – now that the shroud of religion has become threadbare – that propagates this. Maybe it’s the opposite: a fascination with celebrity deaths as “tragedy” combined with our contemporary obsession with crafting a personal narrative out of every bullshit event in the world. Maybe it’s as simple as, if I ever were to kill myself, I’d want to be able to justify it. I don’t know. There is something that smacks of musty morality in the suicide conversation. Why should we be preventing suicide? Why should we be second-guessing individuals’ relationships with themselves?

That email provides a good reason to revive one of our most popular threads from last year, “Suicide Leaves Behind Nothing.” Many of the scores of emails we received went unpublished, such as:

One thing that seems overlooked in all these stories from loved ones left behind is the fact that we can’t hear the stories of those who left.  We can only ever hear one side of the story, one side’s pain.  (Suicides do sometimes leave a note, but we, the general public, usually don’t see or hear them except through the filter of loved ones left behind.) Personally, I’m with these two readers:

What could be more selfish than other people presuming that we should stay alive just to meet their needs?

And:

People can be tortured by their brain’s messed-up chemistry as brutally as they can be tortured with stress positions and sensory deprivation. People break. That’s not a character flaw. Too much pain and a person will do whatever he or she has to to make it stop.

I disagree with the first one a bit in the case of children (including adult ones).  If you’ve brought people into the world, you do owe them something. Children aside, though, the reader is spot on.

The second one calls attention to something that seems overlooked, which is that the very notion of selfishness is problematic in the case of those who are mentally ill, because their sense of self is either deranged (disarranged) or completely missing.  In the case of depression, for example, by the time it’s extreme enough for the sufferer to contemplate suicide, they’ve lost almost all sense of self.  The barrier between self and other is gone, or is so porous it might as well be.  That’s the very reason they’re in such pain: they feel everything, and all of it cuts right to the quick.

There’s a certain amount of pain that’s unavoidable in the world.  How much of it should be born by one person before we’re willing to let them stop?

Several more readers share their stories:

My brother killed himself twenty years ago, six days before my second child was born.

No one in our family saw it coming.  We all knew that he had been struggling with work and love, but just had no idea that he was so terribly depressed.  Afterwards, my parents, five siblings and I began to reconstruct his pain and of course felt that we had let him down by not seeing his downward spiral.  The guilt and questions were overwhelming.  He and I were not particularly close and had definitely clashed in the past (which brings it’s own kind of despair), but even the brothers he had a close relationship with were riddled with what-ifs.  It is hard to describe the anguish of watching my parents struggle with their grief.

Twenty years later, my heart still twists if someone asks how many siblings I have because I feel that I can’t say five; I have to say six, even though he is gone.  He springs to mind every time I think about or prepare for my daughter’s birthday.  The pain never really goes away, but I remember so clearly the moment that I reached a sort of peace about his death.  It was shortly after my daughter’s birth and I was rocking her, weeping, wondering how we could ever deal with this awful reality when my husband came in and one of the things he said was, “Honey, he’s not suffering anymore”.  I cannot describe the relief I felt at that moment.  He had been suffering and we didn’t see it and we will have regrets forever and would do anything to change it, but he isn’t suffering any more.  It is not a happy feeling, but it is a kind of peace.

Thanks for “listening”.

Another:

I’m a therapist and several years back I lost a client to suicide. He was a young man struggling with identity and relationships, and a painful rejection sent him into a spiral, overwhelming him.  He denied having any suicidal thoughts, so his death was clearly a shock for me, and I will never know whether he kept those thoughts and plans to himself or if his suicide was impulsive and in reaction to the rejection.

I do know that his death changed me in so many ways, and marked a loss of innocence for me as a therapist (I was a relatively new therapist at the time).  As intimately as I can come to know my clients, I now understand that there are parts of themselves they may not share with me, and that I can’t completely know them. I also believe that therapy and medication may not be enough to relieve the psychic pain some of my clients may experience, and that I have to accept the limitation of my work.  Clearly, this is the hardest part of my job.

I wouldn’t say that suicide is selfish, but it certainly emerges from a very hopeless, narrow state of mind.  I have to believe that I can make a difference in my clients’ struggles with this hopelessness, but I humbly accept that it may not always be effective.  In that case, I do not believe I am in a position to judge that client’s decision.  I can feel sad, angry, and devastated by that choice, but ultimately it is my client’s choice.

Another:

Well, as someone who had to break down the door of my brother’s bedroom after he killed himself (or, rather while he was still alive, barely), I find the title of your thread odd. Suicide leaves behind a lifetime of pain. That’s hardly “nothing”, and as for all your readers who think suicide is a selfish act, I strong disagree. My brother was not selfish. He simply wanted to escape the pain that my parents inflicted upon him (and the rest of us siblings) with their never-ending bickering and violence, which extended throughout their divorce.

I’m what’s called “an emotional wreck”, I know that. Nothing – not years of useless therapy nor years of being experimented on by misguided doctors who thought that prescribed drugs can wipe away memories – nothing can “heal” me. It’s accepting that fact that was the beginning of my new life.

When I stopped the hunt for outside salvation, I came to see the truth: that the scars that deform my very being could never be healed and that my goal is to keep on living despite the fact my scars so easily bleed when scratched. I am walking in the woods and come out into a clearing, look up, and see the same cloud formations that were in the sky the night my brother died – and SCRATCH! I think of my brother. I am in the grocery store and see the word “Swanson” on a TV dinner and SCRATCH! – it was his favorite thing to eat. I walk along the ocean, peacefully contemplating the waves, when a child runs up behind me with his dog and I look into his face and SCRATCH! I see my brother.

It never ends. I have prevailed, despite the fact that I went through years of emotional hell. I came to accept the new me. I had to accept that I would never be the same person that existed before I took a hammer and literally tore a door apart in order to collapse into a room where my brother’s face was covered with his brains after he shot himself.  I’ve learned. Carry on is the only thing one can do. Accept the pain and carry on. Accept the scar that never heals and ceaselessly bleeds. It’s hardly “nothing”. I can only assume your thread is meant to be ironic. I hope so.

Anyway, I am glad you are posting about suicide. It touches so many people in so many ways and most people just don’t want to talk about it. Thank you.

One more reader:

I work in mental health and I just want to caution you about publishing opinions rationalizing suicide. Some of your respondents sound like they would benefit from professional help. It might be a good idea to append your posts with info on the national suicide prevention line:

If you are in a crisis and need help right away: Call this toll-free number, available 24 hours a day, every day: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You will reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a service available to anyone. You may call for yourself or for someone you care about. All calls are confidential.

On the above photo:

It is with a deep honesty and powerful frankness that New York-based photographer Kristina Knipe creates a complex narrative of self-harm in her series I Don’t Know The Names of Flowers. Returning to her hometown in Pennsylvania, Knipe collaborated with others who struggle with self-harm by contacting acquaintances and posting on NYC’s Craigslist in an attempt to find healing.