What follows are musings of my own personal experience with suicidal thoughts and actions. They are NOT meant to be a tutorial on how to counsel someone in need or in crisis, but rather my personal take. Even still, some may find it useful. IF YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW ARE EXPERIENCING SUICIDAL THOUGHTS, PLEASE CALL OR CONTACT THE NATIONAL SUICIDE PREVENTION HOTLINE (1-800-273-8255)
The tragic news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide brought out an outpouring of grief, concern, and offers of support to any others in need. The drill is all too familiar following celebrity suicides, and this death followed so closely on the heels of Kate Spade’s suicide. Then always comes the warning that “even those with EVERYTHING in life can take their own lives.” Sometimes there’s even an admonishment for people not to assume that people with so many reasons to live won’t commit suicide. I think it has become pretty apparent that even people with so much, can still feel enough pain, hopelessness, isolation and darkness to take their own lives. Nevertheless celebrity suicides poignantly remind us of that fact.
But there’s something amiss here. Well, first off, the vastly overwhelming majority of suicides occur in non-celebrities. Secondly, yes we can all understand that anybody with every reason to live can still find reasons to take their own life; yet we often still try to make conclusions about the suicidal mind. Once again, trying to understand this on a logical level is a fruitless endeavor. Yet I still hear it constantly: people wondering out loud what could have driven a person to such an extreme.
We seek logic for an inherently illogical action. So even the hint of a dark secret helps. People say, “Wow, I guess I could never understand his demons, but I guess it kind of makes sense.” Or “We’ll never really comprehend just how her dark past must have driven her to that, but I guess it kind of makes sense.” Phrases like that both give us a reason why they did it (“I guess it kind of makes sense”), but also a barrier between their idea of living and that of the victim’s (“I’ll never understand”). It both satisfies our need for a cause, but also sterilizes it, allowing us to wash our hands of the affair since “We’ll never really understand it.” If we can say we’ll never understand it, it takes some of the pressure off.
I guess I’m struggling with this because I still don’t know what drives me to think about my own death. It still happens. Despite all of the medicine and therapy (and despite having so many blessings and reasons to live) I frequently envision my death. Don’t worry, I am in such a better place than even just a few months ago. But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t occur to me when I see a tall bridge or tower. Or that I don’t look at obstacles along the highway wondering what speed would be lethal if I were to hit it head on. What’s the difference between now and my darkest hours, those hours when I came closest to taking my life? Exactly that. The darkness. The darkness is impenetrable. It is an inexplicable pain, hopelessness, isolation, and yes, darkness.
“Whoa, wait just a minute, Leonard! Isn’t that just the same thing as trying to understand the reasons people kill themselves? Now you’re just saying the same thing; it’s not finding reasons to kill yourself, it’s finding reasons for having so much darkness. Just shifting the blame doesn’t help explain anything.” Maybe. It might have a chicken/egg quality to it. It might be the exact same thing as trying to understand any reasoning of a suicidal person, the same pointless exercise.
But I suppose my point is this: Knowing about this darkness, this hopelessness, this isolation, this pain — JUST KNOWING THAT THEY EXIST — may be more important than understanding the particular reasons for wanting to live or wanting to die. Because even if you know the reasons why a person might want to die, or reasons that might prevent a person from completing suicide, even if you know both, knowing may still not be enough if you don’t address the darkness, the hopelessness, the isolation, and the pain. If you are the friend, the supporter, the shoulder to cry on, the listener — if you are the fellow human being hoping to help that person so close to the edge, just remember that inside them this very darkness might reside. How do you help with that? I’m not entirely sure, as I am not a trained suicide prevention counselor. But one thing I know that helped me: what I needed most was for someone to be there. I didn’t need someone to fix me right then and there. I just needed someone to be with me. I know there is more one should do if you’re a suicide prevention counselor, but I am not qualified to say what those things are. I’m just saying what I needed at the time.
Just listen and let them know that you know the darkness, the hopelessness, the isolation, and the pain are all there. Let them know you know.
Like I said, I have no training in this. Only my own brush with it. I might be completely off base with what the formal Suicide Prevention organizations recommend or do themselves. But in my worst hours, trying to explain away the darkness by contextualizing it or rationalizing it, alone was not going to help. I just needed someone to know that it was all there, darkness, hopelessness, isolation and pain. It was all there, and in that moment it was very, very real. I didn’t need someone to tell me why not to jump off of that bridge, or why not to ram my car into a concrete piling. I needed someone just to acknowledge the darkness and its friends. I don’t mean to tell anyone the way to rescue someone from suicide.
Everyone considering suicide has experiences different from mine, so I cannot speak for them. And some who are truly reacting to a situation: financial ruin, a horrible relationship, a terrible breakup, tremendous grief, might not have this same darkness of which I speak. But if you think about it, many people have faced incredible adversity without reaching the point of wanting death. There might be more to it than just the situation that is apparent. I truly believe what we all have in common, those of us who have come close to suicide, is the darkness, the hopelessness, the isolation, and the pain. I hope I’m wrong. Maybe it’s just me.