Suicide: A Small Informal (Personal) Study
"Why did you try to kill yourself?"
"You told me to be happy."
- Anonymous source, internet forum, (validity unconfirmed)
A few days ago, as a result of an unfortunate series of coincidences, I found myself experiencing some old familiar feelings.
I wanted the pain to be over.
As I have been through these experiences before and lived to think and tell about them, I decided to do a small experiment to see if people who believe they know me could recognize the telltale signs of potential suicide we hear about (always after the tragic event itself).
What, I wondered, would people do if they knew I was troubled enough to rant, with little self control, about the state of the world and my life? Such ranting is as common as depression as a sign of someone who is potentially suicidal. Would people recognize a person in trouble, someone in danger of considering suicide? Or might they just think I had not had enough sleep? Or that I was having a bad hair day?
How many would care enough to ask if they did suspect something? I expected that most, if they recognized anything, would go introspective or selfish and try to avoid meddling.
"Did you really want to die?"
"No one commits suicide because they want to die."
"Then why do they do it?"
"Because they want to stop the pain."
- Tiffanie DeBartolo, American novelist (b. 1970), How to Kill a Rock Star
I also wondered what people would do if they found someone at risk, what actions they would take. Would they, in fact, do anything or would they be too afraid to "interfere" in something they know little about.
Finally, I wondered what kinds of clues might cause people to clue-in that they were suddenly aware of a person they knew who was in trouble.
"A lot of you cared, just not enough."
- Jay Asher, American writer (b. 1975), Thirteen Reasons Why
Most people who believe they know me paid little attention when I seemed to go off the deep end. "He has done it before, so we know he will be all right" they thought. It never occurred to them that I might see that as a challenge to prove them wrong. Suicidal people rise to challenges.
It never occurred to them that this time might be somehow different. In fact, brain chemistry imbalances may never be identical twice. Brain chemistry imbalances account for most depression and suicides.
It also never occurred to them that I might really end my life. They didn't allow that possibility to enter their minds. In psychology, that is called denial. For those who are left behind after someone has ended their life, it's a lifetime or knowing that they could have done something, but didn't.
What some friends have seen as strange cranky periods I get sometimes were really periods when I seriously considered suicide. I didn't follow through, for one reason or another. I delayed so long in trying to figure out how to end my life without hurting others that the chemistry in my brain corrected itself.
"and he suddenly knew that if she killed herself, he would die. Maybe not immediately, maybe not with the same blinding rush of pain, but it would happen. You couldn't live for very long without a heart."
- Jodi Picoult, American author (b. 1966)
When I was a child, it was common to hear of people dying of a "broken heart." Of course this seemed silly, but people had no other way to account for why I person who had been very close to another (such as a spouse) for many years would die within weeks or months of the death of the partner (on some occasions it has been as short a time as a few days or even hours).
Today medical science has proven that people can die of a broken heart. It doesn't break like an invaded piggy bank, but it does cease to function properly. It gets so weak, even leaky, it can't pump blood efficiently. Why? Brain chemistry weakens the immune system and body organs.
Most of my "friends" on Facebook and all of those who subscribe to my posts gave no reaction to my ranting or telling of my tragic family history.
A few Facebook friends, notably those who are known to be particularly sensitive to the feelings of others and who those close to them know they have suffered tragedy more than once in their lives, took action. They tried to interfere, to intervene in a situation they sensed was risky.
The second best reaction I had was from two people who said, in effect, "I know something is terribly wrong in your life and I want you to know that I am with you for whatever you need." Some tried to give advice, which most people knew was the wrong approach. But the stuck their necks out in a situation they knew might be risky. They tried. They did something.
The best reaction I had was from a real life and Facebook friend who said, in effect, "I know something is troubling you terribly. How can I help?"
That kind of offer is open ended. The person making the offer is laying herself or himself open, as if to say "I am here for the taking." For someone who is close enough to find death appealing, that kind of offer is hard to resist. It says "I care. You matter to me."
What does it actually feel like when you want to end your life? First of all, there are two kinds of suicide attempts. Both are dangerous. The first is really a cry for help. The person wants to fail, wants to be discovered before dying. But he knows that he will be considered a fake if he doesn't make the action he takes severe enough that it could be convincing.
The second kind is the person who wants it all to end, wants the pain to end, wants it to be over. Don't ask what the pain is because an objective third party (the first being the person considering suicide and the second being his pain, which is so strong that it is almost personified) would not find the pain severe enough to warrant needing it to end immediately.
That last paragraph should be a clue to you as reader. No reason given for committing suicide may seem valid to someone looking on from the "outside." Something else must be going on for the person to feel that bad.
What is going on is bad brain chemistry. The chemistry is beyond the control of the victim. No amount of being told to think positive, to smile or to brighten up will help. If anything, it could alienate the victim from the others, making him feel more alone.
That aloneness is characteristic of suicide. People do not end their lives to punish others, though it might seem that way to people who read their "suicide notes." (Most people who commit suicide leave a note, but not all.) They end their life because they feel alone.
This aloneness is not loneliness. It's a feeling of being isolated from the world. It's as if you are in a parallel dimension, being able to see the other dimension without those in the other dimension being able to see you or to communicate with you.
It is not extreme selfishness either, though it might seem that way to someone who is close to the victim. It's not that he only thinks of himself, but that there is only one person in his world to think about.
In my case, I felt that way on several occasions over many years, but not for long. When I considered possible ways to end my life, I always thought about the consequences for people who were left behind. Most suicide victims do not do that.
When my paternal grandfather ended his life in 1917, he left a wife with five children to raise, no source of income, no social assistance, who not long afterwards contracted tuberculosis because she was so weak from working her life away to look after her family without knowing how or having any hope of a way out.
I learned early in my life what it was like for my father to grow up in a fatherless family. He had no access to parenting skills because he never had a father of his own. He could not be what many consider a "good father" because he didn't know how. He did his best, but had no one to turn to for advice about being a father. Or for that matter, about being a husband.
I did not want to leave my wife or anyone I knew or who knew me with that kind of legacy. I was aware of what they didn't know. I was aware of what I did know, of what I had learned from experience and from years of study. I knew that what I had learned would be lost if I ended my life too soon.
Fortunately, I am a naturally positive person. I became that way as an adult, but only when I gained enough self esteem that I could feel positive about myself. Before I gained that about 15 years ago, I had to depend on my instincts for survival, which were stronger than anything else in my life.
When some truly tragic events that were beyond my control sculpted my life, I survived on the belief that there was a better life for me out there somewhere, I just had to learn how to find it. I had to keep looking. Through those early decades I did not suffer a problem with wonky brain chemistry.
When the chemistry in my brain goes awry, and no one can predict when that might be, my positive attitude toward life fights with the damaging brain chemistry. The positive attitude eventually wins out, though sometimes it takes a few days for the battle to conclude.
Some people are not fortunate enough to have a strong positive attitude toward life. Some people are not strong enough to have an accumulation of self esteem. They are at risk. Some do not hold to the hope--or belief--that there is a better life waiting for them to find it. They believe a better life will never happen. They are at severe risk.
What can you do if you believe that someone you know is at risk of ending their life? The most important thing is to not go into denial. Second is to not insist that the person cheer up, think happy thoughts, be positive. It won't work and may cause the wrong reaction.
It will also not be effective to tell the person that he will get through it, that he will recover. At the moment of crisis, he will not believe. It is true that he will get through it and recover, but to a person who is suicidal, future is not a reality. Future does not exist.
For intervention strategies, I can speak from personal experience. I do not know what a medical professional, someone who has not been on the "inside" of a suicidal experience but has lots of "book experience" would say. Frankly, they usually don't say much because they don't really know. I know what would work for me.
Constant companionship. A suicidal person not only feels as if he is alone, he wants to actually be alone to complete the task of ending his life. He will only act if and when he is alone. No one ends their life with company watching.
Companionship not only prevents the person from committing the final act, in most cases it also tends to confuse the issue so much that the brain reacts to right its own chemical problem.
Companionship does not mean keeping up a constant conversation. It means just "being there." Keep it simple and plain. Touch, which is essential to humans and which the person at risk may have lacked for too long, may or may not be needed. A hug or touch on the arm or shoulder may be appreciated, but it may also be strongly rejected. Don't feel bad if the person doesn't want to be touched. Just stay with him.
I hope you never need to make use of what you have just read. But if you do, you will be able to save a life. Don't be afraid. It will be surprisingly easy.
Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a book for parents and teachers who want to help children and for police and politicians who want to reduce one of the most expensive drains on tax funds.
Learn more at http://billallin.com