In the wake of the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain this week, all I can think about is that I wish a.) I could say THE thing that would stop anyone else from taking that final step, and b.) I could explain to everyone who’s never suffered from suicidal ideation what it’s like and why it gets so bad.
I don’t know that I can do either, but I can write what I know.
I know that a lot more people consider suicide, or feel/have felt suicidal at some point, than let on. And I know that we need to be more forthcoming with this. Validation is one of the single most powerful tools in the cosmos, because it’s where truth lives. And where the truth is, there is freedom. Don’t just tell people they’re not alone; tell them how you know.
I also know that’s a mouthful, because I myself have been one to not tell anyone when I’ve been in the ring with it.
I know that there is shame involved in having suicidal thoughts/feelings for a lot of people, and I know we need to find a way to end the stigma about mental illness, depression, anxiety, etc. You guys, we HAVE. TO. END. THE. STIGMA. People don’t struggle because they’re weak, or defective. They struggle because something is broken – physically, chemically, emotionally, spiritually – and it deserves as much attention and acceptance and HELP as a broken bone or organ.
I know that part of the shame and secrecy comes from knowing that there are a lot of people out there who believe, and will say to you in your darkest hour of need, that you need to “just ___________ (do something)” – (something you have already tried and has not worked for you, and their telling you that’s the solution only adds to the despair that you won’t, in fact, get better).
Let me stop right here: please, for the love of all that is holy (like, ya know, LIFE), do NOT finish the sentence you’re about to say to a depressed/suicidal person if it starts with the phrase “You just need to …” or the word “Just.”
If it was simple, no one would struggle with suicide and for sure no one would follow through. It is a complex issue, so don’t insult the person you’re hoping to “help” by minimizing what’s happening inside them. For example, don’t pare it down to “You just need to think positively!” Don’t even. It is so beyond “just” thinking happy thoughts.
It isn’t simple, and it’s even harder to articulate. When you’re in that horrible space – and it is like being stuck in a horror movie or nightmare that doesn’t end – it’s like trying to get an accurate picture from the worst imaginable funhouse mirrors. Things are unequivocally distorted, and the worst things people have said (and you’ve believed) are all you hear. On repeat. And they echo. And yell. The worst things people have done to you, and the shame those things embedded into your very cells, keep playing on the big screen. And oh, if only it was as simple as just changing the channel.
David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest, said this in a commencement speech, and it has rolled around in the bed of my mental pickup truck since I read it because it’s haunting:
Think of the old cliche about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” This, like may cliches, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.”
Note: the one place I would disagree with him is on those suicides already being ‘dead’ long before – I think it’s more about resignation. Maybe that’s what he meant – maybe it’s just semantics. But dead indicates one is beyond hope, and that is the key difference between wishing you were dead and actually being dead; if you’re still breathing, there is still hope.
If we want to help prevent suicide, a lot of us are going to have to do more than post the number for the suicide hotline and offer blanket support – and that is NOT a dig at you if you have done that. Doing that is doing something, which is more than a lot of us do or have done. Thank you for doing something! I am saying that we can’t solely rely on those who post and those who answer the hotlines and those who work in mental health to prevent suicide. There are many of us who personally hold the light and the key for others.
We have watched as the #MeToo movement has galvanized countless numbers of brave women (and men) to finally share secrets they hid all of their lives. Why? Why did that work? Validation. For so many, it broke that big, loud myth inside that makes you believe you’re the only one. That you’re alone. That whatever happened was your fault. Validation is critical, and if you have the means to validate another person’s pain and suffering, I’m calling you up to the plate. Right now. Don’t just tell a suicidal person to “have hope” or “there is always hope!” – if you’re saying that because you were once in their shoes and you eventually healed, tell them THAT. Tell them about your experience of pain and suffering that seemed insurmountable, and then share the rest of the story. Do not lead and end with the color brochure version.
And if you are the one who is, right this very minute, struggling with suicidal thoughts or feelings or even plans, I get it. I totally understand. I get how frightfully overwhelming things seem or are, and I too have experienced the belief – the paralyzing despair – that there is just no way out. That the pain, despair, fear, anxiety, trouble, ___________ (whatever it is for you) won’t stop, or improve. That the ones you should suck it up for would be better off without you. That no one will ever understand, and that – as such – it must be something fatally broken inside you. I know how hard and how brave it is for you to literally just get out of bed in the morning, and I get how you’re doing everything in your day with 300 extra (invisible) pounds strapped onto your back. I get how badly people’s indifference, minimizing words and platitudes sting, and how your pain filters the good and changes its flavor. You are not alone. I also get the desperateness that comes from not being able to afford or get access to the resources you need to heal. That, too, is overwhelming. It is a demoralizing awareness to know that help is, in fact, out there – but not for you, either because you literally cannot afford it, or someone at a desk or with a prescription pad deems you “unworthy” of it, or stigma in your own household prevents you from access to it.
I get you. You are not alone. I have been there. No, I don’t know your individual story (and you don’t know mine) – but the inroads to the bottom are the only variances; the pain and despair are the same universally. There are other people who know your pain, and your despair. My hope is that they will come forward and gift you with their experience in the same darkness you now find yourself in, because there really truly is a way out. For the tens of thousands of suicides annually, there are many more who fell down that slippery slope and did not ultimately follow through. Meaning …… there IS a way forward, it’s simply veiled by pain and suffering right now.
If you have struggled in the past, I urge you to be open with it. As Brennan Manning said so beautifully in his book, Abba’s Child, “In a futile attempt to erase our past, we deprive the community of our healing gift. If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others.”
If you are in desperate need of light, I beg you do NOT stop searching for it – it is there. I know because I KNOW. Tell. Please tell. Just keep telling people around you and get supported. You do NOT have to suffer in silence. And if you have struggled in the past and gotten through it, tell. Please tell. Life is sacred, and you have the power to save the lives of others – not by telling only the ending, but the chapter(s) where you, too, did not believe there was any way out. We belong to each other, so we both have a responsibility to the truth – those in unbearable pain, and those who have known that pain previously.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255.
You can also chat online if you’re uncomfortable calling. PLEASE DON’T WAIT FOR “BAD ENOUGH” – if you’re even fleetingly thinking suicidal thoughts, please PLEASE reach out NOW.