By the time you read this blog, two or three people will have taken their lives. In fact, every 40 seconds someone completes suicide; Close to 800,000 die by suicide every year. According to the World Health Organization, there are more deaths from suicide than from war and homicide together. Suicide is the second leading cause of death between people ages 15 to 29.
These statistics don’t surprise me since I’ve lost two family members and several friends to suicide, and about one third of the people I know have lost a loved one to suicide. I am familiar with the desperation and rationale that leads someone to this decision, as I have experienced weeks, months, even years teetering on the edge of life, not sure whether or not to stick around.
That’s why today I’m joining health advocates on World Mental Health Day 2019 to raise awareness of the prevalence of suicide around the world and to do my small part in trying to prevent it.
Following is a letter I wrote a year ago when I was battling strong suicidal thoughts. My hope is that it will encourage someone in cyberspace to keep breathing and to delay the decision to end your life, if only by an hour … and then another hour. Having recently passed through the valley of darkness, I can say with confidence that all things do pass, and I thank God that I didn’t let desperation and hopelessness determine that decision for me. I kept on going five minutes at a time — and did the next thing in front of me — even if that was simply existing, curled up in a ball in my bed. I stayed alive and I am glad I did.
Letter to a Suicidal Person
Dear Suicidal Person,
I write this in the midst of suicidal thoughts myself. I’ve been battling them off and on over the last six months.
In the recent past, I haven’t publicized my struggle because I didn’t want those around me to think I was unstable, incompetent, or freakish. I feared the judgement of others who have never experienced these kinds of thoughts. However, I have already lost two family members to suicide. I don’t want to lose anymore. And I want to stay alive myself. By describing them out loud they lose their power over me. Maybe my words will help you feel less alone or ashamed.
I know you feel the only way out of your pain is to stop your pulse. That, unfortunately, is a fantasy. Swallowing the pills or firing the handgun will only result in more pain. It is my theory that you will have to work out the gunk you’re running from in some alien world without a body. And then, of course, there’s the pain that you would leave your loved ones, especially your children.
The only real solution, I have found, is to tell someone. Preferably your physician or therapist. Maybe your partner or a friend who won’t judge you. Consider calling a suicide hotline or checking yourself into the hospital. Trained volunteers, such as those at The Samaritans, provide an invaluable service to severely depressed people who call or email them in desperation.
Talking about suicidal thoughts saves lives. I know this. Because people realize that other good, grateful, Zen-like people experience them, too. The thoughts that try to convince you to leave this world simply come with severe depression. They are mere symptoms, like hiccups, of a brain condition or fragile chemistry that feels at times too painful to endure. Just as chills, nausea, and fatigue are symptoms of the flu, the chronic ruminations demanding a fast exit from here are symptoms of acute depression and anxiety. They mean you are sick rather than “bad.” They are not an indictment of your character.
Do the Thing in Front of You
I realize your suicidal thoughts may have been with you a long time and you can’t live in the hospital psych ward indefinitely. Keep on talking. Keep on being real. Try your best to learn how to become your own trained professional and tease apart your thoughts until you arrive at the truth that will keep you safe from harming yourself.
Sometimes it’s best to stop thinking and simply do the thing that is in front of you — whether that means doing the dishes or calling a friend — and delay the decision to end your life by five minutes at a time, then 10 minutes, then 15 minutes. If the only thing you can do is keel over and cry, then do that, and know that you are doing the most important thing in the world in this very moment: staying alive.
Reduce Your Pain
Don’t trust the vision you have right now. It is a distorted picture formed in desperation and from an imbalance of pain. Martha Ainsworth of metanoia.org explained that suicidal thoughts are an imbalance of pain versus coping resources. The answer rests in finding a way to reduce your pain and increasing your coping resources.
“People often turn to suicide because they are seeking relief from pain,” she explains. “Remember that relief is a feeling. And you have to be alive to feel it. You will not feel the relief you so desperately seek if you are dead.”
Making that distinction has saved my life on countless occasions. I realized that I didn’t want to die. I simply wanted a reprieve from my pain. I trusted that the relief would eventually come because all of our feelings and thoughts — and especially our most excruciating pain — are impermanent. And relief did come. All kinds of feelings — positive and negative — can’t last forever because nothing does. So taking your life is a permanent action for a temporary problem.
You are in the valley of darkness and will soon see the light. Your vision will be restored and you will experience hope again. You can trust me on this because I’ve been where you are many times and have always come out the other side stronger and restored.
The most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life is to resist taking my life in the midst of severe, intense, chronic suicidal thoughts. I try to remind myself every now and then that no matter what I do from here on out, I am already a success because I am alive. I somehow managed to resist the incredibly convincing messages of my brain — the forceful urges of my psyche — to make an exit out of this world.
I once compared not taking your life in the midst of intense suicidal thoughts to not sneezing when you have an urge. People who have battled intense compulsions can relate to this. Everything inside of you thinks that disappearing from this world is the only way that the pain will subside, but that is a lie.
Your only job today is to stay alive. Keep breathing, one moment at a time. You will eventually see that the painful thoughts, as convincing as they are, are a season and won’t last forever.
You’re not alone. I want you to know that you’re in the company of very competent and likable people. This isn’t about you being pathetic or not holding it together. Certain brain circuits are just over-activated from stress or grief or some other reason and your neurons are firing off nasty text messages to the wrong communication centers. Your illness is flaring up much like a case of psoriatic arthritis under stress. Be gentle with yourself. This is not your fault.
Please tell someone.
Know it will pass.
And keep breathing.