The day was going along pleasantly, when there in my internet viewing queue was a highly acclaimed Christian film about evangelization to teenagers at risk of suicide. Obligingly I took a look, meaning to write a review about its teaching material. But the film looked like shock programming to trigger teens toward the director’s agenda. I soon turned it off, wondering how in this day and age anyone can still produce such a terribly anti-helpful message.
How would it look, to even start to get it right?
I don’t have any professional credentials for this. But I made up something anyway. Here we go. – M
The Huge Print
1. I don’t know a thing about the acute emergencies of suicidal teenagers or children, or anyone living with an unsafe life or a head injury or chronic pain or a mental illness or an addiction. That’s a crisis calling for immediate professional help. Don’t look to some language major like me writing an amateur blog.
2. Writing this is not to claim that we can rush in and rescue anybody. At very best, it’s a thought or two on how to just maybe not make things worse. Among the people in my life who are now gone — all of them stronger and smarter and better people than I am — their death always came as a complete surprise. Bear in mind then that my success rate with them all was zero.
Besides, if you have lost a loved one already, you don’t deserve a bunch of advice; you deserve all the support and help and kindness in the world.
3. For the folks who are sailing along on serotonin and oxytocin and endorphins abounding, and have no idea how despair feels — congratulations! That’s wonderful. And if you ever want to use that buoyant self-confidence to hand me advice like candy from a Pez dispenser, then… you don’t need to bother. Thank you though.
So, these are only thoughts on mutual help, from talking to friends and peers who are hyper-brilliant over-educated types with a fierce gift for self-reflection and eloquence and humor. As a rule, they’ve worked through every therapy, recovery program, diet, exercise, and personal philosophy option they can find. Most of them end up stabilizing from serious episodes of despondency, perhaps because they are so skilled at self-expression. Even those who experience innate melancholy loneliness over the long term tend to go on and forge strong families and productive careers.
When people fall in to suicidal thinking, it doesn’t mean necessarily that they want life to end. It probably means that they want life to begin — a life that is safe, that is theirs, that bears some hope. I don’t have the exact quote or the book at hand; but in Ritual Abuse, author Margaret Smith writes that a suicidal thought is a soul saying “I hoped for more from life than this.“)
As a listener I would first ask “What is your level of safety right now?”
Are they just trying to escape from an abuser? From a whole cult of abusers?
Is someone at home keeping them locked in with violence or threats? (This can happen to and by men as well as women.) Is someone bullying or stalking them? Did someone hack in to their social media or target them for harassment?
The first task is to know how safe this person is when they go home tonight for dinner and a night’s sleep, and when they wake up tomorrow. And if they don’t have dinner or a place to sleep, again this is a crisis that needs extra help.
Then I’d ask “What’s the plan?”
Does it involve weapons or travel to a specific place or a specific special day?
Did they make arrangements for their pets or home or favorite things?
Is there a note that they want to write? Who is it for, and what will it say? What do they want people to remember about them?
Another is “What is your strategy for getting through today, or tomorrow?”
Is there someone they can call and talk to? Do they have a hotline number on hand? Are they in therapy? If they are, encourage them to talk about what the therapist might say now. Does the therapist have a way to collect urgent messages after hours? When will you check in with this friend again?
What addictions are crowding in on this person’s life?
Gambling or random sex or alcohol or drugs can make it very hard for anyone to make decisions or calm down.
For plenty of people in my past, nothing I was or said or did, not all my love or caring, was ever as fascinating or as beautiful as a can of beer.
That is also true if your loved one is completely wrapped around some other person — either an ideal figure who is now lost, or someone abusive. There are times when your loved one has so much bandwidth tied up in someone else (for better or for worse) that your presence does not stand a chance. If you try to talk to them and they seem to be hearing (and talking to) only a third person in the room, then maybe that third person really is all that they hear.
And if so, I’m really sorry. Because you can not compete with stuff like that.
Is your loved one reacting to some event? Was it loss of a loved one, loss of health, threat of being deported, chronic pain, humiliation, betrayal? More important, what message did they internalize about the event? Is there a conclusion they’ve drawn, or a special slogan that they tell themselves?
What is their constellation of close people? What’s been going on with these close people lately?
I once assisted with three different patients in the psychiatric ward of a large hospital. All were women age 20 or so, all completely hysterical after suicide attempts, all undocumented immigrants with only minimal English. All were brought in without their consent and placed in locked cells. Then clinicians stood there with clipboards, checking off questions from a list: “Have you noticed a change in your sleep patterns? Eating? Bathroom habits? Blood pressure? Do you no longer practice activities which you used to find enjoyable? On a scale of one to five, would you say that you always, seldom, or never experience thoughts about…” Because I have no clinical training, I couldn’t understand it; I thought they should ask “WHERE IS YOUR MAN?” Why wasn’t her husband or boyfriend here in the waiting room? Where were her children? Her family or friends? I found it hard to believe that a young woman would make it all the way to the US and then try very hard to end her life all on her own. What was going on with her people?
Somehow our Anglo-American retail mass media popular culture seems to assume that we are all emotionally independent agents, no matter what our social circle may be up to. But in fact the opinions and activities and even health habits of our people can affect us deeply. (Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have said “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Despite her affluent celebrity life, Mrs. Roosevelt bravely bore many burdens and sorrows; but social inferiority was not her area of expertise.)
What everyday situations or activities does your friend navigate, to manage the level of this pain?
What helps? What doesn’t?
Your friend might feel like a paramecium under a microscope light, ricocheting around in a rapidly shrinking water drop. But people are still geniuses at navigating their own lives within the limits and constraints and resources that they can see. Their choices might baffle and astonish everybody else because we don’t see the same limits or constraints that they do, or we might see resources that they do not. But they are still geniuses at navigating the lives that they can see. If you can get them to describe that life as they see it, and to tell you their logic such as it is (and if you can sit there and listen), that can teach a lot about what they are dealing with.
What is your loved one’s map of guilt and shame?
Do they feel guilt over something they have done?
Have they acquired a sense of shame over who they are?
Perhaps they have been imposed upon with the message that people with their body shape / facial symmetry / ethnic heritage / criminal record / family messages / spectrum processing differences deserve to die, or will never find anybody anywhere who can understand or love them.
Shrapnel fragments of guilt or shame can burden even people who project a forcefully self-confident, assertive image. They can have an armament of overcompensation tactics to keep you or themselves from ever seeing that cause for shame. At times some random pleasant remark of mine has caused others to detonate from zero to sixty in anger or hysterics; later it turned out that they had a hidden source of guilt or shame, and I’d blundered right into it.
If a person is able to identify and talk about guilt and shame, then they may benefit just from hearing the news that they are in good company, that there are local or internet resources and support abounding.
Have they ever thought of harming anybody else?
Among my people this was an issue in only two cases, and those feelings were temporary. Still, it’s a good idea to find out what local resources are qualified to help if someone is troubled by an idea of this kind.
What is their secret dream?
Don’t raise this subject by saying “You should be proud of yourself. Look at all the gifts and skills God gave you.”
In fact, the idea of unused potential is one more thing for upset people to be upset about, especially if they know their Bible story about the buried talents.
But if a person does have a secret dream of a real-world experience that they might enjoy, try listening to their ideas. The most miserable men I have ever met had some secret cherished dream, one that was reasonable, positive, and in easy reach.
One longed to put on a glittery uniform and twirl a baton in a marching band.
One yearned to go cuddle orphaned puppies in an animal shelter.
One fantasized about singing karaoke.
One wanted to decorate fancy hats with gold lamé and tulle and velvet flowers.
One confided that he wanted to make marionettes and put on a show.
When they decided to trust me with their secret, I always burst out with “Great idea! Let’s start today!” And every one of them said “Are you nuts? I can’t do that. EVERYBODY will laugh at me.”
And yet, people can hook rugs or do magic tricks or yodel or flash a yo-yo and yet still look way cool. If you buy them that pogo stick and give it a demo in their driveway — the secret dream can crack open a window to more light and air and company.
Who is their guiding light?
This is not the same as having an exclusional hero such as a K-Pop band singer. (Not to criticize anybody’s music — but the terms of a K-Pop promotional contract excludes just about everyone in the world from joining the band and making the cut to the top.) A media product star is not available to bring companionship or kindness to someone’s life, and media fantasy worlds don’t strike me as the safest footing for a deeply depressed person anyway.
In contrast, a guiding light is a real-life person who notices the people around them, who imparts kindness, wisdom, acceptance or support in a personal encounter, often without realizing that he or she is having any affect on other people.
This could be the elderly gentleman at the store who bags our groceries and has a smile and a “Have a nice day” for everyone. It could be the school bus driver who greets and learns the names of the pupils. It can be a priest who stays after Mass to chat with the parishioners, a little girl creating wonders in colored chalk on the sidewalk, a clarinet player on the balcony across the street, a UPS driver who sings while slugging boxes to the curb.
If we can invite our loved one to think back and talk about guiding lights, this can align them to notice and benefit from positive people in the future, and to see the guiding light within themselves.
If your loved one can’t think of any examples, show them some Steve Hartman clips from CBS News. They feature people of all kinds who create differences in their communities using the means within reach. Watching these short stories can set up some good mirror neurons and a sense of the possibilities waiting right at home.
Who is their role model in resilience?
Now don’t go hand someone a copy of Unbroken and tell them to be more like Louis Zamperini.
And again, this isn’t about a music celebrity or fashion model or actor or sports figure or portrayed superhero. But see whether your loved one resonates with someone who was slammed with suffering and adversity, and who then
1. took clearly defined steps and choices to work through it,
2. used positive values and ethics,
3. created something better that could never have happened without that adversity, and
4. shared those benefits with other people.
For me that long list includes book authors like these:
Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear
Jimmy Wayne with Ken Abraham, Walk to Beautiful
Rob Scheer, A Forever Family
Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree
Joni Eareckson Tada, Ken Tada, and Larry Libby, Joni and Ken: An Untold Love Story
John Elder Robison, Be Different
Laurence Gonsalez, Surviving Survival
Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam
John Hockenberry, Moving Violations
Diamond Dallas Page, Positively Unstoppable
Nick Vujicic, Life Without Limits
Who needs your loved one?
This does not mean we should ever admonish someone to “Hang in there; look at the people who need you.” Chances are that your loved one is already simmering in guilt, imagining “I’ve let them all down, and they are better off without me.”
But if the conversation does come around to care for a favorite person or pet, then by all means listen to and appreciate whatever way he or she has of being there for them.
In the film Me Before You, maybe what Will needed was not only Lou to love and care for him and cheer him up and take him on vacation to lovely scenic places; maybe what Will needed was a couple of demanding toddlers who would crawl all over him and grab his glasses and clamor for his attention and fatherhood and presence in their lives.
How is your loved one reaching out as a physical creative self?
Again, we have to be very careful not to tripwire a loved one’s shame with this.
When the women in my life talk to me, a top subject is sadness and remorse and frustration about weight, waist size, and diet. Many of us are discouraged about our insulin resistance and food cravings, or the physical experience of moving around in our own bodies, or catching sight of those bodies in the mirror without the usual assortment of clothes. And we Americans as a culture are terribly harsh about criticizing our own musical or artistic talent, preferring to purchase or download only professional products for our entertainment. (Try asking Americans whether they can sing or draw. They’ll probably protest like a bottle rocket.)
But maybe we can listen for and show pleasure at any spontaneous physical activity on their part. Maybe he or she has started to practice with a dance video, or started a little garden, or started walking a neighbor’s dog, or fished the guitar out of the closet, or rediscovered the French lessons from college days. Physical hands-on tasks and activities can move the brain forward, expanding it outward from whatever hurt and pain has injured its wellbeing. Even small tasks can build a foundation for good things.
Is there positive structure or organization to build upon in this person’s life?
Frozen intertia and perfectionism go hand in hand. Perhaps your friend is afraid to tackle any task or have any structure. Maybe he fears the shame of missing a day of the routine, or she fears being mocked if she makes a mistake. But perhaps your loved one would enjoy calling you at the same time every morning to establish a regular waking and sleeping cycle, or would like sharing even a 15 minute walk after supper. If clutter or hoarding is a source of stress, perhaps the two of you can have an Amish-style Barn-Raising or Quilting Bee: he or she sits with you at your home for one hour one week to be supportive while you declutter a closet, and then you go and visit for an hour while he or she tackles some housekeeping chore with your support.
Can he or she start keeping a journal of good things?
A wonderful priest used to encourage us to keep a daily journal, and to write down three good things to be grateful for from each day of our lives.
During one very rough time I started writing down every single offer of help. When anyone said “Here is my phone number. Call any time before 10 pm,” or “I’m always happy to give you a ride to the support group,” I wrote it all down. It felt good to have a written record by the phone of people and their offers.
Nowadays, right before bed I read five Psalms, choose one particularly beautiful sentence from among them, and write it out in a notebook kept with my Bible in the kitchen. That one sentence is something to memorize and appreciate as a last thought of the day while falling asleep, and a first thought for waking up the next morning. The notebook also keeps all my favorite verses, ready to pick up and review.
Does your loved one have some idea of how a good life would look?
Perhaps the person has no idea. Here are some possibilities dreamed up by my imagination.
A family of people who support, understand, and are eager to know and respect our thoughts and feelings and to tell us theirs.
A Beloved Person to do life with, somewhere along the way.
A spiritual community.
Nourishing food in health-promoting quantities.
Home space of safety and permanence as a place for rejuvenation and self-expression and hospitality.
Balanced wholesome exercise as our health permits (I’ve known completely bedridden people who improved their health just by deep breathing and meditation).
Good work that brings fulfillment, a comfortable income, and appreciation.
Access to natural beauty.
Something to stay alive for next year, and in 5 and 10 and 20 years.
“Hey Mary — you didn’t mention diet, exercise, medications, and treatment methods!”
Yup. Plenty of websites do, written by people who unlike me are qualified experts.
And say now. Speaking of websites — advice columnist Cary Tennis is back! Good news for lucid public wisdom:
Learning From Pain: How Not to Kill Yourself
Now. While you’re listening to a person in pain who is afflicted by suicidal thoughts,
Please don’t laugh and crack jokes.
As Judge Rob Rinder tells us, “Don’t be STIUPID.”
This goes double if your witticism is sexual or morbid. Some of the kindest and best people will resort to jolliness by default, in the well-meaning (or frightened) effort to snap their loved one out of feeling sad. (These are the same folks who clown their way through wakes and funerals. Maybe they’ll all show up for mine, pouring out of a little car with bicycle horns and a rubber chicken.) A whole class of my college students from Country X loudly insisted that the only way to respond to a suicidal person is to ridicule him — and the more earthy and graphic and explicit the jokes about his demise, the better. I wonder what success rate is attained by Taunt Therapy?
Don’t cut him off with a pat contradiction such as “Everybody feels blue sometimes.” In fact, don’t cut him off at all. If you can’t cope with the conversation, let him know that and go find somebody who can.
Don’t tell him that suicide is for cowards.
The people who say that — have they ever served in combat or worked with veterans?
Chances are, your loved one already believes that these feelings mark him as a total loser. At one Catholic church event attempting to raise suicide awareness, every single audience member vented plenty of anger and zero compassion — over the suffering that their suicidal relative had caused to them. One woman, in obvious and understandable pain at losing her middle-aged son, cried out “Suicide is a cluster bomb aimed directly at The Family.” I bit back my tongue from saying “Ma’am, your son was in no shape to aim anything at anybody. That cluster bomb went off in his mind years and years ago.”
Don’t tell him that if he commits suicide he’s going to hell.
The Scared Straight Deterrence method really does not work.
He’s heard that. Over and over. Besides, he’s basically living there already. All we can do is tap on the wall and tell him we know he’s in there, that plenty of people have chipped their way out, that help is out here, and there are ways to navigate this.
When we apply that pat judgment to someone else, there are 180 degrees of extenuating circumstances that we just don’t know about.
And if you believe (or have been told) that your loved one is in hell, this is a terrible lie. You deserve counseling and understanding from the best and wisest advisor possible.
Don’t tell her she needs to believe in your favorite God.
Heaven knows how many people have demanded that I convert to their faith in their dunk tank or fire-coal walk or whatever, in order to be cured. I never tell my atheist friends that converting to my faith will cure them. For one thing, my atheist friends are waiting for it to cure me first. (It’s still a perfectly good faith; Jesus didn’t promise us a bed of roses.)
Of course, it’s good to listen for and gently sift through someone’s beliefs if they are virulently damaging to him or her. For example, one young lady asked me in fear and trembling to reveal the secret Bible verses; she informed me that The Jesuits use a special esoteric translation of these verses as permission for them to rape children. So I sat down with her and we chatted through that one.
And if he or she has a favorite faith system with positive sensible beliefs and practical value, then sure — take an interest and show appreciation. I’ve gone with people to their favorite house of worship, made and sent cards with inscriptions from their favorite holy books, and learned to sing some of their favorite hymns.
Don’t point out that other people have it worse, and therefore they should cheer up.
That’s as helpful as telling a crying child left all alone at the dinner table that starving children in Pittsburgh really want his cold Brussels sprouts.
So what can help?
Take very good care of yourself.
Aside from special emergencies, this will be a marathon, not a sprint.
Your friends have to learn that you too are a sensitive person; if you weren’t, you wouldn’t be listening to them in the first place.
Communicate your availability and limits in advance. Let your loved one know whether you can have drop-in visitors at the office, or whether a call or a knock at the door at 3:00 am is okay or not, or whether it’s too hard for you to listen to specific details about violent past events or abuse.
If the friend’s revelation takes you by surprise, think about your own plan for the day. Will you need to take medications in an hour, or let the dog out? If your time is limited, say so beforehand; I always thank the person for telling me, assure them that this is important and that I want to hear all about it, and arrange for a time as soon as possible.
If you’re both sitting down to talk, start with a comfort check: are you both seated comfortably? Are the lighting and temperature okay? Before the talk starts, both of you go take a trip to the rest room and fix a mug of tea to hold before you hunker down.
If the talk goes on a while, a person talking about horrific emotions may well shift gears and say “And how about YOU?” or might even take the initiative to start joking around. (I promised one friend “You can joke around all you want. I promise to not assume that you’re Over It.”)
After the talk, reach out the next day if you’re able, just to say hello in case your loved one fears that you’re now going to bail out of her life.
Going forward, what might help (or at least offer some breathing room) is to show up and be physically present to your loved one in some manageable consistent reliable way.
What helped me was a valiant little self-facilitated support group that met every single Saturday for ten years until everybody got better and moved away.
One group of men formed a Sunday baseball team. They were all recovering from severe sexual abuse, and all were in therapy, but according to their wives they didn’t rehash it in conversation. They just relied on the other guys to show up once a week and crack a bat and chase a ball all over a field.
One friend booked a weekly schedule among two dozen women neighbors. At the scheduled time she would show up in each living room, curl up in a corner, sob her heart out, and crochet gorgeously colored drawstring bags. We all knew her story, and we could go right on fixing dinner or grading papers until the end of the hour. Then she’d dry her eyes, give us a hug, and drive to the next house. Before long her fine handiwork was in demand in shops all over town, and she started her own business. She recovered beautifully, and two dozen women were the happy recipients of lovely crocheted gifts.
What matters is not just the strength of someone’s death wish; what matters a lot more is the strength of their will to live. The two can co-exist for an entire highly productive honorable lifetime. The most suicidal people I’ve ever known, even on their worst days, can still
Love other people and creatures great and small.
Create beautiful works and deeds.
We can affirm their ability to do just that. We can notice and appreciate the efforts that they make.
Despondency seeps under the foundation of our shared human condition.
Some are keenly aware of it. Others are not aware at all.
Sometimes, that despondency can take us under, and good honorable people can die from sheer pain.
It can also galvanize us to great and wondrous achievements.
Being suicidal is not just a black or white either/or condition. There may be many many steps that lead closer to the edge, and many many steps that lead away to safe pasture. And every day, every time another person crosses my path or my desk phone or my email, I do know that I do not know the pain they are in or what kind of day they are having or what forces are blowing through their sky. All we can do is make every effort to say a kind word and show some courtesy and respect.
Sometimes, just for today, that can make a difference.