How I Avoided Suicide
“The pain of depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain.”
Phlosopher Albert Camus once wrote that the only real philosophical question to ask is whether or not to kill yourself. To a person like myself suffering from depression, however, the question of suicide was not academic. The pain of my depression was intense, seemingly ever-present, and it felt like it would never end. My depression could be compared to having an ongoing nightmare where the only way to end the dream is to annihilate the dreamer. People with serious illnesses such as cancer and heart disease do not kill themselves in large numbers; depressed people do.
Many theories exist that attempt to explain the motivation for suicide. Freud postulated a death instinct. Others have suggested that man is endowed with “a drive to destruction.” But to anyone who has experienced suicidal pain, the explanation is so simple, so self-evident, that it requires neither psychiatric nor psychological jargon. Death is chosen because suffering is so acute, so agonizing, so intolerable, that there comes a time—depending on the individual’s tolerance for pain and the available support—that ceasing to suffer becomes the most important thing.
People in life-or-death survival conditions, such as being lost in the wilderness or being held prisoner of war, will dream and plan for the future in order to make their present conditions tolerable. The critically ill heart patient expresses his faith in his upcoming surgery by making a date to play golf six weeks after the operation. The imprisoned soldier dreams of being reunited with his wife and family.
But in my depression, I could see no viable future. There was no light at the end of the tunnel. Both ends of the tunnel were sealed off, and a sign on the door read “No Exit.” There was nothing to look forward to, no dreams to fulfill, only the never-ending agony of the eternal present. In this context, I saw suicide not as an act of self-destruction, but as an act of self-love.
To Be or Not To Be
“To remain as I am is impossible.
I must either die or be better, it appears to me.”
I first began to experience suicidal feelings (the clinical term is “suicidal ideation”) in November 1996, shortly after I was discharged from the psychiatric ward. As my pain intensified and I became overwhelmed with the thought of eternal suffering, I remembered Nietzsche’s words: “The thought of suicide is a great consolation; by means of it one gets through many a bad night.” Realizing that I could always end my life when the agony became intolerable granted me a sense of peace and relief.
I knew I was serious about killing myself when I drew up a will, named my brother the executor, and sent copies to him and a good friend. I wanted to put my financial house in order before I died. Having taken care of my remaining fiscal responsibilities. I spent countless hours deliberating on the most efficient way to terminate my existence. My first choice was to use a gun, because it seemed so quick and final. Then I remembered a crisis counselor telling me about a man who suffered irreparable brain damage when he shot himself in the head. “I wouldn’t try it,” the counselor warned. “You might end up a vegetable.”
My next plan was to jump off a building, but after picturing myself walking to the ledge and looking down, I remembered that I was afraid of heights. Also, a friend at a day treatment had asked me an unsettling question:
“What if, halfway to the ground, you change your mind?”
Finally, I resolved to take an overdose of the antidepressants and tranquilizers that I had saved up over the past few months. This also frightened me, since I didn’t really want to die, and was concerned about the people I would leave behind. I knew that if I killed myself, my friends and family would not only be grief-stricken, but angry and guilty as well. “Why should I drag all of these people into my nightmare?” I thought.
My concerns about the impact of my death on others were shared by a fellow patient at day treatment.
“Don’t do it!” Dennis cried emphatically, when I told him of my plans.
“My brother offed himself twenty-five years ago and I still haven’t forgiven the bastard. Don’t make your friends and relatives go through what I did.”
“All right,” I replied. “I’ll try to be more considerate.”
Unfortunately, my resolve to avoid suicide was only as good as the kind of day I was having. When graced with five or six hours without symptoms, I would think, “Maybe I’m in remission,” and hope for the best. Too often, however, the respite would give way to a downturn in mood, which brought with it the voices of doom—i.e., “Suicidal ideation is a hit across the nation” and “Madness or suicide, it’s yours to decide.” My choices seemed clear—either spend the rest of my life in hell (I believed I would live out my days in a state mental hospital), or put an end to the pain. Both outcomes were unacceptable, but I could not imagine a third alternative. In my anguish I cried out, “God! Show me another way—or at least give me some hope that another way is possible.”
Meetings with Angels
“For we are saved by hope,but a hope that is not seen is not hope:
for why would a man hope for that which he sees? But if we hope
for what we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.”
When Paul the Apostle wrote “We are saved by hope,” he was not speaking in platitudes. Research has shown that the risk of depression is correlated more with hopelessness than with the intensity of the depression. It seems that we can endure all sorts of pain and suffering if we are even remotely optimistic that things will get better, or that there is a meaning to our suffering. Conversely, people with lesser degrees of depressive pain can become suicidal if they lose hope for a better future. Hopelessness, not sadness, is the antecedent to suicide.
If a way out of hopelessness did exist, I knew that I could not find it alone. Since my mind was trapped inside an “either-or” thought loop (as depicted by the rhyme “Madness or suicide, it’s yours to decide”), it would take another person to lead me out of my mental prison.
The first person I turned to for help was the Reverend Mary Manin Morrissey, the spiritual director of the Living Enrichment Center. Having known me from the early days of LEC, Mary took a special interest in my case.
“When you start to think that all is hopeless and that there is no solution except suicide,” she said, “remind yourself that you are under the influence of a ‘drug’ called depression. This chemical imbalance is distorting your view of reality. Thus, you should not consider your feelings of hopelessness to reflect the truth of your situation.”
“How do I prevent myself from giving in to the despair?” I asked.
“Try to think of your depression as a bridge instead of an abyss, a transition period instead of an end point. There is a universal law of polarity, which says that all states of consciousness eventually turn into their opposites—i.e., pleasure becomes pain and pain becomes pleasure. Likewise, your suffering will one day turn into joy.”
“That’s impossible,” I replied. “To me, depression is a bottomless black hole from which there is no escape.”
“Then you will need to have the ‘soul strength’ or ‘spiritual endurance’ to stay in the pain until it repatterns and transmutes,” Mary replied. “There is a Higher Power that is more powerful than any condition, including this depression. Maybe you had this breakdown so you would be forced to turn to God above anything else.”
“Do you have any ideas on how to do that?”
“I know that you are a student of the Old and New Testaments,” Mary replied. “Throughout the Bible, especially in the Book of Psalms, we hear about God’s promises of deliverance. I suggest you read through the psalms and write down the verses that give you comfort or hope. You might even want to post them in your home where you will be sure to see them on a regular basis.”
I was glad that Mary had faith in my recovery. In the days that followed, I took her suggestion to heart. I located a number of psalms, as well as inspirational quotations from my book I Am With You Always, and placed them in strategic locations in my office, bedroom, and the bathroom. (They found on my web page, “Prayers for Overcoming Depression.”)
During this period, it was hard to find people to talk to about my suicidal thoughts. Many friends, and even some psychotherapists, could not handle the intensity of my suicidal pain and became overwhelmed. Whenever I tried to share my suicidal thoughts, they would either get angry or abruptly change the subject. Only those people who were specifically trained to treat major depression, or who had “been there and back,” could deal with my extreme condition.
One such person was a social worker named Judy. Having attempted suicide herself, she knew firsthand what goes on in the mind of a suicidal individual. Judy saw her clients, many of whom were in severe crisis, out of her small Victorian home, nestled in the Columbia River Gorge, twenty-five miles east of Portland. At our first meeting, she got right to the heart of the matter.
“Suicide is not chosen,” Judy said emphatically. “It comes when emotional pain exceeds the resources for coping with the pain.”
While speaking, Judy showed me a picture of scales to illustrate her point.
“You are not a bad or weak person,” she continued. “Neither do you want to die; you just want to end your suffering.”
I nodded in agreement.
“Your problem is that the scales are weighed down on the side of the pain. To get the scales back in balance, you can do one of two things: discover a way to reduce your pain, or find a way to increase your coping resources.”
I explained that the former option seemed impossible.
“Then let me give you a coping resource that I’m sure you will find lifesaving,” Judy said, as she handed me a pamphlet titled “How to Cope with Suicidal Thoughts and Feelings.” I read it briefly and felt a mild sense of hope. (See my web page, “When you are suicidal.”)
“One more thing,” Judy added. “I know you think that killing yourself will end your pain. But according to what I’ve read, consciousness continues even after death. Some people even believe that we reincarnate and return to earth in order to work out issues that we didn’t resolve in this life. Perhaps there is no easy escape.”
“What other option are you suggesting?”
“Stick around until you get better. Crises, including suicidal ones, are time-limited,” Judy countered. Eventually, something’s got to give. Provided you don’t kill yourself, you will be around to experience the next chapter of your life.”
“That’s easy for you to say, but you’re not in this hell. My intuition is telling me that I’m stuck here forever.”
“Cognitively, you cannot help but think ‘I am permanently frozen in horrible pain.’ This is what depression is—a failure of the imagination. The chemical imbalance in your brain is preventing you from envisioning a positive future. Nevertheless, I want you to at least make room for the possibility that some unexpected good might grace your life.”
“Beating Michael Jordan in a one-on-one basketball game would be more likely, ” I replied.
This, Too, Shall Pass
Sensing that I was stuck in unbelief, Judy leaned back in her chair and recounted the following parable.
According to an ancient tale, a Sufi village was attacked and captured by a group of warriors. The king of the victorious tribe told the vanquished that unless they fulfilled his wish, the entire village would be put to death the following morning. The King’s wish was to know the secret of what would make him happy when he was sad, and sad when he was happy.
The village people constructed a large bonfire, and all night long their wise men and women strove to answer the riddle: what could make a person happy when he is sad, and sad when he is happy? Finally, sunrise dawned and the king entered the village. Approaching the wise ones, he asked, “Have you fulfilled my request?” “Yes!” they replied. The king was delighted. “Well, show me your gift.” One of the men reached into a pouch and presented the King with a gold ring.
The king was perplexed. “I have no need of more gold,” he exclaimed. “How can this ring make me happy when I am sad, and sad when I am happy?” The king was told to look again. Then and he noticed that the ring bore an inscription. It read, This, Too, Shall Pass.
“It is an immutable law of the cosmos,” Judy continued, “that the only constant in the universe is change. Haven’t things happened to you that you never would have predicted?”
I nodded my head as I recalled the many experiences, both good and bad, that life had unexpectedly brought me.
“Since you cannot know your future with absolute certainty, then, allow for the possibility that a healing may be waiting for you around the corner. Your therapist tells me that you have already created a survival plan for yourself.”
“I use it to get through each day.”
“Good. Then stick with your strategy. Instead of fretting about the future, simply create the support that you need to stay alive, one day at a time. Please repeat this statement: “I am creating the support that I need to stay alive, one day at a time.”
“I am creating the support that I need to stay alive, one day at a time,” I said meekly.
“Good! Now I want you to repeat this affirmation every day. It doesn’t matter whether you believe it; keep saying it anyway. I know that you are going to live.”
Judy’s heartfelt sincerity and intensity left a deep impression on me. Although I felt hopeless, she seemed so confident. “Maybe she’s right,” I mused.
Mary and Judy were two of the many guardian angels who came to me in my darkest hour. They presented a vision of healing to me that I could not see for myself. Although their faith in my restoration did not remove my physical and psychological pain, it did give me a reason to hang on. And as long as I stayed alive, a miracle was possible.