I want to return to a subject I have written about in previous blogs − suicide. This continues to be an important topic for me, as I have been suicidal at various times in my life and I work with suicidal people through my depression support groups.
Many people who have never been severely depressed might ask, “Why would anybody want to kill themselves?” After all, taking one’s life goes directly against the survival instinct that nature has programmed us with. For example, if you were walking across the street and saw a car coming towards you − your first instinct would be to jump out of its path.
Thus, from the outside looking in, suicide seems like an irrational decision. Yet, when the brain becomes overwhelmed with chronic, intense pain that seems to have no end, then suicide becomes not only a rational choice, but a compelling option. After all, if you are faced with the prospect of being in eternal hell, then taking your own life seems like an act of self-love, not an act of self-detruction.
There is only one problem with this way of thinking − it is based on an IRRATIONAL assumption that things will never get better. That is a misperception, because the only truth in the physical world is that change is inevitable, that no state however torturous can endure forever. As the Buddhists say, everything is impermanent − including the very suffering that leads one to consider suicide. In fact not only are states of consciousness impermanent, but they eventually turn into their opposites. As David said in Psalm 126, “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.”
If this is true, the challenge then becomes, how do we endure that pain while waiting for it to change? The key is to respond the pain by increasing our coping strategies and resources. Here are some that I and others have found helpful
- Break the pain into manageable parts − If you feel overwhelmed, try to make it through one day at a time, or one hour or minute at at time. If you find yourself catastrophizing about the future, refocus onto the present moment through positive self-talk and constructive action. For example, you might replace the statement “I’ll never get better” with “What self-care strategy (calling a friend, going for a swim, taking an antianxiety medication, etc.) can I choose right now to get me through this period?” Then put the strategy into action.
- Try surrendering to the pain and experience it as a wave washing over you. As the wave makes contact, see if you can ride the wave by focusing on your breath. Breathe through the sensations, breathing in and out while attending to the sound of your breathing. I talk about this technique more in a You Tube video called, “Bearing the unbearable pain.”
- Another coping strategy is to notice the moments when there is a break from the pain. For example, in the winter of my last deressive episode, Portland was unexpectedly blessed with a sunny day. As I beheld with awe and wonder the magnificent pinks and red hues of the sunset, I recalled the words of poet Robert Browning—“God’s in his heaven; all’s right with the world!” The experience was made all the more poignant by its transitory nature; I knew that in a matter of hours my depression would return, and I would be cast back into outer darkness.
In another instance, a friend and I spent an evening listening to the celestial chants of the Taize monks, founders of an intentional spiritual community located in the south of France. I was particularly moved by one refrain: “Within our darkest night, you kindle the fire that never dies away, that never dies away…” As my voice merged with the voices of the audience, I was momentarily catapulted into ecstasy. Like a trapeze artist balanced on the high wire, I stood suspended above the abyss of my suicidal thoughts, safe from harm.
Having moments like this was akin to making deposits into an “emotional bank account.” When I sank back into my depression I would draw upon my stored memories and affirm that life could still be beautiful, if only for an instant
- If you can’t locate any respites in the presdent, then about some pleasant memory from the past. A single positive memory is a coping resource and has the same impact as something that occurs right now. This is because the brain cannot tell the difference between what is real and what it imagines.
- Finally, stay in touch with others, as they are your lifeline to healing. Every single person in my support group who was desperately suicidal and reached out to others is alive today.
A well known cliche says − ”Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” The truth of this was brought home to me when I learned about a person who had jumped from the golden gate bridge and survived. He is quoted as saying, “As I passed the guard rail, I suddenly realized that everything that I thought was unfixable was in reality fixable.” Fortunately, he survived and was given the opportunity to repair his life. Others have been less fortunate.
I would like to end this article with a personal message for anyone who may be suicidal or who knows someone who is suicidal.
If you are on the edge of the abyss, don’t jump.
If you are going through hell, don’t stop.
As long as you are breathing, there is hope.
As long as day follows night, there is hope.
Nothing stays the same forever.
Set an intention to heal,
reach out for support, and you will find help.
I hope that this information has been helpful, and remember what they say in AA: “Don’t give up five minutes before the miracle!”
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More information about Douglas’s approach to finding alternatives to suicide pain be found at
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.