In Acts 16:26 of the New Testament, Saint Paul and Silas were in prison when the prison doors miraculously flew open. “When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew [his] sword and was about to kill himself, thinking that the prisoners had escaped.” Selflessly, rather than in anger against someone who had held him captive without good cause, St. Paul “shouted out in a loud voice, ‘Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.’”
The jailer in that moment decides not to commit suicide. He instead asks them, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” The Bible only tells of St. Paul’s initial words to the jailer. It doesn’t give all of the specifics as to what precisely gave the suicidal jailer hope.
I view St. Paul as usually being sincere in wanting to help people. A lot of people don’t care if someone else is suicidal, even if that person has done nothing wrong to them. Some people do care, and some of them believe in the mental health industry for the suicidal, which may or may not help someone. It may even do more harm than good. Some mental health professionals do care about suicidal people. Some of them care more about their income and status than they do for the desperate person sitting in front of them.
Some suicidal people may only benefit from the extraordinary selflessness and profound empathy demonstrated by St. Paul to his jailer. Credentials don’t measure for that.
When I was 28, my life had reached a crisis. Much of my life had been excruciatingly terrible. The career that I had always thought I wanted, I realized that I didn’t want, but I didn’t know what I did want. My friends had abandoned me, because I was too depressed and having financial problems that were simply unacceptable at that age. I was waitressing, broke, and I couldn’t keep up with the usurious interest rates on my credit cards. I had nothing going for me and no hope. All signs pointed to the idea that I was doomed to a life of pointless, joyless, impoverished, and meaningless wage slavery to lenders who would never forgive me or stop terrorizing me. I felt I had no reason to hope. Not only could I not achieve great things, I couldn’t even achieve an ordinary, relatively happy life of mediocrity.
I decided to commit suicide with sleeping pills and alcohol. As I was going to sleep, I prayed. I prayed, “God, please forgive me. I just didn’t know what else to do. Please forgive me. It’s in your hands now. Do what you will with me. I give up.”
I didn’t die, but was in and out of consciousness for about a week. Sometimes I would get up and walk around the house and interact with my family. My Mom said, “You look like you lost some weight.” I couldn’t believe it. I had just tried to commit suicide, and all she cared about was what I looked like. I had well hidden my suicide attempt from my family, but was thinking emotionally, rather than rationally.
I tried again. This time with a bunch of allergy pills. I didn’t pray this time. I wanted specifically to choose to die. When I woke up, I had a low-grade fever of a little over 100 for about a month.
Eventually, I started reflecting on what I had done. As I had in the past, I turned to my Christian faith for solace, but this time ferociously. I started realizing that suicide is a sin. Not a sin that therefore condemns those who are successful at it, but one that saddens a perfect God. I felt that in God’s view, every life is precious, and that included mine. All of the various exclusivist ways of valuing people, I felt, would necessarily exclude me too. The ideas that you have to be financially self-sufficient and “responsible” in order to have a place in society. Social beliefs that you should have an education in order to have a right to a living wage or any dignified place in society. I had a ninth-grade education and a GED. Other social beliefs that you are supposed to have hit certain milestones by certain ages. I didn’t measure up in Christian circles either, where a woman’s value is as a quiet helpmeet and a good mother. And the way a woman dresses is a greater indication of her love for God than whether or not she has a sincere bone in her body. So, I didn’t want to believe in those things anymore. A person with more money, power, or social privilege doesn’t have more worth, just more advantages.
I found viewing suicide as a sin helpful in curbing my own desire to just end it all. I decided that I shouldn’t do anything that made me feel suicidal. Working as a waitress and being terrorized and publicly humiliated by debt collectors made me feel suicidal, so I decided that I shouldn’t work anymore. Answering the phone and thinking about the debt collectors made me feel suicidal, so I stopped answering the phone and tried to think of other things. I decided that if vicious debt collectors and other financial monsters wanted to spend their lives hurting and destroying other people, that was their choice. But as for me, I would serve the Lord. I was fortunate that I was living with my parents and they were able to provide for my essential survival needs at that time when I needed not to work in order to not commit suicide. I had wanted so much more than mere survival, so it made me depressed, but not suicidal.
There were many biblical passages that I clung to during this time. In Matthew 10:22, Jesus said, “You will be hated by all because of my name, but whoever endures to the end will be saved.” And, “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first.” (John 15:18) I did indeed feel that entire world hated me. So many Americans hate the poor, especially bad debtors. It is seen by many as a greater moral failing to be a poor bad debtor than a wealthy CEO who exploits his workers and lays people off simply to gain greater profit for himself, the company, and shareholders. Such a person may even be given awards for great leadership and be featured in leading publications as an example of success. I felt at that time, though, that Jesus loved me, and that’s the only opinion that should matter.
Isaiah 42:3 says, “A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench.” This speaks of the tenderness of God. No matter how small or weak my faith or I was, it was never God who desired for my ruin. The Christian proof was this: rather than harm anyone to save himself, Jesus accepted suffering and crucifixion.
Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours” (Luke 6:20). I had a pretty much impossible ability to see how such a financial situation was a blessing. But as I felt I had nothing else, I was open to the idea that God might somehow specially bless me. Somehow faith might justify my existence in the world. The idea of turning the world’s logic on its head appealed to me too.
Jeremiah 29:11 says, “’For I know well the plans I have in mind for you,’ says the Lord, ‘Plans for your welfare, not for woe! Plans to give you a future full of hope.’” I wanted to believe in this, though I don’t know so much that I did. I still cling to this verse sometimes.
St. Paul wrote in the Bible, “If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that” (1 Timothy 6:8). I had never before thought of intentionally embracing a life of poverty and/or simplicity. Modern life in the US seemed to demand so much more just to get by. And I still wasn’t happy about the relative simplicity that I was forced to embrace. Deliberately choosing a life of simplicity for the sake of entering a religious order seemed more like a rebuke of materialism and that it might open up greater focus on more important things.
In Isaiah 53:5, it says, “by his stripes we were healed.” This is a prophecy of Christ’s redemptive suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection. I yearned for that healing. I really had no idea what that would consist of, as I felt my whole life was a disaster. I had no idea where God had been during my life.
Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). I started realizing that as little as I made, I really was living my life at the service of money, rather than God. Yes, my financial problems were a big and damning problem, but I needed so much more than money. A purpose. Higher, life-giving goals. Meaning. It had always seemed to me that the only way to attain those things was to have enough money to begin with. But that wasn’t my situation, so I had to make do with what I had. I recognized too that the debt collector terrorists also had the wrong priorities and were wasting their lives as well.
The Bible says, “All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). So, I felt that if I was actually some terrible sinner, I had a lot of company—everyone. This is sort of the equalizing factor in Christianity. No sinner can claim that they are more fundamentally deserving of a better life than others through his or her own merit. A good life is a gift. And the many harms that many people endure are typically an injustice or a tragedy. A recognition of the universality of sin came as a relief to me in another way. I am not God. I am not perfect, and I don’t have to be. I hadn’t thought that I was God, but had felt intense pressure to be perfect in everyone’s eyes.
St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance. For this we toil and struggle, because we have set our hope on the living God, who is the savior of all, especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:9-10). This gave me a sense of God’s pluralism and mercy. He wasn’t eager to damn, or divisive in order to gain power for himself, or cruel. Those were the actions of people. Salvation in this view meant that one needn’t even be a Christian, thus making faith a true choice. Jesus said to enter through the narrow gate, not the narrow mind.
I could probably cite half of the Bible in terms of what I found helpful, but some of it was scary. At the same time, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). I kept thinking about Judas Iscariot who was one of the original disciples and a friend of Jesus, yet he committed suicide. I thought that maybe some of us were just doomed. Yet, Jesus said, “When I was with them I protected them in your name, and none of them was lost except the son of destruction, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled.” Even Judas’ tragic death was made purposeful by God. And my story hadn’t been written yet. It might not end in suicide.
Jesus’ sayings about the world’s hatred gave me a new kind of freedom to make choices that I felt were in my own genuine best interest despite social convention and whether or not anyone despised me or attacked me for it.
I once heard a priest on the radio say that it’s normal to feel suicidal when your life is very bad. That made me feel better. It was a way of not judging understandable human emotions, rather than pathologizing and drugging them, as the mental health industry does. Some of the biblical prophets even felt suicidal at certain points, and they’re considered prophets. Not so much a character flaw or moral failing as it is a sign that something is wrong.
When Jezebel was seeking to murder Elijah the prophet, he fled and ended up in the desert, where he prayed, “This is enough, O’ Lord! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:2-4). Elijah’s prayers had been so powerful that he likely expected God to say “yes” to this one too, but God did not. Elijah had fled to save his life, but then wanted to die. Perhaps things had just become too overwhelming. Maybe it was the loss of control that he was facing, and an uncertain and potentially brutal future. Maybe he felt abandoned by God, or unworthy of his love. Despite Elijah’s extraordinary suffering, God did desire for his good. He went on to appear alongside Moses and they conversed with Jesus at Jesus’ transfiguration (Matthew 17:3).
The main theme of the Bible seemed to be love. It’s something that seemed so lacking in my own world, and in the world generally. But it seemed like a worthy goal to aspire to. Trying to make money hadn’t worked out for me. I realized I didn’t have any control over how anyone treated me. I could only control how I treated others. I didn’t feel up to the task of actively loving people who attacked me. But sometimes in the Bible, the disciples and prophets simply escaped those who attacked them, and moved on.
I had a nearly impossible time trusting anyone at that time on any level. I felt the Pope was maybe the only person on earth I could even consider trusting, even if only from a great distance. I read a bunch of Pope John Paul II’s books and found many of his words inspirational. I didn’t agree with him about everything, but felt that he wasn’t the kind of person to demand that you worship his every breath.
I realized that he couldn’t magically solve all of my problems, but I felt that he could at least pray for me. As it says in James 5:16, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
I wrote him a letter, briefly explaining my distress. I begged him to “Please pray for me,” which I underlined many times.
I started reading more books about Christian spirituality, among them Mother Teresa’s. I loved her idealism. One of her books had the contact info for her convents in the US. Wanting to be useful, and do something for love, I started volunteering at the convent closest to me in their soup kitchen.
I much preferred serving people for love for no money, rather than serving people who had money for a teeny bit of pointless money. It also gave me a lot of perspective about my own stupid problems and anxieties. I overheard one of the men who had just had lunch there say, “Another day on this side of the ground is a good day.” I found that inspiring. He was grateful for the simple gift of life itself. It didn’t make me grateful for my life, but it helped me to see beyond the “logic” that I had succumbed to.
After many months, I received a letter back from the Vatican. It said that the Pope had received my letter and he sends his blessing. It also said, “He will pray for your intentions.” I was amazed and so happy. I didn’t even know what my intentions were. It gave me something to figure out.
In 2005, I totally spilled my guts in confession. I nearly totally condemned myself for every possible sin I could remember. I didn’t make any excuses for my sins or give any context. There was one exception. One of my debt collectors was suing me for bad, old credit-card debt. I felt they were in the wrong for suing a poor and destroyed person. Wasn’t it enough that my credit was ruined and that I had been forced out of the economy? The priest seemed to think that not paying them was a sin. Obviously, if I had had the money, I would have just given it to those terrorists, just so they would stop terrorizing me. The priest said something to the effect of, “If I owed money…”
I said, “There is nothing I can do about it.”
I felt that my reasoning—that people’s lives are more valuable than money—was sound. Even thinking about it still made me feel suicidal, so I didn’t want to think about it. Shouldn’t the debt collectors just forgive me? This fact that other people typically never forgave me for any fault or failing or sin, whereas I forgave others of true crimes, made me feel like a sucker.
I sort of realized that everyone has their own ideas about what constitutes a big sin. Irreligious people may not use the language of sin, but make similar judgments nonetheless.
Despite the complicated interaction that I had with the priest, he was basically a good person. He counseled me that there was a ray of hope. I didn’t see or feel any hope at that time. It hasn’t been until more recently, after some major life changes, and weaning down from psychiatric drugs that I am beginning to see the tiniest slivers of hope.
At my next confession, with a different priest, I confessed to throwing out legal letters and not paying debt collectors. I explained how thinking about it made me all suicidal. He said, “I’m not going to tell you what to do about it.”
I said, “I can suffer. That is something that I can do.”
In Catholicism, there is this idea that suffering can sometimes be sanctifying, not only for the one who suffers, but for others too, even if only somehow, mystically. This can be poor consolation in the midst of great trials and tragedy. But when suffering seems unavoidable and pointless, at least it offers the promise of meaning and good out of evil.
When the cop from the sheriff’s office came to the front door to deliver the civil lawsuit over credit card debt, I was working on a flower mural in my parents’ tiny foyer. I remembered seeing a criminologist on TV as a child describe how when someone is attacking you, you should try to do something to humanize yourself to him. I explained that they had been charging me 34 percent interest. He said, “That’s a lot.”
I asked him what would happen if I couldn’t pay. He said that he would take all of my property. I said, “I live with my parents, in my parents’ house. Most of the things in here belong to them. So, how would you know what belongs to them and what belongs to me?”
He said, “That’s a good question.”
I told him I owned a car. He said, “They usually don’t go after that.”
I showed him my painting. He said, “It’s nice.”
I threw out the papers, because there was nothing I could do about it. When I went back to the convent, the nuns could clearly see that I was shaken up. They didn’t pry, but tried to cheer me up. Finally, the Superior Sister said to me, “Don’t listen to anyone who doesn’t know God.” I found that very helpful.
Figuring out who knows God, and to what extent, is a lot more complicated than figuring out who practices religion. But it seemed pretty clear to me that the cop and the other debt collector terrorists didn’t know God.
Sometimes, when you feel you have nothing and no one, a faith of some sort can help. My own faith wavers. I have certainly, at times, felt very angry with God. Sometimes I don’t even believe in God. Sometimes I pray, “If you are there, and if you care…” I am, however, pretty familiar with the Bible. Sometimes I find that helpful.
That cop and those other debt collector terrorists would probably be considered mentally healthy, because they were gainfully employed. But I was mentally ill with depression, because I was distressed about being terrorized.
Depressed and suicidal people can seem incredibly self-centered, which can be hard to deal with. But realistically, everyone can be self-centered without even realizing it. Maybe that’s just a part of human nature. People who feel badly about themselves and their lives can face much more of a Herculean struggle to justify their right to existence, and so can require greater care.
Now, I feel that not only am I justified in having a right to life, and not just physical life, but a dignified life as well, but I am also entitled to my own unique self, as are we all. Not that everyone respects such rights, but how can I aspire to greater things if I don’t even feel that I deserve it?
There was no guidebook for what to do after two failed suicide attempts. Neither had there been any guidebook for all the many harms that I had been made to endure throughout my life.
The mental health industry proposes a one-size-fits-all approach to help someone who is feeling suicidal. It would be great if there was some kind of algorithm or magic pill that would cure people of despair, but I don’t believe there can be. People’s problems and what might help are as unique as the individuals.
Not everyone wears their hearts on their sleeves. Potentially anyone you interact with might at that time be feeling suicidal for whatever reason. A word of kindness never hurts.
Christianity is about kindness and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7:12), but it is so much more than that, especially for the poor and oppressed. In her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), the Virgin Mary not only rejoices in God her savior for looking upon her lowliness and doing great things for her, but for throwing down the rulers from their thrones, lifting up the lowly, and sending the rich away empty. Christian mercy, justice, and love pretty much necessitate a preferential option for the poor and oppressed. It’s a whole different worldview than what is common in the US, even in a country that largely professes to be Christian. And it’s a worldview that I try to incorporate into my own life.
Sometimes, an act of Christian mercy, justice, and love can be as simple as sharing, or kindness, or a prayer for someone. But with the Virgin Mary as my model, I know that humility doesn’t necessitate victimhood. The Virgin Mary was perfect in her deference to God, but didn’t collaborate with corrupt people in their evil.
If I am going to believe in something that goes beyond the bounds of science, I would rather it be God than the propaganda of the mental health industry. Mercy, justice, and love are the way.
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.