Understanding Suicide

Introduction

At a key turning point in my life, I made a decision to quit my job so that I could focus on a new career that I was very excited about pursuing. Although the move was a bit risky, I had a fair amount of money in the bank and was very optimistic that everything would work out fine. My wife was very much against my decision, however, and to my surprise she decided to divorce me over it. When I realized that she was serious, I was in a state of shock: we had been happily married for over 14 years and were raising 2 wonderful children together, yet it seemed that practically overnight our marriage had suddenly collapsed. Emotionally I was devastated, and soon afterward I started getting these feelings that I had “ruined everything”. Instead of moving confidently toward a new career, I was instead sliding down into an emotional hell, and I soon found myself in an intense struggle just to stay alive.

Suicide Numbers

According to the World Health Organization, about 1 million people worldwide commit suicide each year. In the U.S., the number of people committing suicide per year is approximately 40 to 50 thousand, with over 500 thousand more people visiting the hospital for non-fatal self-inflicted injuries in 2015. How many of these injuries were genuinely suicide-related is unknown. A further unknown is the number of people per year who have seriously considered killing themselves, but have not taken any action. Suicide is the 10th most common cause of death in the United States, and the 2nd most common among young people.

Suicide Factors

Depression is thought to be a major cause of suicide, if not the most common factor. There are also certain painful life events that are commonly listed as triggers for suicide, such as death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or a failed marriage. Additionally, life situations that give a person a sense of hopelessness, worthlessness, and/or loneliness have been connected with suicide; these include extreme financial difficulties, being bullied at school, or becoming disabled due to accident or disease.

My First Experience with Suicide

When I was a teenager, I can remember entertaining notions of killing myself. Overall, I don’t consider the experiences of my youth to have been extremely unpleasant; nevertheless I can remember having suicidal thoughts: the idea was that if I killed myself, “they” would be very sorry. I don’t remember anybody in particular that I wanted to “get back at”, instead I have the sense that I felt very alone and isolated, and that killing myself was the only way that I could force myself to “be seen”. During this experience, I was neither in a lot of emotional pain, nor did I actively make any plans to kill myself. And because this was my only personal experience of suicide for many years, I used it as a basis for how a perceived suicide in general.

After my wife decided to divorce me however, my understanding of suicide completely changed. In the weeks following our separation, my life turned into an emotional hell; in fact, the pain was so great at times that I was actually shocked that being in so much pain was even possible. And wedged in between numerous periods of emotional agony were several suicidal episodes; experiences which, I might add, I was totally unprepared to handle.

A Suicidal Episode: The Experience

The following is an actual experience of one of the suicidal episodes I experienced while going through the divorce; the description itself was written soon after the experience took place.

The experience started with an intense sense of self-hatred. As the feeling deepened, this hatred turned into actual voices in the head that said things like “you are such a piece of s**t”, “what the hell were you thinking?”, “why did you quit your job: you ruined your entire life!” etc.) I found it interesting that the voices spoke in 2nd person, as if they are coming from somebody else.

This intense self-hatred was accompanied by physical sensations in the body. I had a heaviness in the chest. Breathing became more difficult. I felt like something was squeezing my lungs. My body became heavy. The light in the room actually appeared to become darker, as if somebody was dimming the lights. The voices themselves continued to harass me throughout the entire episode, making me feel worse and worse with each criticism thrown at me. It was almost like I was sinking down somewhere, with each moment my body becoming gradually heavier and the lights becoming gradually dimmer.

And as all this was occurring, I started to completely lose hope in life; it’s a feeling as if nothing good could ever happen and that life simply wasn’t worth living in general. I started to become angry at being alive, I felt angry that I had been born, and angry that I had to live such a pitiful and worthless life.

Nothing I could do could “make the pain go away”. I couldn’t fight it. Praying was useless. Crying was no use. Asking for help from guardian angels didn’t work. Just sitting and experiencing the pain (with the hope that the pain would eventually leave) had the result of the pain staying right where it was.

As I seemed powerless to do anything about the pain, I felt like cursing God and cursing life in general. The overall feeling was that from this point forth, I would continue to feel as miserable as I did at that time until the moment I died. Consequently, it made sense to believe that the sooner I ended my life, the less pain I would have to endure; based on this logic I began contemplating how I might end my life.

Going Through The Emotions

During two of the most painful episodes I wrote about what I was feeling, as I hoped that perhaps it would help me process through the emotions. I have included excerpts in order to illustrate the emotional struggle that occurs during a suicidal episode.

First episode:

…I hate myself because I’m not happy. I hate myself because I’ve never been happy…

I hate myself because I have nobody. I hate myself because I have no friends. I hate myself because my wife is divorcing me.

I hate myself because I’m too proud, scared or possibly too good to ask for help when I desperately need it.

I hate myself because I want to kill myself. I hate myself because suicide is selfish and I hate myself for being selfish…

I hate myself because I don’t slash my wrist with the razor in my hand. I hate the fact that even if I slashed my wrist, I would just do it for show because I’m too scared to kill myself.

I hate myself because I think I’m better than others. I hate myself because I think I can help other people when I can’t help myself…

Second episode:

…The last couple days have been especially dark…my will to live has virtually collapsed. I am ashamed to admit that I now have moments I wish I were dead; during these times I can only hear the negative reasons for not killing myself (in [my wife]’s voice): that it would be selfish, irresponsible, that it would mess up the children. At the same time I am unable to come up with any positive reasons to stay alive: I cannot find any light, any positive motivation that would help me want to stay alive. Such reasoning as “adventure awaits”, “I’ve got so much work ahead of me” or “I’ve got so much to live for” doesn’t help when I feel worthless, alone, and abandoned… I cannot accept how imperfect and human I am, and cannot believe that anyone would ever love me; I’ve spent my entire life struggling to receive love from others and can’t understand why it is that I can’t simply be loved. But then I question why anyone would love me when I am so unable and seemingly incapable of loving myself…

Elements of a Suicidal Episode

Based on the several suicidal episodes that I experienced, I’d like to mention a few important similarities I noticed among them. In general, an episode:

Occurs without warning. There is simply no way to predict when you are going to slide into a suicidal episode; they seemingly come at random although the last one (and also the shortest) that I experienced was possibly triggered by an unkind remark by a friend regarding my divorce.

Stops at random. As mentioned before, I seemed completely helpless to make the experiences stop and simply had to wait each time for the experience to end on its own. Each episode was a different length, lasting from about 20 minutes to several hours. The longest lasted for about three days, but was experienced in “waves”: there would be an intense wave of negative emotions which would let up after a couple hours or so, but not enough to make me stop thinking about killing myself. Instead, during these “break periods” I would be actively researching the best method for committing suicide.

Doesn’t feel like it will ever end. This is especially true for the first one, and (remarkably enough) also true for other intense episodes that occurred after the first. I think by the last episode, I did have a good sense of awareness that the experience wouldn’t last forever (even though it still felt like it would).

Is accompanied by intense negative emotions. It’s almost as if a bucket of negative emotions is simply poured on you all at once, and it feels so painful that it the experience becomes overwhelming.

Makes you feel trapped. The danger of a suicidal episode is that the experience genuinely gives you the impression that death is the only way out of a severely painful situation that often feels unbearable.

Suicide and Depression

Depression is believed to be a cause of suicide, and I think the reason that this is true is because – in my view – suicidal episodes are in fact a symptom of depression, which is something that I think most people up until now have been overlooking.

As discussed in my article about depression, the severe form (known as Major Depressive Disorder or “MDD”) is caused by a burst of negative emotions that the body simply can no longer suppress. The difference between MDD and a suicidal episode appears to be simply the type of emotions that blast out. So an episode of MDD will be caused by a burst of sadness or similar emotions, while a suicidal episode will be caused by a wave of self-hatred. In either case, there is a rush of emotions that is extremely difficult to handle; the key though is that the feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing are what influence a person to believe that killing him or herself is an option worth considering.

Stages of Suicide

There aren’t any formal stages for suicide, but the following is a general breakdown:

Stage 0- “Simple Ideation”: i.e., fantasizing about suicide without experiencing emotional pain (the experience I had in youth). I call this stage 0 because I don’t see any connection with Stage 0 and suicidal episodes (i.e. suicidal episodes are caused by MDD, not simple ideation).  Instead, stage 0 appears to be linked to mild depression (i.e. when feelings are suppressed and a person feels “lifeless”). Since there is little or no emotional pain experienced at this stage, the risk of committing suicide seems to be quite low. On the contrary, fantasizing about suicide is a way of getting an emotional “high” during an otherwise lifeless period of existence.

Stage 1- Suicidal episode: an episode of unbearable emotional pain that causes a person to feel like death is the only way out. Suicidal ideation can also be a part of this stage.

Stage 2- Planning: researching and planning an actual suicide attempt.

Stage 3- Action: taking any action towards realizing the suicidal attempt, such as acquiring a weapon/pills or traveling towards a bridge/railroad.

Stage 4- Attempt: taking any action that could potentially take one’s life.

Note: Stages 1-4 above describe what it’s like to be “actively suicidal”. There is another type of suicide known as “passively” suicidal. This happens when you want to die, but instead of planning your demise, you wish for something to “accidentally” kill you. At the action stage, this would be realized by carelessly ignoring road safety rules in order to have a potentially fatal “accident”.

The Full Timeline of my Experience

For an example of how depression and suicidal episodes are connected, the following is a timeline of my personal experience.

In mid-December, my wife announces she will divorce me.

At the end of December I experienced my first suicidal episode. It lasts several hours during which time I hold a razor to my wrist but do not cut myself. Overall, I think this marks the start of my period of major depression.

In January, I had a series of suicidal episodes (experienced as waves) occurs over a period of 3 days. During the less-intense periods I came to the conclusion that the best method to kill myself would be to jump off from a high bridge.

In February I had another episode. Though not nearly as intense but happens while at a training with dozens of other people. (I mention this fact because I myself was surprised that being surrounded by a crowd of others will not prevent a suicidal episode from occurring.)

Starting in February, I begin to have major depressive episodes. The feelings were so intense that I would often break down crying. The feelings experienced included those of rejection, fear, not being loved (including the idea God did not love me), that there was something fundamentally wrong with me, and sadness due the loss of my marriage and the fact I would no longer be living with my children.

Over the next couple of months, I continued to experience major depressive episodes, often on a daily basis. As a result, I still contemplated the thought of suicide.

In April, I made a commitment to God that I would not kill myself. Following this, I was genuinely shocked to discover that this action did not prevent suicidal episodes from occurring, as I had two more soon afterward. On a positive note: due to my pledge, I did at least stop actively planning any future suicidal actions.

At the beginning of June, the last suicidal episode occurred. I was driving in my car and had to pull over to the side of the road because I was crying so hard. It had been about a month since the last episode, and this one lasted only about 20 minutes.

The crying/depressive episodes decreased considerably starting in May, and more or less ended around the middle of June. By the end of June, I feel that my phase of major depression had ended.

How to Handle a Suicidal Episode

The following are recommendations concerning how to handle a suicidal episode:

1) Understand that the pain will end. The situation is dangerous as long as death seems like the only way out, so it’s important to reassure yourself over and over that “this pain will NOT last forever”. Even though it doesn’t feel like it will end, it will end, and you will likely be very grateful someday for allowing yourself to live through the experience.

2) Try to reach out for help. I know from experience that it can be very difficult contact another person when one is suicidal. In fact, due to the notion that I was the one who had “ruined everything”, I was too ashamed to call the suicide hotline on any occasion. However, during one extremely grueling episode, I did reach out to friends and asked them to pray for me without explaining the reason, and the next morning I woke up with a feeling of peace. Likewise, if you find yourself simply unable to admit to anyone that you are suicidal, I recommend asking for friends to pray for you or think of you, in whatever manner corresponds to their personal belief systems (overall, it’s the intention rather than the method that is important).

3) Write about what you are feeling during the experience. In general, trying to fight or ignore your emotions is not helpful. Even simply trying to endure the emotions is not as helpful as fully acknowledging them and trying to understand them and reassure them that they are being “listened to”. And the best way to do this is to write them down: express as clearly as possible what you are feeling.

Suicide Shaming

A couple months after I had already experienced three tough suicidal episodes, I was talking to a friend when the subject of a recent suicide came up. When I mentioned the fact that it had taken place on the commuter rail tracks a couple blocks from my house, my friend blurted out: “well, suicide is stupid anyway”; implying that people who commit suicide are simply making a stupid choice. I didn’t know what to say, and I immediately felt a wave of shame for having been suicidal (though it should be obvious at this point that I had no reason to be ashamed).

Suicide is a difficult and painful subject to talk about; people who are experiencing suicidal episodes are very often embarrassed to admit it, making it that much more difficult to for them to reach out for help. I think mostly the shame comes from the idea that it is wrong to feel you want to kill yourself. To make matters worse, society in general seems to have a negative opinion of those who are suicidal, making it difficult for people in need of help to want to reach out to anyone for fear of what others might think about them.

Conclusion

If we are to make any considerable progress in regards to suicide, the first thing we need to do is understand that suicide is not the outcome of a “stupid choice”. Instead, it should be clear by now that suicide is the result of an intense emotional struggle which sometimes ends in a tragic outcome. Furthermore, I would encourage people to start realizing that becoming suicidal is no more a choice than becoming depressed. Once this is widely understood, a lot of the negative stigma around suicide might eventually disappear, and it will become easier to help others, as well as to ask for help.

And for those of you who are currently going through a suicidal experience, I would like to emphasize one last time that this experience will not last forever, and life will get better.


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