Thinking About Suicide
Preface – Let’s Talk About Suicide
If you’ve picked this book up because you are currently thinking about suicide for yourself then you are the first and most precious audience that I seek for this book. But this is not a self-help book with a ‘cure’ for suicidal feelings in seven easy steps. I know of no such easy remedy for the urge to die. Instead, this book invites you to honour and respect your suicidal feelings as real, legitimate and important. I denied my own suicidality for so long, but suppressing these feelings ultimately did not work. So please, honour this agonising struggle and then, with the respect for yourself that this struggle deserves, talk about it.
This conversation begins with your own self-talk. In the first instance, only you know if you are feeling suicidal so be honest with yourself about it. If you’re at all like I was then there is probably some ambivalence. But if killing yourself begins to surface more and more as the only way out of your pain, then I urge you to acknowledge these special feelings. Contemplating suicide is a sacred part of the human story. Ignore the shame and stigma that an ignorant culture imposes on these contemplations and honour this sacred time if it has arisen in your life. We all ponder our own death at some time and a great many of us think seriously about taking our lives. Ignore those who say you are suicidal because you are mad, bad or somehow broken. Instead, honour your life story that has brought you to this moment, however sad and painful it might be. Talk to yourself about it, maybe in a journal or just in the privacy of your own mind. And then, when you are ready, share your story and talk about it with someone you feel safe with – preferably sooner rather than later.
Before outlining the major themes of this book and addressing its wider audience, I feel a need to briefly speak a little further directly to my suicidal soul-mates. I have said that this is not a self-help book and I am in general very wary of giving advice. Not only am I not a professional counsellor, but I also recall how much good advice I received during my suicidality that was totally out of reach for me. I was advised to “hang in there, Dave, the pain will pass”. This was true enough – it’s just that I found it unbelievable at the time. Then there was all the advice I got for the various problems that I was struggling with, which never quite made sense until I saw that my ‘problem’ was in fact my life. My problem was that I could not bear being me. Then there’s the advice from those mostly well-intentioned people who believed, and sometimes insisted, that what worked for them (with whatever their ‘problem’ was) would also work for me. This became tiresome. But not as tiresome as those who would be my saviour. I’m even more wary of saviours than I am of those who are keen to offer advice. So I will try to honour your own unique struggle with the urge to die and resist the very human temptation to dispense advice. This is not what this book is about.
But I have, of course, already given some advice in urging you to please honour and respect your suicidal feelings, and then to talk about them. I must qualify this now with some further advice (and then hopefully shut-up with the advice). Although I encourage spending time with and getting closer to your suicidal feelings, I do not encourage acting on those feelings. To do so can not only kill you, it can also maim you. It is also not necessary. So it is important to distinguish between allowing yourself your suicidal thoughts and acting on these thoughts. Our culture, with its taboos and prejudices against suicide, would typically have us suppress these feelings to try and stop us from ‘indulging’ them. My advice – my final advice to anyone contemplating suicide – is to neither suppress nor indulge any suicidal inclinations. There is a space that can be found between suppressing and indulging these urges. This is a space where we can honestly meet our pain and honour our suicidal feelings without engaging in a furious fight with them. It is a space where these feelings can be felt, spoken of and heard. If we neither suppress nor indulge these feelings, then it can be a safe space where we can begin a conversation about these feelings, first with ourselves, then with others if need be. It can also be a creative space from which we might find a path away from and beyond our all-consuming urge to die. If you are feeling suicidal then I invite, encourage and, yes, ‘advise’ you to seek out and spend some time in this space. I have no further specific advice for my suicidal soul-mates.
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It is almost a cliché in suicide prevention that we need to encourage the suicidal to come forward and speak of their suicidal feelings, as I have already urged my suicidal soul-mates to do above. Which brings us to some of the other audiences for this book. Who might we talk to?
As a society, we are not very good at talking about suicide. In some ways this is understandable because two of our greatest fears converge in suicide – our fear of death and our fear of madness. We also find both death and madness ugly, so we tend to look away from them. Confronting these fears, facing the ugliness, and talking about suicide does not come easily. A toxic silence surrounds suicide, a taboo that feeds the ignorance and prejudices that can make talking about our suicidal feelings quite hazardous
This book calls for a broad community conversation on suicide. This is not just to encourage the suicidal to speak up, but also to help create safe spaces where we can talk of our suicidal feelings. In the current environment of fear, ignorance and prejudice, talking about your suicidal feelings runs the very real risk of finding yourself being judged, locked up and drugged. Suicidal people know this and, like most people, will do their best to prevent this happening to them. We hide our feelings from others, go underground. And the deadly cycle of silence, taboo and prejudice is reinforced. Breaking this cycle requires bringing suicide out of the closet as a major public health issue, which in turn requires the involvement of everyone touched by suicide in our communities – which is all of us.
There is a fundamental flaw at the core of contemporary thinking about suicide which is the failure to understand suicidality as it is lived by those who experience it. This is clear to me not only from my own personal experience of suicidality but also from my research since my recovery. After my recovery, I still felt a need to make sense of my suicidal history, which led me to explore the current thinking about suicide in the public domain and to my first encounter with the academic and professional discipline of suicidology. Suicidology represents our current ‘collective wisdom’ on suicide and therefore has a crucial role in advising policy makers in suicide prevention strategies and in setting the agenda for the public debate on them. Suicidology also seeks to identify and develop the best ‘evidence based’ interventions for suicidal individuals. But the evidence base that suicidology draws on is incomplete and inadequate due to its determined failure to enquire into what suicidality means to those who live it.
This is a serious criticism, which needs to be justified. In this book, I do this first and foremost by sharing some of my story of suicidality. But this is not an autobiography. Each chapter addresses a specific topic related to my journey into and out of suicidality. And in each chapter there are two distinct voices. The first is a narrative voice – a first-person voice through which I share some of my personal story. The second voice, indicated by a different font (the same as the font you are reading now), is a commentary voice. This is a more reflective and considered voice that looks back on my story with the benefit of hindsight. This voice is also informed by my research into suicide – informed, that is, by the contemporary thinking about suicide found in suicidology.
The aim of sharing my first-person voice narratives is not to offer them as some typical suicidal story. I don’t believe there is any such thing. Rather, my aim is to assert the legitimacy of this voice and, through it, the legitimacy of feeling suicidal as a genuine and authentic human experience that is to be honoured and respected rather than suppressed and denied. My wish is that it might also help other suicidal thinkers to find their own voice and to speak of their suicidality. And to know that you are not totally alone and that survival is possible.
But more than this, I actually need this narrative voice in order to write this book. It is impossible for me to speak solely as the dispassionate, detached, supposedly ‘objective’ student of suicide. The lived experience of suicidality is chaotic and confused, full of ambiguity and doubt. Anger, fear and other passions are also tangled with the paralysing hopelessness and helplessness. All of this and more must be spoken of. The dispassionate, scholarly voice has its place, but by itself it cannot adequately capture and articulate these essential elements of the suicidal experience as it is lived. For this I need my first-person, narrative voice. This voice cannot be constrained or encumbered by the rigours of academic discourse. With this voice I am free to be angry, confused, contradictory, passionate, maybe even poetic at times. Sure, this can only ever be a partial approximation of the suicidal “storm in the mind”. But it cannot be left out altogether. To do so is to hide from the ugly and to neglect much that is important and relevant to a better understanding of suicidality. The narrative voice puts all this ‘noise’ on the agenda.
The second, commentary voice in each chapter is the voice of my subsequent ‘making sense’ of my suicidal history, including my recovery. It is the voice of my current thinking about suicide, which is very different to my thinking about it when I was actively suicidal. This voice, with the benefit of hindsight and informed by contemporary suicidology, speaks of trying to comprehend rather than contemplate suicide. But this voice does more than just reflect on the personal story found in the narratives. It is also the voice of my critique of the contemporary thinking about suicide in modern suicidology.
The structure of the book falls roughly into two major parts. The first four chapters, which I sometimes call the Bad News part of my story, tell of the suicidal struggle. It starts in Chapter One with a little of my personal history, followed by a commentary on some of the major myths, misunderstandings and misinformation that can be found in contemporary thinking about suicide. The narrative of Chapter Two tries to convey some sense of what it feels like to be suicidal, while the commentary explores the personal efforts that we make, but which are frequently overlooked, to deal with these feelings before (and alongside) any formal therapy. Chapter Three tells of escaping my pain through drugs, which was a major distraction from the real issues, as were the drug addiction therapies. Most current thinking about suicide sees it as a mental health issue, but Chapter Four describes and explains how this approach was mostly not very helpful and, at times, harmful.
The theme that emerges in these Bad News chapters is that suicidality is a crisis of the self rather than the consequence of some notional mental illness. This seems obvious as the self is the ‘sui’ in suicide, and it is the self which is both the victim and perpetrator of any suicidal act. But this theme is contrary to the current thinking about suicide that sees suicidality largely in terms of mental illness. I don’t dispute that mental health issues are relevant to understanding suicidality. It’s just that assumptions are already being made when we look at suicidality only through the mental illness lens. First, the mental illness approach pathologises this sacred crisis of the self and sees only a ‘broken’ individual with symptoms of ‘illness’ that need to be ‘treated’. Although it is life-threatening, suicidality is not an illness in this sense and this assumption needs to be challenged. Second, viewing suicidality as a crisis of the self is more useful than the mental illness approach because it invites questions and lines of enquiry that can lead to a deeper understanding of suicidality. In particular, it forces us to ask what is the nature of this self that is in crisis? Once again this seems obvious, but our notions of selfhood are barely considered in the current thinking about suicide. Contrary to the assumptions behind the mental illness approach, it is possible to see thinking about suicide as a healthy crisis of the self, full of opportunity, despite its risks. Third, viewing suicidality as a crisis of the self corresponds more closely to the lived experience of it, which is where I insist any enquiry must begin. And finally, as we will see, asking these questions about the self that is in crisis has the potential to open up possibilities for a deeper experience of the self, which for some, such as myself, can be a pathway out of suicidality.
The book pauses after the Bad News chapters to explore further this theme of the self in crisis as central to understanding suicidality. This Interlude – a commentary without any preceding narrative – asks the question “Who Am I?” and looks at contemporary thinking about the self, but not just as it relates to suicide. It shows that modern psychiatry reduces the self to little more than a biochemical robot, which is woefully inadequate for understanding what suicidality means to those who live it. Psychological ideas about the self see the mind as the source and essence of our sense of self, a view that is generally also held in the wider community. This Cartesian notion of the self as “I think therefore I am” has been challenged on many grounds, and the analysis and discussion in the Interlude concludes that it is perhaps more accurate to say “I am therefore I think”. That is, we are not who we think we are. We are human beings, not human thinkings (or human doings) and our enquiry into the self requires that we look into our ‘beingness’. Such enquiry can seem somewhat ‘academic’ at times and indeed western academic thinking struggles to come to grips with questions about the self and subjectivity. But there is nothing academic about deciding to kill yourself. The Interlude concludes with the observation that at precisely the point where current academic thinking is unable to proceed, spiritual wisdom and spiritual teachings have much to say that is useful. This is the launching pad for the chapters that follow.
This vital “Who Am I?” question was the key to my recovery. The final three chapters – the Good News chapters – tell of this journey. Chapter Five describes and explains what I now call the spiritual self-enquiry that finally set me free of my suicidality after all the ‘mental illness’ treatments had failed. Chapter Six looks at the obstacles encountered in such an enquiry, essentially our attachment to who we think we are, and how to overcome them. Chapter Seven then celebrates the fruits of this enquiry.
In the Good News chapters, the second major theme of the book emerges. This is the theme that spiritual ideas have a valuable contribution to make to our understanding of our sense of self, and therefore to our thinking about suicide. Along with the denial of the legitimacy of the lived experience of suicidal feelings, the denial of spiritual wisdom represents the other major flaw in current thinking about suicide. Although exploring spirit inevitably takes us beyond the rational (and indeed the mental), this does not mean that we cannot talk about it sensibly and rationally.
Spiritual self-enquiry revealed to me a great inner peace and freedom so that my suicidality (and my drug addiction) simply fell away like a snake shedding a no-longer useful skin. I feel obliged to share this story as my contribution to a better understanding of suicidality, and in the hope that it may be of some help to my suicidal soul-mates. But I am not evangelical about this story. The spirituality described here has nothing at all to do with any faith-based religion. Nor is it some New Age ‘born again’ fundamentalism. There are many paths for cultivating a deeper relationship with spirit (which some might call God), which includes but is not limited to the many religious traditions. The path I walked is but one of these paths. Furthermore, I am not proposing spirituality as some universal panacea or ‘treatment’ for suicidality. Naturally, I feel that it may help others as it helped me. But more than this, spirituality, and particularly spiritual self-enquiry, can help us understand and appreciate more fully the crisis of the self that typically lies at the heart of suicidal feelings. We cannot continue to exclude spiritual wisdom from our thinking about suicide.