I work with teenagers who are deeply committed to an idea of ending their lives. I talk about suicide on a daily basis and explore what it means to those who are contemplating it.
With the recent loss of Robin Williams, I have been following the various responses in the media and reactions expressed through social media. The way each person deals with the loss of someone to suicide is so individual and yet, we all share commonalities in the way death has us reflect on life.
Our shared loss is a testament to our interconnectedness and I am offering my reflections on suicide from a deep place of understanding. When a public figure completes suicide, the related topics of mental health, addictions, and systemic issues of care, come to the forefront. These topics are certainly worth discussing and I have been so intrigued by the various perspectives on mental health that have been recently shared publicly. Some react with anger, others with compasssion, others with sadness and deep sense of honour for a life worthy of celebrating and being grateful for. Humour is known to be a very powerful method of healing. It’s also a coping strategy for many. It isn’t surprising to me that one of our most legendary comedian actors demonstrated his depth of suffering by choosing to end his life. He, like all of us, had different parts to his Self: some were public parts, some were private, some were unknown, and some were likely blind even to himself.
Suicide is a solution to the problems that people encounter and it’s the solution they think is most viable when they feel like they have hit road blocks along their journey with any of the alternatives. I say they, but I can actually say we, I, me. I am truly and deeply interconnected with my clients. The times in my life when I have experienced a desire to simply die have been the moments when I have lost all sense of that interconnectedness and have felt so separate from the world that I have dissociated from my Self. The capital Self: the part of our Self that is without suffering, that is connected, at peace, and egoless. One who chooses suicide is often accused by others for being selfish. It is a selfish act, but not in the accusatory and judgmental way that people often talk about selfishness. It is selfish in the very same way that one who experiences deep depression is so disconnected and lonely that the idea of thinking of others beside themselves is overwhelming. During periods of suffering, we live in our heads rather than in our bodies and hearts. Emotional suffering exists in the mind. In fact, some who choose suicide see themselves as such a burden to others. Their sense of compassion toward others is so profound that they can’t bear the thoughts of how negatively their existence causes pain for others. The problem is often a lack of self-compassion and a disconnection from themselves – disconnection from the place inside their hearts from which they can offer love to themselves. We could get into topics of emotional trauma and addictions here as well, but I will try to bring my reflections back to a very succinct way of describing emotional suffering and my view on healing from contemplations of suicide. My views are obviously influenced by some of my teachers and so, I would like to offer what I have recently learned from the following professionals:
– Michael Stone: At a training I attended, Michael said “mindfulness is intimacy”. And I related that to what I know about the fact that you can’t be mindful and caught in a dramatic story of victimization, villain-hood, or heroism at the same time. Suffering exists in story. Mindfulness brings us to the present moment, in intimate relationship with ourselves, others, and our environment. When explored well, developing a state of mindfulness means developing connection as a skill, a state of being, and it requires the capacity to trust that we are capable and worthy of intimately connecting. Connecting creates suffering for those who don’t believe they are worthy of love or who fear rejection so greatly that love equals pain. Thank you Michael for bringing the concept of intimacy into my reflections on mindfulness. Intimacy is extremely scary for many, but the cost of living out of fear is very high. Mindfulness, in other words, is intimacy training.
– Dr. Bessel Van Kolk and Dana Moore: Trauma is about disconnection – disconnection at the levels of interpersonal, intrapersonal, and inter-nature. When one experiences events in their lives that have been emotionally traumatic, their nervous system gets locked in a state of hyper or hypo-arousal. In other words, the nervous system is almost constantly in a state of fight, flight, or freeze. Mind-body approaches are a necessary component to trauma treatment because trauma really does exists on a psycho-physiological level. What is known to work in the field of trauma treatment are approaches that enable the person to ground themselves in their bodies and step out of the suffering of the mind. Retraining the nervous system and being able to call on skill in moments of disconnection takes a lot of work, and unfortunately, many don’t pull themselves out of trauma.
– Buddhist teachers, Vipassana meditation and my yoga teachers: I owe these lessons to the many who have contributed to my understanding of the nature of suffering. What we know from the philosophies of Buddhism and yoga are the following: suffering stems from a state of ignorance about the law of nature and the interconnectedness of life. Ignorance, again not meant in any judgmental way. Ignorance being a misapprehension/ misinterpretation of reality that is filtered by our ego – our sense of i-ness as separate from other. The ego then can fuel states of aversion and attachment. Aversion to the states and emotions that we label as unpleasant and attachment to the internal states that we label as pleasant. Our internal states are influenced by the external stimuli and we often think we have aversion or attachment to these external things, but when you take a deep look inside, it becomes evident that it is in fact to the internal sensations, thoughts, and emotional states that we are averse or attached to. How does this relate to suicide? One who contemplates suicide often experiences aversion and attachment in such extremes that the connection to one’s Self is clouded by tremendous misapprehension of simply “what is” because “what is” is not seen as such. “What is”, an objective view on reality, is viewed subjectively, and the suffering related to suicide becomes interlinked with a deep confusion about one’s meaning and purpose on this earth and one’s capability of living a happy and meaningful life.
– My clients: the kids/ teens I work with are my greatest teachers. I see the various parts of themselves every day. I see them smile, I see them scream, I see them cry, kick, hurt themselves, and I see them hide. I see them expose their vulnerabilities and I watch the responses of others. I see them test themselves and others. Each and every time I experience any kind of emotion in my relationships with them, I am getting to know myself. My reactions show up when I am mirrored in something they are living. My connection knows no bounds when I allow myself to be and feel connected. I experience the pain and sorrow of their suicidal ideation when I permit myself to go to that place with them, listen deeply, be non-reactive, and ask the hard questions about alternatives… all the while honouring that suicide is always a possible solution.
Suicide is always a possible solution. Now, let’s explore what other solutions we have. This is my message about suicide and I thank Dr. Bessel van Kolk for putting it into words. The alternative solutions to suicide don’t exist in our mainstream medical system. They don’t exist in most mental health treatment programs, and they don’t exist in a [pharmaceutical approach to care. The solutions are wrapped in our relationships with ourselves, others, and nature. The solutions require a lot of courage, but that doesn’t mean that those who have passed by suicide lacked any kind of courage.
May you be happy, may you be peaceful, and may you connect with your Self in a way that you were unable to in this life. Thank you for the greatness of the gifts you shared with us through your talent, vulnerability, and through the laughter you created.
My heart also goes to all of you who have lost a loved one to suicide.
I continue to work closely with and learn from people who are creating a paradigm shift in our mental health systems of care.