Avoiding Suicide: My Mental Tools for Fighting Back Against a Brain on the Edge

Trigger warning for discussion of suicide and suicidal thoughts.

I’ve been suicidal a few times in my life. I’ve never actually made an attempt, but if I’d had more reliable resources for doing so during those dark periods, it’s entirely possible I would’ve.

I want to talk about the thought tools I use to stave suicidal impulses off. I haven’t needed to use them in a while, but I think they’re important to talk about, both because they illustrate the kind of headspace someone has to be in to consider suicide, and because I know I’m not the only person to turn to thoughts like these when nothing else will convince you to go on living, and I have, at times, found them good for that. I hope I never have to resort to these again, and I may not. But chronic pain is at times an unpredictable thing, and to end up in a dangerous mental headspace, all it really takes is a prolonged period of a certain level of pain. That’s a lot of what got me close to suicide the last time, and if I were in a similar level of pain today without any realistic ways to keep it at bay, I suspect I would be in the same place now.

I suspect so would you. A sufficient level and duration of pain can put anyone in this place. If you don’t believe that that’s true, then you haven’t ever come close to it. Be grateful for that ignorance.

For the record, I am dealing with my pain pretty well at the moment. I don’t see any reason to expect it will get worse in the near future. I’m talking about what that could do not because I expect it to happen, but because I think it’s an important reality for people to recognize. I think it puts suicide in a more appropriate, realistic perspective. I am not suicidal now because I haven’t been experiencing the level of pain, physical or emotional, that is necessary to put me in a suicidal place. If I had, I would be in that place. The same is true, I think, of everyone.

When I am in that place, these are the kinds of things I’ve tried to consider to keep myself among the living:

The number one most useful thing to contemplate, when I’m feeling suicidal, is the possibility that I could fuck it up.

I could fuck it up, and then I’d still be here, and everyone would know I’d made the attempt, and that would be a worse place to be than where I am now.

Not only that, I could fuck it up in a way that makes my life even worse. I could jump off a building and end up crippled, but alive; I could swallow pills and end up with a damaged brain, but alive; I could shoot myself and end up the same—damaged, physically or mentally in some way that made things even more difficult, but still alive to experience that pain on top of all the rest.

Suicide becomes an attractive option when it promises an end to suffering. In the throes of suicidal depression, the single best way I know to stave off the impulse is to consider the ways in which attempting suicide could end up making that suffering worse.

The second tool is, paradoxically, knowing that suicide is always an option. If I don’t do it today, I can always do it tomorrow. Sometimes I’ve known that what I needed more than anything was to convince myself to reach out, to talk to someone, to ask for help, or to see a doctor. The problem is that when I’m in a deeply depressive state, that’s just one more thing, one more responsibility, one more way to fail, to be disappointed, to fuck up. If I need to convince myself to take that one step to reach out, it helps to be able to say to myself, “Well, you can still kill yourself if it doesn’t work out, so the worst the could happen is you do what you’re already thinking about doing anyway one day later.”

The third tool is keeping in mind that I haven’t tried everything, and that every year our understanding of the things that cause me pain are getting better. Drugs are getting better, chronic pain science is getting better, understandings of depression are getting better, our cultural support systems are getting slowly but surely more understanding of how these things really work and should be dealt with. Or, in short: knowing that even if nothing I’ve tried has worked, there are still things to try, and that even if nothing at all works, there may be drastically better solutions to the things I struggle with in a year or two. There may be things that will work better than I can possibly imagine, and if I can hold out a little longer, I’ll be around for them.

[Author’s Note Added March 31, 2013: I’ve recently written about a fourth useful mental tool in this post]

It can be scary thinking things like the above. I find that even when I am in the midst of dealing with suicidal ideation, with things that are this morbid, it isn’t easy to talk about them out loud. But sometimes these conversations with myself have been necessary to get me through a day. Sometimes, talking about these things out loud with others has been what I needed to get through, even if it has felt overdramatic. It’s intensely strange that I can feel like having these conversations is being overdramatic when I’m trying to use them, literally, to stave off suicide. It’s a sad reflection of the culture we live in, and of how deeply I’ve absorbed that culture that I’m capable of being that deep into depression and still even considering the idea that it might be better to just go on with the suicide. That suicide might be better than to talk openly about these things with someone and risk being “overdramatic”.

I imagine this entry might be strange to read for someone who hasn’t dealt with depression personally. I am essentially explaining how I fight against my own brain about whether or not to kill myself. If you think of depression as a simple choice, this might seem like a strange idea. But for me at least, the experience of depression is a lot like a war between different parts of my brain. One side that will do anything to end the suffering, up to and including suicide, and another trying to stave off that impulse until the depression lifts (or at least lifts enough). I hope, if nothing else, this entry helps provide a small window into what it’s like to have a brain that dysfunctional.

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5 comments on “Avoiding Suicide: My Mental Tools for Fighting Back Against a Brain on the Edge

  1. Pingback: Suicide-Related Post Links For World Suicide Prevention Day | Research to be Done

  2. Thank you for writing this. I am putting this in my favorites…Today’s a tough day but it will get better.

  3. I use #1 too and it’s really effective. You’re absolutely right, it’s really weird explaining it to someone who hasn’t “been there.” It tends to make them more afraid for your safety. (Because, what if you find some more likely-to-work option?) I like your #2 … I guess I usually use a sort of modified version of it, which goes something like, “I’m just having experiences, and that’s interesting at least and occasionally awesome, and if I didn’t exist anymore I wouldn’t have *any* experiences.” Trying to reframe it in a way where even “negative emotions” are still positive expected value.

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