Suicide: the Hidden Time Bomb

I just went to a funeral for a young man who had just graduated college and was preparing to begin his adult life. He committed suicide. Like with many suicides, his family and friends were left uttering the words “we had no idea”. What isn’t a surprise is when the subject is shame, there are no limits to the destructive decisions we may choose.

The frequency of this type of occurrence brings up the obvious point: suicide is brewing in a great number of us. It might even be safe to say that it’s something most of us have considered at some point. While my book on “destructive decisions” is based on all manner of regrettable choices, committing suicide is a most destructive decision.

Some have argued that those who have killed themselves are cowards, afraid to face the harsh realities of life that each of us has to endure. Others empathize with their suffering as they face similar pains and desires. Some may even be jealous. But most bystanders are just confused by the sudden and unexpected nature of what they are enduring.

I am no scholar in the arena of suicidal ideation. This makes me wonder if there’s potentially more harm than value in me speaking to it. Speaking to medical conditions that often undergird suicide or acute trauma that may push some to taking their own lives is beyond my expertise. I must release any pretense of authority in that realm to the experts and brain scientists. So rule number one is to get professional help.

Get Professional Help

Most important for me is to always suggest professional help. Professional help can give guidance to everything else I’m about to speak to below. Reaching out for help from professionals skilled with dealing with these situations can be extremely effective. In fact, simply admitting and talking about suicide is reported to be a key step in preventing your own. It’s the silent sufferer that is in the most danger.

Getting help can be a layered conundrum. Not only are there often psychological obstacles to overcome to getting help, there may also be material reasons.  Professional help may be out of reach due to money, insurance, and / or the just plain general availability. It can then also take months or years for professional help to “kick in”.

Getting help of any kind can be a horribly difficult choice. It requires the admission of our need for help. This admission will cause us to do battle with shame. Remember shame is asking us to resist being exposed and that includes exposing the truth of our selves to someone else. Oddly, getting help may actually be a more difficult choice than ending your life. Further, that admission, you will eventually realize, may get you “admitted”.

While I fully agree that if getting admitted is key to preventing a suicide, I’m all for it. This is even true for involuntary admissions. That said, people aren’t stupid. The prospect of losing your freedom may well result in not seeking professional help.

Getting help can hurt our journey if we end up seeking help from unhelpful people even if they are “professionals”.

  1. It can expose us to the well-meaning clichés of others who hope to “fix us”
  2. It can generate feelings of failure in our loved ones to which we don’t want to expose them. Depression and suicide are things that our loved ones take personally even if it has nothing to do with them.

Mental Illness Isn’t Contagious but it Feels Like it Is

I’ve often said that depression and mental illness feel contagious. Other people require us to be happy in order to maintain their own happiness and sense of self. If you are miserable and want to kill yourself, what will that say to your spouse, kids, parents or siblings?

It will tell them that you don’t mind leaving them. It will tell them that they are not enough. They may even feel to blame. Inflicting that pain on our loved ones often keeps us in solitude. We know what shame will tell them about themselves if they find out. All this despite the evidence that this suffering is incredibly common and part of the basic nature of life. It is, dare I say, biblical?

If getting help isn’t something you’re able to do or hasn’t worked for whatever reasons, don’t quit trying. However, there are some “self-help” steps I have found to be of value.

Getting “Self”-Help: Preventing Your Suicide

I may not be a medical expert, but I am an expert in psychological suffering. Further, I am an expert in the temptations that suffering can produce. My expertise is in the struggle.  I have experience with what Paul the apostle describes as a real uncertainty regarding his preference to stay here or to depart.  I know how important it is to know how to prevent your own suicide.

Volumes have been written on how to address the suicidal ideations of other people and their cries for help. There has been much encouragement regarding how to help prevent the suicide of other people. Much less is written about how to prevent our own except to suggest the aforementioned “get help”. This is odd since the only suicide you can actually prevent is your own and how unlikely suicidal people are to get help.

Step 1: Know that You are Not Alone

I suggested in the opening words of my book on shame that I would be successful if it simply communicated to people that they are not alone. It’s not 3 easy steps to this or that or a program of 5 things to avoid to be able to live a shame free life. Those are things publicity agents know sell books, but are often just other illusions. Understanding we are not alone in this complicated mess of suffering is actually the greatest truth toward transformation. It’s a little thing called empathy and it kills shame which is driving our desire to harm ourselves.

If you are floored by the suffering involved in life, you are not alone. You are joined by an array of people from great Buddhist thinkers to Mike Tyson to Mother Teresa and Paul the Apostle.

One of the great truths of Buddhism is that “life is suffering”. Author M. Scott Peck of the perennial classic “Road Less Traveled” agrees. His opening words are “life is difficult”. If you are Christian you can be assured through your own bible that all creation has been subjected to frustration and return to Paul the Apostle who wondered aloud if he preferred to live or die.

So know this: you’re not alone. Shame is determined to make you believe you are alone and to force you into aloneness. All predators know that the quickest kill is of the one who has left the herd in fear, illness, or age. In aloneness you are certainly easy prey. This is one reason getting help is often so effective.

Step 2: Avoid Illusions of Grandeur

If step 1 in preventing your own suicide is knowing you’re not alone, then step 2 is avoiding the illusion that life is supposed to be something other than suffering. This is pivotal to getting onto “the Road Less Traveled” or, as Jesus called it, “the way”. The more we live in the illusion that life is supposed to be something other than what is before us, the more our chances are that we will become disillusioned and commit suicide especially when something insurmountable happens.

Step 2a: Suspend the Clichés

As we attempt to avoid the illusion, we must ditch (or at least suspend) the clichés that plague our conscious existence. We must suspend the suggestion of friends and loved ones who are encouraging us to “look for the silver lining” or to “see the bright side”. My experience is that clichés such as these will fester in our souls like an unattended sliver. These clichés will simply make us wonder why we can’t see the bright side or, if we can see the bright side, why we don’t give a shit. We will wonder why we are simply unable to “get it” like everyone else can.

Step 2b: Face the Truth

Instead, I suggest, we face the brutal truth along with Mike Tyson, M. Scott Peck, and Buddhism that life is hard. Life is suffering. According to the bible (Romans 8:18ff), the world has been subjected to frustration and you and I are part of that world. The bible says all the world is groaning as in the pains of childbirth. ALL the world. YOU ARE NOT ALONE!!!

Step 3: redefine what “to live” means

A sure why to increase the temptation to take your own life is to believe you don’t matter. That makes the suffering almost sadistic. However, if we become active participants in “mattering” then we will find it increasingly more difficult to leave those who are counting on us. Finding a way to matter may be as simple as volunteering someplace or investing in a cause or a project.

This advice I take from Paul the Apostle (Phil 1:23 ff) who finally comes to the conclusion that, while he prefers to stop living, he realizes it is better for the world that he continues to exist.  Therefore, Paul is prepared to endure the suffering – head on – because the end game is worth it. This leads to step 4.

Step 4 – see suffering for what it is

Professional athletes go through tremendous physical sacrifice and suffering in order to excel at their trade. Most of us are unwilling to make the sacrifice so it’s rare that many will reach those levels of success. Growth only comes through pain and sacrifice and growth is the goal.

The difference is our goal is to defeat shame and to exist in a full frontal experience of what it means to be human. While not a Christian at the time, M. Scott Peck says the end game here is our transformation into the image of God. Becoming fully human and refusing to live in an illusion is an admirable goal. Contributing to the world in a way such that we are salt and light as the bible says is an admirable goal.

We are in the process of the eternal “becoming” of something we may not even be able to fully comprehend. Understanding this very basic premise that our present suffering is insignificant compared to the prize that awaits us for enduring with courage – not only enduring but helping people or a cause along the way – truly may make our present discomfort seem small.

Step 5 – see time for what it is: short

While the suffering may seem unbearable, our need to bear the suffering is really only a blink. I say this as I face my own 53rd birthday. Time is short. My 53 years has taught we that we can make this very short span in front of us. We can make by intentionally mattering. We can make it be seeing our suffering for what it is: our transformation into God’s image. Our goal and our gift await: our transformation into what it means to live into the truth with no illusions, defeating shame and living a truly human life.