If you are wrestling with suicidal thoughts or feeling overwhelmed by hopelessness and pain, I am glad you are here reading this. I’m not here to tell you to just “choose the sunny side." I know how frustrating it is when folks have tried to talk me out of my negative feelings. I’m just glad you're reading this right now, even if that’s all you can manage today. If I had a magic wand I would wish I could sit down with you and listen to your story and be a witness to your pain and hold your hand, but I can’t so I’m writing these words instead.
For many of us, our own pain can be even more overwhelming when someone we love dies by suicide, even if that person is a distant celebrity or maybe a “not close” member of our community. Sometimes, life just keeps piling bad news and painful experiences on top of already unbearable pain. Sometimes, our bodies shut down and drag us into pits of despair that feel mysterious because looking around we can see all kinds of good things in life (or so we can vaguely recall feeling such), and yet those things hold no pleasure or joy. No matter how much we want to snap out of it, no matter how much we think we should be happy, or fine, or okay, we just are not.
I know that if this describes how you are feeling right now, that you don’t have a lot of energy to read a long treatise and you’ve probably been trying to “fix this” for a long time and you probably don’t want to be a “burden” to anyone, and likely you’re feeling hopeless that anything will ever get better. So, I want to offer a few thoughts and tools, and keep this fairly short and direct. Maybe if you’re still reading this there is a small part of you with a bit of hope left, a small part of you that is looking for a reason to stick around for another day. I hope something here helps you to hold on for a little longer, and brings you some small peace.
First, I am here to tell you loudly and clearly that these feelings are not your fault. How can I know that, if I don’t even know you? How can I know that you didn’t make a bunch of terrible choices and that’s why you’re now feeling so terrible?
The science of the brain doesn’t give us a clear answer to “what causes suicidal thoughts." It’s clearly a complicated mess of environment and genetics and hormones and culture and history. The more scientists figure out, the more they realize it’s more complicated than we could have imagined. But one thing I’m certain of after reading hundreds of studies, talking with friends, clients, and even struggling with my own depressive tendencies is that there is no tie between “good choices” or “will power” or “being a good person” and depression. Depression happens when your brain and hormones stop letting you feel pleasure, while amplifying pain. The processes are too complex to go into in detail here, but let’s agree that you didn’t tell your dopamine to stop making it fun to get up in the morning.
It’s important that you understand and accept that suicidal ideation is not about weakness or goodness or will power, because depression is depressing enough without adding shame and guilt and feelings of self-blame to the mix. In fact the very act of blaming yourself for your pain has an amplifying effect, so it’s not only untrue that you are to blame, but it makes your painful feelings so much worse. So let’s challenge the lies that make us feel bad about ourselves.
It’s also important to know that letting go of self-blame isn’t the same thing as “giving up” or believing that there is “nothing we can do” to ease the pain we are experiencing. As a mom I clean up stuff that ‘is not my fault’ every single day. Saying “this isn’t my fault” is not the same as saying “there is nothing I can do.”
Suicidal thoughts arise when we are experiencing profound pain and do not have access to resources for easing that pain. That is all it means. It’s not about you being weak or bad or broken or crazy. It doesn’t even mean that you really want to die. Your brain is programed to look for solutions to pain. If you touch a hot stove your brain tells you to pull your hand away, but you can’t simply pull your hand away from types of pain that lead to suicidal thoughts. If you could you would’ve done so. As your brain runs through a list of options for relieving the pain, if other resources don’t seem accessible, if it feels like your hand is going to be stuck to this hot stove forever, if it feels like you’ve already tried all the things, then your brain suggests suicide.
Sometimes our brains function something like a google search, searching through a list of options and suggesting ideas. Not all of these ideas are good ones. Just because our brain suggests an idea, doesn’t mean anything in particular about us. It doesn’t mean we are bad. It just means our brain is experiencing more pain than it knows how to cope with. It is looking for ways to relieve this pain, and it came up with a suggestion, suicide. However, suicide is not really a solution because our true goal is to reduce our pain, and we have to be alive to actually experience the relief we seek.