Coping with Suicidal Ideation
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.
Try not to believe messages that minimize or dismiss your pain. Lots of cultural forces tell us that our pain isn’t big enough or important enough to be valid. We all experience pain differently. Some types of pain feel more painful to some people than others. Sometimes people think we are “overreacting” or “trying to get attention”, but those people don’t understand. Pain is often cumulative and contextual. Poke two people in the stomach and one is fine while the other writhes in pain. The same thing can happen to our psyches. Just because it didn’t hurt you, doesn’t make my pain any less real or valid. It’s easy to understand that an infected appendix will cause a stomach poke to drop us to our knees. It’s harder to see the causes that create this level of mental pain, but they are just as real as an infected appendix. How much pain we feel, and how much pain we can bear, varies greatly from individual to individual, and these factors are all rooted in complex forces like genetics, history, and access to resources.
Many people experience suicidal thoughts, but I think it’s important to understand that most people recover. Most people find that with time they can reduce their pain and/or increase their resources. But in order to recover, you need time. The statistics are very hopeful. You are very likely to live, and you are going to be glad that you do.
So give yourself a little bit of time, maybe five minutes is all you feel like you can manage. Just let yourself go on for five more minutes, and then for five more minutes after that.
Seek out people who can help you. Humans are simply not programed to carry burdens like this alone. Sometime the people we feel should be able to help us respond really badly to our pain (usually because they are afraid). Please understand that their terrible reactions are about them, their fears and issues, not about you, not about whether you deserve help or validation or understanding. But there are people out there who can help. Sometimes it’s an old friend or a mental health professional. Sometimes it’s a teacher or your best friend’s mother. Sometimes you need to call a suicide hotline because that is how you are going to get through the next five minutes, and then the next five after that.
One of the most profoundly helpful things we can do for ourselves is to admit that this is not something we are supposed to do alone. People are a powerful coping resource. Every bit of research I have ever seen on recovery states that sources of belonging and validation are a vital part of our mental health. Just having someone hear and validate your pain will ease that pain and make the next steps easier. We often withdraw because we feel like we are a burden, or we feel ashamed of our pain, or feel anxiety around being vulnerable. All of these reasons can feel overwhelming and lead to isolation. Isolation is not safe when we are in this level of pain. Find someone who is safe to share your story with.
Another important thing to consider is that many people experience suicidal feelings themselves as traumatic. For many, these thoughts feel like their own brain has betrayed them. Many folks feel that they are “going crazy”, or that they can no longer trust themselves or their own judgment. These feelings, if not addressed, can lead to further symptoms of trauma.
Pain and loss are an inevitable part of life, but one final thought I’d like to leave you with is that while we can not avoid certain types of pain, we can learn to reduce or eliminate other types of pain. Some things are just hardwired to cause pain. We are programed to hurt when we are rejected or ignored by our loved ones. We will feel sorrow when we lose people and things that are important to us. We will feel physical pain from disease and injury. This type of pain is unavoidable and inevitable.
But some types of pain, come not from the injuries or losses themselves, but from the stories we tell about those injuries and losses. If we tell a story that we deserve to feel pain, that we are weak or bad or unworthy... if we tell a story that we aren’t good enough and don’t deserve love... this is the type of secondary pain that we can learn to stop inflicting upon ourselves. Again, these stories are not our fault. We learned to tell these stories in our families and cultures. We were trained to view the world through a lense that blames and stigmatizes people for mental health issues. Retraining ourselves to stop telling these stories, and then to stop believing these stories is much easier said than done. But it IS possible.
You are not your pain. Your pain is real, it is valid, and it is overwhelming right now, but you are so much more than this moment... even this overwhelming moment. It may not be possible for you to see the vast and beautiful complexity and wholeness that is you, right now. You may think I’m full of nonsense to suggest that you are so much more than this pain. But maybe you can open yourself up to the possibility that perhaps the pain may have stolen this knowledge from you, today. If you can hold on for five minutes, then five minutes more, then you will find someone who will give your story the care and attention it needs, and you can learn to give yourself compassion, and find that you had all along within you everything you need. But you don’t have to believe that right now. Right now, just give it five more minutes.
Lisa Butterworth, LPC, NCC has a masters degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Idaho State University, primarily working with issues of relational health, faith transitions and journeys, women's issues and sexuality. She is the founder of the popular Feminist Mormon Housewives website and support group.