“How could he do it?”
“Didn’t she know she had her whole life in front of her?”
“This is so sad; didn’t he see all the people that cared about him?”
These questions - part query, part lament, and part critique, are posed by survivors of suicide loss and the loved ones who must live with the knowledge that someone they care deeply about attempted to end their life.
To be human is to know happiness and sorrow. To be “on cloud nine” and “down in the dumps.” Most of us have enough experience and empathy to imagine being in a really bad place, but it is a much farther leap to imagine what feelings would drive someone to suicide.
I liken explaining acute suicidal thinking to explaining the colors of a rainbow to a dog. Most people can get a vague idea of what I describe, but there is color and contrast that only becomes visible through lived experience. I used to get angry when I heard people say that someone who died by suicide was selfish, or that it’s a really sad situation that someone tried to kill themselves when they had so much going for them. Now, mostly due to my study of stoicism, my response is more of a practical indifference. I do not get worked up, and that allows me to devote more energy and brainpower toward education.
The challenge is how to educate people about a topic that requires diving into dark and unforgiving psychological waters. I cannot ethically give anyone depression, nor would I ever wish to impart a true desire to kill oneself on any person. That leaves me trying to explain the unexplainable. Well, here I go:
Imagine yourself in your bedroom. The door to the rest of the house and the windows to the outside world are open, and you have no desire to leave. You like your bedroom, it’s comfortable. But soon, things change.
The light dims. Sounds are muffled. There is a distinct lack of temperature so you do not feel hot or cold. Naturally, you are displeased with whatever is going on in your bedroom and you stand up to leave, but the door is gone. Now, more concerned, you go to one of the windows and find it locked. In fact, all the windows are locked and no amount of effort can force them open.
You feel uneasy, trapped in what was once a familiar and comfortable space. You cannot explain what is happening to yourself, and there is no means for you to communicate with anyone outside your room.
Light turns to darkness, and though your eyes are open you cannot see anything.
Sound goes mute, and though you strain to listen there is nothing to hear.
The temperature stabilizes to the exact temperature of your body, and you feel no difference between the air and your skin.
Gravity disappears, and you have nothing to push against. In this zero-G environment, you are stuck.
This once comfortable bedroom is now a prison. You feel nothing because there is nothing to feel. You see nothing because there is nothing to see. You hear nothing because there is nothing to hear.
All you have are your thoughts - how long do you think you would last before you wanted this experience to end? How would you feel if you knew, to your innermost core, that the rest of your life would be this dark, silent, and unfeeling moment stretched to infinity?
Emotional tunnel vision is not a willful attempt to shield oneself from the world. It is a prison within the mind that gradually separates a person from everything they once felt and held dear.
It is telling that one of the worst things we can do to a human is to lock him or her in a room with minimal interaction for an indeterminate amount of time. The effects of solitary confinement on the brain are shocking. From messing up circadian rhythms to an increased fear response, prolonged isolation damages the body and the mind.
Edwin Shneidman, the father of modern suicidology, wrote:
“The sad and dangerous fact is that in a state of constriction, the usual life-sustaining responsibilities toward loved ones are not merely disregarded; much worse. They are sometimes not even within the range of what is in the mind. A person who commits suicide turns off all ties to the past, declares a kind of mental bankruptcy, and his or her memories have no lien. These memories can no longer save him; he is beyond their reach. Any attempt at rescue has to deal, from the first, with the suicidal person’s psychological constriction.
The challenge and the task are clear: Open up the possibilities, widen the perceptual blinders.”
For anyone concerned about a friend or loved one, your goal is to bring some light, some sound, and some feeling back into the mind of that suicidal individual. Allow them to connect, however faintly, to you, and you bolster their defenses.