I recently lost a family member to suicide. It’s not my story to tell, but what that action did – as suicide does – was cause the ripples of pain to go through the family, friends and community members of the person who died. Subsequently, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have lost their lives to suicide. I’ve been pondering what to do with all this loss and considering my own suicidal ideation over the course of my life. I’m contemplating what little contribution I can make to the conversation. Is there anything I’ve learned or seen that can help?
I first had suicidal ideation in 1980. I was 12 years old. My mother and I had recently moved to Sheboygan, Wisconsin. I was in 7th grade, in a Lutheran K-8th grade parochial school. It was the last year I lived with my mother, and at that time I hit the lowest point in my life to date. My mother had been prostituting for a long time to support us, though I’d only known about it for two years. The day had come that school year where she told me to go out, get food and money, and she said she didn’t care how I did it. I did not consciously think she was sending me out to prostitute, though a fleeting thought crossed my mind to “go to the bars.” After all, that’s what she did. But it wasn’t something I could really grok, so I went to the homes of our neighbors, instead, asking for food, for money. When the first family whose door I knocked on looking for help closed the door in my face and left me on the sidewalk, I stood and howled into the night. My heart felt like it would break. I felt physical pain in my guts and in my whole body, really. I felt a pain of abandonment and betrayal that sliced right through me. I tried to go home after that incident, but my mom turned up the radio and said she would not turn it down and let me go to sleep until I brought home what she’d asked for. So I headed back into the night until a kind family gave me $2.00 and a bag of groceries from their own kitchen.
The next day, I went to school. The kids there seemed to hate me. I was the new kid, and probably more than a little strange to them. I’d lived in Detroit, then Virginia, before Sheboygan, and the kids made fun of my accent, my clothes, my mother. I was awkward and homely, and I didn’t much like them either. I was often hungry, having not eaten at home before school (and sometimes after), so the highlight of my day was school lunch. Otherwise, school just brought more pain. I fantasized about telling them what I faced at home, hoping they would have some sympathy and lay off. I never told them, and they didn’t let up until the school year ended.
That school year, I walked outside a lot, and the two places I seriously considered suicide were the bridges over the Sheboygan River on Pennsylvania Avenue and at 14th and Indiana Ave. I would walk over and think, “I could jump.” I imagined drowning. My pain was profound and constant, and I could not imagine relief ever coming naturally. My mother could not help me. My teachers didn’t stop the bullying and abuse at school. It seemed I was as alone as I could possibly be. Eventually, I went into foster care, and my immediate pain was over. I learned to pretend my past never happened, and that worked for a while.
The next time I felt suicidal was in college, both my senior year and the year after graduation. I’d started therapy in college, and I’d opened the box of traumatic memories for the first time since they’d happened, including but not limited to my memories of being 12. I felt all the pain as if it were fresh, and I had no idea how to heal it. I couldn’t seem to make it go away, and stuffing it down and ignoring it had only led me to an eating disorder that increased my emotional ups and downs, my lack of mental clarity.
I’ve been thinking about the long road from those states of mind to where I am now, and pondering those who have died so recently, those who are hanging on.
One reflection I have is that it took so many years of people loving me for me to finally learn how to accept what I was getting as “enough.” I felt like an emotional black hole. People cared about me, but as soon as I left their presence, that gut-wrenching sense of abandonment returned. The image I had was that of having smooth walls inside myself, and I had no “pegs” to hang the gifts that others gave me. They just poured in and fell right through me. And finally, I got to a place where I somehow learned to create a peg that love could hang on. It was so many lessons that got me there that I hesitate to try to simplify it. I don’t think there’s a simple answer. I think about those who’ve died, and how loved they were. They were loved more than they knew, truly. They just couldn’t feel it in that dark place.
And with age, sometimes, comes the perspective of knowing that states pass. (Though Kate and Anthony belie that statement.) One friend told me her therapist said passing through a state is just that: pick the state you like the least, (I hate to name one here, but use your imagination) and say, “I’m passing through _____. I’m just passing through the state. I will get through to the other side eventually.” That helps me now. When I was suicidally depressed and in pain, I had no sense that the “state” I was in would ever change
But there’s so much more. There was 12-step recovery for the eating disorder, and so that particular component to my mental health picture improved. I stopped binging and purging. I went through an outpatient program that required I make three phone calls a day for my recovery, everyday. That habit is something I still use often. When I’m really struggling, I reach out. I connect with others. I don’t suffer in silence or suffer alone anymore.
One of my martial arts instructors told me to “sit down and watch my thoughts,” and out of that meagre instruction, I developed a taste for what meditation could do. I use meditation a lot now and metta (lovingkindness) practices. Meditation has taught me not only to observe my thoughts and feelings without judgment, but it has also taught me to practice kindness in my observations. I had internalized such deep self-contempt that even my very natural human experience in the face of deep suffering seemed to be a failing. Over years of practice, I’ve learned to sit with my internal experiences with compassion. That compassion is something I learned from so many friends who loved me, who loved each other and their children in my presence. I watched, and I learned. And I eventually could imagine looking at myself with that same kindness.
Metta, or lovingkindness, practice has also helped me to develop a sense of being on my own side. In metta, one repeats words of friendly intention toward self and others. For one’s self, one might say,
May I be safe.
May I be healthy.
May I be happy.
May I be at ease.
The words aren’t magic, but when one of my meditation teachers suggested I do this practice for 30 minutes/day for a week, I found myself feeling resistance, and I got really curious about that. What part of me is resistant to my own wellbeing, I wondered? I unearthed the ancient-feeling pact of partnering with my mother, with her hatred toward me. Through metta, I learned to welcome myself to my own life,. When I suffer now, I am no longer separated from myself. I am entirely on my own side, caring for my own experience, whatever it might be. I now practice metta toward myself before I practice for anyone else. I feel I owe myself a living amends, and that is one way I do it.
And yet, in writing this, I’m aware that there was more, so much more. Therapy. Yoga. Martial arts. Authentic Movement. Mentors. Friends. Art. Music. Religion, faith. One overnight stay in a psych ward. Three years of antidepressants after hospitalization. So much hard work, and lots and lots of failure.
I don’t have any illusions that I am invulnerable now, nor that someone grasping at these tools will always find reprieve. When I went through cancer three years ago, I contemplated suicide as a distant possibility, though I never got close to taking action. So all of this work is not a guarantee. It’s a regimen that alleviates my depression, most of the time. And yet a blow from life can send the whole chemical balance into disequilibrium. I remember that I’m in a state that will pass; I move my body and breath in ways that return me to feelings of wellbeing. I remember to practice metta and that reminds me that I don’t want to be the object of aggression when I just want the pain to stop.
And that’s it, really. Suicide is the alluring answer to unbearable pain, a lack of perspective that it could ever change or could ever change enough. And so many who commit suicide cannot, for whatever reasons, feel the connection with others that is meaningful enough for them to hang on.
Part of the reason I write this is that it has been a complex path, with so many factors that helped me, so many people who loved me (and many who loved me through their frustration with me). And my path was uniquely mine. Kate and Anthony had their own. Robin Williams had his own. My family member, his own.
For those of us who live, don’t give up. Keep loving. And keep looking for the ways in which we can more effectively work as a society to cultivate connection, to cultivate places where dealing with our deepest pain is not met with pat answers or judgment. We need universal healthcare, with full psychological resources. We need to address trauma, both that which is individual and that which is cultural, from injustice and poverty. We need to learn to heal, ourselves and one another. We need shamans and magic and science and art. We need to bring all our resources to bear for suicidal teens, adults, famous people, rich people, poor people, bullied people, for men, for women, for our military, for addicted, for gay, lesbian, trans, for successful and for not successful. For all our suffering, we need to do our own work and our cultural work to heal.
May all being be safe.
May all beings be healthy.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be at ease.