Suicidal feelings are normal

Over-identifying with them is the trap. Here's my story.

vol. 1 issue 43


Have you ever felt suicidal? Odds are, yes. It’s quite common. You just don’t hear people talk about it much. What you will hear is people talking about the sensational ways people actually go through with the act, but less so when they don’t.

So, let me tell you about my own experience with it.

There are many things in my life I have “survived” although I don’t identify myself as “survivor”. I don’t like that sort of public affirmation of affliction, don’t want to be frozen in time, attached to any one thing that I have healed and moved through. And anyway, we’ve all “survived” something.

Another reason I and so many others who have experienced suicidal moments in our respective lives don’t discuss them is that until recently, it’s been too stigmatizing to be prudent. I don’t really worry about this kind of thing anymore.

All that being said, feeling suicidal is something I have experienced. It was well over a decade ago now, but I do know what it is like to feel so desperately hopeless that taking your own life seems an attractive way to end the pain. Since that time, I have heard it described by some psychiatric researchers as “poor decision making skills”. Aren’t you just laughing out loud at that one? I always do. Sometimes a lot of research is ultimately just patently obvious stuff.

When I was honored with the Journalist of the Year Award from the Washington Psychiatric Society in 2017, I gave a speech that described my own experience with “poor decision making”. I don’t argue with the premise that taking one’s life is a poor decision, but I also think that so often — not always — it’s just a matter of perspective, and by that I mean, it’s the story we choose to tell with the materials at hand.

Here is the link to my speech. In it, I tell my story, and I urge psychiatrists to help people find meaning and mattering in their lives, to show people how to test their truths and tell a new story because I do believe stories save lives.

But not everyone has access to a psychiatrist.

That’s where I hope docu-mental can play a role.

A question I get a lot is why this publication with the word “mental” in its title doesn’t overtly address mental health issues. I argue that although I am not a clinician and this is not a clinical site, I address mental health all the time. I do this by delineating how our world is tumbling into chaos, and connecting that to our various states of mind. I also suggest ways to knock on the status quo in our society, the one which I think exacerbates and ossifies our fears and anxieties, leading to depression and suicide.

But people who know me say I can do more, be more explicit regarding my thoughts on the subject of mental health. And anyway, I woke up with this on my mind. I am not depressed, I am not even sad. I revel in that I live such a great, fulfilling life, surrounded by people who love me and whom I love.

What it is, I think, is that I am responding to a Zeitgeist, something “in the air”. I trust that talking about suicidality is what I need to do to help counteract the fear and weirdness all around us right now.

In addition, I have developed several projects focused on how to strengthen what I have trademarked with the US patent office as “herd immunity to anxiety and depression”. Herd immunity is what population health experts say when they mean that enough people are vaccinated against an infectious disease that it makes it difficult for the disease to spread.

I am applying this population health approach to mental health. It’s rooted in what I see as having a practical understanding that as our anxieties and fears rise, there just are not going to be enough mental health experts to help counsel our way out.

I believe the skilled use of stories is our vaccination against anxiety, depression, and suicide.

As Joni Mitchell says, “It all comes down to you.”

Unless we’re talking about serious mental illness such as psychosis or bipolar episodes, that’s what I believe, too: it comes down to me, to you, to us. That’s why stories matter. We can control them. We can choose them. We can derive real meaning for our lives from them. But we need to be skilled with it. Otherwise, it becomes the free-for-all “alternative facts” approach to reality. That is madness.

All that being said, I will add something that is not “politically correct”, but it is true.

I think it’s far too easy to identify with our vulnerabilities and become victims of them. My personal, non-clinical, non-expert, personal advice is to share your story — even if it’s to admit it to yourself — and move on.

I didn’t tell anyone about my experience until a decade later when it was a good vehicle for making a larger point to a room full of psychiatrists on how I came to be knowlegeable about their field and saw that they were not leveraging an important power they possess. By then, I was through it, and so I wasn’t “it”.

What I am saying is, feeling suicidal is not the only story you have to tell. It’s more like a chapter. In my life any more, I almost never think about these things. But sometimes, it’s a means to a greater understanding.

I just happened to wake up and know it was medicine needed by someone somewhere today. I may never know who. I might even be wrong. And yet, I am a science writer by trade, but I am also an artist. This has meant that over the years, I have learned I have a knack for knowing when to trust this kind of urge and then say it in a way that I like to think of as being grounded, not wifty.

A key to this is that I don’t “become” these urges that lead me to talk about what’s taboo. There is nothing liberating about being chained to an identity that precludes other truths.

So, for today’s mealtime reads/listen, here are a few stories, including my own. Please share them with as many people as you think will benefit. Learn from them, but be wary of glorifying them. We are not our darkness, just like we are not all light.

For you to chew on:

  • The text of my speech, which will take you less than 2 minutes to read.

  • This Cosmopolitan article which features this excellent insight:

    For many people who seriously contemplate killing themselves, choosing to live is just as complex as wanting to die. Sometimes it's a sudden shift: The person on the verge of financial ruin sees a way out. Other times, there's a flash of hope, like getting a phone call from a friend or hearing a meaningful song on the radio.

  • And this podcast with my childhood friend Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas, whose brother Carson took his own life 15 years ago this December. In this episode, Sally talks with Shelby Rowe (Chickasaw), Oklahoma’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuses Services suicide prevention manager, about the importance of storytelling to a culture.

    The message: stories communicate and preserve the values that inspire hope, and the will to live.

Also, here is a link to resources if you do or know someone who feels suicidal.

Now, seriously, have a good day.

Share docu-mental