We (Linda and Charlie) are both inspired by the stories of people who have endured great hardship and have come through the darkness, stronger at the broken places. We refer to their ordeals as “psychological rags to riches stories.” Some such stories feature people who have descended into such a dark mind-set that death itself seems preferable to a life of living in a relentless and unending hell of mental anguish. Accounts of coming through a suicidal depression to create a healthy, wholesome life are especially inspiring. They say that sometimes it’s necessary to hit bottom before you can begin to recover from the descent down. Unfortunately hitting bottom doesn’t always lead to a bounce back. Sometimes it becomes a permanent bottom.
Suicide and attempted suicides are a huge problem in our country. Consider the following harsh statistics:
- In the year 2014, in the United States, 1,069,325 people attempted suicide – A suicide attempt takes place every 30 seconds. Every 12.3 minutes, one of them succeeds.
- For young people (15 to 24 years old) the statistics are even worse, surpassing adult rates.
- There has been a 200% rise in teen suicide rates since the 1950’s, and the numbers continue to grow.
(Statistics courtesy of the American Association Of Suicidology).
The statistics for suicide in America are disturbingly high. It is tragic not only for the one whose life was cut short, but also for those loved ones left behind after their death. On average, there are 750,000 people a year whose lives are directly impacted by the suicide of a loved one. For many, these effects continue for years, even a lifetime.
By one conservative estimate at least 3.5 million Americans today are survivors of a loved one’s suicide, leaving the family and friends with the sadness of losing someone that they love. Compounding the grief of many is the guilt generated by the belief that they should have done more to prevent their loved one’s death.
It’s hard for many of us to imagine despair so deep that we are willing to die to get out of the pain. Books like Waking Up Alive by psychologist Richard Heckler, can give us some insight into the experience of someone with who lives with a mind that can perceive nothing but torment and endless suffering. By conveying the words of those whose disconnection and depression was so severe that they did not want to live any longer, Dr. Heckler helps us to understand the depths of such despair:
“Sometimes I feel like crying, but the tears just don’t come.” “I had no idea there was a state of mind like this. Everything turned black.” “It was a zombie place where I just couldn’t be a part of anything.” “ The pain was simply beyond my capacity to contain it.” “Life lost all meaning and purpose.” “My mind was consumed by racing thoughts moving a thousand miles an hour… totally out of control.”
In his book, Heckler describes the interviews of 50 individuals who attempted suicide and lived to tell the tale. For anyone considering suicide as an option, the collection of recovery stories offers hope and practical wisdom for moving beyond the pain. And for those who are close to someone who they suspect might be contemplating suicide, Heckler offers ideas for discussion and intervention. He describes the common experiences of loss and pain of suicide survivors of all ages and backgrounds, and then goes on to tell about their efforts to establish a wholesome life after their failed suicide attempt.
The stories provide inspiring examples of heroic recoveries and reassurance that profound healing is indeed possible. They are stories of resilience, straight from the mouths of those who stood at death’s door, and found the courage and strength to go on living. The emphasis is not on the factors that led to the deep despair that prompted the attempt, but on the process of emotional recovery. His subjects go on to lead rewarding and meaningful lives.
Many of the people who contemplate or attempt suicide don’t actually want to die; they just want out of their pain. Their suffering is overwhelming and they don’t see any possible escape from it other than death. Isolating from others often leaves the suicidal person alone with more intense feelings than they can handle. Their inner voices urge them to die and seduce them with promises of peace at last. Alone, with only their own mind filled with distorted thoughts and memories, they become convinced that the past was horrible, and that they are doomed to a future of continual torment. Under such circumstances, maintaining hope for a better future seems impossibly unrealistic. Suicidal people frequently also become convinced that their loved ones and the world in general will be better off if they were to die. Many are surprisingly skilled at keeping up an image of normalcy which can make it difficult for others, even close friends and family members to detect the despair that underlies their smiling external demeanor.
The allure of suicide as the way out of the pain can grow stronger and stronger resulting in what psychologists refer to as the suicidal trance. During the trance, hopelessness and despair take over while all other options fade from view.
Withdrawn and trapped in a closed system of their own distorted thoughts, even when sources of help are readily available, the trance can be so strong that the person in pain can’t recognize the supports that are right in front of them.
The most best antidote to this pessimistic thinking is to reality test with someone who can be trusted. Only then can a small bit of breathing room be established that can open the possibility of to finding other ways out of the pain that could include medication, therapy, effective support, exercise, and other life-style changes.
As one woman in Heckler’s collection was about to jump off of a bridge, a nearby passerby grabbed her ankles, pulled her over the railing and wrestled her to the ground. In another instance, the gun did not fire (the chances of a new cartridge failing are 1 in 2,000), and in another, a barking dog alerted family members. Upon waking up, some still wanted to die, while many others had an immediate experience of gratitude to still be alive. But for all of them, the surprise of still being in a body is shocking and completely unplanned for.
After the physical recovery, the pain that had been concealed becomes exposed. Frequently, the old commitment to hiding away from people morphs into wanting to connect and communicate. The survivor wants to heal past wounds, so active therapy becomes a viable option. A desire to find ways to meet life’s challenges begins to stir; dormant parts of the personality begin to emerge.
After years of self-hate, some kindness towards oneself often begins to surface. Instead of feeling like a helpless victim, he or she may find the strength to set goals and begin to move towards their fulfillment. Recognizing that support is available, reaching out to seek friendships with understanding, caring people becomes a priority. Gradually, as people learn to trust themselves and others, the desire to end their lives gradually fades away. In their journey back to mental health, they finally grow a strong sense of self.
Heckler is doing a great service by showing us case histories of those who survived serious suicide attempts. In each person’s recovery, they found ways to leave behind their crushing pain, grow stronger, and make needed changes. In all of the cases, there was a long climb to recovery, but in the end, the people in his study returned to fully functioning lives.
After taking responsibility for the recovery of their mental health, they went on to earn academic degrees, have successful careers, fulfilling marriages, establish friendships, and to enjoy parenting. He reports that an overwhelming percentage of the 50 survivors of suicide attempts, devote themselves to some form of community service. Grateful that they survived and recovered, they experience a higher degree of empathy and compassion in their lives and a heightened desire to contribute to the lives of others.
If these people once so deeply troubled that death looked to them like a welcomed alternative could come eventually realize a life of contribution, then perhaps the rest of us can use the challenges of our lives to support our own movement towards greater wholeness, healing and contribution, for ourselves as well as others. Maybe we too can come through life’s inevitable ordeals, happy to be alive, creating intimate relationships, and experiencing greater joy and deeper meaning than we ever have before. Just maybe.