Don’t Call Me Selfish

Don’t call me selfish.

Now, I know that I am selfish sometimes. I can certainly be self-absorbed and self-centered. I can certainly be worried more about my own stuff some days than anybody else’s. I can certainly fail to love my neighbor. But there’s one piece of me that is so often vilified as selfish. And it’s not.

Don’t call me selfish because I am suicidal. A friend asked me recently what it felt like to be suicidal. I’m glad he asked, because my answer helped me think about it. I actually don’t think there is such as thing as being “suicidal.” I’m no psychologist, and perhaps I’m wrong, but I think suicidal ideation is a symptom, not an ailment. I think that suicidal thoughts and behaviors occur for a pretty simple reason, almost mathematical. We all have a certain level of pain, whether it’s physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual, or a combination. This pain level increases and decreases over time, certainly. And I think the longer the pain lasts, the more it becomes suffering. I think we can all deal with short-term pain far more easily than long-term. And we also all have a certain set of coping mechanisms, skills and resources we accrue over time that help us deal with the pain. Ibuprofen can be a coping mechanism for the pain of a headache. Community can be a coping mechanism for the pain of loneliness. Faith can be a coping mechanism. Hope is a huge coping mechanism. Meditation. Yoga. Exercise. Hobbies. Alcohol. Street drugs. Television. Self-talk. Physical and psychological therapy. All kinds of things, some good, some bad, some neutral.

And I think one’s level of suicidal ideation can be expressed as an equation:

p*t – c = Si

Let me explain. p is pain, and t is time. So I’m defining suffering as ptthe multiplication of pain and time. The higher the pain, the higher the suffering, and the longer pain lasts, the higher the suffering. c is the total amount of coping mechanisms one has. Si is the level of suidical ideation. The higher Si goes, the more likely you will experience feelings of wishing to die. As Si continues to increase, so do the chances that suicidal feelings turn to thoughts, and thoughts turn to behavior.

It’s a simple enough equation. Suicidal ideation occurs when the suffering someone experiences is greater than their coping mechanisms. Increase the pain, Si also increases. Increase the time spent in pain, Si increases. Increase the coping skills, Si decreases. I think the reason why suicidal thoughts and behavior is so often found among those who live with depression is because depression both causes mental pain (p increases), and also depletes our coping skills at the same time (c decreases).

But by no means is suicide connected only to depression. People who experience a trauma can wish to die, especially as time goes on and the trauma doesn’t go away. People with chronic physical ailments can wish to die. Things like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome can sap coping skills as well as depression, and as t keeps increasing, it’s normal to consider that death would be preferable to this existence. And I can’t count how many times I’ve heard an older person say, “I’d rather die than be a burden to my family.” The pain there may not be so much physical or mental as emotional, but it’s real. They want so badly not to be a burden, that p level goes so high, and they are actually actively trying to keep c low, refusing to accept certain types of help, because it would feel like failure. No wonder death seems a good alternative.

And that’s what suicidal ideation is. It’s what happens when suffering is greater than coping mechanisms. It’s that simple. Yet I so often hear that it’s selfish to consider suicide, selfish to “commit suicide.” It may be many things: short-sighted, emotional, etc. But it is not selfish. Is it selfish for a mother grieving the death of her child to wish it had been her to die instead? No. Is it selfish for a 90-year-old man diagnosed with cancer to decide not to accept treatment, but instead die sooner with dignity? No. These things are reasonable responses to pain. Just so, it is not selfish for someone with a chronic mental or physical illness to prefer the thought of death, even to act on that.

A friend once said something like this to me: “I would miss you so much if you weren’t here tomorrow, and I would be very sad, but I would understand if you can’t be.” It touched me so deeply. He heard me. He understood that I wasn’t trying to hurt him, or my family, or anyone else. I was trying to cope. And sometimes trying to cope isn’t enough. It was one of the most caring, loving things I’ve ever heard. Because that’s not the usual thing someone hears when they share suicidal thoughts with someone else. Here’s where I’m really going to get into trouble, but honestly, sometimes people can be incredibly selfish when trying to talk someone out of suicidal thoughts. Saying, “You can’t kill yourself. I would miss you too much,” sounds supportive and loving. But here’s how someone contemplating suicide hears it: “I am scared of my own feelings. I don’t care about how bad you feel right now. I’m going to try to take away the last bit of agency you feel you have.” I know that’s not how it’s intended. But that’s really how it can sound.

Now, listen. This is not a plea for help. I’m not saying all this as a way of justifying something I’m planning today. Nothing like that. This is a plea for understanding.

  • Understanding that suicidal thoughts are, first of all, normal. My guess is that most of us have them from time to time. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in that. I usually try to hide this, but I’ll be honest: suicide crosses my mind just about every day. I regularly contemplate if things would be better without me here.
  • Understanding that going from those sort of thoughts to actually making a plan isn’t a huge leap. It just depends on that equation above, how bad the pain has gotten.
  • Understanding that sometimes, the level of pain is just too high for anything else to seem reasonable. Coping mechanisms can be hard to acquire, and hard to keep practicing.

So what am I suggesting you do if someone you love shares suicidal thoughts with you? I guess two things. First, be honest. Tell the person that you’d miss them, and that it hurts you to hear them say that. Don’t make it about you, but be honest with how you’re feeling. That encourages them to be honest as well. And second, just be with them. Don’t try to fix it. Don’t try to talk them out of it. You can’t. People don’t consider suicide on a whim; there’s no argument you can make that will elicit this: “Oh, I never thought about that before.” Trust me, they’ve thought about it. Now, if you can offer them a new coping mechanism, maybe that would help. Offer to take them to therapy (if they’re not already going). Offer to help them research medication. Like I said, maybe this would help, and maybe it wouldn’t. But being there will. It may not prevent their death, but you would give them a moment when they felt seen and loved. And that’s probably more important than anything else.

Thanks for listening.

13 comments

  • Mike, gently and with love, as someone who spent a long time in the same place, I will tell you that I found my way out with a bit of Jungian thinking, that escape into the grave and escape into the womb are the same, the dire longing to be free of responsibility. I say this cautiously as I do not intend to accuse you of irresponsibility, and in fact I know of the many responsibilities that you carry, well, but the concept is that this longing is a wish to be free of those burdens. The pain is just one problem. Being responsible for the pain is a second, connected problem, and that is why counseling is so damned hard, on both sides of the office. That moment when you realize that you are the cause of your own problems is a brilliant, agonizing, beautiful moment – the incredible pain for an instant and then the joy of relief, because if you are causing your problems then you can stop and be free.

    I don’t know if this will help. At the moment, I hope that it doesn’t hurt.

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    • Thanks, Brendan. Your comment has sent me in all kinds of directions since I first read it. I can see some truth in it — I certainly would like to run from responsibility. And my inner “dark voice” took what you wrote and twisted it into something nasty for a while too, accusing me of gross irresponsibility. An interesting thing is this — prior to accepting my diagnosis, I did blame myself for all of my problems, assigning responsibility right there. Now I’m able (sometimes) to keep it at arm’s length, say it’s the disease. Your comment is making me wonder whether I’ve moved in the right direction or not.

      Thank you for reaching out. I’m glad you have found some peace, and I’m hopeful this is one step in my journey as well.

      Like

  • On Fragility – Scholtes-Blog
  • thought provoking… the equation is very true and understandable… About talking someone out of suicidal ideation, I’ve done that and will continue to in love… Here to support and encourage… Way to continue to live on and talk about this… I hope suicidal thoughts decrease and faith to increase…
    https://suicidenotmyheart.wordpress.com

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  • This is not only an important reflection from someone who has actually experienced suicidal thoughts, but gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the “equation” that goes into it. Thank you for your frankness, and courage in being open with your vulnerability. I hope it will not only help those who have experienced it to know they are not alone, and to “put some math to it,” so to speak, but also guide those who want to be helpful but may unintentionally contribute more harm than good.

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  • Thank you for this. For giving us a voice. Anyone who has experienced suicidal thoughts will know that you do think of others when contemplating the matter. It’s often what keeps people alive.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Mike, this incredibly honest post is such a valuable contribution to all who have tasted depression and seek solace and self awareness. Their sometimes invisible (to others) unrelenting suffering can’t be dismissed or simply fixed, though our collective romantic longing for a formula to solve the problem probably won’t abate anytime soon. I like your idea of an equation to explain suicidal ideation. I’m not sure it always works out exactly this logically, but it provides a great platform for teaching people the formula and how it plays out, at least from your perspective; it opens up the possibilities for intelligent discussions about the many factors that contribute to the choice those in distress sometimes make to end their lives. It makes sense to me on many levels. I have often heard people say that suicide is a selfish act, and have wondered if they speak from some misplaced sense of judgment. Perhaps we fear what we do not understand, and those who don’t struggle with suicidal thoughts can’t fully comprehend how others end up in that desperate place, but do perceive the tragedy of the act as completely preventable; perhaps loved ones even feel responsible on some level for preventing this final and irreversible “solution” to the indescribable emotional pain another is enduring. I read Brendan’s comment above with some interest, because Jung’s ideas usually resonate with me. I don’t expect that Jungian theories can address ALL who struggle with depression, because our individual brain chemistry is not something we can always fully control or even understand. Even doctors who specialize in treatment of the mind readily admit they frequently do not know why some medications work, or why they help some and hurt others. (Science may illuminate much more for us, in time.) I see such a strong collective wish, a deep yearning, for a logical solution that can work for everyone, much as we wish we had a simple “cure” for cancer. I am so thankful for your willingness to explore this topic in a way that invites us to join you. I don’t think it’s true that most of us have suicidal thoughts, or that it is “normal” in the way we usually think of the word, but I fully appreciate your need to defend SI in this way, since these thought patterns are frequently feared, misunderstood, dismissed, avoided, judged selfish by loving, well-intentioned people who fervently want to prevent your equation from tipping too far in a fatal direction. Your insight is refreshing, and clearly largely unfiltered by self censorship. Thank you so much for being willing to venture into this kind of vulnerability. Human connection and compassion grow ever stronger whenever we dare to share the things that hurt or make us uncomfortable. Your argument against the label “selfish” contains solid reasoning, and your comparisons are astute.

    Liked by 1 person

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