As a therapist and trauma recovery coach I experienced significant distress among my clients this past week. Between World Suicide Awareness Day and the anniversary of 9/11 social media channels and the news were filled with triggering articles, posts, statuses and tweets. As a trauma and suicide survivor myself, I easily identified with the jangled nerves and recurrent painful thoughts that my clients were coping with. I get it. In a million ways, I get it.
Following the death of Robin Wiliams in August and now with September being National Suicide Prevention month it seems a day hasn’t passed where I haven’t seen an article, blog post or television report about the “why” behind people deciding to die by suicide. Some are quick to judge negatively, labeling the act selfish and an impulsive, permanent response to a temporary problem. Others make a valiant effort to unravel the complicated knot of feelings and circumstances that tangle together to create each individual’s “why”.
In the summer of 1994 I tried to kill myself. I’ve always been open about my experience, and have tried repeatedly to explain why I made the decision to die by my own hand. I haven’t always been successful in having others understand my “why”, starting from immediately after my attempt.
I remember lying in my hospital bed, after I regained consciousness, with wires and tubes running amok over and around me. In the hallway a doctor who had just spoken to me was, in turn, speaking to one of my nurses. I will never forget hearing him say “She had a spat with her boyfriend. That’s why she did it,” I wanted to scream, “No! That’s not it at all! That’s not what I said!” As tears flowed down my face I felt so misunderstood, judged and ashamed. It wasn’t about a silly “spat”. It was about years and years of pain, beginning with almost a decade of childhood sexual abuse, continuing with my husband betraying me and leaving for another woman, and building into unbearable agony following my fiancé telling me that he’d met someone else.
Yes, there are those rare suicides that stem from jealousy, guilt or an impulsive thought. But for 90% of those who kill themselves it’s about suffering from mental illness. It’s about pain, long term emotional agony. Yet, many people have never experienced such pain so they have a hard time wrapping their understanding around that explanation. Without that comprehension they revert back to interpreting the basis of the behavior through their own life lens.
Ironically, the “why” and the tragedy of 9/11 have come together to give me the best explanation I have ever heard for the reason behind one’s decision to die by their own hand. I remember watching the television footage on 9/11. One of the most difficult things to watch was the people jumping from the World Trade Towers to escape the explosive flames burning within the buildings. There was no way those individuals would live. None whatsoever. It was heart breaking to watch.
The reason why those people jumped is same the reason why most people choose to kill themselves. They want(ed) to escape the agony of burning alive. It wasn’t that they wanted to die. That wasn’t it at all. They wanted to live. But to live meant to face the pain of the raging fire. Circumstances had boxed them into a horrific corner with only two options. Given that, they chose what they felt was the lesser of two evils.
THAT is why people choose suicide. It isn’t that we want to die. We just don’t want to be in pain anymore. I realize not everyone will understand my comparison between emotional pain and the agony of burning alive. But those who have experienced emotional pain, especially long term emotional pain, will tell you that the feeling is a similar one.
Escaping the agony of decades of betrayal and abandonment, which had me convinced I was damaged beyond repair, is why I chose to take my life. I had never known life without pain, as my abuse started when I was a toddler. I didn’t know what it was like to live happily or with contentment. All I knew was pain. And I had reached my limit of enduring it. I had tried treatment, but unfortunately, the only options available to me were low quality and ineffectual. After decades of pain, with no hope that therapy or medication would alleviate my pain, I chose the only way I knew would permanently remove me from that pain.
As a society we need to do a much better job of providing high quality, easily accessible mental health care. And as individuals we need to seek an understanding of the pain those with mental illness endure every day, especially without the high quality, easy to obtain, treatment they need. Circumstances often box them into a horrible place where their choices are very, very few. Judgment isn’t the answer, because as long as there is a negative societal judgment the worth of those with mental illness is diminished. In that environment, treatment options will remain limited. If we choose compassion I have no doubt that more mentally ill individuals will choose life.
Welcome to new staff columnist Bobbi Parish! I’m beyond thrilled to have Bobbi here every few weeks, and I know you will be, too. Please welcome her to RachelintheOC.com and enjoy her wisdom. I’m honored to have her and look forward to her regular contributions!