I’m no expert on suicidality. But I have had suicidal thoughts. What follows is an account of my experiences, plus my understanding of suicidality more generally.
My first encounter with suicidal thinking, as I later understood it, was lying in my bed as a teenager, wondering if I’d wake up in the morning, and if not, who would come to my funeral.
I was deeply lonely and felt totally not understood.
A few years later, at university, I walked back to my college from the lecture theatre one day, contemplating walking out into the road ahead without checking for traffic. I wondered if I’d do it or not.
At the kerb, I stopped, checked, and crossed safely. It felt as though I’d passed my own test, somehow.
I’d been depressed for about 5 years by this point. I was in a degree course that didn’t fit (I’m an engineer, not a physicist, at heart), a relationship that didn’t fit, and my family-of-origin was having Issues of its own, so I didn’t fit there, either.
I got out of the degree (with a 2:1 BA and 2:2 MSci – yay me!). I got out of the badly fitting relationship, straight into another one for four years, out of that one, and felt free. The endless low-level cloud lifted immediately. (Situational depression, anyone?!)
(Interestingly, at the end of that relationship, I had recurring daydreams that the boyfriend would somehow die on his latest outdoor adventure, or his plane would crash, or some other way that he would disappear from my life. These daydreams – never wilfully imagined, but passively observed playing out in my mind – I came to understand later as metaphors from my psyche, just like suicidal thoughts. But I’m skipping ahead of myself here. Let’s get back to where we were.)
Life continued to improve for several years. A PhD. A good relationship that became a marriage. Better conditions in which I could be me, myself, rather than someone trying to fit into someone else’s life.
More years passed.
Difficult times came and went. The depression didn’t come back. I felt a growing confidence. I can handle this shit!
Then, after a unexpected, traumatic, and drawn-out ending to a job, I became completely exhausted. I had recurring daydreams of taking my breathing reg off when scuba diving. More suicidal ideation, the first episode since over 10 years earlier.
The flavour of this thought was of the ”I should just end it all” variety.
It was a single thought, caught on the meditation cushion when I sat to explore my mood, and emotional and mental states.
Fortunately, experience has taught me that I don’t need to take these thoughts at face value. I don’t actually want to end it all. I don’t actually want to hurt myself.
What these thoughts represent are metaphors from the psyche. The psyche is saying ”I want out of this situation!” It’s saying ”Make a change!” and ”I can’t put up with this any longer!”
The psyche is blunt and often talks in images, strong language, and metaphor. A wish for change shows up as strong images of death.
Death and change are close relatives. For something new to emerge, the old must die.
When the flower blooms, the bud dies. When the child matures into an adult, the child dies. Dies in the sense of no longer exists in that form.
This was one of the most profound things I learned from the Tarot. Death represents change, and need not be read at face value.
When we take these thoughts as metaphors, they are much, much more manageable.
I see my experiences as being at the shallow end of suicidal ideation. My thoughts are passive – I’m not actively seeking a way out. I’m not doing anything practical that would get me out. Heck, I don’t even have a plan.
If I were to follow these thoughts, entertain the, believe them, allow them to grow like brambles in my mind, I’m sure I’d tip into the deeper waters of more serious suicidal ideation. So I don’t let myself go there.
My thoughts are, these days, nippable-in-the-bud. I see them, go ”Oh, hello, metaphor. What do I need to change to get back in good relationship with myself?”
Maybe that sounds too flippant for something as serious as a suicidal thought. The mind can be a flippant place. We don’t need to take everything seriously or at face value. This is a learned – and learnable – process.
On the cognitive level, the key is knowing the metaphoric nature of such thoughts. Knowing that you don’t have to follow them, agree with them, or act upon them. They are indicators.
At the cognitive/emotional level, know that such thoughts are not to be feared. Once you see them as a metaphor, this is easier. If you add fear to the mix and begin to panic (silently, inwardly, perhaps) about being suicidal, your situation gets more complicated. If you stay with the initial thought as an indicator, your situation stay simpler. No less painful, but definitely simpler.
If I’d known all of this in my teenage and university years, I’d have had a much speedier path out of depression than I did have.
If you can stay at this initial level of ”There’s a thought. Oh, that’s not a nice thought. What’s it telling me? Oh, it’s telling me I’m not happy with my job/boss/relationship/parents/the state of the world/illness, it’s telling me I want a change,” you’ll have a much more straightforward time of recovering. Perhaps not easy, perhaps not painless, but more straightforward than if you go further into the deeper waters of suicidal ideation.
And get help. A counsellor, the Samaritans, good friends who can be with you and nurture you. Whatever you need to keep a thread of positivity going until you find your way back.
I’ve heard all sorts of stats about suicidal thinking. Something like 1 in 4 people experience it.
If you’ve never experienced these kinds of thoughts, I hope that this, and my other articles, helps you to understand it for the occasions when you come across the 1 in 4 of your friends who’s in a rough spot.
If you’re currently in an initial kind of suicidal ideation phase like I’ve described here, I hope this post helps you recognise and normalise your thinking as something that happens, yes, and something that passes. I hope it helps you to avoid deeper phases and get out of it to a new kind of normal connected with some positivity in your life.
I wish I could write more for you if you’re in a more serious level of suicidal ideation. Maybe this helps you anyway, to create some space in your thinking and feeling around suicidal thoughts.
I’ve heard from friends that in the deeper phases, it’s as though a switch gets flicked, like switching the signals on a railway and the train ploughs on into the dangerous, and fatal ravine. I so hope you don’t get this far along.
If you’re actively suicidal, with a plan and/or equipment ready – seek someone immediately to help you stay alive. We need you here.