Suicide: A Personal Loss

Yesterday morning I was sitting at the breakfast table, sipping chai tea when I received a text message from my mother saying, “Let me know when you’re up and around.” A pang of fear punched me in the stomach for a moment. I thought, “Grandma must have passed away.” She’s been sick for a long time, my grandmother, and we’ve all expected her to pass at any moment. I sat with the thought for a moment, and decided that it was OK if she was gone–it was time.

I texted my mother back saying, “I’m up and having breakfast.” A moment or two later my phone rang. I picked up.

“Good morning, Mom,” I said.

My mother’s voice was grave, “I have some bad news,” she said.

“OK,” I replied.

“It’s really bad,” she said.

That pang in my stomach was back. Maybe it wasn’t about my grandmother. “What is it?” I asked.

“Ian killed himself,” she said.

My lungs forgot how to take in air for a moment. Ian was my cousin. I’d grown up with him. My eyes welled up with tears and I sobbed in a breath. Tears ran down my cheeks. A moment later I recovered myself enough to ask for details, but everything I learned made me feel worse.

I thought of my aunt, Ian’s mother, and of Ian’s brother. Their hearts must be broken. I cried for them. I thought about how much pain my cousin must have been in that he felt that death was the only escape, and I cried for his pain. I thought of the rift in our family caused by suicides–this is not the first one–and I cried for that great gaping hole of loss. I thought about what it must feel like to lose a sibling, and felt a surge of love for my brother and my sister, and sent them a message telling them how important they are to me. I don’t say it enough.

I called my friend, Jessica, and she listened to me while I cried, and then suggested we meet at the mall. So, I took my feelings shopping. I’m not ashamed. Later on, I met up with another friend for wine and conversation. I am so grateful for my support system. I love you so much.

I have experienced suicide from all angles, and possess a knowledge of it’s intricacies that few people do.

As a therapist, every day I ask the question, “Are you having thoughts of killing yourself?” It is a question that most people fear to speak out loud, but it has lost its power over me. I say it without even thinking–like most people ask about the weather. Much of the time people say no when I ask this question. But they say yes more often than you might think. An unexpectedly large portion of the population walk around thinking that they would prefer to be dead. I believe this is a symptom of just how sick our society truly is. We need to be kinder to each other. We need to show each other more compassion. We need to learn to love ourselves more. I do my best to guide people towards love.

What I don’t tell these people is that I truly understand their pain and their hopelessness, because I have been there myself. During the worst part of my illness, a neurologist told me that there was nothing more to be done for me, and that I would, “just get better with time.” I was so ill that I was completely unable to function. I couldn’t eat, keep food down, sleep, think straight. Over the course of a few months I had gone from a vibrant and self-reliant woman who loved to dance to the kind of person that the nurses recognized as a frequent flyer in the emergency room. I didn’t have time. I was dying and it was taking too long, and hearing that there was nothing more to be done nearly put me over the edge.

I had a plan. I would go to the beach, take a handful of the random pills doctors had prescribed to me and swim out into the ocean, never to return to land. I even drove to the beach and parked there a few times, but I didn’t get out of the car. I kept thinking about what it would do to my mother. I thought, “Let’s give it a month and see if I feel better.”

Miraculously, I did feel better. Only a little bit, but enough to give me hope. And then the next month I felt still better, and so on. I am healthy again, and living a full life.

While I wish I never had to go through that hopelessness, I’m glad that I gained that insight into suicidal thoughts. It makes me a better therapist. I can truly empathize with the feeling that death is the only way out.

Usually, however, it’s not true. Usually, there is another way.

When people are in the depths of severe depression, their minds tell them things that aren’t true. These thoughts are symptoms of severe depression in just the same way that fever and chills are symptoms of the flu. These thoughts do not reflect reality or truth, but they feel like they do, and people are so uninformed about the symptoms of depression that they often mistake these thoughts as truth when they are really just symptoms.

One of the things that Depression says is, “Death is the only way out of this pain.” Unless you are terminally ill, this thought is a lie. If you wait, the pain passes. This thought is a symptom of depression and nothing more. Don’t believe it. Get help.

Another thing that Depression says is, “The people in your life will be better off without you. You are a burden to them.” This is also a lie. The people in your life love you and want you to be in the world. They would rather help and support you through a depression than lose you to suicide. I promise you that.

Lastly, Depression likes to say, “The people in your life will be OK with your suicide. They might be sad for a bit, but they’ll get over it and go on with their lives as before.” I have had intimate therapeutic conversations with the family members of people who have suicided, and I know that they mourn the loss for the rest of their lives.

Depression lies. Do not believe it.

If you have been having suicidal thoughts, please get help. Go to your nearest emergency room, call 911, make an appointment with a therapist, or call a suicide hotline. There are many, but the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 24 hours per day, and the number is 800-273-8255.

If you are the family member of a suicidal person, please take their suicidal thoughts seriously. You would be shocked by how many suicidal clients have shared that they told a family member about their suicidal thoughts in an effort to get help, only to have their family member tell them “to just do it already,” or that they are “just trying to get attention.” I promise this is not true. It may make you feel safer to believe that it’s just an attention-seeking behavior, but it’s not.

If someone you love tells you that they are having suicidal thoughts, take them seriously. Help them to get to the emergency room, call 911 for a welfare check, help them make a therapy appointment, or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline number above. It is better to be safe than very, very sorry.

My heart is heavy with loss, but I’m sending love and healing out into the world. If you need it, I hope that you feel it. Take care of each other.

There’s No Such Thing as Perfect

“I’m a perfectionist,” is one of the most popular answers to that dreaded interview question, “What’s your greatest weakness?” It feels safe because, while we realize that being a perfectionist can slow us down, we also admire people that strive for excellence in this society. We make movies about people that single-mindedly pursue being the best against incredible odds, and we revere the slightly mad innovators. If you don’t believe me, just consider Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Nikola Tesla, and Amelia Earhart–just to name a few.

However, the pursuit of perfection has a dark side. First of all, perfect doesn’t exist. There will always be someone who can do things better than you can. There will always be someone smarter, more educated, richer, prettier, and more talented. Years of practicing a skill can make you an expert, but it will never make you perfect. There will always be more to learn, and new innovations to master. Therefore, perfection is the proverbial carrot on a stick that you can never quite reach. The minute you achieve the goal you had set for yourself, is the minute you realize there is more to do and learn.

For example, in my younger mind, completing my master’s degree in psychology was the most wonderful thing I could accomplish. Years of study, writing papers and taking exams finally culminated in the proud day of my graduation. I was thrilled, and then I realized that I still couldn’t work as a therapist.

Instead, there was a new goal–to get my license. Five years after graduation, I accumulated 3,000 intern hours and passed two state board exams, I could finally call myself a licensed therapist.

That was incredible, until I started working more complicated psychological cases and realized that I still didn’t have the expertise that I needed to help people in the way that I wanted to, and they deserved. So, I started completing additional certifications. Now I realize that I will never be finished learning how to be a therapist. There is no perfection.

If I beat myself up every time I was presented with a patient that I didn’t understand, or was asked to perform a type of therapy that I don’t have training in, I would be paralyzed by the weight of what I don’t know, and that is the danger of perfectionism.

The very fact that you’re pressuring yourself to be perfect, combined with the truth that perfect does not actually exist, is a recipe for disaster.

It usually begins with parents or teachers who cannot see the value of rewarding children for doing their personal best, and hold them up against a standard that is out of reach. Over time, children internalize the message that they need to perform like professionals when they are only beginners, and they start beating themselves up for all of the mistakes that they make as they try to learn a skill. Instead of seeing mistakes as part of the learning process, they see them as failures. Why? Because that’s how they were taught to see them.

Eventually, the fear of failure overcomes the desire to learn something new, and the person drops the learning process altogether. Even if nobody else is judging the performance, the internal critic created by this perfectionistic society, is so harsh that it seems better not to try than to face its judgement.

How many great artists, scientists or philosophers have we lost because of perfectionism getting in the way? It’s impossible to know. However, I do know this. I am far kinder to myself when I make mistakes than the average person, and it took me several years to start trying to publish my book because I feared the judgment my work would inevitably receive. I still fear it, but I know that I will regret it if I let my life pass by without trying.

I also know that I hear about perfectionism getting in the way of my patients’ lives on a daily basis. One of the most important thing I work on with people is bringing things into their lives that create a life worth living–whatever that looks like for them.

I ask, “If you had a life that felt worth living, what would that look like?” Answers vary. For some it’s finding a partner. For some it’s travel.

Whatever it is, my next question is “What can you do today to begin bringing that into your life?” Usually, they tell me that there is nothing that they can do. It’s hopeless. So, I start throwing out suggestions.

Sometimes people take my suggestions and start making progress. However, much of the time they tell me, “I can’t do that. It won’t work, and it will hurt too much if I fail.”

It will hurt too much if I fail. The fear of that pain is enough to keep people living lives that don’t feel worth living.

Don’t be one of those people.

Instead, change your mindset. Accepting that perfect does not exist is freeing. Why strive to achieve something that isn’t there in the first place?

Instead, here are three simple truths to live by:

  1. The thing that you do is better than the thing that you don’t even try.
  2. Mistakes are not failures. They are part of learning. Each time that you make a mistake, you learn something new that will help you to do the thing better next time. With that in mind, congratulate yourself next time you mess up. You’ve just taken the next step towards mastery.
  3. All that you can do is your best–no more and no less. If your internal critic, or some person in your life finds fault with what you’ve done, simply say, “I did my best.” Don’t expect to be an expert immediately. Just do your best.

Next time that you hear your inner critic giving you a hard time because you aren’t doing something perfectly, talk back to it. Tell yourself that you’ve done your best, and that you are learning from your mistakes and will do better next time. Remind yourself that perfect does not actually exist. It will set you free.

Embracing Struggle

One of my all time favorite movies is The Princess Bride. It’s full of excellent quotes, incredible satire, and wonderful acting. In the past I’ve had a few Princess Bride quoting duels with friends that eventually dissolve into giggling to the point of tears. Recently I followed Cary Elwes (who plays Westley/Dread Pirate Roberts in the movie) on Twitter, and he has been posting some of his best lines from Princess Bride. Yesterdays was, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

After a chuckle where I remembered the scene from the movie where Westley performs this witticism, I started thinking about struggle. Often, it seems that people are living life to minimize struggle and maximize pleasure. Advertising campaigns center around presenting a problem that people might identify with, and then showing how their product can solve it. Overweight? Well, try this pill. Dirty floor? Well, try this cleaning product. Frizzy hair? Buy this hair product and your problem is solved.

When hard times hit, as they definitely have in 2020, people tend to look forward to a time when the struggle ends and life goes back to being easier. When there is illness, people look for cures. When relationships get rocky, people look for ways to smooth them out.

Clearly, avoiding struggle is part of human nature. Often, I hear parents saying that they don’t want to their children to struggle the way that they did, and then they do their utmost to make life as easy as possible for their children.

While I understand the instinct to protect, and to seek ease, I wonder about the wisdom of this philosophy. Having had my share of hard times, I can tell you that struggle has led to the most growth in my life, the most self-reflection, the most fruitful changes.

An abusive marriage and ugly divorce led to my going back to school and becoming a psychotherapist. A terrible illness led to my journey into authorship, blogging and podcasting. A painful breakup led to intense spiritual growth and a desire to invest in learning about music and another language. When the fires of struggle show up, if we can embrace them instead of fight, they can forge us from a raw metal into a weapon of great strength and beauty.

On the other hand, we’ve all encountered people who are the product of too much ease and too little struggle. We joke that they were “born with a silver spoon in their mouths.” These people tend to be arrogant in their own ignorance of what it is to do hard work–what it is to truly struggle. Often they seem to look down on people who don’t have it as easy as they do, and seem to think it’s some kind of moral failing on their part that the world is harder on them. We call these people who haven’t struggled things like “entitled,” “immature,” and “green.”

Deep down we know that people need struggle to become fully-formed human beings, but we still do our best to dodge it at every turn, and to shield our children from it. We look at celebrities and wealthy people, who we imagine live a life of ease (although this is not actually true), and we think how wonderful it would be to live those lives, leading to even more discontent with the struggles of every-day living.

I would like to advocate for a change in attitude. Instead of looking down on people who are struggling and envying those who have a vapid and overly easy existence, I suggest that we embrace struggle as the transformational process that it is. I suggest that instead of thinking, “Aww . . . poor thing. She/He is really struggling right now,” we think “Wow. That person is really in the forge of the fires of struggle. I wonder what the finished product will be.”

It’s OK to be struggling. It’s a part of life. If your kid is having a hard time with distance learning, that’s OK. Working through that struggle, helps your child to learn how to deal with adversity. Most of us are struggling in some way with the pandemic. Perhaps the struggle is isolation, or joblessness, or fear of infection. Maybe it’s all of these together. And, yes, it is hard, but instead of denying or fighting the reality of your circumstances, I suggest that you ask yourself, “What are the lessons that I could learn from this time in my life?”

Now, I’m definitely not advocating for a “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality. That’s one of my top ten most hated phrases. What are bootstraps, anyway? And how am I supposed to pull myself up with them? No. Instead, treat yourself and others with compassion. Support the people in your life as they support you in return. We need each other, and there is no shame in that.

I’m saying that struggle is not something to hide from or be ashamed of. It is not something to apologize for. Each person’s individual struggle can be like a personal hero’s journey. Every hero starts out naive and untested, and then is strengthened by adversity. Nobody is born heroic.

I think it would be appropriate to end with a quote that was brought to my attention by Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly. I think it captures this idea of embracing the formative quality of struggle perfectly: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat,” Theodore Roosevelt.

Overcoming Tribalism and Moving Toward Understanding

In a year where I feel like I’m huddled in the quiet place at the center of a tornado, I’ve been spending a lot of time watching the swirling whirlwind around me and marveling at its cruelty. Whenever I venture a little out of my comfortable quarantine space, bad things seem to happen. A few days ago I commented on an article online, and every day since, I’ve been barraged by people accusing me of intellectual, educational and moral degeneracy. These people don’t know anything about me except for one line of text, and based on that they feel entitled, and even morally obligated, to treat me like an enemy.

What’s more, I understand the urge. Sometimes people express opinions that fill me with righteous anger, and I wonder how anyone could possibly think the way that person does. Unless I consciously push back against the hardwired workings of my brain, it will automatically put that person I disagree with into the category of “other,” a person who is not part of my tribe, and not to be trusted.

Our brains evolved to classify people in this manner in order to keep us safe. When confronted with someone new, our brains will almost instantaneously assess that person’s appearance, demeanor, and attitude, and decide if that person is “us” or “other.” This was a matter of life or death in antiquity. Someone from a neighboring tribe would quite likely be an unsafe rival who competed with us for food and other resources, and they could be dangerous to our physical safety.

Unfortunately, as the centuries progressed, this hardwiring to the ancient structures of our brains didn’t change, and people still unconsciously continue to assess those that are unlike them to be threats. We can easily see this behavior in teenagers who form cliques that are fiercely loyal to each other, and who roam school hallways together looking for “others” to crush.

While people gain identity, safety, and companionship from being part of the group, they may also be stifled by it. Those that don’t conform to the group norms can end up ousted from the group, and find themselves in the cold and frightening role of “other.” As a result, people stop being creative, stop growing and changing, and stop trying to understand those who are different from them in order to avoid losing their safe place as part of the tribe. Sometimes, people will even do things that go against their own moral codes in order to remain in good standing with the group.

While we may not form cliques as often as we get older, we still join and conform to tribes. It may be a political party, a career path, an ethnicity, a religion, or even a family group. Our identities become bound up in these groups and we’re hardwired to see people in other groups as “the other” and somehow threatening to us, even if they actually have no intention of harm.

As people become more and more identified with their tribes, they lose objectivity, and they can be easily manipulated into hating the other group. Unethical people who are looking for power will often use this all-too-human tendency to unite against an “other” to rally people behind them. This process is extremely dangerous. Throughout history we’ve seen what happens when groups of people are demonized, labeled and feared: genocides, civil wars, concentration camps, witch burnings . . . the very worst of human atrocities. They all happen because of this hardwired tribalism.

So what’s the fix? How can we intervene? Well, the first step is to start paying attention. First, pay attention to the messages within your particular groups. Who is it that is being placed in the role of “other,” and who is benefiting from placing people in that role?

Next, pay attention to the feelings in your own body. If you feel comfortable with the messages of one particular group, but the other group’s messages make you feel physically uncomfortable, that’s not a sign that the other group is bad. It’s a sign that you have become so aligned with the beliefs of your own group that the way people from other groups see the world feels alien to your nervous system. Instead of further rejecting the worldview of other people and seeing them as wrong, grow curious. Start investigating other ways of thinking and believing. The more that we understand other people, the more we can embrace their differences.

Read books about topics that you’re uncomfortable with, and by people who you don’t agree with. Talk to people from the other group with an open and compassionate heart and mind, and try to understand why they see the world the way that they do. Nobody arrives at their beliefs in a vacuum. They’ve had life experiences that led them to where they are now. Understanding and knowing those stories breeds compassion, and we are in desperate need of compassion right now.

In my work as a therapist I talk with people from every imaginable group, and I can tell you that suffering, and a need for understanding are universal. Showing understanding for someone in a group different from yours is healing for everyone involved.

So, next time you’re online and see someone posting an opinion that you don’t agree with, instead of pelting them with insults, I encourage you to ask them why they believe what they do, and ask it with a truly open mind. If they answer, it might not change your mind, but it might help you to have understanding and compassion for a different way of seeing the world. It might help you to bring that person out of the “other” category and into the “us” category.

The truth is that we are all human, and while seeking out the differences between us in order to categorize, label and oppress people might be part of our hardwired nature, I believe that we have the capacity to rise above our hardwiring and make choices. People do it every day. They choose not to punch that person that made them angry, or ram that car that cut them off. We have the capacity to choose our behavior because of our amazing frontal lobes, which give us reason and self-awareness. I encourage you to start viewing people as a tribe of humankind in all of its wondrous and beautiful variety. Maybe then we can start treating each other with true humanity.