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.

The Four Agreements and How They Can Set You Free

I’ve been struggling all day with a terrible case of writer’s block. Most weeks my blog post will simply form in my head based on something that I experienced, read or thought a lot about during the week. This week, however, I sat in front of my computer with nothing. My world felt heavy and uninspiring and the words refused to come. After staring at the blank computer screen for a while, I went and watched The Trial of the Chicago Seven on Netflix (excellent, by the way). After the movie, I still couldn’t think of anything to say, so I started scrolling through Facebook. That’s when I saw a post sharing information from don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, and I thought, “Wow. I’ve never written about The Four Agreements, and that book is basically my guidebook for living. I’ve got my topic!”

Ruiz opens the book by describing what he calls “the domestication of the human.” He says that little children are completely wild. They do whatever they want and they don’t worry about what anyone thinks of them. Then, society (parents, teachers, etc.) introduces the concept of “no.” Children are told not to do things that come naturally to them, and they are told that they are bad when they do those things, or that they’re good when they do what society wants. They are rewarded with praise or attention when they do what society deems to be “good,” and they are punished when they do something society sees as “bad.” Over time the child internalizes these concepts of good and bad, and the system of beliefs about what is right and wrong becomes the adult person’s agreements with life.

Most people never question these agreements, but many of them are damaging. Ruiz suggests that by adopting four different agreements, the person can obtain personal freedom.

The First agreement is “be impeccable with your word.” Ruiz discusses how most people have an ongoing negative and self-critical internal dialogue. He calls this negative self talk “The Judge.” He says that The Judge is very ready and willing to point out and shame the person for any minor violation against their agreements. For instance, perhaps you have an agreement with life that it’s not OK fail. If you have this agreement, you might avoid trying new things because the risk of failure is just too high. However, we all have to do new things sometimes, and when you inevitably make mistakes, your internal Judge tells you that you are “stupid,” or “a loser.” You internally say things to yourself that you would likely be quite hesitant to say to other people. This internal harshness reinforces your agreement and makes it even more terrifying for you to do new things that might lead to failure.

Clearly this is a damaging process. In order to overcome it, you can adopt the agreement to be impeccable with your word, which means that instead of judging yourself harshly for any infraction, you instead agree to avoid self criticism–you agree not to say things that go against yourself. Over time this new agreement takes over and clears up the old agreement that you had not to ever make mistakes. Can you imagine how much freedom this would bring into your life?

The second agreement is “don’t take anything personally.” The great truth that Ruiz reveals here is that what other people do or say has nothing to do with you. I believe that this is 100% true. Other people’s actions are a product of their own agreements with life, and you have no control over those. If you think about it, when people apologize they say things like “I’m sorry. I was having a bad day.” They admit that it was never about you in the first place. You have no idea what that other person has been taught, the agreements they may have, or what pain they have endured. If they hurt you, it’s as a result of their own agreements with life, not a result of your unworthiness.

Now, it’s important to say here that not taking it personally does not mean that you put up with being mistreated. If someone is treating you badly, know that it’s not about you, and walk away. Think about how much pain this agreement could spare you. If someone behaves hurtfully to you, instead of taking it on, or trying to prove them wrong, you can simply know that it’s not about you at all and move on from it.

The third agreement is “don’t make assumptions.” It is my belief that most of the pain that people endure in life is due to making assumptions about other people’s thoughts, feelings, or motivations. For example, you’re walking down the hallway at work and you wave hello to your coworker, who seems to look at you and then walk away without returning your greeting. Since you don’t know why your coworker apparently ignored you, your mind starts coming up with stories to explain it. Our minds love explanations for things that don’t make sense to us, even if those explanations are not actually true.

Unfortunately, the explanations our minds tend to come up with are worst case scenario, so maybe your mind decides that your coworker is angry with you about something. You don’t know what it is that you’ve done to anger your coworker, but now you’re behaving defensively around that person, which actually results in that person disliking you. However, what you don’t know is that your coworker is near-sighted and didn’t have their glasses with them. It’s not that they were angry with you. They simply couldn’t see you.

Instead of making assumptions about other people’s behaviors, simply remind yourself that you don’t know what their motivations were. Then ask yourself how important it is that you find out. If it’s truly important to you, then go and ask the other person what happened. If it’s not, then drop it completely.

The fourth agreement is “always do your best.” This is probably my favorite one. Ruiz says that in every situation simply do the best that you can. Don’t do any more or any less than your best. The idea of doing more than your best had never occurred to me before, but it’s extremely important because I think that many people are spending their time doing more than their best and burning themselves out. That’s not healthy.

I also love this little tidbit from Ruiz. He says that if you’ve done your best, then when someone criticizes your performance, you have your answer, “I did my best.” It’s so true! And if someone says, “your best isn’t good enough,” please go back to agreement number two, don’t take anything personally. Clearly that person needs to reassess some of their own agreements. Doing your best is always something that you should be proud of.

Remember that your best will vary over time. Your best will be different when you are healthy and when you are sick. It will be different when you are rested and when you are tired. And your best is always going to be different from someone else’s best. That’s OK. If you truly did your best, then give yourself the credit that you deserve.

For more information, please check out don Miguel Ruiz’s book, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, or any of the Toltec Wisdom books by the Ruizes (don Miguel or his sons), HeatherAsh Amara, or Carlos Castaneda. These writings have changed my life for the better in many ways, and I think that they can do the same for you.

Gaslighting: What it is, and How to Recognize it

It wasn’t until after my first marriage that I first heard about the concept of “gaslighting,” and as soon as I understood what it meant, I thought, “Wow! I wish I’d known about that years ago. That perfectly describes my 6 years of marriage.” I’m hopeful that I can save you years of pain and frustration by sharing this information with you now.

The term comes from the 1944 black and white film, “Gaslight,” which I’ve actually taken the time to rent on Amazon and watch for myself. It’s dated, but still a wonderful psychological thriller, and I definitely recommend it. In the movie, the main character marries a man that seems perfect in every way. He’s charming, handsome, wealthy, and appears to be completely in love with her. After the wedding they move to his ancestral home where things slowly and insidiously start to unravel. The woman’s belongings keep going missing and appearing in strange places, and the gaslights (from which the movie gets its name) keep turning on and off at strange times.

When the woman tells her husband about these peculiar occurrences, he tells her that they aren’t actually happening and that she is losing her mind. He even goes so far as to get a psychiatrist to examine her and back up his claims of her insanity. His insistence on her mental instability is so pervasive that she actually starts to believe that she is going crazy until the big reveal in the end, when we find out what his devious plan was the whole time. I won’t spoil it for you.

“Gaslight” is a wonderful example of the slow, methodical and insidious nature of gaslighting. It’s a long game power play where the perpetrator slowly makes the victim question her/his own reality. The Psychology Today article, “11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting” by Stephanie A. Sarkis, PhD, describes gaslighting this way, “Gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality. It works much better than you may think. Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting, and it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize how much they’ve been brainwashed.” The slow and methodical nature of gaslighting is what gives it such power. Because of the steady and mounting message the victim receives that her/his senses can’t be trusted, it begins to feel like the truth.

11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting by Stephanie A. Sarkis Ph.D.

According to Sarkis, there are 11 warning signs of gaslighting to watch out for, and I’d like to explore them here.

  1. They tell blatant lies
  2. They deny they ever said something, even though you have proof.
  3. They use what is near and dear to you as ammunition.
  4. They wear you down over time.
  5. Their actions do not match their words.
  6. They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you.
  7. They know confusion weakens people.
  8. They project.
  9. They try to align people against you.
  10. They tell you or others that you are crazy.
  11. They tell you everyone else is a liar.

Let’s explore these symptoms in more detail. I think that the first two make a good pairing. Gaslighters love to lie. They use it as a tool to confuse you. Even if you have a recording of them doing the thing that they’re lying about, they will continue to lie and tell you that it didn’t happen. They’ll do it with a straight face and belittle you for trying to stand up for yourself, truth and reality. Why do they do this? Well, because over time it makes you start to question the nature of truth and facts. It makes you think that maybe nothing in the world is certain, which is exactly what they want. When you no longer know the nature of truth, you are easily manipulated to believe whatever the gaslighter wants you to believe.

Number three, using what is near and dear to you as ammunition against you, is a potent tool. My ex-husband used to use my religion against me–attempting to control me based on religious beliefs about gender and relational power dynamics. I’ve worked with clients who intimidated their partners into staying with them by saying that they would take away their children if they left. Remember that this is a power and control tactic. It’s not based in reality, but because it touches on deep-seated fears, beliefs, or values it works to intimidate and control the victim.

Number four, “they wear you down over time,” is an important one. Gaslighters start out with a friendly and welcoming demeanor, and charm their victims into trusting them, and then over time begin to introduce their power and control tactics one subtle drop at a time. By slowly chipping away at the victim’s reality and relationship to truth, victims often don’t realize that their worlds have become more and more confusing until they don’t trust their own senses at all, which leaves them in the precarious position of looking to the gaslighter to tell them what to believe. This is exactly the outcome that the gaslighter wants.

Number 5 is probably the biggest give-away of a gaslighter. “Their actions don’t match their words.” They tell you that they are going to do something, and then they don’t do it. They tell you something was done, and you then find out that it wasn’t. They make promises that they don’t keep, and then they tell you that they never promised it in the first place. If you start to notice this trend, run!

Number 6, “They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you” works like this. The gaslighter has told you that you’re crazy and don’t know anything one too many times, and you’re starting to think this person is a bully and you need to get out of the relationship, leave the company, or even the country. Then, suddenly the gaslighter does something nice for you, gives you a gift or a compliment, a tax break, etc. You think, “well, maybe they’re not so bad. Maybe I was over-reacting,” and then the gaslighting resumes even stronger than before.

As the victim’s confusion deepens, number 7 comes into play, “They know confusion weakens people.” Our ability to trust our own senses and interpretation of reality gives us a rootedness in life. By eroding your ability to trust that you know what is true and not true, the gaslighter is literally cutting you off at the root, leaving you weakened and dependent on them for support. That is the entire point of the gaslighting process.

Number 8, “They project.” This one is super weird when you experience it. You confront the gaslighter about bad behavior, and instead of taking responsibility, they accuse you of doing whatever it was that they did instead. For instance, my ex-husband used to accuse me of being bad with money when I would talk to him about the fact that he had just emptied our bank account. Gaslighters do this because it distracts you from the reality of what happened and makes you start defending yourself instead.

Number 9, “They try to align people against you.” This tactic may or may not be reality.
Gaslighters tell their victims that others are against them, and that the only person that the victim can trust is the gaslighter. Remember that they lie, so they may be making it up, but they may actually go so far as to poison people against you. I had an ex-boyfriend who called me “psycho-bitch” to anyone who would listen. By making people believe that I was crazy, he isolated me from my support system in an attempt to make me more dependent on him. This tactic also served to make people question the validity of my statements, especially about him and the way that he treated me.

Number 10, “They tell you or others that you are crazy.” I touched on this earlier, but this one is super important and bears repeating. I find that the operative word tends to be “psycho.” If anyone ever calls you psycho, run. If they call their exes psycho, run. If they call their family members psycho, run. Don’t look back. This person is very likely a gaslighter.

Number 11, “They tell you that everyone else is a liar.” Your world is already on shaky ground. You don’t know what is real and what isn’t anymore. You’re not sure that you can trust your own senses or that you’re mentally sound. Then, the gaslighter tells you that your family, the media, your friends, other countries, or some group are always lying to you. Since you don’t know what’s true anymore anyway, this gives the gaslighter the power to shape reality to his/her own benefit.

Anyone can fall victim to these tactics. This isn’t something that only happens gullible people. It happens to smart, educated and powerful people all of the time. If you’re reading this and recognizing that there is a gaslighter in your life, don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault. Don’t try to change the gaslighter or reason with them. It won’t work. Just leave.

It will take time for the world to start to make sense again after being gaslit, and that’s OK. Give yourself the patience and gentleness that you were missing with the gaslighter while you heal and find your footing again. The important thing is to just be with yourself as long as it takes to get to the other side of healing.