I wrote this over a year ago and set it aside in the hopes I’d never publish it. Nobody wants to say this stuff about themselves. But at the top I wrote that I might decide to sometime when suicide was in the headlines again, because the discussions that follow such news are often very disappointing. I often cringe as good kind Christians with the best intentions say things that ensure their friends struggling with depression (and we all have them whether we know it or not) will never come to them for help. Having been mentally healthy for a good while now I feel some obligation to put into words publicly things that can be hard to reveal for people still in that place. Sadly suicide is again on the minds of my generation with the deaths of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, singers we listened to as we grew. So I’d like to share today a little about self harm and suicide, to help you stand in some different shoes. Maybe it will change the conversation a little.
[UPDATE: I find it disturbing that when someone dies by suicide Christians are quick to judge them as they would a murderer. This is to ignore for a moment that it’s never our job to pass judgement in this sense. But the mentally ill are facing a disease. This is entirely different from what moves a mentally healthy person to act. After speaking to a dear friend I realized that I had not made abundantly clear that when I talk about sin, fault, temptation and so on here there is not a direct correlation because there are medical factors severely impeding the usual operation of the mind. So let me say first and foremost that depression is an illness that needs treatment not a character flaw that needs sheer will. Still here I will speak to those who judge in the language they often use and to hopefully aid their imagination by using their experiences to understand a fundamentally different way of experiencing the world. Forgive me if I am clumsy.]
I remember as a child being both baffled and appalled that anyone ever committed a mortal sin. I would NEVER! Who could do such a thing? Then grown up life and grown up temptations came along and it turned out I hadn’t been good up to then because of my outstanding moral character. I just hadn’t met a sin I found appealing enough yet.
No matter how humbled we are by our own mistakes, how easy it is to fall back into that old mentality when we meet someone else’s flaws. Well sure I have my weaknesses but that one? That one is unthinkable.
Those questionnaires you get on doctor visits usually have a question on them like this: Have you had thoughts of harming yourself? Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Often. I’ve had to pause and think long and hard about my answer a few times in my life. I don’t think I’d ever describe myself as suicidal. I feel that would probably be insulting to those who have struggled deeply with this temptation. However it would be untrue to answer never.
Depression can develop a physical presence in your body. For myself depression often lives like a mass in the pit of my stomach. If I could just vomit it up I know I would be healed. At one point the ball of despair in my belly was so very real that I could not bring myself to eat. I was already full. And when I did I would throw up, sometimes automatically, sometimes intentionally as I sought to expel this horrible thing from inside me. In two months I lost 20 pounds. Of course, the depression never came out, but the sense that it could was profound. And the sense that it was a real, tangible, measurable presence in a specific location was compelling.
At other times this physical pain was less of the tumor like image I pictured in my guts and more of a terrible ache in my chest or an itch in my wrists. I would have fleeting thoughts that it might be possible to excise this as well, but I was luckily far too squeamish to make any attempts of that nature. The thought would shock and frighten me. I would shove it aside and distract myself which is a good thing. But the thought came, unbidden all the same. Because of this I understand that temptations to self harm are very real things and very hard to control.
In the cases above you may note that the pain, while not “real” in the sense that a doctor could have found it in an examination, felt real and so the solution that flitted through the mind was in some way a twistedly logical one. It was a suggested solution to a perceived problem. Certainly it’s the reasoning of an 19th century quack doctor but it has a kind of internal consistency. There is poison in our guts that must be purged and bled.
At my most depressed I am usually overcome with exhaustion. The desire for rest is very very strong. In fact, if I am driving while I am in this state I often feel a strong urge to simply jerk the wheel and drive off the road. Not because I desire to hurt myself but because I feel suddenly that I have absolutely no energy left, that I cannot do anything any longer. I have to rest NOW. I can tell you they are frightening thoughts to find jumping out at you from within your own mind on the way home from the grocery store! Again, I have been blessed never to be unable to control these thoughts. I summon all my will power and concentration to keep my arms behaving as they should, to keep the car between the lines. I tell myself that if I must I can gently pull over to the side and park until I have the energy to continue.
I believe that most suicides are not seeking death so much as they are seeking rest, or relief from agony. This becomes so twisted in their minds, the agony is so all consuming and ever present that the “logical” solution becomes to no longer be conscious, to no longer face living, as Hamlet said: “to die, to sleep”.
So as you see, a person in this state is not thinking rationally. They are both experiencing reality differently and their ability to choose wisely is lessened. So in terms of moral culpability it’s a whole new playing field. But, in the sense that they are experiencing inclinations they must resist we could call all of these things temptations.
We all face temptations. Temptations to lie, to gossip, to steal, to fornicate, pick your poison. Temptations themselves are not our fault and we do not control how or when they come. The whispers from my own head that I have shared with you may seem strange, disturbing and unthinkable but they are just a shadow of what some people face. Perhaps you cannot imagine such temptations but you can certainly call to mind your own.
Imagine that whisper in your ear that urges you to give in to your own particular demon. Imagine it whispering to you night and day. Imagine that the pain it urged you to flee never let up. Imagine, as is the case with depression, that the cause of the temptation robbed you of sleep, of energy, of many tools we rely upon to help us to think clearly and overcome our passions. Now imagine that you decided to listen, just this once.
Most of us have done this at some point, just this once give in to a powerful urge. In fact, for many, just this once is the excuse we give ourselves to fall over and over again. The great difference is that there is no going back from giving in to this kind of temptation. For this reason suicide is a terrible tragedy. Imagine your one failure was your last.
Now for every person heaping cruelly worded condemnation on the suicide there is another portraying his decision as somehow brave and beautiful. Is suicide heroic? Of course not. It steals your life including the opportunity to seek and live in peace with yourself. It throws away a precious gift. It deprives your family and friends of your love and presence and leaves them with terrible pain, in a sense bequeathing them the suffering you sought to escape. Suicide is not romantic or heroic. What I want you to consider is just how heroic it is for the person tempted to suicide not to give in. This is a level of heroism not everyone needs to summon up. So on the day that the next celebrity takes their life, certainly we can’t praise that horrible decision. Certainly we must take the opportunity to urge others not to make a similar one. But let us mourn for someone who stopped being heroic just once, and paid a terrible price. Understand the mitigating factors that robbed these poor souls of the ability to make good decisions. Thank God your failures of strength do not have such irrevocable consequences. Then reach out and respond to your brothers and sisters fighting this fight every day with love and compassion. Help them find the strength to keep going.