This weekend we mark Suicide Loss Survivor Day, which makes it a great time to learn from all three kinds of people who live beyond suicide.
Most of the people we call “suicide survivors” are people who lost loved ones to suicide deaths. These are the people who will be gathering this weekend. A suicide death often leaves relatives and friends not just grief-stricken but guilt-plagued. They fear they should have recognized signs and prevented the death. After my friend “Katie” hung herself, my other roommate and I weren’t even able to talk about her for maybe a decade. It was just too hard.
A second kind of “suicide survivor” is the person who manages to live beyond a suicide attempt. Kevin Hines, who survived his jump off the Golden Gate Bridge in the year 2000, is one of the better known of these. He’s focused his life since then on encouraging others to #BeHereTomorrow.
Add a Third Kind of Suicide Survivor to the Rally
A third kind of “suicide survivor” doesn’t quite fit the mix, yet has reason to be counted in this difficult company. The third kind of survivor are people who survive chronic suicidal thinking. We are the people who survive our suicidal thoughts many times a year, many times a week … some of us many times a day. And still we choose to keep moving forward.
At last count, I’ve wanted to die on more than 7,300 days of my life. I remember one bright autumn day when I was crossing my college campus, under the kind of impossibly brilliant blue sky that seems to have been created just to highlight the brilliant yellows and oranges of the changing leaves. My friend Loren, heading out of his fraternity house, hailed me.
“You are the happiest person I’ve ever known,” he said. “I never see you without a smile.”
And I kept smiling, even though I was actively considering — at that very moment — how best to die.
I didn’t die that day or that week, nor on any of the other 7,300 days when the prospect of death seemed a promise and a consolation in the face of crushing sadness, overwhelming challenges, or unsurmountable loneliness. Instead, I finished college. I got a job. I maintained a career over nearly four decades. I rebounded from job losses during two economic downturns. I even managed to get back up after the emotionally crushing revelation that my husband of almost 20 years was no longer romantically inclined toward women. I own a home, belong to a church, have friends, have retirement savings.
And the way that I survive chronic impulses toward suicide offers valuable lessons both to others like me, to those who worry about us, and to those who want to avoid yet another suicide death in their circle.
Wanting to Die is ‘Normal’ for Some
Wanting to die is, it turns out, not terribly unusual. People want to die because they’ve committed what they consider to be an unpardonable social sin, because they’ve failed in some way at work, because their spouse has ended the marriage, or they’ve experienced too many bereavements.
Wanting to die is a pretty reasonable reaction to lots of terrible life circumstances. I’ve been there, done it all, and I’m still alive. As are lots of people.
So the real question is why and how do some of us keep going when we frequently want to die. The answer lies in a mix of motivations and solutions that we practice. Over decades, I’ve amassed my own list of streategies. Others will have their own.
Some Things I Do Instead of Dying
Here are a few of the “alternatives to suicide” that I have used over the 40-plus years since I first wanted to die:
Escape: Binge watch television, binge read fiction, write revenge-themed novels, stare at the ocean, stare out the window.
Exhaust myself: Log intense time at the gym, on a trail, up a mountain, on the bike, in a kayak.
Become engaged in something: Use some creative skill; pet the cat or dog; arrange wildflowers into a bouquet; shop an hour for $5 worth of giftwrap and ribbon. Anything that’s not about the feelings inside of me.
Encourage myself: Mark every little step forward. Create a to-do list so detailed that I count it progress when I finish my shower … my breakfast … my commute. Remind myself during times when I feel without hope that the God in whom I believe has promised me “a hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11) … even if that comes far in the future, when I finally arrive in the country where God wipes away every tear (Rev. 21:4).
Extend myself: Extend myself for others, even when I feel like I have nothing to extend. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, in “Option B,” her book about surviving the grief she suffered after her husband’s death, says one tool she learned was to log daily three ways she had influenced others for the good. For me, this works. I offer kindness. Volunteer. Show a colleague a new skill.
Remember: At one point, my best suicide preventive was recalling that I would have killed myself if I’d tried the particular overdose I’d considered at age 19, during that autumn when Loren thought I was so happy. Some years later, I held to the memory of a voice (that I know as God) telling me “If you don’t have a reason to live till spring, plant bulbs.” I still plant bulbs, lots of them, almost every year.
Walk through my rituals: Daily routines that never change can keep you going. For me, these include alarm at 6. Coffee. Oat cereal with milk and berries. The print newspaper. The chair where the Bible and journal and planner wait. They resume in the late evening, when 9 p.m. brings on hot tea, the buzzing electric toothbrush, jammies and a book by the bed.
Protect myself: At the worst, I just keep myself safe. I call the friend who is willing to come over, so I’m not alone. I text the person who will remind me that I don’t always feel this terrible. I check in with a suicide hotline or the crisis text service when I need to say things that even the best friend shouldn’t hear.
(And by the way, the hotline care strategy is to listen first, then help the caller identify any circle of belonging and choose even one thing the caller will do in the next 24 hours other than kill herself. That is to say: name notwithstanding, “suicide prevention” hotlines are designed not to prevent suicide, but to help us find alternatives to suicide that will allow us to choose life for another day. And the evidence is that they work.)
Suicide Alternatives vs. Suicide Prevention
None of these is a suicide “prevention” strategy. Suicide “prevention,” as we practice it today in the US, trains thousands of “gatekeepers” to peer into the lives around them for “signs” of suicidality. It urges them to push people like me toward professionals who hold the keys to locked wards, where we can be almost perfectly protected against self-harm.
Ironically, we have trained so many people to be on guard against “symptoms” that ordinary human supports have become much less available to people experiencing challenges. Today, I have to consider carefully any potential confidant. Is this a person who will (with or without professional qualifications) assess me to be a danger to myself, call police for a midnight “welfare check,” insist that I need to take a medication that time has proven doesn’t work for me? Will they shuttle me toward another locked ward?
Me, I’d rather hold my tongue than risk the professional suicide that an inpatient event provides. I’ve only just rebuilt a new career after my one-and-only psych hospital stay more than a decade ago.
People who have lost loved ones to suicide, professionals who have lost patients to suicide – even those who have temporarily protected family, friends, and patients from one episode of suicidality – don’t know even a percent as much about eluding suicide as those of us who have stood this battle for years. My friends and I don’t “prevent” suicide. But we each maintain our personal lists of “alternatives to suicide” that we put into practice when the urge hits. Even when it hits really often.
Why We Need to Focus on ‘Alternatives’ Instead
This year’s Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and Suicide Loss Survivors Day come at a time in our nation’s history when the suicide rate remains staggeringly high. We also have access to a number of multi-nation studies published across more than a decade demonstrating that as nations improve access to psych meds and hospitalizations, their suicide rates increase. Which is exactly what we’ve seen in the US over the last 30 years.
For more than 7,300 days of my life, waking up the next morning required me to make a conscious choice to diligently pursue something – anything – other than my impulse to die. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider our “suicide prevention” approach. Maybe the best teachers of how to avoid suicide will be, not the people who are afraid someone else will die, but those of us who can explain how and why we regularly choose to live.
Carlene Hill Byron is a nonprofit fundraiser who has worked as a writer, marketing communications specialist, or public relations officer for nearly four decades. Her paper, “Suicide Learning from Global Perspectives,” was presented at the 2015 NAMI-North Carolina state conference.