Draft Radiolab Pitch

 


Two decades after almost killing himself, 46 year old Francesco Bellafante is seated on a dais fifteen feet away from Dr. David Shulkin, the Secretary of Veteran Affairs, and 600 other leaders from the VA.  He was invited to address the group at their Senior Leader Annual Business Meeting by Dr. Tracy Gaudet, the Executive Director of the Office of Patient-Centered Care and Cultural Transformation at the VHA.  She and her team are working to transform how the VHA delivers healthcare, and she thought putting the person who wrote: Mental Illness’ is a Harmfully Misleading Phrase That Causes Suffering by Design in front of the top brass of the VA could help.

Five years after graduating Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa from Notre Dame, Francesco was the youngest Principal at a Wall Street IT consulting firm.  Several weeks after seeing Good Will Hunting, Francesco was found unconscious, with a large bump on his head, inside of a running rental car that he’d transformed into a makeshift gas chamber.  Francesco had a near death experience in the ambulance enroute to the Jersey City Medical center, and woke up a couple of days later in the ICU.      

The former Wall Street quality assurance analyst is on a mission to: “change the world by changing the words that people use about ‘mental illness’” in service of halving the US suicide rate. Francesco’s 20+ year journey from suicidal near death experience to addressing a member of President Trump’s cabinet includes two visits to mental hospitals, two unauthorized visits to CIA headquarters, and a courtroom mini-drama orchestrated by someone committed to lampooning an improvable healthcare system.

Francesco believes that the “brand new greatest story ever told” that almost everyone is familiar with, but doesn’t understand, is about a man named Albert Einstein, @thedigitaljesus of our time, who left humanity an Unheralded Prescription for Peace.

Letter to a Nation That Believes in Free Will

Revising Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation to propagate free will skepticism…

You believe in free will.  You believe that you have the freedom to choose.  Every time you make a choice, you believe you consciously decide the course that your life is going to take.  You believe you are the conscious author of your thoughts and intentions.  As a believer in free will, you believe these propositions not because they make you feel good, but because you think they are true.  Before I point out some of the problems with these beliefs, I would like to acknowledge that there are many points on which you and I agree. We agree, for instance, that if one of us is right, the other is wrong.  You have the freedom to choose or your don’t.  You are constantly consciously deciding the course that your life is going to take or you are not.  We agree that to be a true believer in free will that all free will skeptics are mistaken, and profoundly so.  If believers in free will are correct, and I persist in my unbelief, I should expect to suffer derision for the rest of my days.  Worse still, I have persuaded others, some close to me, to reject the very idea of free will.  They too will languish in contempt.  If the basic doctrine of the belief in free will is correct, I am misusing my time in a wasteful way.  I admit this without a single caveat.  The fact that my continuous and public rejection of free will since the end of 2015 does not worry me in the least should suggest to you just how inadequate I think your reasons for being a believer  in  free  will  are.  

To be continued…

The brand new greatest story ever told is about Albert Einstein’s Unheralded Prescription for Peace

 

The brand new greatest story ever told… is about Albert Einstein’s Unheralded Prescription for Peace and why he was like @thedigitaljesus of our time.

I’m compelled to suggest that Albert Einstein’s free will skepticism–his belief that a person is mistaken in thinking that he or she could have done other than he or she did–is an unheralded prescription for peace that this insightful genius left for the benefit of humanity.

I’m compelled to champion this idea within the suicide prevention community. We have GPS technology and many other modern marvels because of Einstein’s genius insights about reality. It’s time to consider leveraging Einstein’s apparent genius insight into the human condition too.

A world full of people who genuinely view free will as an illusion, and who are committed to maximizing well-being is a world without shame. It’s a world without egotistical pride. It’s a world without revenge–a world without hate of self or others. It’s a world full of people being compassionate, loving and grateful.

Recognizing that we may have already extracted as much utility from the likely fictional idea that human beings are autonomous agents consciously controlling their thoughts, feelings, and actions and therefore their lives, is an important conversation that I don’t hear many people in suicide prevention and mental health advocacy having. I’m committed to changing that reality. Recognizing the likelihood that free will is an illusionary creation of humanity is a silver bullet capable of piercing the heart of the stigma surrounding “mental illness.”

It’s evident to me that Einstein would have said that believing in free will is a major risk factor for depression and becoming suicidal.

It’s time to seriously consider Einstein’s conception of what it means to be a human being. This guy was clever enough to notice that humanity was grossly misperceiving the foundational building blocks of our reality–time and space. Is it so incredible to fathom that Einstein might have had profound insights into the illusory nature of the “self” and free will worthy of our attention and consideration?

Einstein’s conception of what a human being is and how reality works would suggest that we reconsider how we approach describing the problem of human suffering, including the suffering that leads people to die by suicide.

How a vomit-fearing eight year old mistook self-transcendence for amnesia

I was five years old in 1976  when my two-year old sister Kristin began to choke on a Life Saver candy that I gave her.  Luckily our dad was with us in the kitchen at the time, and he went into life-saving hero mode.  After a few terrifying moments spent not solving the problem by clapping his little Kiki on the back with his hand, he reached into her mouth with his index finger, and triggered her gag reflex.  After a quick stomach convulsion followed immediately by  an even quicker head dodge by my dad, my sister projectile vomited a stream of yellowish, mostly-liquid puke that splashed down a few feet away all over the light green linoleum floor.  The offending yellow Life Saver was expelled along with the contents of her stomach, and the hysterical sobs that immediately followed confirmed that Kristin was breathing easy again.  This harrowing experience turned me into someone with an irrational and, at times, overwhelming fear of vomiting, also known as emetophobia.  

My sister’s Life Saver-choking incident led me to conflate nausea and throwing up with the risk of imminent death I think, so future bouts with vomit-inducing, contagious infections in our house became stress-filled, nerve-wracking ordeals for me.  I’d have these psychosomatic-nausea-panic attacks where I’d end up sprinting to the bathroom convinced I was about to barf.  I’d be down on my knees, staring into the toilet bowl with my index fingers pressed hard into my ears desperately hoping to prevent myself from hearing what I thought was about to happen.  Knowing that I was abnormally troubled by the prospect of throwing up just piled embarrassment and shame on top of fear and anxiety for me.  While I only threw up a few times as a child, every encounter I had with every vomit-inducing infection over the subsequent decade was one accompanied by paranoia, fear and stress.  My search for solace from these ills led me to make a remarkable discovery when I was just eight years old.  

It was at the end of the summer of 1979, and Kristin was sick again, this time from an infection apparently.  She’d thrown up twice after dinner the day before.  As a matter of habit given my infection-evading regime, I retreated to the bedroom that I shared with my older brother Mark.  He wasn’t there, so I closed the door behind me and sat on the edge of my bed facing a window that looked out onto the front yard.  My head was positioned so I couldn’t see any part of my body when I looked straight ahead through the window.  

Branches of a birch tree swayed up and down in the gentle summer breeze.  With my gaze fixed and unfocused, I fell into a comfortable state of silent reverie as I thought about what was going on:  I thought why did Kristin have to get sick?  Why am I so afraid of throwing up?  Why do people throw up?  Why does it have to be this way?  Why does it have to be like this?  Why is it like this?  Why is it the way it is?  Why is what is happening, happening?  What is going on?  What is… is?  What is… existence?  What is… is?  What is… existing?  What is… is?  What is being?  What does that mean, to be?  What is is?  I repeated that last question silently to myself over and over again.  What is is?  What is is? What is is?

After about half a minute or so focused on contemplating that question something extraordinary happened.  I lost my sense of self.  The voice in my head went silent as I stopped thinking… completely.  I forgot who I was and what was going on in my life.  My ever-present frame of reference for the world vanished.  With it went my sense of time and awareness of my body too.  The scene in front of me remained the same, the branches of the birch tree were still rising and falling in the breeze, but the sense that I was looking at the tree from somewhere behind my eyes was missing.  There was just the world and my selfless awareness of it.  It was a blissful state of mind where all that was felt interconnected.  Gone was the sense of being separate from my surroundings.  Everything that existed was part of the same one thing.  Complete.  Unbound.  Free.  Whole.  All that was, was one.  And I… my sense of me… was nowhere to be found.

This detached, egoless state of consciousness didn’t last for very long—maybe five seconds at most—but it was a mind-blowing wonder to me.  It made me dizzy, and caused my head to dip.  I saw my legs, and my brief taste of this selfless awareness came to an abrupt end.  When the spell broke, my sense of self, memories of my past, and knowledge of my present all snapped back into place in an instant.  I was a stressed out eight year old emetophobe again, re-oriented once more to the story the voice in my head had been narrating for years.   I had stumbled into and out of a state of self-transcendence, without recognizing it as such because I had no context to do so.  Instead, my eight year old mind, so accustomed and comfortable with its own sense of self, misinterpreted the experience as some kind of self-induced, momentary spell of amnesia.  This seemed unlikely to me, so I had to try to do it again.  I wanted to know if forgetting myself and my worries was something I could do on demand.

I focused my attention from the start, on the final question from the first time:  What is is?  Just like before, after about thirty seconds of intense concentration, I lost my sense of self again, and entered that same timeless state of consciousness like before.  I felt free, at peace and connected to everything.  Complete and whole.  Once again, the few awe-filled moments I spent temporarily unencumbered by my usual mental luggage made me dizzy, and caused my head to dip.  My second visit to this ego-transcendent state was as brief as the first, but delight displaced my disbelief when the spell ended this time.  Finding the blissfully discombobulating state of consciousness again, with such relative ease, convinced me that I hadn’t imagined the whole thing.  Plus I seemed to have some grasp on how to make it happen on demand, and I was quite content to have this know-how at my disposal for future bouts with barf-inducing infections that I knew I would inevitably face.

Many years later it seems that the most remarkable aspect of my chance discovery was my monumental misunderstanding of what I had experienced.  At eight years old, I was already married to the idea that my self was the essential part of me that was located somewhere inside of my skull behind my eyes.  I saw my “self” or “I” if you prefer, as the general manager of my consciousness, the controller of the voluntary actions of my body, the thinker of my thoughts, the decider of my decisions, the chooser of my choices and the imaginer of my imaginings.  “I” was the subject of every experience I experienced, and the source or the author of the ever-present voice in my head.  As an altar-boy-to-be who was raised by Roman Catholic parents, I referred to this essential part of me, this nucleus of control that I believed was guiding my consciousness, as my spirit or my soul.  This was the supposedly free-willing, supposedly eternal part of me, that my mother told me would survive the death of my body, and continue to have experiences of a kind that were unimaginable to me while I was still alive.  I was so attached to this view of myself as the central controlling authority in my life that I mistook my relief from emetophobic distress as a brief escape from reality versus what I view it as, almost forty years later.  Now, it seems apparent to me, that my spontaneous, impromptu meditation provided me with a momentary glimpse of an incredible truth about the human experience that I wasn’t able to comprehend at eight years old:  

As I see it, there is no essential “self” there’s no central “I” or “me” anywhere inside or outside of my body that controls it or the thoughts, intentions and feelings that arise within my consciousness.  The voice in my head that I previously self-identified with and saw as the genuine controller of every decision I made, isn’t in control of anything.  Just because knowledge of what I’m about to do arrives within my field of consciousness before anyone else’s, doesn’t mean that I consciously decide the course of history.  Thinking that any single individual possesses that power stems from a confused and necessarily egotistical view of personhood.  Instead, I believe that we are miraculous, meaning-making, storytelling animals that are playing our roles in the unfolding of the cosmos, we’re not authoring them.  No one consciously controls the events occurring in their brain that they are unaware of and that lead to every single thought that pops into their consciousness.  

No one.

Einstein thought shame arose from a gross misunderstanding of the human condition

Kevin Hines is a suicide attempt survivor whose efforts to try to help people struggling with self-destructive thoughts and behavior have inspired me.  He recently posted a video on Facebook about his #mysevenbucksmoment in response to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.  In his video Kevin talks about the shame he felt after his suicide attempt.  As a fellow suicide attempt survivor, I’m familiar with how people who live through suicidal behavior feel guilt, embarrassment and shame as a result.  I was watching the final moments of the Obama presidency draw to a close after watching Kevin’s video, and I was inspired to share the following thoughts with him.

Regarding the shame you mentioned…

Albert Einstein (and many other thinkers) believed that emotions of shame and guilt arise from a gross misunderstanding of the human condition. Einstein said that a belief in free will results from a “delusion of consciousness.” There is a growing pile of evidence being amassed by scientists to back this claim up.

I’m compelled to suggest that Albert Einstein’s free will skepticism–his belief that a person is mistaken in thinking that he or she could have done other than he or she did–is an unheralded prescription for peace that this insightful genius left for the benefit of humanity.

I’m compelled to champion this idea within the suicide prevention community. We have GPS technology and many other modern marvels because of Einstein’s genius insights about reality. It’s time to consider leveraging Einstein’s apparent genius insight into the human condition too.

A world full of people who genuinely view free will as an illusion, and who are committed to maximizing well-being is a world without shame. It’s a world without egotistical pride. It’s a world without revenge–a world without hate of self or others. It’s a world full of people being compassionate, loving and grateful.

Recognizing that we may have already extracted as much utility from the likely fictional idea that human beings are autonomous agents consciously controlling their thoughts, feelings, and actions and therefore their lives, is an important conversation that I don’t hear many people in suicide prevention and mental health advocacy having. I’m committed to changing that reality. Recognizing the likelihood that free will is an illusionary creation of humanity is a silver bullet capable of piercing the heart of the stigma surrounding “mental illness.”

It’s evident to me that Einstein would have said that believing in free will is a major risk factor for depression and becoming suicidal. The Buddha would agree as would Nietzsche. So too would neuroscientist Sam Harris and professors Bruce M. Hood, Thomas Metzinger and Thalia Wheatley.

It’s time to seriously consider Einstein’s conception of what it means to be a human being. This guy was clever enough to notice that humanity was grossly misperceiving the foundational building blocks of our reality–time and space. Is it so incredible to fathom that Einstein might have had profound insights into the illusory nature of the “self” and free will worthy of our attention and consideration?

Einstein’s conception of what a human being is and how reality works would suggest that we reconsider how we approach describing the problem of human suffering, including the suffering that leads people to die by suicide.

Looking forward to talking to you.

Best,
Francesco

Sharing the genius of Einstein with the inspiring mental health advocate Rudy Caseres

Screen Shot 2017-01-16 at 9.26.00 AMRudy Caseres is an inspiring mental health advocate that I am grateful to know through social media.  He champions ideas in his work aimed at reducing the suffering of others.  He posted something on his Facebook page yesterday about being compelled to delete a previous post because of abusive, bullying comments made by someone.

I was compelled to write the following to Rudy as a result.

“I do not believe in free will. Schopenhauer’s words: ‘Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills,’ accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper.”  

Albert Einstein   

A huge lightbulb went off for me in October of 2015 thanks to a talk that Sam Harris (author and neuroscientist) gave at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas back in 2012 about free will.  I don’t believe that you, me, anyone that is writing abusive things on your FB page, or any other human being has conscious control over the next thought that pops into their head.  Like Einstein (thanks primarily to Sam Harris) I don’t believe that anyone has control of their will.  

I champion your right to be the cause of the effect(s) that you wish to see in the world (like blocking abusive people from your FB page) while also believing that no one is the conscious author of their thoughts.  As a result, I think it’s unreasonable to see people as deeply/completely/morally responsible for what they say and do. I believe this while simultaneously thinking that, for practical purposes, every human being must be held legally responsible for their actions 100% of the time.  

People don’t create themselves as they are.  Rather, people are the product of their biology and every experience that they have ever had.  No one has a scintilla of control over who their parents are, over the genes they inherited.  You and I have as much control over the microstructure of our brains as we do our height.  

Hopefully banning people trolling you will be the cause of a new effect for that person, i.e., your action could cause different thoughts to pop into that person’s head, leading them to take different actions.  My point, thanks to the genius of Einstein, Sam Harris, Bruce Hood, the Buddha, etc. is that I think it’s unreasonable to blame someone for being how they are being.  

Reading Sam’s book Free Will and watching the talk I already mentioned back in 2015 transformed my beliefs about the human condition.  I am unequivocally more compassionate as a result.  When you genuinely don’t believe in free will, forgiveness becomes almost a nonsensical idea.  With no reason to “blame” anyone for anything they do, there is no reason to forgive them.  As you noted at the end of your post, there is always room to be loving and helpful to everyone while trying to cause the world to be the way you are compelled to want it to be.  

I think Albert Einstein, one of the most insightful humans to ever live, gave humanity a key to unlock inner peace (and world peace too!) with his vision of the human condition.  I share these thoughts with you in the hope that you will have more peace when someone does something that compels you to become upset.

I haven’t been following you for long Rudy, but you are an inspiration.  I appreciate you, and I’m grateful that I came to know that you exist.  You too have helped to cause me to be how I am.

I encourage you to check out Sam’s talk when you have a chance.

Best,

Francesco

Why do people without trauma in their past become suicidal?

In this post I will answer some of the questions that I posed in frank talk about mental health, episode 7 | Why do people attempt suicide? 

As a reminder, I am a suicide attempt survivor who had a near death experience due to semi-intentionally caused acute carbon monoxide poisoning eighteen and a half years ago when I was 27 years old. 

As I explained in episode 7, I’m aware that my answers to these questions don’t apply to everyone who becomes suicidal or who dies by suicide.  With that said, I still don’t believe that my answers are unique, and apply only to me.  While my answers may not resonate with you or with what you think your loved one was thinking and feeling when he or she attempted or died by suicide, I’m convinced that they apply to many people.  A growing number of suicide attempt survivors are sharing about the circumstances leading up to their suicidal crisis.  While it’s impossible to know for sure precisely what someone who died by suicide was thinking, I believe it’s possible to gain insight into the state of mind of a loved one or associate who died by suicide by exploring the growing number of personal accounts provided by suicide attempt survivors like myself.  By revealing insights about my suicidal mindset, I hope to provide, at the very least, a modicum of understanding and peace to those left to mourn and remember loved ones who have died by their own hand.  

I also hope to be a source of hope for those who may be feeling hopeless and suicidal.

1.  Why do people who have every single thing that they need and almost everything that they want have suicidal thoughts?

If you are a human being that has a sense of self, if you have a sense of personal identity or an ego, I think you are susceptible to having suicidal thoughts.

The problem of suffering arises from our reaction to what-is, our resistance to it, or our interpretation of it, which is a function of our conditioning.

Lionel Corbett

My paternal grandfather died when my father was just thirteen years old.  Within a year of his father’s death, my father worked two jobs to help support his family to the tune of $350 a month (in 2016 dollars).  Neither of my parents went to college, but they were determined to provide my siblings and I with the highest quality education possible given their middle class income.  I went to private school from the time I was in fourth grade through college.  I graduated from the University of Notre Dame in just three and a half years, and by the time I was twenty six years old I was working for an information technology consulting firm a couple of blocks from Wall Street.  My bill rate was $250 an hour.  While on assignment in Toronto, I had a troubling experience at work.  The genesis of the crisis that nearly resulted in my suicide was a single, negative interaction with the senior client on my sub-team in Toronto.  At our first meeting, the senior client manager on the team asked me if I had any prior experience working with commercial lending, credit risk management systems.  The way he framed the question indicated he assumed I would respond affirmatively, but I had no such relevant experience.  I balked at saying no, and then pivoting to explain why I would still be a valuable asset to the team and the project as a whole.  Instead, I responded, “Excuse me?” as if I didn’t hear his question.  The man was less than five feet away from me, and he spoke quite clearly;  I was instantly and irrevocably mortified.  By the time he had finished rephrasing his question slightly, I was ready to give him my “no” which I did, but I failed miserably, in my view anyway, when I tried to pivot back to why he should still be pleased to have me on his team.

I began to suffer as a result of this interaction, not because of what had happened, but rather because of my interpretation of what had happened.  My self image and my sense of self-worth had been based on what authority figures in my life thought of me.  This worked fine for the first twenty six years of my life.  My parents were the first authority figures in my life, followed by my teachers and then my superiors at work.  My sense of self-worth and self-esteem was probably higher than average because the feedback that I had received from these people was overwhelmingly positive.  This incident at work in Toronto changed all of that.  I became convinced that an authority figure (my client) thought very poorly of me.  He never said this, but I believed that he was thinking thoughts like this:  I can’t believe that we’re paying this guy two hundred and fifty bucks an hour!  He’s not worth $2.50 an hour!!   Whether he thought this or not really wasn’t important.  It’s what I thought an authority figure thought about me, and in a very short period of time, I believed it as the irrefutable truth.  I came to see myself as an under-qualified, over-compensated fraud.

It still seems incredible to me how quickly I unraveled; how quickly hope and excitement for the future were replaced by fear and apprehension.  Within a month’s time, my internal monologue became almost unrecognizable to me.  The voice I was accustomed to hearing, one brimming with confidence, resourcefulness, excitement and determination was replaced by one saddled with uncertainty, doubt, indecision and distress.  Thinking and feeling so negatively about myself for an extended period of time was a novel experience for me.  I searched my psyche in vain for something to reverse my psychological and emotional slide, but the unrelenting pessimism of the voice in my head stripped away my self-esteem and hope for things to come.  Silencing my fearful, troubled, constantly-questioning self-talk at night was so difficult that getting sound sleep became impossible.  Night after night I only slept between zero to three hours at most thanks to the ceaseless barrage of dark, automatic thoughts that bombarded my consciousness, and ate away at my sanity.  As I continued descending a downward spiral of disempowering thoughts, I began to ruminate over what I was doing with my life.  I remember the first glimmer of my very first suicidal ideation.  It happened on a particularly turbulent flight home to New York from Toronto on a Friday afternoon.  Normally unnerved by turbulence, I found the unlikely prospect of crashing oddly comforting.  I remember thinking:  If only this plane would go down, I wouldn’t have to worry about this miserable assignment any longer.  

Within just a couple of weeks of my professional faux pas in Toronto, I had discounted all of my prior accomplishments, as my formerly steadfast belief in my ability to intellectually tackle any problem waned.  Some bad luck left me socially isolated as my five closest friends all coincidentally moved away from New York City over the course of a few weeks.  The lack of reassurance received from my usual sounding boards to bolster my flagging self-confidence paved the way for my suicidal crisis.  My ability to concentrate was so impaired from lack of sleep, that completing simple tasks—like deciding what to have for dinner, or packing my bag for the week ahead in Toronto—became cognitively burdensome.  Not surprisingly, given my deteriorating mental faculties, effectively performing the duties of my job became impossible.  I became certain that I wasn’t ever going to be able to live a life that would honor my parents and all of the sacrifices they had made for me.  In a short period of time, my thoughts of death gave rise to thoughts of suicide, followed eventually by a practical plan to end my life.

2.  What goes wrong with someone that has so many gifts, talents, privileges, and advantages?

The good fortune that I experienced through the first twenty-six years of life left me with high expectations for myself and my future.  The incident in Toronto caused me to confuse being unknowledgeable in a particular subject (commercial lending risk management) with being un-intelligent in general.  This cognitive mistake and my faith in the veracity of my conclusions due to my track record of being a high performer in school and at work led me to believe that the expectations that I had for myself were beyond my reach.  I became consumed with feelings of guilt, embarrassment and shame as a result.  I felt guilty that I was even considering the idea of checking out given the depth and breadth of suffering experienced by countless others in the world.  I felt guilty that I had achieved so little in life after having been given so much.  I was embarrassed that I had ever thought I was intelligent and that I could achieve anything that I set my sights on.  I was embarrassed that I was in a situation where I obviously needed help and was mortally afraid to ask for it.  I was ashamed that I was considering ending my life because I feared that I wouldn’t be able to earn an above average living.  I was ashamed of the imagined prospect of having to move back home to Delaware to live with my parents, and get a job in the local shopping mall.

Guilt involves falling short of one’s own moral standards.

Embarrassment is the feeling of discomfort experienced when some aspect of ourselves is, or threatens to be, witnessed by or otherwise revealed to others and we think that this revelation is likely to undermine the image of ourselves that, for whatever reason or reasons, we seek to project to those others.

Shame arises from measuring our actions against moral standards and discovering that they fall short.

Dr. Neel Burton

3.  How can someone who has love for his family and friends and whom is loved by his family and friends be suicidal and not tell a loved one?  How can they not reach out to a loved one for help?

I did reach out to a few close friends to express that I was having trouble, although I never went so far as to explicitly say that I was in need of help.  I even told my closest friend at the time that I had gone as far as considering ending my life.  Regarding reaching out to members of my family, I had a single conversation with my parents from my hotel room in Toronto several weeks before I nearly killed myself, where I expressed concerns about my performance at work.  In each case, my communication was only as effective as the responses that it elicited.  I received constructive advice from one friend—he suggested that I quit my job and try doing something completely different for awhile like go work at a ski resort or on a cruise ship.  Another friend was moved to discuss his concerns about my situation with his father who subsequently telephoned me to check in on me.  The friend I explicitly shared about my suicidal thoughts with became emotional as a result of my revelation, and was supportive in the moment, but he still wasn’t compelled to talk about our conversation with anyone else.  As far as the interaction with my parents, as novel as it was for me to express concerns about work to them, they too didn’t grasp the severity of my situation.  Me engaging in suicidal behavior wasn’t an eventuality that they seriously entertained.

I viewed my deteriorating mental health as a character flaw, because I believed other people would see it the same way, and I believed that asking for help to deal with what was going on in my head was a sign of a personal weakness. Thoughts and beliefs like these lie at the heart of the stigma surrounding mental illness, and explain why many people suffering like I was back then never seek help.

4.  What motivates someone without traumatic experience who has access to loving support from family and friends to harm themselves?

Unsubstantiated beliefs about myself and my future coupled with irrational thinking due to sleep deprivation motivated me to engage in suicidal behavior.

5.  What could a loved one (or anyone else) of a suicide attempt survivor or someone lost to suicide have done to prevent the suicide attempt or suicide?

Obviously, there’s nothing anyone can do to change the outcome of an event in the past.  As a free will skeptic, I don’t believe that human beings consciously author their thoughts or intentions.  We live in a cause and effect physical reality that is governed by immutable laws.  Like Albert Einstein, I too believe that the thoughts and intentions that arise in consciousness do so according to these natural laws.  Given this view of reality, there’s no coherent way to explain how an organism, human or otherwise, makes freely-willed conscious choices.  Einstein believed that the subjective experience of making “choices” was a “delusion of consciousness.”  As a result, Einstein believed that thoughts and feelings like regret, guilt and shame are all based on a gross misunderstanding of reality that arises from an egocentric view of life.  I think Einstein’s answer to this question would have sounded something like this:  There is nothing that a loved one (or anyone else) could have done differently to prevent the suicide attempt or suicide of someone.  The person who blames him or herself for not behaving in a way that he or she thinks would have or could have prevented the suicide attempt or suicide of someone is misunderstanding how the universe works.  For that person to have done something other than they did, the universe would have had to have been in a different state than it was in at the moment in question.  

The universe is going to unfold how it is going to unfold based on the immutable laws of physics, whether we can foresee what’s going to happen or not.  In simple cases, we can accurately predict the future.  In unfathomably more complex cases—predicting the thoughts that arise within a human being’s consciousness and what she is going to do as a result—we cannot reliably make accurate predictions yet.  Our understanding of neurobiology has yet to reach the point where we can accurately predict the output of the most complex object in the known universe:  the human brain.  

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Make no mistake, I still believe that preventing suicides from occurring in the future is possible and worthwhile work.  Knowledge of the warning signs and risk factors for suicide and vigilance can be the cause of someone avoiding a suicide attempt altogether.  Also worth noting, there is always help available for someone in the midst of a suicidal crisis.  You can always call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

6.  Why was I “gripped by fear” about life?

Fear seems to have many causes. Fear of loss, fear of failure, fear of being hurt, and so on, but ultimately all fear is the ego’s fear of death, of annihilation. To the ego, death is always just around the corner. In this mind-identified state, fear of death affects every aspect of your life.

Eckhart Tolle

I don’t recall precisely when I came to understand that my lungs will cease drawing breath and my heart will stop pumping blood and I will die.  I also don’t remember when I realized that absolutely no one has any certain knowledge about what is going on in existence.  The apparent unknowability of the answers to the “big picture” questions that homo sapiens ponder can be unsettling to some.  The certainty around the inevitability of the death of the body coupled with the uncertainty around what is going on in existence is enough to give any contemplative person pause.  

Serial Podcast story pitch

Dear Serial Podcast producers:

In 1993 I graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Notre Dame in just three and a half years, and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society. 

In 1998 I had a near death experience in the back of an ambulance due to semi-intentionally caused acute carbon monoxide poisoning.  I drew this picture during my first ever stay in a mental hospital.

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In 2002, less than a year after I learned that my birth name literally translates to “candid catnip soldier” and within several weeks of watching the movie The Bourne Identity, I trespassed at CIA headquarters with a large framed poster of Albert Einstein with his tongue sticking out, while in possession of marijuana. After being questioned for a few hours, I was cited for two misdemeanors and released.

The next day I told my father a story about what had happened.

Subsequently my father told a story based on the story I told him to my mother and my older brother.

Twelve days later my mother and brother told a story to Dr. Michael Marcus, a psychiatrist, based on the story they had heard from my father.

Without asking me a single question about the story Dr. Marcus had been told by my mother and brother, he committed me to a for-profit mental hospital for emergency involuntary medical care.

Hours later, Dr. Caroline Ekong reportedly read the civil commitment document filled out by Dr. Marcus about why I needed emergency medical care.  Without ever seeing or speaking with me, Dr. Ekong directed staff at the mental hospital to treat me with an oral antipsychotic.

I respectfully refused to swallow the medication, and requested to speak with Dr. Ekong before she began providing me with medical care.

Staff at the mental hospital informed me that Dr. Ekong was not at the hospital, and was not willing to speak with me by telephone.  I was told that if I continued to refuse medical care, that I would be injected with a different antipsychotic medication.

The hospital staff did not inform me of the potential “side-effects” of the two antipsychotics which include a non-zero chance of causing death due to Neuroleptic Malignant Syndrome.

I refused to swallow the oral antipsychotic, but I did not resist the hospital staff when they injected me with Haldol.

Subsequently, I agreed to take the oral antipsychotic medication due to the horrible state of consciousness induced by the Haldol.

Dr. Ekong restored my inalienable rights of liberty and the pursuit of happiness on the same day that my “civil commitment” for involuntary medical care was subject to review by a judge in a court of law.

Four years later, in October of 2006 I made another unauthorized visit to CIA headquarters in order to illustrate ways to improve this country’s mental health care system, and was cited for trespassing again.  Judge T. Rawles Jones of the Eastern District Court of Virginia presided over the ensuing 18 minute trial where I defended myself, and was found not guilty.  

Nine years later in late 2015, I watched Sam Harris’s 2012 talk at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas about the illusory nature of free will.

In May of 2016, while working on a memoir manuscript about how the events described above led me to view the life of free will skeptic, Albert Einstein, as “the brand new greatest story ever told,”  I learned that Christopher Frick, a 21 year old man whom Dr. Ekong had civilly committed in 2013, stabbed her to death in October of 2015.

A couple days later I posted this on Instagram:

screen-shot-2016-10-12-at-10-53-08-am“Imagine if judges in our legal system could imprison suspects and order them to be injected with potentially life-threatening substances without meeting or speaking with them.  Imagine if imprisoned criminal suspects and criminals were financially responsible for paying fees for being in prison, including one to the judge who jailed them.  These ideas are just as absurd as a reality in the mental health care system as they would be if they were part of our legal system.

I don’t seek attention for my anecdotal experience with mental health care mistreatment for the purpose of retributive justice or sympathy, and unlike some survivors of less than optimal behavioral health care, I do not want to burn the existing system to the ground.  Rather, my motivation for sharing this story publicly is to increase awareness about human rights violations occurring within our mental health care system in order to inspire social change and systemic reform.  Caroline Ekong and Christopher Frick are victims of the same thing: a broken, but fixable behavioral healthcare system.”

In October of 2016, after securing an appointment with Vice President Biden and/or his policy staff at the White House to introduce him/them to the executive leadership of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, I submitted this story to the creators of Serial.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Francesco Bellafante
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Philadelphia Chapter Board Member
Zero Suicide Champion
frank talk about mental health ~ leveraging the genius of Einstein to end suicide and to maximize well-being

Guilt is a feeling that arises from a misunderstanding of the human condition – Albert Einstein

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“Often I think we with mental illnesses already feel guilty enough, and we are not responsible for our own suffering.”
Dear Ms. Booth: 
Are you aware that Albert Einstein didn’t believe that any human being was deeply/truly/genuinely responsible for any “choice they make”? Einstein did not believe that humans understand what is happening when they “make a choice.” Al did not believe that people, at the moment of any apparent choice, have the ability to freely choose between the options before them. He didn’t believe that people were the conscious, free-willing authors of their own thoughts and intentions. Rather, he thought the entire universe was governed by immutable laws of physics. He believed that every event that occurs in this physical reality, including the events that give rise to every thought we have, and the events that give rise to consciousness itself, are subject to these laws. Al thought that guilt is a feeling that arises from a misunderstanding of the human condition.  Al thought that if you ever think that you could have done other than you actually did, you are believing in an illusion:  the free-willing self.
 
Einstein wrote this:
 
“I do not believe in free will. Schopenhauer’s words: ‘Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills,’ accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper.”
 
And this too:
 
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe’ — a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
 
And finally… this too:
 
“Our actions should be based on the ever-present awareness that human beings in their thinking, feeling, and acting are not free but are just as causally bound as the stars in their motion.”
Please understand, Einstein is referring to everyone, in every situation. “Mental illness” whatever precisely that is… has nothing to do with it. Make no mistake about it, Al thought that people with “mental illness” have no less control over themselves than anyone else.  Rather they are simply unfortunate to be thinking, feeling and acting in a way that is described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM.) But most people don’t think like Al thought.  Instead, the vast majority of people, incorrectly conflate “exhibiting signs of mental illness” with “having less control over your life.” It’s not that people without “mental illness” have more control over what they will think or want next, rather they are simply fortunate that they don’t habitually think, feel and behave in ways described in the DSM. I think most  people who insist that they have free will incorrectly identify themselves as the sole or primary causal source of their thoughts and intentions because they first glimpse ideas and impulses as they emerge within their own consciousness. I made this same mistake for over 40 years until I watched this video.
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The thing is, in spite of how persistently persuasive the lived experience of making a decision may seem to confirm the existence of free will, this claim appears unrealistic when examined more closely.  Our thoughts and intentions simply arise in consciousness. A few moments of quiet introspection spent listening to your own thoughts quickly belie the notion that you’re exercising free control over what you think or want. Try to clear your mind and to not think any thoughts for five minutes. Good luck.  Surely if humans had free will, if they possessed control over what thoughts arise within their consciousness, intentionally causing no thoughts to arise would not only be feasible, it would be as simple as raising your right hand, wouldn’t it? Or how about this question: which ice cream flavor do you prefer, chocolate or vanilla? Whatever your preference is at the moment (assuming you have one) are you free to genuinely prefer the other one?  Granted you and your preferences may change over time, but clearly you are not free to consciously choose what you want to want.  Does anyone actually think that people who are unfortunate enough to be sexually attracted to young children are freely choosing to be attracted as such?

I no longer kid myself that I am in control of the thoughts that pop into my head. Of course I remain legally and practically responsible for everything that I do, but this shift in thinking, if persistent, literally banishes guilt, shame and pride from your life. Not believing in free will takes away the egocentric or self-centric view of life that we are programmed to believe in, and replaces it with one recognizing that no one is truly separate from anyone or anything else. Rather, we are all linked to each other and to the world around us, and everything that we do still matters, because everything is connected in this cause and effect reality. Author and neuroscientist Sam Harris, the guy from the video above sums it up nicely:
“So you can’t take credit for your talents, but it really matters if you use them. You can’t really be blamed for your weaknesses and your failings, but it matters if you correct them. Pride and shame don’t make a lot of sense in the final analysis, but they were no fun anyway. These are isolating emotions, but what does make sense are things like compassion and love. Caring about well-being makes sense. Trying to maximize your well being and the well being of others makes sense. There is still a difference between suffering and happiness, and love consists in wanting those we love to be happy. All of that still makes sense without free will.”
Just because no one has choices like most people believe that they do, one can still be whomever one wants to be without free will, in part, by recognizing a better explanation for what one is and what is going on in reality.
I wish you guilt-free wellness.
Warmest regards,
Francesco Bellafante
frank talk about mental health at iameinstein.com