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.
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.
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.
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.