For someone struggling in the depths of what seems inescapable mental health agony or tragic trauma, it’s easy enough to see suicide through a media lens. Often, suicide is shown as glamorized, predetermined escape pursued with a clear rationale and no reasonable alternatives. The reality is far different.
With 13 Reasons Why now a popular, often binge-watched Netflix series, it’s time to think again about why suicide is not the right answer. I’ll start by sharing 13 Reasons Why Not Suicide that I highlighted at an Up With Life suicide prevention fundraiser and rally just a few days ago. Literally hundreds of other reasons to keep fighting exist. While traumas highlighted in 13 Reasons Why merit thoughtful discussion beyond what the show presents, we need to focus on how to survive, manage, recover and then share lessons learned with others facing similar struggles.
During more than 35 years since the worst of my struggles with suicide ideation, I’ve learned some of those why nots for me. The why nots are reasons I was incapable of seeing when it felt like my chest was collapsing in a four-way vise grip—squeezing to prevent me from absorbing even a wisp of any nourishment.
My 13 Reasons Why Not Suicide List:
- Life’s journeys could take you somewhere awesome. Struggling through those difficult, painful months and years is necessary to get there. That thought struck me hundreds of times over the years, but I make a particular point of reflecting on it when I reach the top of a mountain after a thigh-throbbing, calf-cleaving hike.
- Humanity comes in many colors and fabrics, each of us with our own strengths and elements of attraction. It is only when we weave gently together that we create the most stunning of tapestries. Each thread is essential to the beauty of the whole. You are a critical, irreplaceable thread.
- That pain you feel today—and maybe felt for weeks, months or years—can pass. It may take hard work and perseverance, but you can get to points of contentment and, sometimes, even joy.
- There is a child, a friend, a colleague, a love you haven’t yet met whose life will be far better with you by their side. When you get there, you’ll know it was worth enduring the difficulties.
- Urgent help exists, starting with the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 273-8255. For those who prefer, the 741741 crisis text line serves a similar immediate support role. For those who don’t know where else to turn for help, start with these outlets. Finding the right long-term support from there isn’t always easy and may take multiple efforts. But it is transforming.
- Brain chemistry science advances every year. Whether it’s prescription medications or sunlight, Omega 3s or exercise as gateways to the pharmacies in our brains, the medical community is getting better at helping us manage brain chemistry. For many who haven’t found the right medication or life changes yet, keep searching. There’s a good chance solutions are out there or under development.
- Neuroscientists are learning more each day about the role brain circuitry plays in mental health. Cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, gratitude exercises and many alternatives help us reroute our thoughts through synapses that never connected or stopped connecting properly. We’re learning that our brains need to be trained the way athletes train muscle groups to work together. When stresses or traumas break us down, sometimes we have to reorient or intensity our training.
- About 75 years ago, a young man named Martin thought he had contributed to the death of his beloved grandmother. Beset by grief and shame, this 12-year-old boy made an attempt to end his life. Fortunately, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. survived that pain-filled, impulse reaction. This country and this world are substantially better off for the many years we had him. The same can be said for the many millions of other attempt and ideation survivors.
- Giving and receiving compliments is essential to our humanity, but we’re often stingy with both. A few compliments when I desperately needed and was open to them helped me. Suicide, unfortunately, confines the compliments that would otherwise nourish us to a single eulogy.
- People struggling with mental health disorders, particularly those contemplating suicide, generally see a distorted figure in their mirror. They don’t see the warmth, empathy, humor, beauty or whatever other attributes they exhibit in plain view to everyone else. When you can’t see anything good in yourself or any hope in your life, know that it’s the equivalent of having heavily impaired eyesight, sometimes to the point of being blinded. You need help getting your vision of yourself repaired.
- Suicide doesn’t end pain. It just moves it, even if those who die by suicide often think they are relieving others of a burden.
- A few years ago, I stared up the last section of Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome Mountain, terrified that I couldn’t make it up even with the chains, boards and stanchions the Park Service had built into the steep, slick granite. Fortunately, I was far from first up the mountain so I could watch as others made the final trek. The helping hand I needed was there. It took me time to look around and find it. It was worth searching around.
- If we keep working together and supporting each other, we can make a difference. When we talk about mental health, raise money and reach out, we enable people in need to realize they aren’t alone. We provide hope and support.
These are just 13 of the reasons why suicide is not the answer. I could identify hundreds more for those who don’t see a reason that works for them on the list.
I know it’s difficult to fight through the worst of times; to believe that a solution exists that you haven’t found yet. It requires time and energy to find the right answers to mental health challenges and tragic circumstances. Give yourself that time.
You’re worth it.
Last week’s Centers for Disease Control release of deeply disturbing suicide trend data reminds us that even many proven mental health steps still require widespread attention and support. Even as understanding of brain function and chemistry expands, adoption of beneficial physical and mental health practices remains woefully inadequate.
Our minds are vital temples; each worthy of protection, repair and expansion. Our bodies provide foundations for these temples; requiring protection, nourishment and strength to support mental and spiritual health. Many of our temples are in disrepair, though, with data suggesting that far too many are collapsing or teetering on the flimsiest of cornerstones.
So how do we repair and rebuild?
Training Our Minds
A growing body of evidence shows that troubled minds don’t need to remain in a state of pain. A multitude of mental health steps support individuals seeking first relief and then fulfillment.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and other brain development and thought techniques used by professional therapists have proven effective at helping individuals struggling with self-belittlement, impulse control and a myriad of other issues. At a research forum hosted last week in Chicago by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Dr. Jon Grant noted that suicide rate reductions attributed to CBT can be as high as 50 percent for those with recent attempts, though he warned that properly trained CBT practitioners are in very short supply.
Seeing a professional therapist isn’t the only path toward better mental health:
- Meditation and mindfulness techniques have a proven track record of aiding brain healing and development. For those particularly struggling, it is often beneficial to pursue these activities with guidance.
- Expressing gratitude for elements of life helps to route how we view the world through the more positive aspects of our minds.
- In addition, prayer to a loving god (when believed by the person praying) has been shown to generate mental health benefits, while participation in a religious community is often connected to better physical self-care practices that also help build a strong foundation for mental health.
Feeding Our Brains
Whether better mental health starts with exercising the brain or exercising the body depends on factors that include individual brain chemistry. For many, finding the energy needed to pray, meditate or participate in mindfulness-oriented therapies may first require a physical boost.
Among the critical physical tasks that help us build the foundation for mental health are:
- Sleep. Professional athletes increasingly emphasize sleep to achieve peak performance, but everyone needs sleep’s healing and restorative powers to be our best selves.
- Exercise. Brain chemistry imbalances are key contributors in most instances of depression, bipolar disorder and many other mental illnesses. Exercising helps generate critical chemistries the brain requires.
- Improved nutrition. Many studies show that healthy diet, including Omega-3 fatty acids, probiotics and other nutritional elements, is an essential mental health step.
- Substance abuse avoidance. If the mind and body are consuming energy to fight toxins, they aren’t building a stronger foundation.
- Gaining sunlight needed for the Vitamin D our brain requires can be an important part of mental health development.
Five years ago today, the world came one missed detail away from losing one of its most beautiful souls. It was the third time this caring, talented, engaging woman reached a point of desperation and pain she couldn’t see any other way to escape. I hope and pray it was her last attempt to die by suicide.
Since that attempt, Carly has worked hard to develop and implement the coping skills that allow her to see what used to seem like enclosed walls as hurdles or at least as rooms with doors and windows that she can pry open. Though it is still hard some days, Carly has figured out how to learn lessons and move on from mistakes rather than dwell in self-loathing. Carly has surrounded herself with energizing people who give her strength and renewal rather than those encouraging the thoughts and behaviors that sent her on too many downward spirals. She learned to love herself enough to accept that others could truly love the real Carly: along the way opening her heart, mind and soul to the extraordinary woman who is now her wife.
As I walk today in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Chicagoland Walk, I join Carly’s family and other friends in considering ourselves fortunate that we are not walking in memory of Carly Jacobson. We are walking with her. If her wife and mine do not mind, I might even hold her hand or hug her by my side for a few moments as we walk, grateful to know her and be part of her world.
For too many walking today, the walk is to honor, remember and cherish those who have died by suicide. In addition to our involvement in The CARL Project, No Stigmas and other mental health work, I am proud to join Carly as co-chairs of a new AFSP-Illinois Lived Experience Committee—established for those who have suffered through suicide ideation or attempt, as well as those currently struggling with pains they don’t know how else to escape.
It is our hope to learn from those who have struggled and share those insights so that, in future years, many more of our fellow AFSP walkers are doing so hand-in-hand or side-by-side with those they love.
#OOTDCCW #SuicidePrevention #MentalHealth
The deepest part of my anguish seems like a memory borne from historical fiction. Someone else’s tragedy. Not entirely real. Maybe even a bit exaggerated in the retelling.
I know, however, that it’s all part of creating Carly. It doesn’t define me today, but the agonies are my history with all the shattered edges and deep regrets that far too long dominated my every rumination.
In an almost nonsensical way, I’m grateful I went through each struggle. Today, I wouldn’t want to be anyone else in the world.
Pain still appears in little pieces; manageable shards I can suction out and toss aside before they torment my brain and pierce my soul. At times, I feel myself sinking when I slip back into bad habits. The worst of these habits are when I forget to learn from mistakes and quickly move on, and particularly when I fail to forgive myself for being less than perfect.
Read more about my friend Carly and her fight for mental health each week at The CARL Project on Facebook.
Life is crazy.
For too long, though, I thought the senseless I saw all emanated from inside.
Years passed with so much challenge and pain that darkness enveloped me, my chest pounded under the weight of a thousand failures, and my head ached for relief. I couldn’t see a way out—at least not one including me.
I focused on everything I could never change; failing to change almost anything I could control.
On my good days, it’s inconceivable to contemplate that not only did I wish to end my existence; I actively worked to execute my own ending.
How could I have wanted to miss this life—the one I live in today?
Why didn’t someone tell me?
I guess some people did.
Many, in their own way, if I’m honest.
I just didn’t believe them. It didn’t seem possible.
It seemed like a colossal lie.
The lie, it turns out, is that ending that pain was the better path.
(Over the coming months, I’ll be posting the insights here of a dear friend. In an act of love and bravery, she is sharing her pain and journey toward mental health in the hopes of helping to heal others. The original posts can be found through The CARL Project on Facebook here.)
Know someone dealing with depression? In my newly released “Suicide Escape”, an older hiker spots 15-year-old Clarissa on a remote mountain as she prepares to take her life. The hiker does everything he can to convince the despondent young woman to give life another chance, sharing stories of what he learned about life after he battled through his own severe depression as a young teen. A unique combination of novella and memoir, “Suicide Escape” is a must read for anyone facing or around depression.
Available on Kindle for just 99 cents. Borrow free with Amazon Prime. Foreword written by terrific friend who is a suicide survivor and founder of The C.A.R.L. Project. I am donating $1 for every review posted on Amazon to The C.A.R.L. Project and 50% of profits to mental health charities, including C.A.R.L. No Kindle? Read on your computer using Amazon’s Kindle Cloud Reader.
A second of inattention left the Colemans scrambling as they spotted their five-year-old new swimmer in mid-jump off the three-meter springboard at a local pool. The next morning, after an early rain, John found Clarissa outside on the driveway, picking up worms and gently placing them back where she had decided each must reside.
John, Clarissa’s father, said he remembered those events because it was the first time he fully realized that life with Clarissa would provide him a continuous pendulum swing between heartwarming pride and heartbreaking fear.
Clarissa had been daddy’s little girl; in many ways the boy the Coleman’s had hoped to add to their family when they decided to have a third child. When John went to the shooting range, Clarissa was usually his lone company. She was the only one of the girls who enjoyed going to work with John on the many Saturdays he spent trying to optimize his latest waste recycling separation gadget. Clarissa, though, spent most of her time creating mosaics and statues out of spare parts and garbage strewn around his lab.
John had required all three girls to join him for a series of survival training weekends as his fears grew for his family’s safety, but Clarissa was the one who flourished in the outdoors. As she transported into her teenage turmoil years, she frequently took off alone on all-day wilderness excursions, causing her parents to panic in the hours between when she told them she was going to a friend’s house and when they tracked her down somewhere between their home and Humphrey’s Peak or some other nearby wilderness area.
Only Clarissa’s proficiency with a tranquilizer gun – and more recently with an odd-looking rifle John had designed and built – had kept them from sending the authorities after her when she snuck out and travelled too far to reach quickly. John chased her down many times tracking Clarissa on her Lifelink mobile device that allowed the Colemans to watch her on satellite at not-insignificant expense until they could escort her home safely. The Colemans never figured out how to punish Clarissa appropriately to keep her from just taking off. When grounded, Clarissa would isolate herself from everyone, disappearing inside the house for long enough that the rest of the family often forgot she was there. All too often, when they went searching for her, she was gone. When, instead of grounding, her Lifelink was taken to keep her from connecting to the outside world, Clarissa would take off into the woods or nearby canyons or mountains with no way to be traced.
In the last few years and particularly in the last few months, John Coleman said he would have given anything to recapture moments of warmth with Clarissa to replace the constant fear barrage that pounded away at his conscience as she isolated herself and became increasingly sullen. Her previously confident disposition had been wilting in recent years, and now seemed completely shredded. Signs of happiness had fallen from occasional to sporadic to now nearly non-existent. John felt helpless to intervene.
Had I really known Clarissa when I first read her suicide note, scrawled out in pencil and shoved inside her clothes in case anyone found her body, I would have felt at least a part of the soul shattering that John clearly felt in his nearly daily panic.
“i’ve had enough already. i mean, seriously. people hatin me. callin me stupid, snake hole, skeleton and way, way worse. everybody dyin around me. Grandpa’s dead. Sarah’s dead. nobody knows i’m alive or even cares. a-holes at school are alive and smilin and happy and tellin me i’m not worth wastin their oxygen. their oxygen. like i don’t deserve any. at least they’re honest, i guess. my friends abandoned me. great friends, huh. thanks for abandoning me girls. you know who i mean. i mean, seriously, how much am I supposed to just take and take and take and take.
“i just can’t do it anymore, so i won’t. it’s better this way. it’s not like anyone’s gonna care, but in case someone finds my body before it’s all chewed up and turned into animal crap, let anyone who asks know that i’m relieved it’s over and done with and i can not have to wake up every morning dreading how f-ing miserable i’m gonna be again and who’s gonna rip on me in front of everyone, or who’s gonna trip me or shove me or grab at me. it’s weird, but those aren’t even always the worst days. the worst days are when nobody even sees me, even knows I’m alive or cares. imagine being surrounded by a thousand people and still being completely, utterly alone. abandoned. empty. that’s my life now. well, it was anyway.
“you’re lucky i hate my life more than other people. i coulda done it too if i really wanted to hurt people, but then i’d be an even worse person than people who make me sick. i know how to shoot. i coulda gotten a bunch of people, but i’d still feel terrible. and I don’t want to hurt people because i know what it’s like to be hurt all the time. this way, no one’s in pain anymore. it’s probably the right way to go, don’t you think. i don’t wanna burn in hell, and i know i’d get sent there if I killed other people. that’s where i woulda ended up, always in the worst place possible. this way, maybe i’ve gotta shot of goin if there is a heaven. i mean, look at how many lives i saved gettin rid of mine. that’s a lot of people to save for anyone. and if there isn’t a heaven or hell, then i’m just gone and nothin hurts anymore. anyway, tell my parents and sisters i’m sorry that i got found. i’d just as soon they just figured i ran away than have to know i’m dead, but, if you see this, it is what it is, i guess.
“at least i don’t hurt anymore. sorry.”
No teenager should have to feel lingering pain that reaches that depth. For that matter, neither should anyone else.
On the first day of freshman football, I measured in at four-feet, 11-inches tall. On as full of a stomach as I could muster, I weighed in at a staggering 98 pounds. With physical presence like that, and zero previous football experience, you can imagine I wasn’t a star athlete. Even use of the word athlete to describe me was a stretch. Perhaps for giggles but more likely because there just weren’t that many boys on the freshman team at Geneva High School in Illinois, the coach would have me practice at offensive tackle some days. I would line up across from the true stud defensive lineman on the team. At double my weight, he would either pound me into the turf milliseconds after the snap or, every once in a while, I would succeed in chopping at his knees. On the occasions my chop block worked, he would get back up and then pound me into the turf angry that I cut his legs again. “Block like a man, you wuss,” he would bark.
After many weeks of this beating, I met the varsity team physician/dealer. He wasn’t actually a doctor or trainer or anything close: just a varsity player with spare time to acquire and distribute pain-reduction therapies. By the end of the season, I was inhaling an occasional dose of weed therapy. As bad as I was at football to start the season, I was even worse by the end. I don’t blame the coaches in any way for my pot and hash use. I would have found a reason to start regardless. It seemed the cool thing to do and I was eager to erase one of few sources of developmental delay I thought I controlled compared to some of my Catholic elementary school classmates.
By the time the next summer came around, after my freshman year, I had been getting high for a stretch already, though I was doing most of my smoking in the back alley behind a restaurant where I bussed tables or stopped off somewhere on the way home from work. I’d started wearing cowboy boots under wide-flare jeans to school, providing a convenient place inside each boot to store some of my stash for far less common mid-day use. I slowed down on the weed a bit during tennis season that freshman year. Having recently crossed the five-foot threshold, I played first doubles on the sophomore tennis team with a sophomore partner who would turn to me at crucial points in almost every match and spout his words of motivational wisdom: “You better not f*#k this up.” I’m sorry for the language, but that’s what he said.
Having finished a painful first year transitioning from Catholic elementary school to even more mind-numbing public high school boredom, I was just days away from turning 15 in the summer after freshman year when the water tower incident happened.
I remember it because I remember all of my failures with an overabundance of precision. Every girl I said no too (I was so lacking in confidence at various points, I figured they must be asking as a joke), treated poorly (there are one or two college girlfriends who rightly should still hate me) or disappointed (I have to guess at this list, but I’m sure there were several). I remember every person I angered, or at least a long enough list that it seems like everyone. The Lutheran preacher I mistreated in the high school newspaper because I didn’t do my job as a reporter properly. The disabled boyhood friends I only visited twice as an adult because I was too busy with my priorities, convincing myself I would see them more when I retired even though they had already far surpassed their life expectancy. People I fired to meet cost-savings targets without what I considered reasonable warning. Far too often, the person I disappointed most was myself, like when I rushed through a last paper while working on my masters. The poor result cost me a level of recognition I badly wanted because I was simply too tired or too lazy to put in the last bit of work. There’s plenty more where these came from, and, believe me, far worse.
If I remembered the highlights in my life as easily, the brief moments we should all live to savor, life would bring more pleasure. But my failures take a disproportionate amount of my memory capacity, even to this day. The only difference is I’m conscious of this now, and combat it by purposely thinking about reasons I have to be grateful. I’ve read that most people’s memory helps them remember events with a more positive spin than how they actually occurred. I wish my mind did a better job of recasting my failures.
I remember the water tower incident, at least after the drug and alcohol-induced unconsciousness passed, because it was the first time I considered killing myself. I wasn’t yet in the depths of depression, but I’d already started a steep downhill slide. From that height, my chances of immediate death if I jumped were high. It might not even hurt that bad since I was still at least eight to 10 hours away from sobriety, but death wasn’t certain. With my luck, I’d leave myself paralyzed from the neck down and lose total control of my life – and death. I decided not to risk it. I was pretty sure I wanted to die, but clearly not yet certain. I’d already learned in football and too many childhood fights that I wasn’t a big fan of physical pain. I didn’t even know whether I hated pain more than I hated myself for hating pain.
So when I spotted what turned out to be Clarissa high up on a mountain north of Flagstaff in June of 2041, I thought again about that day, and many others, even as most of my focus turned to an awkward, gangly girl all alone and off trail, acting strangely not far below the tree line beneath Humphrey’s Peak.
As I walked close to her, my mind turned to questions:
Is she the reason I’m alive?
Is this one of the moments that makes the days, months and sometimes years of struggle worthwhile, or will this encounter be another addition to life’s miseries?
Then I realized that the tall, thin-hipped body bent over a wood stick with ass pointed skyward belonged to a young girl, a teenager in all likelihood. Despite her baggy sweats, it was hard to turn my eyes away until it was clear that this rangy body belonged to a face so young. Even at a distance, something about her was captivating my attention. I didn’t know why. When Clarissa looked toward me, though, I knew she needed me in her life. I couldn’t let her down.
Already on that day, Clarissa had the makings of a beautiful woman. She might not have been a head-turner in high school terms, mind you, where beauty is defined as too much make-up, overly tight clothes, the right weight, perfect hair and other telling signs to a high school boy that a girl might gain portions of her self-worth or her own pleasure from satisfying his spear-motivated desires. Beautiful nonetheless. A pleasant, disarming face highlighted by high cheekbones. The rest of Clarissa was hidden under a baseball cap and overly loose clothing covered in a desert camouflage pattern.
Clarissa’s body didn’t appear to have filled in all of the parts boys seem to care about in tremendous disproportion to their long-term relationship satisfaction value. That, combined with being six-feet tall at an age when she likely looked down at most classmates, meant Clarissa didn’t get noticed the way girls who were perky, busty or smiling happily and frequently were noticed.
It was clear she must be overly thin from the taut appearance of her visible cheek. Still, she was clearly athletic enough to have hiked up here, so can’t be too devoid of physical strength. But anyone could see past Clarissa’s effort to hide inside her own skin that she isn’t too many years away from catching more than her share of attention.
My seconds of evaluation as I ambled toward Clarissa reached conclusions about her solely based on physical appearance, even though this is the least important part of a soul’s worth in this world. Appearance was all I could see at this point. It was all I could initially judge.
When she looked again toward me as I drew near, I spotted more fear and pain in the eye I could see. That eye exposed a despair I fully recognized. Then I saw why she was bent over. It wasn’t a wood stick wedged into the ground. It was a rifle. Her mouth remained over the barrel as her head turned partially so she could look at me with one eye.
Clarissa was reaching for the trigger.