Love and Suicide

“Shared pain is lessened.
Shared joy is increased.
Thus we refute entropy.”

– Spider Robinson

This is not going to be a very happy “Love” post.

I’m following Tim Ferriss’ lead and talking about something that often gets pushed under the rug by…well, everybody. In Tim’s post (which I recommend you read, if only for the sake of being able to point it out to those who might need it) he explains that he wrote it after finding out that one of his fans – an avid reader – had committed suicide.

It wasn’t his fault. But, still, he writes: “…I’d failed his brother by being such a coward in my writing. How many others had I failed? These questions swam in my mind.” At first I figured I’d simply re-tweet and facebook-link his article – after all, what could I say that hadn’t already been said (and better) by him and many, many more?

Love and Pain

courtesy Artūrs Gedvillo via Flickr CCRecently, though, I had a friend go through another bout of a recurring pain – the pain of a breakup with someone she loved deeply. The kind of love where, when it’s over, the recovery process is kind of “one step forward, two steps back, fall flat on your face, crawl through glass, set your teeth on fire, stand up, take another step forward.” Perhaps you can relate? That’s where she’s at. When we talked last, she seemed to be in the crawling-through-glass phase, and as we talked and I made rather inadequate attempts to be, if not consoling, supportive, I realized that like Tim, I’d never owned up to the darker side of Love on this blog.

Love sucks. In order to be deeply intimate, as Brené Brown has said, you have to be mutually vulnerable. And by definition vulnerable means you’re able to be hurt. Given the astronomical odds of finding a compatible partner the first time around, this means that you are most likely going to be hurt – badly – at some point.

Sometimes it’s often enough that you recognize the phases in yourself – such as when a poly partner of mine withdrew from our relationship almost a year ago. I’ve had various people come in and out of my life, and I could recognize the sad and the hurt and avoid the blame and know that eventually the good memories of us would outweigh both.

But not all love is like that. When you find a love that takes you to a deeper level of connection, when you start to have glimpses of wanting to create a future together – that’s when you get hurt the way my friend is hurting. That’s when the phrase “so much to live for” takes on a far more sinister meaning.

That’s when I seriously contemplated suicide.

The Pragmatic Instinct

I was a teenager, living in rural Wisconsin, in the midst of all the high-school angst and self-identity confusion that were common to nerds in the ’80’s. I came relatively late to dating – sophomore year – but I made up for it in quality and duration, having relationships that lasted months rather than the days or weeks of my peers.

And my girlfriend and I had broken up. It’s rather telling that now, so many decades later, I can’t remember which girlfriend it was. I can’t remember why we broke up, or if we got back together. That’s one of the strange things about this kind of mindset: things that, with perspective, are literally forgettable seem like the entirety of your reality at the time. That is what makes it so deadly, and why well-meaning but clueless advice like “just shake it off” or “maybe you should talk to someone” doesn’t really do much.

When you’re in that kind of place, you run into the kind of feeling like author Anne Sexton (who committed suicide) describes:

I don’t want to live. … Now listen, life is lovely, but I Can’t Live It. I can’t even explain. I know how silly it sounds … but if you knew how it Felt. To be alive, yes, alive, but not be able to live it. Ay that’s the rub. I am like a stone that lives … locked outside of all that’s real. … I wish, or think I wish, that I were dying of something for then I could be brave, but to be not dying, and yet …

And yet.” In my case, sitting there in my room with what felt like an inconsolable pain, I remember thinking about how I’d learned, in Boy Scouts, that an arterial cut could bleed one out in seven seconds. Not sure if that’s true, but that’s what I thought. And I also remember holding the skinning knife I’d made from a pre-fab kit, the smooth sanded wood and weight of blade comfortable in my hand.

And I remember thinking I could do it. I could be dead before anyone could do anything.

Somehow, knowing that was a very realistic option made me put the knife down. Made me turn to other things – I don’t remember what, probably music or some novel – to get through the time. As Jennifer Michael Hecht wrote in Stay, “If we can take suicide off the docket for the moment, that moment may turn out to be enough.” For me, somehow the knowledge that I had the power to end it was all I needed to move beyond that darkest of places.

I’ve never reached that point since. I’ve come to a better understanding of suicide – I remember being contemptuous of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, for example, feeling that he’d taken the coward’s way out when he had every success an artist could want. Years later I reached a level of success I’d never imagined – and felt a crushing weight of what if I disappoint everyone? I can’t possibly live up to what they expect. It wasn’t suicidal, but the dark mood (born of a micro-celebrity with only hundreds of people) helped me understand: what if millions of people were expecting me to inspire them?

Kurt, I was wrong; I wish you’d stayed, but I think I understand, a little, why you left.

Shared Pain

Hecht also wrote:

If you have any energy at all for participating in this world, perhaps live now only for those small kindnesses and consolations you can render. Perhaps seek to help those equally burdened by sadness. Confess your own sadness to those in sorrow. Your ability to console may be profound. The texts urge human beings to try to know that they are needed and loved. We all deserve each other’s gratitude for whatever optimism and joy we can hustle into this strange life by sheer force of personality, even by that most basic contribution, staying alive.

And that’s the reason for this post, and Tim’s, and perhaps your comment, should you choose to share. It’s not that we can solve things – but Anne Sexton and David Foster Wallace and Sylvia Plath and Hamlet and many others had to be alone – whether in reality or in their perception – in order to consider last step that forced us to live in a world bleaker and more painful for their absence. The only kind of love that they could see in that place is the kind that hurts.

It does. And it sucks that “the only way out is through”, as Frost wrote. It’s not remotely fair. It’s supremely difficult, and when you’re tired, it really may not seem worth it. That’s totally understandable; one of the only demonstrated effective treatments for suicidal tendencies, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, is predicated on the idea “…that people are doing the best they can but are either lacking the skills or influenced by positive or negative reinforcement that interfere with their ability to function appropriately.

That’s fine. When somebody is tired, that’s when they lean on someone else for a while. When you let them be the one to carry the optimism, or at least the resilience, for a while. We all get to take turns reminding each other that yes, love is excruciating – but that’s not the only kind of love there is. There is the simple love of a friend, of a smile, of a texted “(hug)” that might be that tiny bit that moves us all through the dark places together.

I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m just saying it’s worth it.

“…there’s nothing in the human heart or mind, no place no matter how twisted or secret, that can’t be endured – if you have someone to share it with.” – Spider Robinson

2 thoughts on “Love and Suicide”

  1. Thank you for opening the conversation here and inviting comments Gray. Having moved through my most recent brush with suicidal intent about a year and a half ago, here are a few of the tools I acquired:

    1. Yes! It is my most basic right to choose suicide. Any moment that I’m not acting on my suicide has at least one other thing that I’m choosing instead. What is that? How can I find out more about that? If I’m not killing myself, then I am by default choosing to live. It’s in my power to make that heretofore default choice an intentional one.

    2. “Now is not the same thing as Always” When the pain is dark and feels like it’s swallowing me whole, it’s really easy to believe that it has _always_ been this way – that I have always been this miserable and this hard to love. In that state, my mind can find all kinds of historical proof of that always-ness. If instead I can just remind myself of the now-not-always truth, I can hang with the now and don’t need to go digging for the logic behind it in the moment.

    3. “It’s weather” AKA “This, too, shall pass” This one is related to the “Now does not equal Always” but more useful when I’m in a future-tripping mode. Also, while weather might be inconvenient and uncomfortable for some period of time, it doesn’t actually change when you go out and yell at the rain and thunder about where it should go. But, if needing to yell is what it takes to get me off the couch, that’s okay too. Which leads me to the next tool…)

    4. Opposite action: When I’m in the midst of pain that I’m resisting (suffering), take half a step back and see what it is that I’m doing physically and consider doing the opposite (curled in a ball? stretch out; holding my breath? release it; sitting under my laptop? stand up and walk to a different room). Change the action with no judgment expectation about whether the thoughts or feelings change. Give myself total permission to sob and feel just as miserable as I do, just with the invitation to do it while being physically someplace else.

    Perhaps those tools will be useful for someone else too. You mentioned Dialectical Behavioral Therapy above. Opposite Action comes from that tool box. There is another research-based therapy approach called ACT (pronounced as the word not the acronym) which stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. That’s where the other 3 tools in my box can be found. Here’s a link to one of the core books (with an annotated research) on Amazon:

  2. I haven’t been through Dialectical Behavior Therapy but I have found the premise useful. Especially the concept of forgiving yourself for what you’ve done in favor of moving forward and progressing toward more healthy behavior. There is a phrase in DBT, “I did my best and I need to do better” that sums it up well. At first I balked at the ‘need to do better’ part because it seemed dictatorial. Yet when the matter is that of life or death I think it becomes appropriate to make that sort of statement. It encompasses the idea of forgiveness (I did my best) and progress (I need to do better). I’ve never had the experience of suicidality, but I am familiar with the helplessness and hopelessness of supporting someone who has held the knife and intended to use it. Whether you’re in the room holding the knife or standing on the other side of the door, afraid of what you’ll find when you go in, the grim reality is the same: The only way out is through. You do the best you can and forgive yourself when that’s not enough. Thanks for the post, it is certainly an important topic that is too often hidden in the closet with the rest of our lonely skeletons.

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