Let Pain Be Your Guide: Suicidal Thoughts as the Catalyst for Change
In honor of National Suicide Prevention Day, I’m reposting an article I published on this blog on 23 July 2008. I’ve made no changes to the original article, and rather than posting a new photo of my own with pretty writing on it, I’ve elected to keep the original picture I used 5 years ago but it just…fits…so well with this subject. Hope you find this helpful.
Photo by SuperFantastic; creative commons license.
This is exactly the kind of post that can get me into tons of trouble, just for putting it in writing. Just saying these things puts me at risk for some ignorant person to try to use these against me to take away my career, my family, my dreams. But I’ll say it anyway. It’s important.
A former doctor of mine once told me I was right to let pain be my guide, and I’ve successfully followed that advice for over four years, in all aspects of my life.
I’m required—as are most people in my career field—to take an annual one-hour class that was once called “Suicide Prevention” and is now entitled “Suicide Awareness.” It’s aimed at stopping your co-workers from killing themselves, not at improving lives. There’s still a smug feeling among most attendees that they’re immune because only people who are crazy or weak would ever have suicidal thoughts. Or so they’re told.
I grew up in a small town where everybody knew everybody and everybody’s business. The cause of death—and any scandal around it—was usually just as important as who had died—and my dad never missed a funeral. As a very small child, I had somewhat of a fascination with the little grave at the cemetery with the photos and toys around it. My parents reminded me every time we passed about how the little boy had accidentally hanged himself while playing cowboys and Indians at the age of 4 and he’d broken his parents’ hearts. I was concerned for the boy and whether he was going to hell as they’d said at Sunday School. A couple of years after that, my brother’s best friend—feeling trapped by his domestic situation—put his life at the end of a shotgun. My entire family was deeply affected, but then, in my small town, Death was a big part of growing up, and I saw it far too often at a young age.
Suicide was not uncommon. People talked in hushed whispers designed to distance themselves from the emotional impact. The person who’d committed suicide was somehow aberrant, different from the rest of us. Crazy. Weak-willed. Not like us, thank God!
So here’s the news: most people I’ve known have had suicidal thoughts at one time or another. They just don’t talk about it in public or online. They may never have pulled a trigger and failed, but they’ve given it serious consideration. There have been times in my life when I have, too, for different reasons, but not so different a reason from anyone else I’ve met.
I distinctly remember thinking about it when I was nine years old. It wasn’t the first time but probably the most serious time. It wasn’t a matter of being overly dramatic or too much TV. I was tired of being an outcast and being persecuted for my (then-Christian) beliefs. I still remember sitting on the steps in the front yard and working through it in my head. On that particular day, like many other days, I’d been singled out in the school auditorium, made to stand in front of the majority of my schoolmates, and was ridiculed for my beliefs by both teachers and students. It was just a taste of what was to come later, but at least by my equally-outcast teen years, I’d discovered writing as my weapon of choice for emotional catharsis.
In my early 30’s, I suffered a back injury, and I continued to suffer with it for the next 27 months in excruciating pain before I found a doctor who didn’t treat me as a liability or as a crook. The healing, once I found the right treatment, came very quickly, but early on in my ordeal, I had to concentrate and will myself to make it…just…to…the next…hour. The physical pain was SO BAD for SO LONG, not to mention the psychological pain of not being able to care for my children or do anything for myself, that I could not see any point in living. The pain was so great that I had to do something—and that something was to end the pain, one way or another. People who have not been in that kind of pain have no idea how weary you become.
But the same is true, too, I believe, of emotional pain. At the end of my marriage, there were nights when I sat keening on my front doorstep at 4AM. I remember sitting there, sobbing outside so I wouldn’t wake my children, with my arms wrapped around my knees, rocking back and forth and hurting SO BAD and not seeing any point in going on. Weeks of not sleeping had left me feeling jagged and weary, and everything was just too hard to push through. It didn’t matter that I had a wonderful support system and friends who loved me. What mattered was how bad the pain was and just wanting it to stop hurting—and my sheer will to make it just one more hour.
The earlier experience with my back injury left me with some unexpected tools for getting through that night, and it was when I knew I’d leave my marriage instead of leaving the world.
The first doctors I saw for my back injury gave out painkillers like candy…though they were really just Band-Aids to cover the wound and did nothing to fix the problem. In fact, they made everything worse because though they didn’t get rid of the pain, they took just enough edge off the pain that I continued to work instead of rest, continued to aggravate my injury with the same destructive behavior. At 48 days of 8 Ultrams a day, I was actually worse, not better. At 48 days, I went off the painkillers, cold turkey, and never took another one for my back pain, even though the intense pain was with me every minute of every day and night for another two years. I learned to let pain be my guide, so that if I overdid sitting at my desk, my pain would be more intense and I’d rest extra for a few days to make sure I was giving myself time to heal.
I applied that lesson to my emotional pain of a marital breakup. I let pain be my guide. I had to stop whatever behaviors were just making things worse. And I had to end the pain I was in. To stay in my marriage, I knew I would have to give up everything about me that made me special, everything I loved, all my dreams. I would have to not exist and be someone else because I could not be loved for who I was and I would never be what he wanted. I felt pushed to a choice between psychological suicide (the death of who I was) or physically ending my life. That’s a bad place to be. It’s called Rock Bottom.
But, I reasoned, if I was down to those choices and was willing to just not “be” anymore, then what if I stopped being what I’d become? I wanted to be something else. I wanted to be happy. I wanted to be loved and accepted for myself. I wanted my dreams. If I was willing to not have anything anymore or not be anything anymore, then was I willing to give up what I was and go after a complete change? What was the difference? Change at least had the potential for me to be in a happy place again.
So I let pain be my guide. I made the changes that were hurting me and found the healing I needed. It wasn’t an overnight cure. It took time, even after my divorce. But when you hit rock bottom and see no point in going on, you can either close your eyes and pull the dirt in over you, or you can rebirth yourself into a new life.
PS: To my friend who has decided, even in your pain, not to check out: I’m glad you’re still here.