*Disclaimer: This blog isn’t necessarily what to do when someone becomes suicidal. Elephant journal believes you should always seek professional guidance when dealing with any serious mental health issue. However, the following may help shed light on certain situations.
The practice of modern day psychology is, to some degree, influenced by legal concerns.
When a patient talks about self-harm (typically by way of cutting) or suicidal thoughts, legal obligations call for the psychologist to focus on immediate prevention.
This can be an obstacle to reaching a deeper understanding of what leads to these behaviors and thoughts; in turn, the patient does not have the opportunity to undertake a more substantive and long lasting transformation; the cycle of suicidal thoughts and outside intervention is likely to continue, as a result.
The following vignette highlights a different way of working with people who harm themselves and/or have suicidal thoughts. Shifting the way people make meaning of such thoughts and urges, opens the doors to transformation. In this approach, the patient expresses suicidal thoughts and urges to harm themselves; the psychologist acknowledges and validates these urges and then, together, they explore a different way of understanding what is called for.
The Words Inside
Alison is 20 years young.
She holds her words tightly, making sure they stay inside. Sometimes, it seems they are about to push through her lips but she seals her mouth shut.
On occasion, her lips open, just a hair’s width, as if she might let the words escape, as if she actually wants to put them outside her mouth and into the room. But she has no breath with which to push them beyond her teeth. Then, quickly, she draws her lips together and the words fall beneath her soul.
She cuts herself.
So that this thing she calls overwhelming is transformed into a single unit; a measurable physical sensation—then, she can watch as it leaves her body, in small drops of blood.
Sometimes she thinks about suicide and when she can bear the thoughts no longer, she sends her words to a teacher.
The elder replies “Think of all the reasons you have to live. Think of all the people who will be hurt if you leave.”
Alison paves over the killing thoughts…for now.
This is the word she uses to describe how she feels about herself.
She holds memories of sexual abuse, against which she was too young, too frightened and too unknowing to defend herself.
This is What I Want Her to Know
You are right—something in you calls for death; but this thing that must die is not you.
How could it be that the one who calls for a death is the same one that must die?
This is impossible.
The one who calls is trying to live.
This is you doing the calling; it is something else that needs to die so you can live.
A long time ago something invaded you and it took the place of the you that never had the opportunity to be known, not even to yourself.
But you are there, waiting; you are the one who opens her mouth sometimes, as if to let the words out.
The death that is called for is not physical…death, in this case is a metaphor. It means something old must end so a transformation can take place and something new can emerge.
This is what happens when the moth becomes a butterfly.
She will ask, “How do you know this?”
So I Will Tell Her
I knew a young man once; he committed random acts of kindness but his soul could not breathe in this world.
He was born into the worst of circumstances.
He became a “foster-kid”—that was what he called himself.
He was punished for things he never did in ways that are not to be spoken, ever. He, like you, was sexually abused.
There was one time when he had a chance.
He was on his way, with the social worker, to his adoptive home. Before they left the office, the phone rang. There was a death in the adoptive family—the man and the woman they were going to see would not become his parents.
The beginning ended before it began. Foster Kid. No scaffolding built from love to hold him up.
He became a man in body and in years; he suffered on the inside where the abuse had settled.
He went to a psychiatric hospital and it became his family, the scaffolding he never had. But he got better there, so he left.
And then, he returned to the hospital.
This happened over and over. His doctor said, “Here, in this place, he is the best he will ever be.” It was true—and I knew that I would never forget those words.
He was about to leave his hospital family again but one morning while everyone slept, he decided it was time; his soul could not bear the life he was born to.
I dreamed of him the night before his end.
We were on a fire escape; the building was burning and he called out a number: it was the time of his death.
I cried for a year, every day.
I cried until I thought there was no water left behind my eyes…there is always more water.
What I Learned
Several years later I met with a wise elder and began to speak of my sadness. He gave me a book, Suicide and the Soul by James Hillman, who, years later, I spent the day with. In the book, Hillman explains that suicide is a mis-take, in meaning making.
The person hears the call for transformation, which involves the death of a part of the self, as a call for physical death.
When I read those words, I knew he was right; this is how I have come to know the things I am writing to you.
The elder, the man who told me to read Hillman’s book, shared a story about something that happened to him; it involves the suicide of a young man.
The elder was giving a lecture on dream interpretation. When he was done, a woman asked to speak with him. Her neighbor, a young man, had killed himself. Though she did not know him very well, after he died, he visited this woman every night in her dreams. He told her the most mundane details about his room, the room inside the house next door, where he lived, before he killed himself.
This continued every night for a year until the anniversary of his death.
On that night, when he visited, he said, “Tell my mother I’m okay, I’m okay where I am, not great, just okay. And tell her I’m sorry. It was a mistake.”
Note: While writing this post, I discovered that James Hillman died in October, 2011 at the age of eight-five. He is, however, still teaching me about life and for that I am truly grateful.
Dr. Anne Perschel is a leadership and business psychologist who also works as a clinical psychologist with a small number of private patients.
Editor: Bryonie Wise
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