Deciphering Suicide

I’ve been reluctant to write about suicide as it’s a vast and complicated topic that extends beyond a single blog post; to write about suicide from one perpective inevitably calls to mind another perspective, another angle, another mindset. But suicide is in the news due to the recent celebrity deaths and, as such, the topic is coming up with my clients and on the Break Free From Relationship Anxiety/Conscious Weddings E-Course forum, so I feel compelled to offer my perspective.

What I offer here is one lens through which to view the suffering that can lead to suicide. By no means do I mean to over-simplify this complicated topic or appear trite, but I share this perspective in the hopes that it will shed light for you or someone else who may be suffering. Sometimes one crack of light is what we need to create a shift that leads to a new direction. The most important piece is to reach out for help. One phone call can change a life and, in many cases, save a life. 

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The recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have brought this painful topic to the forefront of consciousness, and has left us asking many difficult questions, most pressingly, “Why? Why did they take their lives?” For the sensitive among us, an immediate follow-up question is: “If they could take their life, why won’t I?” This points to one of the challenges of being a highly sensitive person, which is that you’re more susceptible to absorbing people’s lives. It’s critical to remind yourself here that someone else’s life isn’t your life. If you’re prone to absorbing other people’s stories, this article may help. When someone commits suicide, we’re also left with a hundred mostly unanswerable questions, which is the bane of the anxious mind that seeks certainly and definite conclusions. As always, I take a four-realm approach as I seek to decipher and decode the topic of suicide.

First, we address the physical realm. My first internship twenty years ago was at the Crisis Center in the Bay Area where I was asked to co-lead a group for survivors of suicide (people who had lost a loved one to suicide). The most startling aspect of their stories was that their loved ones shared a common thread: they had all been on an increasingly complicated cocktail of medications to the point where their brain chemistry had been significantly altered. In other words, they were no longer in control of their thoughts, and the thought of suicide, which perhaps had entered at some point in their life (as it does for most people), took over. While medication can certainly help people move out of a rough spot – and for some people taking medication is the most loving action they can take when they’re in the depths of despair – when one medication is replaced with another and then another we turn normal and manageable mental pain into a chemically-altered torture chamber. By no means am I suggesting that everyone who commits suicide is on medication, but it’s an important piece of the puzzle that needs to be understood.

Next, we address the cognitive realm: everyone has suicidal thoughts at some point; it’s part of being human and struggling with the pain and suffering that are an inextricable part of our reality. As I discuss on my blog and in depth in my course on relationship anxiety, just because you have a thought doesn’t mean it’s true and just because you have a feeling doesn’t mean you need to act on it. Thoughts and feelings of every variety are normal, even and especially those that we consider “dark.” We have violent thoughts. We have inappropriate thoughts. We have thoughts that we think we could never share with another human being for fear of what they might think of us, but if we lived in a culture where these thoughts were shared more regularly they wouldn’t fester into shame, which causes them to redouble their efforts to get your attention and alert you to the other places inside that need your attention.

From what I’ve read about Anthony Bourdain, he suffered from regret and guilt about past actions, which I imagine were placeholders for the wells of pain the stemmed from earlier times in his life. It seems that he believed that he was a “bad” person and deserved to die. I know from working with suicidal clients and course members that this is a common thought, but that when someone is able to reach out for help and take in a therapist’s or friends affirmation of their goodness, eventually those thoughts begin to wither. It’s the thoughts/beliefs about one’s badness that need to die, not the person as a whole. 

These leads us the third realm of Self: our emotional realm. When you have the thought, “I want to die” it doesn’t mean it’s time to die or that you want to end your life; it means that a part of you wants to die. It means that you’re looking for a way out of your pain and suffering. It means that you want the pain to die. This is where all of the work that you’ve done around attending to your parts of Self (if you’ve taken any of my courses or are engaged in your own inner work from a depth psychological perspective) comes into play: if you can engage with the part of you that wants to die and recognize that a part of you is dying, you will move through a layer of darkness. The part that wants to die is the part that’s suffering. This is what needs your attention.

This isn’t to say that those who recently took their life didn’t seek help; I’m sure they did, and, again, I can’t pretend to understand what led them to commit suicide. But what I can tell you is that the more you learn to meet your emotional life with curiosity and compassion, hopefully with the help of a skilled guide, the less you will suffer. As Robert Johnson writes in Living Your Unlived Life, “To suffer creatively is to allow what is, to stop fighting it, and instead to affirm your life… Such experience is redemptive in that it leads to healing and self-knowledge.”

Like all thoughts, thoughts of suicide can become intrusive, and if you don’t understand how to work with thoughts you’ll fall into the cultural trap of taking them at face value. Thoughts are metaphors and alarm bells, and they’re not to be taken literally. This where we enter the fourth realm of Self: the realm of soul, as it’s soul that speaks in the language of metaphor and urges us toward our next layer of healing. As you know if you’re familiar with my work, this is what distinguishes my approach for working with intrusive thoughts from many others: not only do I see intrusive thoughts as a flare sent up from the inner self asking for, no demanding, your attention (the thoughts are so alarming that it’s impossible to ignore them), but I also see them as calls from the Self for integration, calling in the only way it knows how: through metaphor. Just like death in dreams is “the most reliable symbol for psycho-spiritual change,” as Jeremy Taylor says, so intrusive thoughts, including thoughts of death, are indicators that the soul is ready to grow and integrate to a new level of consciousness. In this sense, we must interpret an intrusive thought the way we would interpret a dream and not take any element of it at face value but instead dig deeper until we unearth the metaphor and, thus, the true meaning that is longing to be known.

Let’s turn to dreamworker Jeremy Taylor here for more guidance on how to release ourselves from the habit of taking life, dreams, and thoughts at face value and instead read them in terms of metaphor. As he writes in an article called “Suicide” in the Dreams of Recovering Addicts: 

“Let me offer an example of how dangerous mistaken literalism in understanding the emotions in a dream can be. If a recovering addict, of any sort, remembers dreaming about “suicide,” it is paradoxically one of the most positive dreams a person in that circumstance can have and remember, regardless of the initial emotional impact of the dream experience.

“At the ever-present Gestalt level, “death” in the dream world is a universal symbol of the total withdrawal of life energy from some aspect of the structure of multiple “sub-personalities” which compose the “I,” the dreamer’s waking sense of “self.” For a dreamer caught up in the struggle with addictive behavior(s), “suicide” is a symbolic indicator that the “addict” within is actually prepared to “give up” – to “sacrifice” the addictive pattern of behavior — that is, to totally withdraw all the life energy that fueled the addiction, and to accomplish this by an act of focused conscious choice, will, and sustained attention.

“Only the sub-personality of “the addict” can withdraw life energy from the addiction. All the other layers of awareness, the sub-personalities who were opposed to the behavior from the very beginning, and who have been protesting its continuation all along, by themselves have been, and, (without the cooperation of the “addict”), will remain totally unable to bring about the desired change in behavior. For this reason, actually reaching the point of being prepared and willing to do the work of giving up an addictive pattern of behavior is a universally recognizable form of symbolic (dream/nightmare) “suicide.”

“However, in the situation described above, it is very likely that the still-addicted dreamer who dreams of “suicide” will have attempted to recover previously – probably multiple times – and failed each time… In such a situation, the dreamer is also likely to be struggling desperately – awake and asleep – in an extremely distressed and depressed state of mind – not at all confident about his/her ability to overcome the addictive behavior. This is very often the case in waking life when these archetypal dreams of “suicide” appear.

“All too often, the suffering dreamer awakens from such a nightmare with feelings of failure, inadequacy, guilt, and shame, hopelessness, and despair — feelings that seem to be overwhelming… “I can’t do this! I can’t go on like this! Even my dreams are telling me to commit suicide…!” — and the tortured soul actually makes an attempt to end his or her own life — when, paradoxically, the dream of “suicide” is actually announcing at a symbolic level that this time, the effort to rid him/herself of the addiction is actually moving forward and has every likelihood of succeeding…!

“In this regard, I learned a great lesson from the Jungian author and analyst, Robert Johnson. I have shared a podium with Robert on a number of occasions, and heard and watched him deliver an introductory speech that he often gives, emphasizing the profound value and importance of paying attention to dreams and waking fantasies when making important life decisions. On one occasion, at the end of an iteration of this talk at an Episcopalian retreat center, I watched and listened as a clearly distressed and depressed young person asked him for clarification on this point.

“Robert responded that, yes, that was indeed what he was advocating: every person facing an important life decision should pay particular attention to the suggestions and implications of his/her remembered dreams and fantasies.

“…But Dr. Johnson!” the youth replied, “my dreams and fantasies are all telling me to kill myself! Surely you are not telling me I should kill myself…!?”

“Ahhh!” Robert replied, leaning forward, his posture reflecting his serious and caring tone, “If that’s the case, then, yes, by all means, kill yourself!”

At this point in his discourse, Trickster Robert paused and took a long sip from the glass of water provided for him on the podium. During that pause, I observed audience members responding with facial expressions and body postures reflecting shock and disbelief, accompanied by gasps and other expostulations of surprise and dismay… Then Robert set the glass back down on the podium and completed his unfinished sentence: “but do not harm your body!”

No one laughed, but the atmosphere of sudden relieved amazement and surprise in the room was palpable…

“By all means, kill yourself, but do not harm your body!” is in my experience absolutely the best advice that anyone contemplating suicide can receive.

“I personally witnessed Dr. Johnson deliver this teaching, in this profoundly memorable, archetypal “Trickster” fashion, and I do not believe that anyone in that room, particularly including the suicidal young man, will ever forget it!

“Since that experience, I have also had occasion myself to offer versions of this same piece of transpersonal “waking-dreamwork” to suicidal clients, (most often suicidal adolescents, and including more than a handful of deeply distressed and depressed adults), and on all those occasions, I have witnessed this exchange transform these dreamers’ initially limited conscious understandings and emotional responses to their own remembered dream(s) of “suicide,” away from mistakenly literal considerations of actual physical self-destruction, and toward the deeper, ultimately even more difficult, but fundamentally life-affirming task of radical, life-changing, psycho-spiritual self-transformation – the symbolic equivalent of carefully considered “suicide.”

What does this mean in practical terms for someone who is desperate and feeling like they’re at the end of their rope? It means that we understand that thoughts, fantasies, and dreams of suicide are psyche’s way of communicating that something inside needs to die: a belief system, an ego-identity, a pain that is ready to be release into the fire. As humans we’re in constant flux: some part of us dies in order for something else to be reborn. If we can see thoughts of suicide as an opportunity to enter into a new spiral of growth and healing, an edge of suffering may be alleviated enough to take action in a new direction.

The bottom line is that suicide isn’t the answer. We all suffer. We all hurt. We all want to escape the pain of being human from time to time. When we can take the thoughts or dreams about suicide out of the realm of literalism and begin to work at a deep level of heart and soul, shifts occur and spaces open up. And, by all means, if you are suicidal, please reach out for support to your therapist, a trusted friend, or a suicide hotline. Your life matters. You matter. Every time you endure a dark night of the soul, you emerge with more light to give to yourself, and ultimately, to the world. We need you.

In the US:

1-800-273-8255

In the UK:

Samaritans (08457 90 90 90) operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. If you prefer to write down how you are feeling, or if you are worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org.

21 comments to Deciphering Suicide

  • agnes-pea

    Thank you xxx

  • Katelyn

    Thank you so much for this Sheryl! I spent years in relationship anxiety and this has been my topic of anxiety for about a year now. I personally went on medication when this began, and it really has helped me through a lot. It’s allowed me to do the emotional work, go to school, socialize etc. For anyone reading this who feels hopeless, like there’s no way out, there is. I promise there is, someway, somehow, you’ll make it through. Xoxo

  • Ginny

    This is so moving and sad and wonderful all at once. It is an incredible perspective to view this challenging topic from. Forever thankful I discovered you Sheryl.

  • Ratnamegha

    Dear Sheryl,
    Whatever you have said about the soul seeking attention wanting to integrate and to grow and heal is so true.what really needs to die is a part of your identity.i loved this article

  • Chandana

    It is powerful to read this out aloud – ‘Everyone has suicidal thoughts at some point; it’s part of being human..’
    We are forever downplaying or dismissing our ‘low points’ to put our best selves forward in society, all the while suppressing these very vital parts of ourselves. It is disheartening to now realize that I was taught/ encouraged to do this time and again by adults growing up- parents, teachers etc. And only now am I breaking out of the shell.. thank you for your insights, they are reassuring and very helpful

    • You’ve articulated something very important, Chandana: our culture carries a very strong stigma and taboo about talking about suicide. I write about many taboo topics on my blog, but perhaps none moreso than suicidal thoughts. It’s a conversation that clearly needs to be opened up.

  • Lyndsey

    I can relate to this post so much! Growing up, the schools I went to had suicide prevention assemblies for all the students… They would tell us stories about kids that did end up committing suicide and it’s so awful! I remember being absolutely scared to death for YEARS that I would eventually take my own life despite the fact everything was going so smoothly in my life at the time. I would think that because I was worried about it so much that I was suicidal too!

    Thank you so much for this post! I’m quite the definition of a highly sensitive person!

  • Angela

    Dear Sheryl,
    Thats such a powerful read. I think and believe we all have thoughts of suicide, its just normal, its a part of being human. People who have thought of suicide because the huge stresses of life, which come from endless reasons. Abuse, losing a loved one and so on. It dosent mean because they took their life, we must do the same. Absolutely we are not our thoughts. From experience medication is the biggest cause of suicide thoughts. Nobody on this planet wants to end their life. its the drugs that are in control. I have been on meds for a long time. Antideppressants did help me initially from committing suicide. But the first thing that helped me was reaching out for help. Which was when i hit rock bottom. It was a wakening experience for me. Years later i still feel i need a bit of medication to take the edge off things. I do feel addicted to meds, i am so affraid to come off them due to the vital fact that im so terrified of getting a nervous break down again. The drug is in my system. Meds often help but also take over your thoughts. Very powerful, its a very dangerous game. I cried when Anthony Bourdain died. I watched his food shows. He was a beautiful man. Loneliness plus drugs are always at fault. Depression is a nasty disorder. When you dont have family support around you, life is tough. What we all want and need is love. Thats the answer.

  • Angie

    Thank you so much for this post, Sheryl. This topic has been a huge trigger for me as suicide is something that I fear will just happen to me. I have done a lot of work through counselling and CBT and continue to trust that they’re just intrusive thoughts and not something I actually want to do. I appreciate your honest opinion on this as it allows me to see my struggle with this topic in a different light. Thank you!

  • Jen

    Thank you for this post, Sheryl. I was so disturbed by the news of both Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade’s suicides, and, as a highly sensitive person, had the disturbing thought of “if these two creative and lively people could take their lives, could I get to that place one day?”. As always, within the first few sentences of your blog post, I felt soothed and grounded. Thank you for the reminder that intrusive thoughts/feelings are alarm bells and messengers that alert us to the work that needs to be done inside. That idea makes so much sense, but we are so quick to take every thought/feeling literally and spiral because of them. You are a life saver! xo

  • Just wanted to say as a survivor of the death of my stepdaughter last September I have learned much much more than I ever wanted to. The first thing I learned from others is that the wording “commit suicide” can be triggering to many and now me too. The word commit sounds like, “He commited a crime,” or “I’m going to have her committed.” Whereas to say, “Completed suicide,” “Took his/her own life, or “Lost to suicide (that one is too vague for me)” is much better. Thanks, Caroine

  • Katie

    Hi Sheryl, thank you for this article. Speaking frankly about suicide is such an important step to removing the stigma, and this is a thoughtful and holistic approach. Despite being a regular reader and really valuing your work, I’ve never commented before – but I did want to pipe up as someone who has worked in crisis intervention/suicide prevention and offer a gentle reminder surrounding the language we use about suicide. Namely, that “commit suicide” is not the preferred nomenclature, as it has the connotation of a crime and can be an additional source of pain for survivors of suicide. xo

    https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/arthur-gallant/talking-about-suicide_b_7849576.html

  • MeadowRose

    Thank you for posting this. This has been my though exactly on suicide for sometime. It’s one Its so hard to express and to explain to people at time. This description was beautifully worded and I love the quote “by all means kill your self but don’t harm your body!” I understand this 100%. I know that when these intrusive thoughts come up for me or for the ones I love that there is always a deeper meaning behind it. A call for help from the soul to let go of the pieces of you that no longer serve you. They must die in order to move forward. And thoughts are just that, thoughts. Take them serious but also take a deeper look at what’s calling to you… thank you for this Sheryl.

  • Vivilonchy

    Sheryl,

    My first thought when I saw the topic of this blog was, I’m afraid to read it as it may trigger my anxiety. I’m so glad I read it because although I feel I conquered my “relationship” anxiety, anxiety still remains and always tries to latch on to the thought about suicide. You put it so beautifully when you said: “if you can engage with the part of you that wants to die and recognize that a part of you is dying, you will move through a layer of darkness.The part that wants to die is the part that’s suffering. This is what needs your attention.”

    Thank you for always sharing your wisdom on the right time!! Blessings to you!

  • Anonymous

    Can you choose which part of you to “kill off”? I don’t want to lose my partner. I really don’t. I want this to work. I want to choose to spend the rest of my life with him. I have chosen that. But my body won’t accept it and it’s killing me. It feels so real that the part of me that wants to die is the part that is trying to stay. The part that I’m choosing and I have chose. It’s like my mind, body and a feeling and a deeper sense of knowing is telling me that the person I want to be needs to die. That means I have to leave. I refuse to. But I’m so stuck. I just don’t know what to do. I just want to stay with my wonderful partner. I want to connect to the love that’s underneath and being blocked. I want to grow it. I want to grow old together. I don’t want to be with anyone else, but I’m not sure. I guess that’s my desperate need for certainty that I can’t seem to shake. You’ve told me if two people want to make it work, they can. From a headspace (like everything else) I believe that. But my body/heart is uncertain. I try to connect to feeling groundless and uncertain, and I don’t seem to get anywhere. There’s still a disconnect. And I’m in so much pain. I cry from this place of pain and it never seems to transform. It’s hard to not interpret it as meaning that just because there’s a part wanting this, that doesn’t mean that’s enough. The other part that I resist seems stronger and clouds my choice and everything else. Blocks me. I’m so scared that I’m incapable of being satisfied in this relationship. Or that there will always be a longing that I can’t shake and meet myself. A longing I don’t know how to grieve or leave it behind? I hope that’s the part the wants to die. I even pray now. I’m just scared that no matter what I do, there’s already a set fate. That I have no say and I’m doomed. You know my story, so hopefully that all makes sense. Any wisdom, insight, you could give would be so great. I’m trying to grow my loving adult. To say no matter what I will be okay. But I don’t want to accept the part that seems to come without words that I have to leave. I try to tell myself that it’s wanting to leave the anxiety, not the relationship. But I don’t know how to get my body to get on board and fully believe it to my core. I’m trying to learn how to have faith. It’s something that’s so foreign to me. I just keep crying to myself saying “I don’t want to leave my relationship”. But my heart is so blocked from connecting and opening up to my partner. Maybe the part that wants to die is the block so I then CAN connect and open up?