I’ve been thinking a lot about suicide lately. Before you freak out, I’m not contemplating it this time but pondering the reasons why people attempt it and why they should choose to stay alive in the midst of great struggle. This week’s episode of Chicago Fire ended with the suicide of (spoiler alert!) a young woman whose overbearing father did everything in his power to keep her from living out her life’s dream as a firefighter.
Earlier in the episode, a young man jumped from an indoor bridge, attempting to take his life as well. He was caught in mid-air by a firefighter who had strapped himself to the building. As the two slowly belayed down to the ground the young man pleaded, “Don’t drop me!”
Some may find this strange– wasn’t he just trying to kill himself? Why would he beg to not be let go? It is because, as psychologist Jennifer Michael Hecht explains in her recent On Being podcast interview, “Suicide is tremendously impulsive.”
Dr. Hecht goes on to describe studies of people who tried to jump off a bridge to commit suicide. If the person went to a bridge with a suicide barrier that prevented them from jumping they didn’t go find another bridge off of which to jump; they went home. I’ve often wondered how many people have crossed that threshold of no return and thought to themselves, “Oh shit, what have I done?!”
A friend recently told me of a story she heard of a man who jumped off a bridge and lived. The moment he saw his hands letting go of the railing he immediately regretted his decision. My therapist recounted similar stories of clients who, after they crossed the threshold, had intense regret. How many people have felt this and died?
Since suicide is deeply impulsive, the temptation to do it comes and goes even in the midst of the worst depression. It is hard to see beyond the depression when you are in it and even harder to believe that you have ever or will ever feel differently. But we human beings are blessed with a range of emotions and “have different moods that profoundly change our outlook and it’s not right to let your worst one murder all the others,” Dr. Hecht explains.
We’ve all heard (or perhaps given) reasons for people to stay, to not go through with killing themselves. Many of the ones that I heard are religious (“It’s like slapping God in the face!”) or naive (“You’ll feel better soon, just you wait!”) or guilt-trippy (“You are being incredibly selfish!”). But the ones with the greatest impact on me are these: stay for those you love and stay for yourself.
As Dr. Hecht puts it, “You owe it to other people and you owe it to your future self to stay alive. Life is worth living– this absurd strange thing should be witnessed and it’s vital that you, essentially, have some respect for your future self who’s going to know things you don’t know.”
When I think back on my own suicide attempt (six years ago this month), I think about how much more I know now about myself, about life, about those I love. I think about how much I’ve changed and how happy I am now. And I’m beyond relieved I did not cross the point of no return that day. The impulsive decision I made based on deep yet fleeting emotions could have prevented me from experiencing the full, beautiful life I am today.
And I know my past self and my future self are so glad I chose to stay.
“Let me say right now for the record, I’m still gonna be here asking this world to dance, even if it keeps stepping on my holy feet. You, you stay here with me, okay? You stay here with me.” – Andrea Gibson