What It’s Like To Be Suicidal

Guest post by Luftmentsch (pseudonym)

I died recently.  Several times.  Mostly in shul (synagogue), but sometimes elsewhere.  By stabbing, shooting, beating and hanging.  Vivid images in my head, whether I want them there or not, all telling me that I should go, that I’m worthless, that no one cares about me, that I’m doing no good in this world, that things can only get worse, that I should just end it.  Images so vivid I won’t relate them in greater detail for fear of upsetting people.

This is suicidal ideation, a mental preoccupation with suicide.  It doesn’t mean that a person wants to commit suicide, although some people who suffer from it do go on to do so.  It is generally associated with mental illness, particularly clinical depression, which I have suffered from for virtually all my adult life.

Suicidal ideation is different to making a suicide attempt, but I have been there too, more or less, ten years ago.  It is hard to describe to a non-suicidal person what makes someone sit down and decide to end it.  It is like the world fills with darkness with the possibility of death the only light.  Everything else seems unbearably painful or even physically impossible.  It is almost impossible to focus on your loved ones, achievements, interests or hopes for the future, because they all seem false or just impossibly distant.  Death becomes the only relief.  Indeed, dying becomes a good deed, the only way of easing not just your suffering, but the suffering of everyone who has to unwillingly endure your existence, which is how social interactions seem if you’re this depressed.

I am not sure what stopped me taking the pills and made me phone someone for help instead.  It is possible that I didn’t want to die, but wanted to make a failed suicide attempt, to cry for help.  This is different to a cry for attention.  I had been ignored and belittled for so long, far, far back into childhood, that I didn’t know how to ask for help any other way.  I was self-harming at that time as well and that was certainly a cry for help.  It was as if I had no words to call for help, so I wanted to carve my pain on my body instead.  But no one even noticed.  Or maybe they did, but they were too embarrassed, confused or downright scared to help.  Since that time the ideation has sometimes been strong, but I have never come so close to the point of attempting to kill myself.

Even the greatest of people have struggled with wanting to die.  Winston Churchill never stood near the edge of a railway platform or the deck of a ship for fear that one moment of despair would lead to him ending his life.  When Abraham Lincoln fell into deep depression in his twenties, he spoke of suicide; his worried friends kept a suicide watch on him for several weeks.  Even in Tanakh we find people who longed to die.  The prophets Yonah (Jonah) and Eliyahu (Elijah) both prayed to die because they thought they had failed in their missions (Jonah 4.3, I Kings 19.4).  Even Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher), the greatest of all the prophets, prayed to die because he thought he was a failure (Numbers 11.15).

I wish I could find an easy piece of wisdom or moral to conclude this.  A story of how my life miraculously got better due to religion or somesuch.  In reality, though I am frum (orthodox) and Judaism is a huge part of my life, I have to acknowledge that religion can’t cure mental illness.  Nor does Judaism’s prohibition on suicide serve to safeguard a person against such thoughts or actions.  Halakha (Jewish law) assumes mental health.  Mental illness warps a person’s way of looking at the world, so trying to think like a sane person becomes impossible.  When I am very depressed and having suicidal thoughts I know that suicide is wrong and against halakha.  I just don’t care – I feel that I have done so many bad things in my life that one more thing won’t matter.  I feel that my suffering is so intense that Gehennom can’t be worse.

But somehow I continue.  I wish I knew how.  I have only one clue.  The psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said that a sense of meaning and purpose in your life helps you endure almost anything.  If this was true for Frankl in Auschwitz, it is surely true elsewhere.  For me, that purpose was at times religious: the belief that G-d put me here for a reason, that my suffering has a purpose in G-d’s plan even if I don’t understand it.  At other times it was empathic: a desire to spare my family the pain of my violent and premature death.  According to Frankl, for other people meaning might be a philosophical belief or the desire to continue some important activity (a vocation, art, science, caring for someone, etc.).

I don’t like giving advice, and I wouldn’t dare generalize from my own experience, but to someone else experiencing suicidal thoughts I would say: find the one thing that keeps you alive and cling to it as hard as you can.  One mental health website suggests putting together a ‘memory box’ of things with positive associations (e.g. favourite CDs, photos of loved ones) to look through at times of suicidal ideation.  This focus on the positive is hard.  All the light in a suicidal person’s life is snuffed out and searching for a spark to rekindle it is nigh impossible. And yet it is essential.  As Moshe Rabbeinu, who, as noted above, experienced utter despair himself urged, “Choose life, that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30.19).

  • IWearThisCrownOfThorns

    What if there is nothing to cling to? If every moment is torture and pain and even the things you used to love bring no happiness? When even sleep brings dreams that are more terrifying than reality? What then?

    • ChaimJ

      Ask someone for help.. it is not about providing a solution but you do not have to be alone.

      • IWearThisCrownOfThorns

        I asked a lot of people for help. When people are unwilling to recognize the source of your problems or provide you with the tools to overcome them you can not get help. The world is full of people who just spout nonsense about keeping your chin up and if you just try harder you are about to get over the mountain OR they insist the solution to everything is to be medicated INSTEAD of recognizing that someone is the victim of years of abuse, neglect, and poverty and that their problems are real. All there is a darkness from which I can not extricate myself because I don’t have the mean to escape the trap or better my situation. For people like me there is nothing.

        • Then keep talking, keep looking. Never give up.
          Keep looking for more people to talk to, keep reaching out. The world IS so full of people who spew non-sense, but there are many people who don’t.
          Don’t stop until you find them,
          There is something for you. I promise.
          Your words could have been my words years back.
          But I want to tell you that there is hope. Never. Stop. Talking.

          • Shoshannah

            You can do whatever you want. That includes ending the body you live in. A soul, however, is life. It lives. It remains long past the decay of the dust we drive called a body. You can’t kill yourself. It’s impossible. Self is soul. So what do you need? When you receive advice from people who are purely speculating from their own experiences, it may or may not help you. What do YOU need? What do YOU need to talk about? What help do YOU require? Ask yourself what visions of hapiness you want to achieve; what do you need and who do you need to help you get there? Forget the blah-blah-blah responses. You are obviously critically focused on you or you would not be reaching out. We are here to help. G-d needs you. We need you. So let’s talk.

          • Shoshannah

            Sorry Sheera I am not so good at navigating this reply button thing!

          • IWearThisCrownOfThorns

            I want a bed to sleep on and nutritious food to eat and a quiet room that is far far away from my family. And a job where I am not abused by my employer.

          • Shoshannah

            I respect your privacy. I just spoke with a lovely woman at Help Guide who urged me to give you the number. It is 800-273-8255. I strongly encourage calling them; they are trained specifically to help you. I am not. But if you just need someone to listen, you can also email me at shoshannah@sugarbottomfarm.com – Obviously I do not know your name, but I know that the pain associated with your plight must feel very overwhelming. Please, no matter what you think of yourself or situation, remind yourself that G-d created you specifically for a need He has. If Hashem says you’re worth more than words can describe, you are. Hashem does not lie. There is help available; you CAN get through this.

        • Shoshannah

          I posted a reply but unfortunately I replied to a reply. Anyway, I am here.

    • Hi, IWearThisCrownOfThorns. The writer of this post (Luftmentsch) sent me a comment to post anonymously for him. Here it is:

      I am sorry to hear you are suffering so badly. There have been times when I have felt that bad and I know how terrible it feels. I am wary of saying anything lest it appear trite, but I wanted to respond to you in some way, however inadequate.

      Viktor Frankl, who I mentioned in my post, added another way to deal with suffering, namely to accept it and try to bear it with dignity. This is not easy, but it can give a person ownership of his or her feelings rather than feeling controlled by them, particularly if there is no way of dealing with the suffering at this time.

      You mention people who “insist the solution to everything is to be medicated” and you are right that medication alone won’t resolve underlying issues. However, it can be a start in getting stable and into a position to find other ways of coping. There is no shame in taking psychiatric medication any more so than there is shame in taking any other type of medication.

      I think talking therapies are important. I do not know if you have tried them as you do not say. If you have, I would suggest trying a different therapist or a different type of therapy if possible – there are a variety of types of therapies out there (CBT, psychodynamic, gestalt therapy, logotherapy etc.) and a different one may be more successful for you.

      Occupational therapy can also be effective in finding a new reason to live. Doing voluntary work, perhaps under the care of an occupational therapist, can renew one’s interest in the world by showing a person that he or she can make a difference.

      I hope that this does not all sound simplistic and irrelevant. I can only describe what worked for me when I was feeling very despairing. Different people react in different ways. I hope you find renewed meaning in your life soon.

  • Chana

    People that have never been depressed will just never understand. Nobody chooses to be depressed, or for that matter nobody truly wants to die. Such thoughts are only entertained when the person’s resources with which to deal with the situation are exhausted and the person feels they have nothing left to live for, and simply can no longer cope with the pain. Telling people in this situation to just “get help” is not at all helpful. If they were able to get help, they would have done so. Many simply don’t have the resources (emotional, financial etc) to get the help they need. So it looks like suicide is the only route out, unfortunately.

    • I disagree strongly that it’s wrong to encourage people who are depressed, and especially suicidal, to get help. It’s true they may have seeked help in the past, but many have also given up trying and support from others, done positively, can motivate them to get the help they desperately need. That is why suicide hotlines exist. It’s also why therapists and clinics exist. To say that we shouldn’t encourage them to receive expert help is not only wrong, it’s incredibly dangerous.

      That being said, I agree we shouldn’t say “get help” in an off-handed way to avoid dealing with the situation. But we are not experts, and it is our obligation to help them find help with all our effort. When they are suicidal, how much more so. Finances should be no issue in such a situation, especially… whatever can be done should be done to help.

      • Chana

        Encourage and dismiss a person’s pain by saying, “just get help, all will be fine” are 2 very different things. I agree that people should encourage others to get help, but only if they truly care and will help the person get the help they need.

  • J. Rachel

    Wow. Thanks to the author for sharing and to Elad for passing this on.

    Had an eerie, deja vu-type feeling as I was reading because I could relate so much to what you are describing, even down to your one “clue” from Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”, and the words (and ideas) from Deuteronomy. Literally, those have been the two things for me. Was raised as a Christian. Really, thank you.

    Also wanted to say, can really relate to what you’re saying, IWearThisCrownOfThorns. For me, lately I’ve found encouragement and support through an online support group for ab*se survivors struggling with… pretty much anything… has helped me even when it was so hard to find anyone in real life. Gonna leave the URL here, (but I’m sure there are others out there) in case it’s something that you would want to check out – if you see this. It’s http://www.fortrefuge.com Anyways… hope you are OK. Take care.

  • artist cc

    I too suffered from major depressive anxiety disorder and was miraculously healed. i suffered from a mild grade for over forty years then my father was hit with major depression at the age of 61, he didn’t see his 62nd birthday. I did not understand and thought because he was in my care I had some blame in his passing. i did not know what he was gong through and remember telling him to watch t.v., read a book, go for a walk do something to change your mind set. Well, the day came when I too would have to be tested and hit me like a ton of bricks in my late forties. Diagnosis Major depression and anxiety disorder. medication after medication, nothing worked. changed my diet, and exercise which helped but not the episodes of complete agony! after 2 years of battling….it was over. not overnight but drastically reduced then gone for good! The only way I could now get people to understand what it’s like is this: remember when you had severe pain from banging a body part, imagine that severe pain lasting for days and try reading a book. the two can’t be done together. Your pain takes over the capability of focusing on reading. For those of you that read this and have this disorder please note their is hope and it helped me to know that there are people out there that have been healed. I am truly one of them. So get out of your home and take up running, cycling, swimming or something that gets your heart rate up for those feel good endorphins and get your nutrition squared away, this helped me tremendously! I took up cycling and it was the best thing I ever did…Praise the Lord Jesus Christ!

  • Selina Simmons

    I think it sad that people see that the only answer they have for you when you reach the point of thinking it is just too hard – “pull yourself together” or “stop being stupid”!! Why can’t they just see that you have gotten to the end of being able to cope, and it has taken all of you to say “I am over it, I don’t know that I can go on”??!!! Why can’t there just be an end to this awful pain called life?!

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