Surviving Suicide: The Difference Between Being Spared or Being Saved
I have heard many former alcoholics lightheartedly say, “I’m allergic to alcohol, I break out in handcuffs.” I smile politely and try to forget the more dark and sinister truth of my own addiction; I was prone to drinking and breaking out in suicide attempts.
As I type these words I can feel my anxiety rise, knowing the stigma surrounding suicide (or attempted suicide) surpasses that of addiction or even mental illness.
As I type these words I can feel my anxiety rise, knowing the stigma surrounding suicide (or attempted suicide) surpasses that of addiction or even mental illness..-Jo HarveyIt makes perfect sense; when an individual is suffering from substance abuse or bipolar disorder, there is always hope they may “get better.” Suicide kills that hope, and all that is left is sorrow and confusion, but most of all, fear.
The more afraid society is of an outcome, the more intense the war we wage against it. The idea that someone we love would actually choose to die is unfathomable, and while it’s true countless suicides are a result of intoxication, many others stem from an inherent wish to die. Generally speaking, we struggle to understand suicide in its purest form, unless of course a person is in excruciating physical pain.
Individuals suffering from a debilitating illness often get a pass when seeking assistance in ending their life, but so few can understand how someone emotionally diseased could ever want the same escape. However, the mind can’t distinguish between physical and emotional pain, so why can we come to terms with one rational but still stigmatize the other.
I am not suggesting we normalize suicide, but judging, criminalizing and ostracizing individuals who have attempted suicide only reinforces their belief they do not belong.
According to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, when an individual first learns they have a terminal illness, they commonly experience the following Five Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. The Stages were later applied to the grieving process when mourning the death of a loved one, or attempting to move past a symbolic death, such as a breakup or divorce.
Stages of Grief
The Stages not only apply to those grieving a death, but also to those who have attempted to die, but lived.
As I woke up in the hospital from yet another failed attempted suicide, I can assure you my initial defense mechanism was denial, coated with a healthy dose of confusion. I could not believe I had survived.-Jo HarveyWhile learning to embrace and love my shadow side, I am constantly reminded of its power. Suicide felt like the ultimate act of control, born from emotions which were completely uncontrollable. I discovered a dark place in me I hope never to return, where this world seemed too unmanageable and unsafe, where I would live out my ultimate fear, and discover I do not exist.
As I woke up in the hospital from yet another failed attempted suicide, I can assure you my initial defense mechanism was denial, coated with a healthy dose of confusion. I could not believe I had survived. The anger came as I struggled to understand why I was being forced to stay in a world I never felt I belonged to in the first place. Like a hostage locked away in a cruel, unsafe and isolated environment, anger was my only protection. The bargaining came almost immediately, as I laid there and thought “if I must continue to live then please make it more bearable.”
The alcohol I continued to consume fueled my already intense depression. I have heard many people refer to addiction as a form of slow suicide, but for me, the brief comfort it offered kept me alive. The only thing I had to look forward to was the illusion that drinking would make me happy, the way it once did, a very long time ago.
Vulnerability Creeps In
The most vulnerable time for someone struggling with addiction is often when the substance stops working, and we can’t achieve the same high or level of numb. While under the influence of alcohol, I was lured towards death; the poison drowning out and silencing the part of me that fought for survival. I was pelted with recurring themes of acceptance and surrender, but not given instructions on how to attain them. I remember asking myself Give what? To whom? And how? I had no clue what acceptance meant or how to achieve it, but viewed suicide as the final surrender.
I am still amazed at the grace I was shown on multiple occasions. I had no respect for the fragility of life, and saw it through the same lens as Neil Gaiman, who once said “Life is a disease: sexually transmitted, and invariably fatal.” Only through confronting my death was I able to eventually appreciate my life. I had always seen my existence as a chore, and felt extreme pressure to achieve greatness, and earn my place in this world. The pressure to live an incredible life was the same pressure that originally caused me to seek solace in numbing out. I had to learn that the antithesis of surrender is trying to make it happen.
As helping professionals, we are trained most often to focus on our client’s ambivalence, but my problem wasn’t that I simultaneously wanted to live and to die, my problem was that I didn’t care. A lack of passion is fatal, and it was my apathy that almost killed me.-Jo Harvey
Survivors’ guilt flares up on occasion and I find myself asking why I was saved while so many others have not been so fortunate. While reading the story of Immaculee Ilibagiza, a Tutsi refugee who hid in a bathroom for three months during the Rwanda genocide, I came across the answer; “There is a difference between being spared and being saved.”
The pressure to perform is what held me captive for so many years, and as helping professionals we may self-impose a similar pressure when trying to help clients escape the clutches of depression. I want to go back into hiding when the familiar voice from deep inside of me whispers “You were saved for a reason.” It’s then I remind myself the reason is not mine to discover, its mine to allow to unfold.
We can live in peace not as the fixer, the healer, or the dreamer, but rather, the dream.
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