When someone goes through the process of enrolling in counseling services, the question is always asked.
“Are you experiencing any suicidal thoughts?”
From my experience within the mental health system, and through my education in psychology, I know that this must be answered carefully. Typically, I just say no. Generally, they ask if you have a plan for suicide, or access to any weapons that may be used for self-harm. My answer to that is unequivocally “no”, but the thoughts… they still linger.
In today’s American culture, we have sculpted the notion that having suicidal thoughts directly points to some sort of mental illness, one that must be urgently treated and intervened with, and the goal is to immediately put a full-stop to any sort of suicidal ideation.
This isn’t realistic, and it is particularly damaging to what I like to call “intellectual suicidal inquiry.” The notion of suicide isn’t always founded upon a negative mental affliction, but as a result of deep contemplation upon reality and the effect of one’s actions in that reality. Often, intellectual suicidal inquiry begins as a hypothetical. I remember from a young age, challenging the notion of “having” to do something. A friend of mine retorted, “well, if someone is holding a gun to your head and says you HAVE to do something, then you HAVE to do it!” I argued that that wasn’t true, that you still didn’t HAVE to, but you would have to understand the potential consequences and face them based upon what choice you made. A bit dark of a subject for a couple of nine year olds, but I digress.
The hypothetical extremes began to take shape in my mind. Linguistic interpretation, critical thinking, and colloquialisms became the focus for me in every conversation. I asked my mother about hypotheticals all the time. I’m positive I almost drove her crazy. When she could not satisfy my need for answers, the introspective inquiry continued, one of the subjects being that of killing myself. I attempted to formulate a clause— “If I kill myself, then…” If A, then… B? C? X Y Z? I did not know. I could not know. I could come up with an infinite number of possibilities, but the fact was that it was impossible for me to know. You know that saying, that we always want what we can’t have? I wanted the truth, the answer, one that I could not plausibly obtain myself, and thus, my fixation began.
Was I truly suicidal from a young age? I’m not sure. I don’t think so. I don’t recall experiencing vast amounts of existential pain until later in adolescence. I truly think I was simply participating in (what has become) a lifelong thought experiment about the ultimate question— “what happens when we die?”
Once I became older, my intellectual suicidal inquiry took a dark turn. In the scientific method, after the hypothesis is formulated, the next step is to collect data. I began to treat suicide as a real, legitimate option, rather than a distant speculation. I think part of me wanted to feel like I had the potential to contribute to humanity in some great way, so that perhaps I would be able to find the answer to this existential question and share it with the world. I was willing to sacrifice myself entirely for the sake of the truth. This, of course, was completely fallacious, but I trusted no one else to give me real concrete data on their experiences, and the dead were unfortunately not available for any interrogation.
Killing myself became the “B” of many clauses. “If some unbearable or miserable experience continues to occur (A), then… (B) I will end my own life.” It made perfect sense in my mind, the option was available, and like I learned when I was younger, our life is ultimately all about the choices we make based on the circumstances around us. Suicide was simply an option on the list of choices. Growing up, I can say I fit into the “tragic and misunderstood artist” trope, which led me through several years of slowly integrating into a life of loneliness, substance abuse, and impulsivity. Suicide existed as my final escape in every scenario. It gave me a false sense of authority through the illusion of control over my most indisputable attribute—my own existence.
A. Suffer needlessly
B. Kill myself
C. Other (___?)
Spoiler: the answer is C, but it took me a while (years) to fill in the blank.
Nobody in my life had ever persuaded me to think that suicide wasn’t a legitimate option. I managed to slip through most of my life without hearing much rhetoric that condemned the act of suicide. That while it was sad and tragic, it happened sometimes, seemingly an “it is what it is” type of thing. Plus, everyone dies eventually, and suicide was just that— a singular form of the inevitable fate that hovers over all of us. I had not applied a moral position to the act of killing oneself, nor had I considered it necessary.
Despite my obsession with dictation over my own death, I only ever passively acted suicidal. To clarify, for the sake of this essay, my focus is on actively committing suicide, or intentionally causing the cessation of one’s own life by means of direct and self-inflicted means. I was reckless and an instigator, accepting the foreseeable consequences of the danger I was constantly putting myself in, but there was something disturbing about actively taking my own life. Anytime I felt like it was “the day”, I was never able to follow through with my plan. There was always something internally holding me back. The existential pain stayed though, and I became very spiritually ill—this is the heart of addictive behavior.
There are three commonly accepted world views that may explain what it is that held me back. Firstly, there’s the analogical worldview, most commonly associated with monotheistic religions, containing a reflection of divine wisdom and a god of top-down power. Time exists linearly, with a beginning, a middle and an end, typically concluding with eternal salvation. Perhaps it was an omniscient god that was holding me back, telling me that my story was not over yet and stopping my interference with destiny. There also exists the analytical worldview, where there is no god, no cosmic meaning, and based through a reductionistic and purely scientific lens. Perhaps it was through evolutionary chance that I couldn’t follow through with suicide. It was against the necessity to prolong my life on a genetic level that made the idea of killing myself so perturbing. The view that I think held off my suicidal ideation for so long though is the third, the anticipatory worldview, where consciousness is the axis of all meaning and there exists a cosmic hope of the universe continuing to unfold into something more perfect than each passing moment of before. Killing myself would remove all opportunity for me to uncover more truth and help more people. Perhaps, killing myself was simply not the best option anymore.
Every major world religion offers some sort of eternal hope, albeit in different forms. Suicide is not a viable path to this hope in any of these religions. Some religious views make it clear that suicide is the exact opposite of a moral choice leading to spiritual redemption, such as Christianity and Islam. Some views don’t directly condemn the act but make it clear that it won’t lead you away from the inevitable suffering of existence, such as Buddhism and Hinduism. Some atheistic and agnostic views also don’t condemn it and express compassion to those who do follow through. And while these views don’t offer a metaphysical landscape of liberation, they offer one in an earthly matter, highlighting that the act of suicide removes the opportunity of things improving in ways that one may not be able to imagine in their moment(s) of pain.
Additionally, there are a handful of views of “immortality”, and many beliefs, both religious and secular, that claim people never truly die. Immortality can be through resurrection or reincarnation, through living on in the spirit-world, through being reintegrated within the context of atomistic matter and/or consciousness energy, or the idea of living on through memory or lasting sentimental objects, such as writings, art, music, journals, or even commonplace items. I’ve never found myself believing in simple annihilation, and something within me became continually uncomfortable with the idea of being a long-term, painful memory for my loved ones and within my community. I also wondered about the chance that one of the other views of the afterlife was true. What if I was wrong? Was that a gamble I was willing to take? Did I have enough information to make a sensible cost-benefit analysis of this? Through more studying I learned that, no, I did not.
My early sobriety was painful. I had spent a long time attempting to convince myself that suicide was the only way out of suffering. I talked myself in circles for years, and having my argument shut down hundreds of times by some of the world’s most fruitful thinkers, scholars, and spiritual leaders was frankly exhausting. I had to open myself up to the idea of other options, because addiction was a very long and lonely road to the inevitable death that we all face. I found myself incapable of killing myself, and I no longer wanted to contribute to needless suffering as long as I was alive, both for myself and for others. More options began revealing themselves, and day-by-day, suicide got bumped further and further down the list. It was a violent shake to my perception of reality to exist in the experimental transformation from “I’ve lived long enough” to “I’m not sure I have enough time.”
I’ve come to the conclusion that ending my own life will take away my potential to create more meaning, internally and externally. I’ve found that the anticipation of death provides a powerful sense of urgency, since it is so unforeseeable and could truly happen at any moment. By letting go of my need for control, I open myself up to valuable possibilities that would simply not be possible if I were dead. By allowing myself to be in submission to reality, whether that is God, the universe, or nothing but human experience, rather than an egotistical attempt to dominate it, I have opened the door to more peace, authenticity, and purpose in my life. By leaving this door open, I have found more connection to others who feel the same, which makes me feel a bit more human rather than alien. I would claim that this sense of connection is the absolute key to relieving intrusive suicidal fantasies. Now, I anticipate death in the same way we anticipate any life event—our first kiss, the death of a loved one, a miracle, a catastrophe—but recognize the hopelessness of attempting to dictate it. Death and the notion of impermanence provides me with more meaning, wisdom, and potential than suicide ever could, but it is my personal journey navigating through suicidal tides that has also brought me invaluable insight. It’s still on my list of options, existing modestly as a possible intellectual inquiry, but it’s very, very far down the list, and I think that the more I search for meaning, the more I have a chance of removing it as an option entirely. For now, I need more information.