I nodded in silence as my friend continued talking about her feelings, but I was several steps behind, trying to fit together what she had said. I had not been at all surprised by my friend’s serious depression and surrounding issues, but I was stunned to hear that this was the first time she had ever thought of ending her own life. She had made it to her 20s without ever once thinking of killing herself, and now a significant part of her turmoil consisted in processing the fact that she had thought of what was previously unthinkable. If it had not been so serious to her I would have smiled and patted her on the head. Oh honey…
It happened again a year later. Someone else confided that she had thought of suicide and I was shocked. I knew enough of her background to be beyond baffled that this was the first she had ever had such a thought. How on earth had she made it through so much without ever thinking the obvious? I was somewhat distracted by the action required to get her help, but whenever I thought of how horrified she was by the thought, I would puzzle over how it could be. How can some go through so much and remain so innocent?
Eventually my confusion was replaced with tremendous deep pity for these people. Their immediate psychological suffering was so much worse because they were horrified by themselves for having thought of death. One was filled with shame for her thoughts, and both were so consumed with self-analysis because they were unable to process the fact that sometimes thoughts of death can simply be part of life.
I do take these things seriously. From a medical standpoint both of these cases were well-controlled, and much simpler for me to respond to than situations such as one in college in which a fellow student needed help, but would likely have to leave school again if I forced her to seek it. I have known six people whose deaths were clearly caused by themselves, and others where the question lingers. I know far, far better than to lightly dismiss concerns of self-harm.
Yet I also know better than to allow myself to be consumed by the horror of another as she waits for a needed change in medication. I know darkness, and I know that it can simply be a part of some lives. It comes. It goes. There are truly horrible things about this world, and most of us will encounter at least a little at some point. Perhaps it is in some ways a sign of health to think clearly enough to consider many possible outcomes.
When fuller understanding came for me it was more than a little heartbreaking. You see, it is so, so terrible for people to be faced with emotional pain when they were never prepared for it. This is true with the lightest suffering, and it is true with the pain which can ultimately cause one to end one’s life.
It took the most severe cases to help me understand something which I had struggled with so much in watching how others suffered desperately with situations that I knew I should have been able to understand due to shared experience, but somehow I simply could not understand their pain. It seems that not everyone was born to suffer. Some can undergo continuous difficulties with barely a shudder. Others live for years with only the most minor scrapes and thus drown at the first wave of real pain. And it does not matter what causes it, there is nothing livable about lungs full of water.
Now, if only I can remember this well when it is actually needed.
- Summer 2013