Suicide and cumulative stressors

As we continue to look at some of the whys suicide has been chosen, let’s consider the impact of cumulative stressors and trauma:

A darling Celtic client of mine had a great saying, “Life does life.” She was right. It does.
There are times when life throws us a major curveball and we are seriously rattled. We lose our footing, and our wherewithal is seriously diminished. If there are continuous stressors such as disasters, losses, medical conditions, and financial issues, a person who has been functioning well may begin to feel the onslaught, for it is akin to non-stop blows to the body.

Stress is cumulative, and non-stop stress allows no room to take a breath, to process, or assess. You are going from one thing to another. Before you know it, you are holding on by a thread. Life has become overwhelming. There seems to be no meaning and no point to it all. You are psychologically shattered. Then one more stressor knocks at your door, and you can’t imagine how you are going to keep going on like this. You have tried your best, but you are tired. You are worn out.

Think of the rash of “suicides by economic crises” in several European countries. Imagine the suddenly homeless, the ostracized and shunned, the failed crops, the medical emergencies, the bereft husband, and the bankrupt. They have endured much, and this accumulation of stress and being powerless can prompt suicidal feelings.

Be it an injury to the body, mind, soul, or an emotional shock that upends a life, trauma is pervasive in our world. Trauma can be a sudden death, combat service, childhood sexual abuse, a natural disaster, terrorism, catastrophic illness, and violence such as unrelenting bullying.

For some, that acute stress and shock of the experience(s) does not fade away or diminish; it becomes entrenched in an insidious way. The body-whacking, heart-thumping, mind-numbing, horrifying, excruciating, and unfathomable traumatic experience holds a person hostage in a complete mind-body-heart hell.

This chronic pattern of neurological and physical responses is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is particularly prevalent, and most understandable, among survivors of childhood sexual abuse, victims of bullying, and combat soldiers. They are at high risk for suicide given the horrors they have lived through, have been tormented by, and have survived.

Imagine the VA Hospital and a group of vets waiting to attend a PTSD treatment group. Their hands are shoved into their pockets. Very few are holding cups of coffee because their hands shake from the increased cortisol in their systems.

Imagine the student who has been bullied to such an extreme that he cannot focus on his classes. He sits in terror waiting for the next attack and wondering how he can protect himself.

Imagine a sexual abuse support group. The women share their difficulties sleeping due to nightmares replaying nightly. The terror and the body memories flood their systems frequently; sleep is anathema. Pain is a constant companion.

For those in the hell of PTSD, suicide can be seen as an option to end the recurring cycles of pain and horror. Sometimes, too much is just too much.

 

A Psychologist’s Suicide

hThe word came last week that a friend and colleague, a clinical psychologist, had committed suicide.  She had suffered a hammering of profound losses and fell into a deep hole of depression.  She had placed herself in good professional hands, was hospitalized for two weeks, and released with medications and a discharge summary that she, herself, could have written.  She, later, took her life by overdose.

And if you are a clinical type, then you might be interested in knowing that she – and we will call her Susan for our descriptive purposes here — had been hospitalized once before as a young adult due to a breakdown of sorts.  That initial breakdown had shaped her career.  I would also suggest that it enhanced Susan’s humanity and made her more accepting of the mysteries of life.  Susan was a very skilled and gifted therapist.  Over the course of her professional life, she had helped so very many find their way to safety and sanity, which, of course, makes it even more incongruent that this healing type woman would take her own life.  Then, again, we are all human.

Susan was a huge dreamer – big, significant dreams, healing dreams, dreams that reverberated in her 3D life with books, pictures, and the like tumbling, on occasion, from her walls and book shelves.  Susan analyzed dreams with her patients; she explored their multi-nuanced aspects with her colleagues. Susan understood the imaginal world and the power of metaphor to transform a life.

Yet, even with all those gifts and talents, Susan’s well of despair flooded.  Taken hostage by her biochemical influences, she crossed the border of her inner terrain and entered into the place without light, with nary a crack in the darkness.  All that training and education notwithstanding, suicide seemed the answer to Susan’s very distraught and off-balanced self.

Suicide is not painless; it leaves loved ones – and in this case, patients, too – reeling in disbelief and “what if’s” and “If only, I had …” It’s hard to be left under such messy circumstances. We think, perhaps, we could have done something differently – made a move or said the right words that might have tipped the balance in favor of life.   Death is not easy on a regular basis, but it becomes tainted and shame-faced when described as a suicide.  It’s as if we, the survivors, have somehow failed to do our part.  We feel responsible.  We feel confused and, sometimes, angry, too.   “How could they?” we puzzle, as if it had anything really to do with us.

As a psychologist as well as a former suicide hot-line responder, I understand all too well what can lead up to those moments when suicide is considered a possibility that can – with enough pain and tight, airless thinking — become an option to end the torment.

I get it. I’m not saying I like it, condone it, or anything else, but I understand how someone can get there.  I understand the trajectory of suffering.   I have witnessed the sheer desperation of unabated pain — be it physical, psychological, or both — and the dark places that it can take you. I have seen how a life can crumble in on itself, worn down by the struggle, the relentless struggle.

That much pain changes a person; it leaves an indelible mark.  Suicide becomes all about moving out of the desperate pain.  It is a very intimate act; it is self on self, in all of its swirling eddies of emotional tumult. There is little room for anyone else.

There are many paths of pain and despair.  For some, suicide is an impulsive act of fury and pain; for others, it is a release from the daily torment that makes life unbearable. For some, it is the tight, airless room where they cannot draw a deep breath; much less consider compassion for the self. Suicide is an act of violence against the much-hated, broken, and wounded self.

Suicide leaves a wake of questions.  I have opted to forego the questions.  It does not change anything.  What I know is that my friend was in pain, was biochemically unbalanced, and made a choice.  Needless to say, I wish her choice had been different, but who am I to say?  Her act teaches me about the fragility and ferocity of the human spirit.

In the aftermath, I have come up with what I think is the perfect antidote.  I am sending loads and loads of light to my friend, Susan.  It seems like the perfect thing to do after all that darkness.  And, who knows, maybe it will help her soul refind its sparkle.