How to Survive Suicidal Thoughts

The standard advice you’ll hear if you express suicidal thoughts is to call a suicide hotline or check yourself into the hospital. Trained volunteers, such as those at The Samaritans, provide an invaluable service to severely depressed people who call or email them in desperation. But for some of us, suicidal thoughts can be present for many months or years, and we can’t hang out on a suicide hotline or live in the hospital psych ward indefinitely. We have to learn how to become our own trained professional who helps us tease apart our thoughts until we arrive at the truth that will keep us safe from harming ourselves.

The most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life is to resist taking my life in the midst of severe, intense, chronic suicidal thoughts. I try to remind myself every now and then that no matter what I do from here on out, I am already a success because I am alive. I somehow managed to resist the incredibly convincing messages of my brain — the forceful urges of my psyche — to make an exit out of this world. As I mentioned in another blog, not taking your life in the midst of intense suicidal thoughts can be like not sneezing when you have an urge. Everything inside of you thinks that disappearing from this world is the only way that the pain will subside, so you listen and follow the cues without thinking.

Suicidal Thoughts Are Like Hiccups — Symptoms of a Condition

I don’t like to write about my suicidal thoughts, especially as they are happening in the present, because I am ashamed of them. They don’t fit into the Zen picture that I am trying to create for myself — all the mindfulness exercises I do, the nutritious diet and yoga, and trying to live, without judgment, in the present moment. I’m afraid they mean that I’m not aware and grateful of all the many blessings in my life — which fills me with immense guilt.

But talking about suicidal thoughts saves lives. I know this. Because people realize that other good, grateful, Zen-attempting people experience them, too. The thoughts that try to convince you to leave this world simply come with severe depression. They are mere symptoms, like hiccups, of a brain condition or fragile chemistry that feels at times too painful to endure. Just as chills, nausea, and fatigue are symptoms of the flu — and you wouldn’t blame a person inflicted with that condition — the chronic ruminations demanding a fast exit from here are symptoms of acute depression and anxiety. They mean you are sick rather than “bad.” They are not an indictment of your character.

You Want Relief From Pain, Not From Life

The best thing I have ever read on suicide is called Suicide: Read This First on, hosted by Psych Central. The page has had over 23 million visitors, if that gives you any indication of how many people consider suicide. “Suicide is not chosen,” Martha Ainsworth writes. “It happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain.” It’s a simple formula that makes so much sense and puts things into proper perspective. She explains:

When pain exceeds pain-coping resources, suicidal feelings are the result. Suicide is neither wrong nor right; it is not a defect of character; it is morally neutral. It is simply an imbalance of pain versus coping resources. You can survive suicidal feelings if you do either of two things: (1) find a way to reduce your pain, or (2) find a way to increase your coping resources. Both are possible.

Ainsworth offers five important things to think about, like recommending that you delay your decision by 24 hours or a week, and insisting that people do get through this. She includes some great resources, including various articles, books, support groups, and websites that will help you feel less alone. Her third point involves a tweak to our thoughts that is life-saving:

People often turn to suicide because they are seeking relief from pain. Remember that relief is a feeling. And you have to be alive to feel it. You will not feel the relief you so desperately seek if you are dead.

Making that distinction has saved my life on countless occasions: I don’t want to die. I simply want a reprieve from my pain. I must trust that the relief will eventually come because all of our feelings and thoughts — and especially our most excruciating pain — are impermanent. They can’t last forever because nothing does. So taking our own life is a permanent action for a temporary problem.

Do the Thing Right in Front of You

During this past depressive episode, the suicidal thoughts have been incredibly intense — probably because I’m getting such little sleep, and sleep deprivation alters your perspective on everything. Recently while standing in line at the grocery store, I started doing “death math,” the kind of arithmetic to determine how long I have to stick it out before arriving at a natural death based on the average deaths of my ancestors. When I realized it was a good 40 years, I burst into tears in front of the cashier. I knew I absolutely couldn’t hang on for that long. In fact, I was sure I couldn’t hold on for one more day. I was filled with a crushing desire to be done right now, and that feeling of panic overwhelmed me: “How do I get out?” As if I were trapped in an airplane bathroom and the door won’t budge.

“I can’t. I can’t. I can’t go on,” I said to myself. Every muscle and gland in my body tensed up as I continued to bawl my eyes out in front of this poor woman scanning my items.

Then I remembered something that a friend told me the night before: I don’t have to worry about making it through an entire day. Hell, I don’t even have to tackle a whole hour. All I have to do is the thing right in front of me. In that moment, it was loading some groceries onto the belt. That’s all. If I still existed once they were all on the belt, then my next step was paying for them and hauling them to my car. “Do the thing right in front of you,” she reminded me. “Nothing else.” Everything you need is in the present moment, she said.

Your Only Job Is to Stay Alive

“All I have to do is stay alive for this moment,” I said to myself over and over again as a kind of mantra as I walked out to the car with a cart full of food, trying to be grateful for the groceries but failing once again at gratitude. That was my only job — staying alive.

That’s the only job you have if you’re wrestling with the kind of intense suicidal thoughts that accompany severe depression. Your only responsibility is to keep breathing. One long breath after another. “As long as we are breathing,” explains meditation teacher and best-selling author Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, in one of his sitting meditations that I listen to every day, “there is more right with us than wrong with us.”

Your only job is to keep breathing, one moment at a time. You will eventually see that the painful thoughts, as convincing as they are, are a season and won’t last forever. Like all emotions and feelings — and everything in this life — they are impermanent.

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