Note: All the content warnings and I am not currently at risk for harming myself.
Take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt. I’m no expertly trained therapist or suicide counselor. I’m just a person who has spent the better part of zir life suicidal, has been in the immediate wake of a grip of successful suicides, and has thought a lot about the ethics, practicality, and ideals of it all. This essay probably sucks to read but I recommend getting all the way through it and not quitting in the middle because I believe it will be worth it.
While I was very suicidal (more so than baseline), I wrote this messy piece about how hard it is to talk about being suicidal. The bottom line though is that when you’re suicidal, it’s a minefield to talk about it. No amount of people saying, “you can talk to me” or suicide hotlines really clears that up. There are so many variables such as concerns around consent and empathy, misunderstanding, risks of state violence, and manipulation that make it justifiably terrifying to have frank discussions about how we feel.
Behind all of the surface level goodwill of various organizations and friends, there are a ton of assumptions and fickle commitments that devastate the delicate trust needed to have these hard conversations. One of the most insidious in my mind is the Protestant notion that suicide is wrong. The deep assumption that people who commit suicide are making a mistake is a nefarious and evil little worm of a concept that, ironically, leads more people to commit suicide out of the resulting isolation. If people are not “allowed” to kill themselves then literally every single other consent process is completely bunk. Null and fucking void. Suicide is the get out of jail free card to a world we didn’t consent to join and that for many of us, beats us to hell in every single waking moment.
This is not to imply that any given personal autonomy style choice such as committing suicide exists in a cute little vaccum where because it’s your right, other people will not be irreparably damaged by it. Any reasonably empathetic suicidal person (and most suicidal types are super empathic in my experience) knows this deeply and chances are, if you’re not also suicidal or have been in the direct wake of suicides, they’ve thought about it a lot more than you have. So for the love of god do not play the fucking guilt card on your suicidal friends. Yes motherfucker, we know. The strange calculus of suicidality for many is constantly asking yourself, “at what point is this excruciating pain that far surpasses my threshold of tolerability greater than the distributed pain that my suicide would cause?” For others, they convince themselves, usually incorrectly, that no one would even notice or care. Whatever the case, if a suicide is thought out and not impulse driven, chances are they’ve been playing with all of these ideas and stuck in their furious looping wake for a long time. I think a lot of successful suicides probably could’ve happened sooner if the suicidal person wasn’t stuffing down their own suffering out of extreme guilt for the harm they’re causing by being a sad sack or the harm they would cause by offing themselves. Suicidal people isolate and yes we know it’s a vicious cycle blah, blah, blah.
When someone actually does kill themselves their artificial concentration of pain is distributed amongst their closest circles and ripples out into their broader connections. Having someone you love commit suicide is completely, uniquely, irreversibly devastating. You never really recover. Probably the biggest recursive consent fuck you of being alive is that the only method we have for withdrawing our consent, dramatically violates other people’s consent. The people that love us, usually don’t consent to our exiting the plane of the living. Of course, it’s not really their rightful sphere of control to decide whether another human should live or die, but no amount of knowing that makes it easy. If it was easy to let people we care about die, would we even truly love them? Conversely, is a love that is conditional on their willingness to continue to live in abject pain really a form of love or is it the extreme selfishness the suicidal are often charged with? I leave these as questions because the answers are nuanced and dynamic. Everyone is entitled to their pain, their choices, their consent, and their autonomy and yet, The World is A Fuck.
This whole tirade of support for successful suicides may seem strange and out of place in an essay ostensibly about talking to suicidal people. Isn’t the point of being available to your suicidal loved ones to ensure that they don’t kill themselves? In my opinion, no. The point of talking to your suicidal friends is to give them the space they need to process in a non-judgemental and supportive way. We need absolute frankness. In many cases, this is actually all that is needed to get people off of the ledge but if you’re denying our agency or conditionally accepting only the parts of us where hope lives, we can feel the dishonesty. We can feel you trying to change us. We can feel your subtle pressure and guilt and it serves to minimize the reasons behind the part of our complexity that actually sincerely wants to die. I know it’s because you love us, but if you’re already making the difficult and energy consuming commitment to show up for us in our mess, then really be there for all of it to the best of your comfort and ability.
When we are suicidal we are swimming in a mess of loops. One of the prime features of suicidality is an extreme tunnel vision. We slowly whittle away at the possibilities we are capable of seeing. This is incredibly frustrating to witness in someone. You just want to scream at them like, “HEY YOU BIG DWEEB I LOVE YOU AND YOU’RE COMPLETELY IGNORING ALL OF THESE POSSIBLE REALITIES THAT DON’T FIT INTO YOUR SUICIDALLY DEPRESSED NARRATIVE!” From the outside it’s easy to see a million and one steps they could take that would probably help them climb out of it at least a little bit; to suffer just a smidgen less. And yet, because of the nature of depression, those options are just not available to us. The potential is not accessible. We are stuck and limited. It’s a sad fact that the suicidal mind is often least prepared to make a reasonable decision about something so fundamentally permanent as death. There’s no tattoo removal service for being dead. I’ve tricked myself through some particularly dangerous spells with the thought, “Okay I’ll just wait to kill myself long enough to see a smidge more of the complexity and possibility within these intersecting contexts and then I’ll do it.” But then, by the time I see more complexity, the urgency of death has usually sufficiently diminished to consider some other options.
This is the part of suicide that we feel deeply when we want to convince someone not to off themselves. That they’re not seeing the whole picture and there’s truth to it. Probably they aren’t. This is what makes impulsive suicides so deeply sad. Unlike certain pre-meditated suicides such as in the Death with Dignity movement, many of these people would have had a chance to see things differently given more time to contemplate. But most people you encounter who are struggling with suicidality have been at it for awhile and have deep reasons even if those reasons aren’t the whole picture of their life’s possibilities, or even the whole picture of the complexity they recognize in themselves.
When a person like my father who, after a considerable period of extreme physical pain, intermittent paralysis, complete loss of quality of life, and daily vomiting from neurological damage from a car accident, ultimately decides to kill themselves, this should be a clear and empathizable case no matter how traumatic it was for all of us. This is obviously justified, no? But yet for some reason emotional pain is just chalked up as that thing that you should just suck it up and deal with even though it can be just as debilitating.
So when you’re talking to someone who’s suicidal, it’s not unethical to want them to see more possibilities, and even to live. But if you take that to the point of ignoring or undermining their suffering and the part of them that wants to die, then you run the risk of further isolating them and burning the scrap of trust they offered to you. A lot of being suicidal is just being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of complexities that we run out of processing power to make sense of. That means if there’s any glimmer of hope for seeing beyond it, and if it is a situation where seeing beyond it is the better choice, that means we need to be able to sit with all of it. Not just the promising sunny bits. If anything it’s the most twisted, dark, shameful corners that we’re protecting most obsessively that need the processing the most. So if we can’t trust you with the part of us that wants to die, what makes us think that we can trust you with why?
It isn’t just about us trusting you though, it’s about you trusting us. You have to trust our process however bizarre and misguided it may appear from the outside because it’s the only one we have. If it’s correct for us to transcend our suicidality it will be through no other path than the weird one we’ve got on hand. But threading that needle means trusting that you might actually not know what’s best for us no matter how obvious it seems. Maybe our suicide would be a misguided result of impulsivity and closed-off sense of possibility, but maybe our continuing to live is an extremely self-destructive and unwarranted martyr fantasy. When we’re in that spot, we mostly don’t know which it is and are trying to figure it out. If we were actually ready to kill ourselves, for the most part, we would just do it and try to get away with it. This doesn’t mean that trite, paternalistic garbage that suicide attempts are just a “cry for help” is the truth. But rather that, if we’re engaging with you in a difficult divulgence, that both of us are taking a chance. Talking very honestly about the scope of what’s going on IS a form of hope even if it looks like the absolute pit of gross, pathetic, despair. If someone is trusting you with this intimate part of them, be grateful. Be proud. If there’s any hope of them changing their mind, it won’t be because you tricked them into doing so.
This essay is pretty hard on the parties trying to support suicidal people. I’m sorry for that although I think it’s important. In reality though it’s so important that you care. I’m so grateful that there are so many people who care and love so deeply in this fucked up world. And I know it is really fucking hard to be present with extreme forms of others’ pain especially if you are also, very likely, extremely empathetic as well. We know this and it’s part of what makes us scared to talk about it. But please don’t offer us your support if you aren’t actually prepared to follow through. Don’t offer us support just because you want to feel better about yourself or be a saviour. Be circumspect about your motives. But if you have a solid quantity of complexity and genuine goodwill and the space to follow through, make that abundantly clear to us (if we also consent to hearing about it). You don’t us owe us unconditional support though. Take care of yourself as needed as well. Also, and this is important, it’s not your fault if someone kills themselves. If they needed to do it, they needed to do it. Even if you handled it imperfectly or didn’t have the energy to reach out in that time, that’s their choice and there’s probably nothing that you could’ve said or done differently to change it. Most of the deeper causes of suicidality are external or already in the past such as marginalization, trauma, chronic illness, and other forms of dangerous alienation that are to a large extent outside of our control. It is worth mentioning though, that changing the world to not being so shitty is proably the best way to save people’s lives.
For my suicidal friends, if the non-sucidial friends are consenting to hearing you out, then you also have to not paternalize them by respecting their consent. They’re showing up for you because they actually want to. We’re not mind readers so we have to take their word for it. Additionally, your pain does not justify you weaponizing it or using it as a form of emotional blackmail. The people supporting you often also do not have their shit together and are going through their own mental health issues and may fuck up as well. They may not know what you’re going through and struggle to comprehend it if it’s outside of their personal experience. This can lead to really painful misunderstandings but we’re all doing this thing imperfectly. I just hope that we can keep building more space to do it better and do our best in the meantime.