By Jennifer Tirado
There are pieces missing in how we understand “suicidal impulses”. It’s a conversation still often misunderstood by well-meaning people who want to help. Yet many of those who wish to support us have a tough time conceiving of the urge to take their own lives. Although mainstream culture has taught us to pathologize this experience and call it a “disorder”, it’s worth remembering that these urges are as old as humanity itself.
While we want to address the issue of rising suicide rates with immediacy, it’s worth broadening our perspective on why someone would even want to complete the act. In the Alternatives to Suicide approach (aka “ATS”), we often ask the person “what needs to die in your life” in order to make it livable. It could be a housing situation, a, certain relationship, an addiction, a job, unresolved trauma, or even a sense of worthlessness and/or meaninglessness.
Either way, a person with a suicidal urge is in dire need of understanding and connection – “feeling suicidal” is an expression of emotional starvation. What can we do to feed this need? Listening is a great first step. And it can’t be any kind of listening – it takes a deep kind of listening and curiosity. It’s a type of listening that requires us to get out of our own way, out of how we perceive the person having this experience and more into what it must feel like to be them. Many of us with these experiences have been labeled harshly and we’re often taught to believe that if we feel this way, there’s something fundamentally broken within us. We get accused of not loving ourselves enough or at all. Often these messages only serve to amplify the avalanche of shame we’re likely already experiencing. It’s not about telling us what others think is meaningful in life and then trying to impose that view, even if the supporter’s intentions are heartfelt. It’s about making space so we can find this meaning within ourselves.
It’s crucial that those who support us have faith that there is a meaning we can find and that we have the ability to find it, even if we need some more support than what we’re taught is “normal”. Many of us know too well that if you’ve struggled with being suicidal long enough, people around you may come to the conclusion that you cannot access this fundamental wisdom within.
Regardless of doubts, we do have the wisdom and we can make it out – when given the opportunity of deep understanding and listening. Once a person starts to build connection and purpose, we learn to tap into our own resilience.
Naturally then, creating the spaces of mutual understanding becomes an imperative, even if they may feel risky. Crisis response is often a temporary fix to a problem that’s nuanced and complicated. The ATS approach calls us to have a deeper conversation about what the value of living really means as human beings on planet Earth. In a culture of quick, prepackaged answers, this approach calls us to have patience with the longer process of authentic discussion. It calls us to go beyond our own anxiety and need to press a panic switch at the mere mention of the “S word”. It goes back to listening and letting go of what we think of as valuable to allow the person supported to find their own value on their own terms. This isn’t easy. It may never be. But it gives us a different option than the tactics that often only work in the short term.
The question of suicide is more existential than chemical, even when the wider culture denies the validity of this. Many of us are descendants of intergenerational silence and shame. When we make room to talk about the things we’re taught never to say, we start chipping away at those layers of shame. We rise up against shame’s suffocating force and from there, we can start to breathe again. We can start living.