Should I Live or Should I Die?

To be, or not to be? That is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles.

If you are feeling hopeless and you can no longer stand the pain, you might find yourself thinking, “I wish I could go to sleep and never wake up,” or “I just want to die.” Or you might be thinking of taking steps to make this happen.

Fortunately, in addition to the part of you that is considering suicide, there is another part of you that wishes to live. Nature and evolution have programmed you with an instinct for self-preservation, which the philosopher Voltaire called “the most powerful instinct of nature.

One day, during one of my depressive breakdowns, I was walking with my best friend Stuart. I was complaining that my life was not worth living when suddenly, he pushed me out into the street and yelled to the oncoming traffic, “Put him out of his misery!” 

I jumped back on the sidewalk and said in anger, “What did you do that for?”

“You see?” Stuart  replied,  “You really do want to live!” 

At that moment, my instinct for self-preservation overrode my suicidal pain. So, in addition to the part that wanted to die, my survival instinct wanted me to live. This ambivalence resulted in a raging courtroom drama inside my brain. The prosecution would tell the judge, “Douglas needs to die. He has suffered most of his life. Can’t you see that he has had enough?” The defense would counter, “No, Your Honor. Douglas needs to live. There is still more for him to do on the planet.”

My struggle in deciding whether to live or to die is called ambivalence. If you are feeling this inner conflict,  I want to assure you that ambivalence is one of the defining characteristics of being in a suicidal state. Here are some more examples of how ambivalence manifests in the suicidal mind:

  • After a long battle with depression, a friend of mine decided to swallow a large number of his antidepressants. Five minutes after he took the pills he called his brother and said, “I think I’ve done something very dumb.”
  • Another friend took an overdose of medication and then called 911 just as he was losing consciousness.
  • A man who had become despondent after experiencing divorce, unemployment, and illness decided that he would end his life by throwing himself from the roof of a parking garage. However, as soon as he arrived at his destination, he sent a text to his daughter stating that she might want to sell his prized record collection to make some money. The daughter recognized this as a cry for help and called him, saving his life.
  • A person who survived a leap from the Golden Gate Bridge said after his rescue, “As soon as my hands left the railing, I realized that everything in my life that I thought was unfixable was in fact fixable.”

In each of these four cases, the attempter’s survival instinct reasserted itself when the prospect of death became a reality. These stories are not unique. The majority of people survive their suicidal episodes because of their will to live and their tenacity to not give up. You are no different. As long as you are still here, your will to live is protecting you. And each day that you stay alive brings you one step closer to your healing.

Journal Reflection:
Living With Ambivalence

It is normal to be ambivalent about choosing life or death when you are suicidal. Yet being in this kind of existential limbo is painful. Having to continuously choose between life and death can be exhausting.

Take some time to reflect on these questions, to clarify how this ambivalence takes shape in your mind.

  1. How often do you notice fluctuations between your desire to live and your desire to die?
  2. Have you noticed times when your will to live overrides your urge to die? What are the circumstances surrounding those times?
  3. What is it like for you when your desire to live shifts to a desire to die? And what is it like when it shifts back again, from a desire to die to the desire to live?

You can write the answers down in a journal of your own, in this Journal Reflection page, or in a full Daily Survival Journal.