Whenever people ask me what being suicidal feels like, I reply, “It’s like being in hell.” By using the word “”hell,” I mean a state of ongoing, agonizing pain that seems to always be with you.
During a suicidal episode I asked my therapist Pat what she thought of this metaphor for describing suicidal pain. She replied, “Douglas, I know that your pain feels relentless, but if you pay attention, you will notice a very important fact about the nature of pain—pain comes in waves!”
Upon hearing these words, I remembered the grief I felt after my divorce. There were times when I was so overwhelmed by sorrow and loss that I could barely function. After a period of time, however, the pain and the longing would sometimes let up, perhaps for a day or two,until the heartache returned and the cycle began all over again.
“This is the body-mind’s built-in protective mechanism,” Pat explained. “If our pain were truly nonstop, we wouldn’t survive. And so we are granted a few gaps in between the intense sensations to stop and catch our breath.”
I call these unexpected periods of emotional pain relief “moments of grace.” Noticing and appreciating such moments of grace can be very powerful in helping you through times of suicidal crisis. Let me give you two examples.
During my second suicidal episode, in an attempt to get myself out of the house, I spent an evening attending a church service that featured the celestial chants of the Taize monks, founders of an intentional spiritual community in the south of France. I was particularly moved by the refrain: “Within our darkest night, you kindle the fire that never dies away, that never dies away…” As my voice merged with the voices of others in the church, I was momentarily catapulted into ecstasy. Like a trapeze artist balanced on the high wire, I stood suspended above the abyss of my suicidal thoughts, safe from harm.
Having moments like this was akin to making deposits into an “emotional bank account.” Later, when I sank back into my depression, I would draw upon my stored memories of such positive moments and affirm that life could still be beautiful, even if only for an instant.
While suffering from severe, nonstop depression, my friend Russell was driving with friends up the eastern coast of Australia en route to Melbourne. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and he was sitting in the back of a convertible, feeling the wind blowing through his hair and the spray of the ocean on his face. Suddenly, Russell started to feel joyful–something he had not experienced in nine months. The combination of being with friends and experiencing the ecstasy of nature lifted him out of his suicidal depression.
Over the next year, Russell would recall that memory any time he began to feel despair. Doing so kept him afloat until he finally emerged from his depressive ordeal.
After Russell told me about his experience, I suggested he keep what I dubbed a “Moments of Grace Diary.” I asked him to notice when he had any relief from his suicidal thoughts and then jot down the experience in his diary. I also asked him to write down the time of day the respite occurred and how long the relief lasted.
After he did this for a week, Russell had an astounding insight—that even though he had been reporting that his pain was occurring non-stop, it really wasn’t. Writing and reading these entries gave Russell an alternate story to the one that he had been telling himself. And because every thought has a neurochemical equivalent, the act of writing and reading over his “Moments of Grace Diary” literally rewired Russell’s brain in a way that allowed him to survive the most difficult parts of his episode.
Using your own journal or the Moments of Grace form, start your own Moments of Grace Diary. Any time you are lifted out of your suicidal pain, take a moment to write down what you experienced. Include the time of day it happened and how long your relief lasted.
If you are out and about, you can dictate your experience into your smartphone. Or write it down in a small notepad.
Do your best to be consistent with this process. Noticing the moments of grace will eventually become part of your daily routine.
Finally, if you are severely suicidal, you might not be able to notice any moments of grace. The pleasure center in your brain may be for all practical purposes turned off. Please do not judge yourself harshly if you can’t see these moments of grace. This is just a temporary condition you are going through. Just do everything you can to get through this crisis, including reaching out for help, and at some point, your ability to feel good will return.