This article was first seen on the online magazine The Big Smoke: http://thebigsmoke.com.au/2015/10/27/removing-romanticism-suicide-notes/
As a literature major and a psychologist, the idea of writing about suicide brings conflict. There is a burden to dispel the stigma around suicide with as blunt a force as necessary. At the same time, while I have repeatedly seen suicide discussed in stories, sadly it is often coloured with Romanticism’s watery pastels. To perfectly illustrate my point, at the time of writing, the Wikipedia link to Romanticism in Literature has a photo of a young man dead at 17 years of age from suicide.
At the turn of the 19th Century, notable Western intellectual heroes admitted their urge toward self-harm. This triggered a heated debate against the prevailing understanding of suicidality as weakness. In contradiction, the Romans considered suicide noble, depending on the circumstances. When Christianity prevailed (and also where most other religions outside the West held power) suicide was considered a sin.
This black and white thinking is clearly still prevalent today.
The current understanding of depression and suicide is one of a tendency to dysfunctionally over-think. Analysis is useful to uncover problems and protect ourselves from threat. In the case of the over-thinking associated with depression, it is often due to an interpersonal threat.
Too much analysis and your bias will be to find threat everywhere. You may even fall into a habit of searching for what could possibly go wrong. That is a deep rabbit hole; when someone runs out of energy to dig, the claustrophobia can be intolerable.
It’s from this position that someone might consider suicide, and possibly write a suicide note. I want to pare back the complexity of the issue with the force I alluded to earlier. At the same time, I want to address the romanticism that worries me.
To do this, I’d like to look into the phenomenon of the suicide note.
Can words adequately explain such a profound act? My initial professional reaction is that a suicide note is reflective of a perception heavily reliant on an internal state that, while perhaps felt frequently, is transitory.
But what is that experience, and what do these notes tell us when it comes from the source of an unusually unreliable narrator (which is to say, all of us)? One of the most strongly carried experiences described through suicide notes is a heightened sense of perceived burden on others, which reiterates the research that a suicide note is the attempt to address an overwhelming interpersonal issue.
From my practice, it seems the want to not burden friends is often told as a concern of seeming too negative, or not wanting to share their struggle at all. This takes us back to the idea of interpersonal threat, feeling like you do not belong. A suicide note is terrifying in the sense that it is the written expression, to which someone felt they could not give voice.
Romanticism glorified the sensitivity of the soul of the philosopher or artist, and it created the most extreme narrative to represent that sensitivity. The original emo kids. Unfortunately, the latter is the kind of negative stereotype that only succeeds in solidifying an identification with persecution or the sense of being alone.
Generally, inner torment is not enough to have someone commit suicide. It also requires repeated exposure to the resistance inherent in the survival instinct and a slowlyaccumulated capacity to override it.
This can be achieved through regular self-harm or even exposure to mental anguish in a variety of forms.
So, how can we avoid playing into the glorified romanticism that surrounds suicide, but still try to discuss it openly?
I have a few ideas about how the idea of the suicide note can be salvaged from what might feel like an impotent representation of the complexity of the impacts of suicide. Perhaps we can use the clues within one to try and ward it off where possible.
A great deal of my work in a one on one session is to directly address suicidal thoughts in a way that reduces the fear of them. There is research around a technique known as defusion, which treats words similarly to objects in so far as that it understands that we can experience the meaning we create in too literal a sense. Or: we can feel the fear of a snake by stepping into long grass.
A valid fear, a sensible instinct, but not a guaranteed pairing. Yet experiences such as a panic attack exists, completely outside any real exposure to a threat. In an example more related to the topic, however, specifically the idea of social connectedness, is the phenomenon of someone becoming overwhelmed when presented with the word “weak.”
Defusion is the process of diluting the power of this association between language and the literalism that leads to our misery. (For some great examples of delusion techniques, visit:https://contextualscience.org/cognitive_defusion_deliteralization).
An important process that might be paired with defusion includes asking how these thoughts might provide a secondary gain. A benefit that comes aside from finding a solution to the problem at hand. Many of those who experience suicidal thoughts often feel a sense of unusual sense of calm and release when deciding on suicide; researching it feels like finding an answer.
My question is how do we help someone achieve this feeling in a sustainable way without having to follow through with the behaviour.
We need a replacement act.
Part of that alternative could come from the precursor to suicide, the function inherent in a suicide note. If depression has the adaptive function of looking for a solution to socially based problems such as feeling disconnected, how might the suicide note help that person be heard, feel understood?
I want to make it clear that suicide is often not a “cry for help.” Many people are sick of asking for help that is not forthcoming, has come, or more tragically, that when it does come, will not make them feel any better. There is a strong argument for medication in some cases. That is not to say that these techniques alongside cannot make a world of difference in self-care.
Firstly let’s extract from the suicide note the expression of desperate hopes.
In this case, many people could engage with this exercise. What do you long for but have difficulty articulating? Finding words for painful emotional states is research-proven as a way of reducing the power of those emotions.
Writing down onto the page why you feel so horrible, then continuing writing toward some small step of a solution is also a time honoured saviour (sometimes the solution does not even require inclusion). Your brain is not always in a state to contain all of your options at the front of mind to carefully compare and contrast at once. As a functional description (but a significantly reductionist one), this exercise draws the blood back to your frontal cortex (where long-term planning and complex decision making occur) and away from your lower brain regions (such as your amygdala; responsible for emotive states).
A cry for help isn’t a problem if someone is literally asking for it, rather than acting out in a way that scares people and confuses people. The person overwhelmed by their emotions is often more scared and confused than you are by their actions, particularly after the fact. It is our obligation as decent humans to put aside the judgement as to whether their expression deserves our wild cynicism.
Finally, it is the strangest paradox of the human mind that the constant search for a moment of happiness can be the biggest obstacle to achieving it at all.
If you try to stop white knuckling on expectations of how you should feel right now, that is, if you change your relationship with your emotions, you might be able to achieve relief, specifically due to the fact that you aren’t holding on so desperately.
Maybe that includes writing a note that forgives yourself for you.