The All-Consuming, Physical Pain of Being Suicidal
Recently, a dear friend asked me, “What’s it like to be you right now? Help me understand.” It’s complicated. And dysfunctional. And messy. And I want to help you understand. It’s hard, though, to explain to someone who doesn’t have a frame of reference, some kind of language, for this experience. Let me try to explain.
It used to be that when I had strong and/or violent suicidal thoughts, I mostly just had thoughts. There was maybe a sense of sadness, and a desire to be done, to rest, but not really a lot of emotion or a lot of pain, or even much sense of what I wanted to be done with.
Now, probably because I’ve gotten better at feeling, in general, there’s a lot more to it. There’s a constant, nearly intolerable, burning pain. Think of the pain of burning yourself on something really hot, like the heating element in an electric oven, or a soldering iron or a bit of molten solder dropped accidentally on the skin. Imagine not having access to water to cool the burn and prevent it from continuing to damage the surrounding skin. That pain grows and grows, and soon it feels like it’s throughout your whole body, not just in your hand or arm or knee. (When I used to build circuit boards for my dad’s business, I always dropped solder on my knees by accident.) It hurts so much you feel shaky, feel maybe like you want to cry or scream. That’s like my normal, everyday pain level. When it gets bad, like it is right now, it feels like that pain is increasing exponentially every day. Sometimes, every minute. I’ve had the thought many times recently that even the most violent and deadly ways I’ve been thinking of hurting myself would hurt way less than what I’m feeling now.
When you injure your body, you can sometimes take medicine that helps separate your thoughts from the feeling of pain, or use activities to distract yourself, or human touch to comfort, or, at the very least, use language to help create some distance between you and your pain. (You say, “My arm hurts,” and it does. Using language, however, is a way to remind yourself that “I am not my arm,” or “My arm is not the whole of me,” and so you realize, “I am not my pain.”) When the pain is in your thoughts, it’s hard to create that same distance, because most of us define ourselves by our thoughts. We use thoughts to tell ourselves stories about who we are and what we are and where we come from and where we’re going. When our thoughts are injured, so to speak, the pain is everywhere, because it lives in thoughts and therefore touches every story we try to tell ourselves and distorts them all. As far as I can tell, the only way to not think is to die. Therefore, suicide starts to look like the only way out of the pain. For me, at least, it isn’t even about the permanence of suicide. I just want an hour, a minute, a second of escape from the pain.
Just like you can sometimes manage physical pain with medication and diet and exercise and meaningful human connection, you can often manage psychological pain with similar techniques. Sometimes, though, the pain gets too bad, too quickly, and one of two things happens: either all the things that usually help you remember you are not just the pain stop working, or the pain is so great it prevents you from thinking of what you can do to feel better. You know you are near to being overwhelmed by your pain, and you don’t know what to do.
Imagine you’re trapped in a burning building. The fire is everywhere around you; it seems to form solid walls. The firefighters are still 15 minutes away, and you’re sure you don’t have 15 minutes. You know that when you catch fire, you should stop, drop and roll. You know you need to get down low, under the smoke. But the smoke is everywhere, and there’s nowhere to roll to smother the flames on your body that isn’t already ablaze. The people you love most are outside, calling your name, trying to help. Some of them want to run into the building to rescue you, but they don’t have the equipment or the training to do so. If they come inside, they’ll also be overcome by the flames.
This is part of why it’s so hard for me to ask for help and support. I don’t want you to come into my personal inferno and be consumed. I don’t want to burden you, even though I know I tend to feel better when I’m not alone. I’m still operating in the world I grew up in, a world where asking for help brings a horrifically painful response.
I’m also acutely aware that if I took the action my thoughts urge me to take, I’d be hurting the people I love most. So I feel trapped. There is no way out for me. Just more of this pain. In lots if ways, I’m doing better than I was six years ago. I’ve worked hard, pushed hard, done everything I know to stay alive. It’s exhausting, and the more exhausted I get, the harder it is to find ways to fight to stay.
I have no intention of giving up the fight. But in some moments, my feelings tell me it’s not worth it.
If you are struggling and you feel like you can’t go on, find something true. Something you can hold onto, to show you the way out. It could be a quote, or a message from a friend, a picture or the feeling of having a hand to hold. That something can be your beacon to follow when the smoke is too thick to see the way out.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
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