Why I don’t think suicide is a selfish, faithless 'choice'

August 13th, 2014

(Note: Before you read this, if you know me and need me to be or remain on any kind of pedestal for some reason, please stop reading now. This is a very real, raw, painful, messy post. You’ve been forewarned.)

Suicide is a hot topic right now with the death of Robin Williams and the widespread media coverage surrounding that situation. I want to begin by saying that mental illness, and depression specifically, is a complex thing. There are are so many factors which contribute to the development of any mental disorder: genetic predispositions, biochemical abnormalities, life experiences (especially traumas/tragedies/losses), social support/interaction or lack thereof, spiritual issues, and even financial resources and access to medicines/counseling services–all one big amalgamation. We are beings who are fearfully and wonderfully made, and even our problems (and their etiology) are complex and, often times, confusing. To try to pinpoint all the “whys” and “hows” of anyone’s struggle is probably impossible and generally not helpful.

I hear so much talk about suicide being a selfish choice or the result of lack of faith or moral courage. Depression, and the people who struggle with it, are complex and multi-faceted, and it behooves us to be very careful about how we label people and their struggles, when we have yet to walk a mile in their shoes. There but for the grace of God, go I…

Offer hope, not blame or shame. The language of blame and shame does not motivate anyone in any situation, but especially not in dealing with depression, which is an illness where blame and shame constantly bludgeon you over the head with thoughts of your own worthlessness. When someone is actively suicidal, never say to them: “Think of what you will do to your family. That’s so selfish”. What they hear is: “I’m so selfish. I really don’t deserve to live. Everyone would be better off without me.” And they believe it…deep down in their very core. Don’t add to that diseased, distorted, inner monologue.

Offer grace, this an especially true mandate for those of us who are Christians. We have an Incarnational God who gets right down there in the muck and mire of our messy lives, right along with us. Jesus is called “Immanuel”: the God who is with us. As followers of Christ, that is our call, too. The call is not to sit on our thrones of judgment, telling people to have more faith or be less selfish, but to get messy with them, walk with them in their pain, point them to the God of hope. Don’t shame them. It doesn’t help.

This is very personal issue for me as a pastor, counseling student, and one who has walked with people in the depths of depression in both my personal and professional life. I’ve walked professionally with people who have attempted suicide as well as those who have completed suicide. I have family members who have attempted and/or completed suicide.

I have personally struggled with depression at different seasons in my own life. I’m not talking about sadness. I’m talking about clinical depression… a hole so dark and deep that I could see no way out, no light, no end in sight. There was a season when thoughts of death came and attacked me, barraged me, tormented me…and I could not stop them or fight against them…they were winning. And I felt hopeless. Choiceless.

I was a Christian at the time. I was even a pastor. A very young, fresh off the seminary-turnip truck pastor, but still a pastor. I was responsible for other people’s souls…and yet there I was…hopeless. I tried to have more faith. I read my Bible like I’ve never read it before. I prayed with a desperation that was frightening, even to me. I heard nothing, felt no comfort. I did not deny God’s existence. I just couldn’t find him… anywhere.

I read a comment where someone said suicide/depression was the result of making yourself into an idol… turning your focus away from God and onto yourself. If that person could only know how much a suicidal person hates herself. She literally detests herself. The voice of depression convinces you that you are worthless, that no one loves you, that God actually hates you, that your family is burdened by you and the world would be better off without you; those were not just passing thoughts, but a relentless tidal wave consuming me in the seeming reality of my worthlessness and I was drowning in it, unable to come up for air, even though I kicked with all my might against the crashing waves. It’s an experience I would not wish on my worst enemy.

I guess that’s why my heart breaks with compassion for Robin Williams and all who struggle in such a way. I’ve been where he was, standing on the brink, feeling like there was no other choice, that the world didn’t want me, like I was actually doing them a favor through my ending. My thinking and judgment were completely distorted and clouded. I see that now, but I could not see that in the moment. I was not capable of seeing that in the moment.

Why am I still alive then? Because I called a family member who had similar struggles. I don’t remember dialing the phone. I was not capable of dialing the phone. But I remember crying out, “Help!” She said, “I’m coming. I love you! I’m getting in the car now”. And she drove three and a half hours to get to me… and I held on because I knew she was coming. She got there and held me for hours as I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. She got me through the night. By morning, I was still depressed, but the torturous, unending, compelling thoughts of death had eased (which is often the case: The extreme crisis of suicidal ideation passes usually within 24-48 hours).

After that, I went to the doctor. I went to counseling. I found ways and tools to be healthy and to battle depression. I could not have done any of that on the night when all I could hear were thoughts of my worthlessness. I was incapable of choosing anything. I felt compelled, almost driven, toward a darkness that, in my sane mind, now seems utterly reprehensible. But I wasn’t in my right mind that night. No one who is seriously contemplating suicide is thinking healthily, correctly, sanely. Unless you have been there, standing on that precipice, you may always, at some level, blame the victim and think of suicide as a selfish, cowardly, faithless act. I can’t do that, because I’ve been there. And it’s literally Hell. A pit of fire could not feel more painful.

Some may say that I made a choice to make a phone call. It didn’t feel like a choice. It felt like another Hand literally picked up the phone, dialed a number, and forced my vocal chords to cry out: “Help!”

What if help hadn’t been home when I called? I shudder to think of the consequences. It was not my choice that saved me. It was God.

A couple years after my darkest night, a dear, young parishioner of mine completed suicicde. As her pastor, I had walked with her during some very dark seasons. She had become like a little sister to me. As a counselor, I’m trained to keep very strict boundaries with people, to have no outside relationship with them, but as a pastor, you live life with people. You laugh with them as well as pray with them. When she died, I was devastated. It was an incomprehensibly tragic loss of such a beautiful, talented life.

I had the usual thoughts of “Why didn’t I see this coming? Why didn’t I do more?” I “what if-ed” myself mercilessly. Suicide survivors–the family and friends of one who completes suicide–always ask those kinds of questions. We feel responsible. We try to make sense out of a senseless situation by finding blame in ourselves. There is no blame to find, but we still whip ourselves raw.

The hardest part for me was something I now know is called “survivor’s guilt”. Why was she dead and yet I was still alive? She and I stood on the same precipice of inconceivable darkness, but she fell in and, somehow, I was rescued.

I assure you, again, I was completely helpless in my darkest moments. I did nothing in my own strength. Why did God save me and not her? Why did he pull me out of the pit that I could not get myself out of, but not her? I don’t think either one of us truly had a choice in those moments, not according to our diseased minds. But I was rescued. She was not. To this day, this is my greatest struggle of faith. I am convinced that it was God who rescued me. Why not her, too? It’s been well over a decade since she died and I still have no answer to that question. I’m not sure I will get one in this lifetime.

I still struggle with depression, though nothing like it used to be, and certainly not clinical, suicidal depression. Praise God. But it has been a long road. I’ve had to learn to think differently (which is still a work in progress) and live differently and to attend to my mental health on a regular basis (excercise, rest, accountability, spiritual practices, Scripture memorization, thought records, returning to counseling during difficult seasons, journaling, being honest with myself and others about where I am, practicing good self care, etc.)

I believe there is hope for people who struggle with depression. Life can get better. It really can. It has for me. It takes a lot of intentionally and community and hard, painful work….but it is possible. If you are struggling, don’t give up hope in God and in life. But also know that depression can spiral out of control very quickly and take you to a place where you are incapable of thinking clearly or healthily. Seek help now, while you are able to make choices for health, life and wholeness. Depression is nothing to mess around with; when it spirals out of control, no matter how smart you are or faithful you are or self-controlled you are, it can take you to a place you never imagined you could go. Stay on top of it. Seek help. Please. Your very life could depend on it.

In closing, let’s be people who blame and shame less, and instead, offer grace and hope and compassion. Point people to Christ and his sufficiency, not to their inadequacy. If you know people who are struggling, walk with them, love them, cry with them, pray with and for them, but also encourage them to seek professional help. These are life and death matters. They should be taken seriously, and treated with the utmost love and compassion.

This post originally appeared on Tina Fox's blog.

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