Archive for the ‘An Insight About How’ Category

One thing for which I’m most thankful in the long aftermath of my daughter ‘s suicide is this: she left in her bedroom quite a few school notebooks containing her accounts of daily life from the time she was a young teen until two days before she died. Over a period of weeks, I placed the notebooks in chronological order and began reading.

Some people cautioned me not to read the journals, that they had likely served only as a vent, a place of “guilt-free whining” as Mary remarked in one of them. But I was drawn to her writings. Not only did they put Mary’s voice back in my life, they revealed much about her days in high school, her friends, and her likes and dislikes that I had not known before. They revealed her dark mood in the days before she overdosed.

While they did not answer the “why” question (nothing, I’ve found, ever answers that question), Mary’s journals enabled me to walk in her shoes; and that was a critical healing moment.

Clinical researchers John Jordan and John McIntosh explain “walking in the shoes” as the second task of suicide bereavement that begins with “trying on the shoes” of the deceased and ends with “taking off the shoes.” This second task leads to a reconstructed relationship with self and others, but especially with the person who died.

So reading Mary’s journals was not the futile exercise that it sometimes seemed to be. It allowed me to “take on the mindset” of my daughter and begin a new relationship with her, although one born of pain. There were days when I told myself, “Mary and I are sisters in pain. Her pain and mine aren’t the same, but now I know a little better how she felt, and there’s still a closeness.” It was a step toward making sense of that which made no sense.

Walking in my daughter’s shoes was intensely demanding and required inwardness and silence, so opposite the socialization and wider involvement with life that are often-advised antidotes to suicide bereavement. Jordan and McIntosh point out that this second bereavement task is characterized by difficulties in articulating the intensity of grief and withdrawal in relationships. Those features were present and I now know, normal, in my time of shoe-wearing. (Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors, New York: Routledge, 2011, 263). 

I no longer read my daughter’s journals and haven’t read them for years. They rest in a box at the back of my closet. I’d like to think that Mary left them behind so I could stay in touch with her and build a new relationship, however daunting that task proved to be.

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At the wake following my daughter Mary’s suicide in 1995, a high school teacher said with apparent bewilderment, “But she handed in a paper just last Thursday!”

“It makes no sense,” I said. “Why would she be doing homework if she was planning to do . . . this?”

Another teacher explained that perhaps Mary had been ambivalent to the end, that possibly her resolve to die had wavered along the way. Overwhelmed by the brute fact of her suicide, however, I silently brushed off that theory. My daughter must have carefully planned and then moved directly to her own self-destruction without hesitating. The way I saw it on the night of her wake, the handing in of a school paper was her attempt not to arouse suspicion; that’s all.

But psychologist and clinical researcher Thomas Joiner argues that those contemplating suicide usually are torn between their desire to die and their innate will to live. “The suicidal mind is characterized by ambivalence,” he writes, “with competing forces tugging at the suicidal individual from the sides of both life and death.”

To illustrate, Joiner writes of several people who have gone over Niagra Falls or jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge and survived to tell about it: “One survivor stated, ‘I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable–except for having just jumped.’ Another said, ‘My first thought was What the hell did I just do? I don’t want to die.’ ”

According to Joiner, “Those who die by suicide have two simultaneous mental processes unfolding. One is mundane (and yet in a way incredible) and is happening in virtually everyone (including those whose deaths by suicide are impending): ‘Should I change jobs? What will I do this weekend? Should I get a new car?’ . . . The other is far from mundane, and is difficult for most people to even conceive of: ‘Why don’t I just die? It would be a relief. . . . Why don’t I just get it over with?’ ” (Myths About Suicide, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010, 64, 63, 69).

So now I understand a little better how it was possible to be in the same room with Mary hours before her death and not recognize in her behavior the devastation that lay in her thinking. After all, she filled water glasses before dinner, made a witty remark during dinner, and cleaned up the kitchen with her father after dinner. Maybe she was not merely trying to hide her thoughts; maybe she really was wavering between life and death.

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Even after eighteen years, the thought of my daughter Mary’s suicide can shock me. It isn’t that I’m not used to her absence, because I am. What continues to shock is that my teenage daughter arrived at a moment in her life when she was capable of lethal self-injury and seemed proud of it. Just after swallowing several dozen antidepressant pills, she wrote in her suicide note, “For once, I’ve done something decisive.”

I finally understand about suicidal “psychache” and its roots in perceived burdensomness and failed belongingness (see October 10, 2013 post). After many years, I accept those responses to the “why” question that haunts all of us who are left in the wake of suicide.

What I’ve had a harder time dealing with is the how: “How on earth did my gentle
daughter ever bring herself to destroy her own healthy body?” That’s the question that floats just beneath awareness only to surface occasionally with a jolt of anger and disbelief.

However, in the past several years, psychologist and clinical researcher Thomas Joiner has provided an insight about the “how” of suicide which goes some distance in explaining Mary’s final act: her acquired ability for serious self-harm. “My view [of suicidal behavior] involves habituation, or getting used to the fear and pain involved in self-injury,” Joiner writes. “This . . . leads to an acquired ability for serious suicidality, which, when combined with burdensomeness and disconnection produces high risk for suicide.”

Far from being an act of bumbling cowardice, suicide requires a certain kind of competence and courage, according to Joiner. “How does one get used to and become competent and courageous regarding suicide? In a word, practice. People who have hurt themselves (especially intentionally but also accidentally), who know how to work a gun, who have investigated the toxic and lethal properties of an overdose drug, who have practiced tying nooses, and who can look someone in the eye and show resolve about following through with suicide, are viewed here [in Joiner’s theoretical framework] as at substantial risk for suicide” (Why People Die By Suicide, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005, 40, 50-1).

With Mary, there was an arm-cutting incident nine months before her death that raised substantial fear in her father and me and brought psychiatric intervention. There was the moment Mary was seen looking through Physicians’ Desk Reference to learn, I think, about the toxic properties of her andipressasant medication. There was the moment at dinner a few hours before her overdose that she looked me in the eye for an instant. There was sadness in her eyes, but also, I now see, undeniable resolve.

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