I have, for a long time, wanted to kill myself. My social conditioning tells me that I should qualify that statement so as to avoid causing undo worry on your part. So I shall.
Let me start by saying what I do not experience. I do not plan my own death. I do not live in a state of mind which is particularly depressive or melancholic. I do not have scenarios in which suicide becomes an option. I do not have a life circumstance that lends itself to despair. In other words, I don’t have any apparent, obvious reason for thinking about killing myself. Nonetheless, the thought does arise on a fairly consistent basis.
My suicidal ideation, if we should call it that, is actually rather petty and stupid. It does not arise when life deals me something particularly difficult, such as the death of someone near to me. Rather, the fantasies usually arise when life becomes annoying. Like when I have to wake up for work in the morning. Or when the banker tells me that my branch can’t exchange American dollars for Indian rupees. Or when there’s just too much traffic.
Yet, for a long time, my response to suicidal ideation was that there must’ve been something severely wrong with me. That I was broken. That traumas from the past had rendered some part of my brain irrevocably damaged.
These ideas of brokenness have fertile ground for growth. Society told me that I shouldn’t feel this way. That it meant I was depressed. That I had some sort of mental illness and that I needed, by all means, to seek professional help.
It is difficult to talk openly, especially with loved ones, about such a topic. The sense of brokenness carries with it a deep sense of shame. I have survived drug addiction, the death of friends, and years in prison. How could I, after all of that, say that I was having a hard time? That, despite the fulfilling and remarkable life I had built, I was still unsatisfied with it? Did I have no gratitude?
I was, eventually, forced to talk about it. Mostly because I’d searched the internet for information about suicidal ideation and then left it sitting in my browser for my wife to see. And I did, finally, seek professional help.
I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew. I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace.Hermann Hesse, “siddhartha”
I was fortunate enough to find a therapist who was also a Dharma teacher. My sessions with her fluctuated between talk therapy, somatic experiencing, and one-on-one meditative training. I told her about my history with suicidal fantasies and the circumstances in which they arise. I told her about my relationship to suicide and the people I’d known that had died because of it.
“It sounds like a coping mechanism,” she said.
You see, the death of my dear friend in 2003 was my first exposure to suicide. In a way, it opened me up to the possibility of suicide as a way out. I hadn’t really thought about killing myself before that. Suddenly, I had options.
Shortly after my friend’s suicide, I relapsed into heavy drug use and thievery, eventually leading to my arrest in 2005. I was facing the rest of my life in prison, a rather unimaginable prospect. Sitting in jail, I no longer had the substances that would’ve enabled me to avoid the suffering related to my predicament. On one hand, I turned to meditation. And, on the other, I turned to suicidal ideation.
For the entirety of the year and a half that I faced a life sentence, I comforted myself with the idea that I would never actually have to serve that life sentence. I’d kill myself before I’d allow it to happen. Whenever the fear, anxiety, or depression became too great, I’d imagine ways to die. I’d notice a tree branch or a railing, a sheet or a cord, the temporal frequency of the guards’ welfare checks, and fantasize about ways to get it done. It was unhealthy but it worked. Temporarily at least.
Monks, whatever a monk frequently thinks and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of his mind.Dvedhavitakka Sutta, Majjhima nikaya 19
I did not receive a life sentence. Even though the catalyst for my suicidal ideation had been removed, the fantasies about my death remained. I had thought my way into an inclination of mind. I directed the comfort of suicidal ideation toward lesser forms of suffering.
It didn’t help that people around me continued to die at their own hands. Suicide was an all-too-common occurrence in prison. A lifer hung himself in a cell next to my own. A youngster on my tier who’d been caught with a weapon killed himself after finding out that new charges would be pressed against him. And a lifer who’d found out that his mother wouldn’t be allowed to visit him ever again did a swan dive from the fifth tier. The consistent presence of suicide, the apparent normalcy of it, further reinforced my inclination to self-soothe with such fantasies.
There is no need to explain, in detail, the progression of my suicidal reveries. As time marched on and life circumstances changed for the better, the ideation did not disappear. Instead, I redirected it toward increasingly mundane experiences until, by the time I decided to seek a therapist, it had become my knee-jerk response to many of life’s simple discontents. And, as soon as my perpetual suicidal ideation made its way onto my radar, it became on object of self-loathing. A way to organize a narrative about my brokenness.
The fact that I came to know of my ideation as a coping mechanism gave me a certain degree of relief. It allowed me to see that, as unhealthy as it may have been, it was nonetheless a strategy my mind had developed to help me feel safe. I could have compassion for myself. But the ideation had become a sankhāra, a mental habit that conditioned future responses to experience. And sankharās have roots, let me tell you.
If its root remains undamaged and strong, a tree, even if cut, will grow back. So too if latent craving is not rooted out, this suffering returns again and again.Dhammapada 338
Initially, I was able to hold myself lightly when the same old thoughts would arise. But as years went by and my Buddhist practice deepened, I found myself increasingly bothered by them once again. The story about brokenness was resurfacing, this time with a slant towards the efficacy of my own practice. I must not be doing this whole meditation thing right, I thought to myself, because this should be gone already.
I ended up speaking with my teacher about it. “Perhaps its an expression of vibhava-tanha,” he said. “That’s universal and blameless. Maybe it’s like a wound that’s healing slowly. Whatever the case, the moralism around the thought is extra.”
Of course. Vibhava-tanha, craving for non-existence, craving for annihilation. It is one of the three types of craving the Buddha warned about. The idea that such craving is universal and blameless, a natural element of the human condition was earth-shattering for me.
The problem wasn’t the fantasies unto themselves. I have as little control over the initial arising of suicidal ideation as I do over the way I’m reminded of prison every time I see a ramen noodle. I certainly don’t beat myself up over that sort of association.
The problem, then, was in the fact that I believed what I’d been told. That I wasn’t supposed to have these thoughts, ever. That these thoughts, when expressed publicly, would have negative social consequences.
But here’s the thing: the more often I tell people I have suicidal ideation, the more often I see just how universal it is. And the more apparent its universality becomes, the more compassion and understanding I am able to bring to those moments when it arises.
I’d love to tell you that this story ends with the end of my suicidal ideation, but that’s just not the case. Just yesterday, I thought about killing myself when I realized that I needed to go to Home Depot to buy a box of screws. It just doesn’t quit.
What has started to change is my relationship to the thoughts when they arise. Most of the time, I simply note them as I would any other sensation during meditation – “craving, craving” or “fantasy, fantasy”. Sometimes, I thank them for trying to comfort me. Sometimes, I jokingly remind them that killing myself over an $8 box of screws is pretty ridiculous. And sometimes, I dig a bit deeper and see that the desire for unpleasant experiences to go away is universal, that my own unique history is what gives expression to this particular form of arising, and that any shame I may feel about this follows from a lot of unnecessary social comparison.
We spend so much time comparing our insides to other peoples’ outsides, its no wonder we feel alone. The shame associated with suicidal ideation lends itself to a lot of hiding, even from loved ones, a fact which further entrenches the sense of loneliness. But I am not alone and, if you’re one of the many people who experience something similar, you are not alone.
It is time to bring the insides to the outsides.