Notes of a Degenerate Dreamer: How To Handle A Suicidal Person
By Sebastian Vice
In my 37 years on this intergalactic ghetto, I have three failed suicide attempts under my belt. I’m not an expert on much. But when it comes to suicide, I have a doctorate.
You may ask: what did you learn? Nothing. I know that’s not the answer most people want, as we are narrative driven creatures, wanting to divine patterns and meaning into things. We want some kind of lesson from someone in extremis. But I have no lesson to sell. My suicide attempts merely confirmed that pain and suffering is meted out without reason. It made me neither a better, nor a worse, person. It merely changed me (I’d say progress is largely a myth anyway—things change, sure, but change doesn’t mean progress).
Recently, someone asked me to write a post about counseling people through a suicide attempt. I’d made comments on the correct way of doing it on The Bastard Sons of Oedipus podcast, but never followed up.
Here’s my follow up.
First, ignore what the psychobabble people tell you. In my experience, these people are like children fumbling with chainsaws. Two years ago I had a professional psychologist—this person had a Ph.D in fucking psychology—ask me how to deal with her suicidal friend. She told me what she was doing which mostly amounted to pathetic attempts to gaslight someone into happiness. She took my advice, and to the best of my knowledge the person is still around.
Second, it should be noted if you’re dealing with a suicidal person, you’re dealing with an individual at an extreme spectrum of the human experience. And if you’ve never been at this level of hell, you have no idea what it’s like. Unless you’ve attempted suicide, or otherwise been in such an extreme situation, don’t fucking pretend to fathom what that person is going through. You don’t know. Dare I say, you haven’t the faintest fucking idea, of the ear-piercing symphony of nightmares that is cranked up and echoing between the person’s skull.
Lesson one: don’t say you understand. You don’t. And a suicidal person knows you don’t. Even if you’re like me, and attempted it three times, don’t say you understand. You may understand the emotion behind it, but everyone lives in a different world since each person’s brain was formed under different conditions.
Lesson two: don’t say things will be better. How the fuck do you know? You don’t. Don’t patronize a suicidal person. Even if what you say is true, they won’t hear of it. All they see is blackness. You must understand, at the suicidal stage, one is in such a dark place, it would make a mockery of a black hole.
Lesson three: prepare to be ripped apart psychologically, emotionally and spiritually. If you’re dealing with a suicidal person, they will rip your fuckin’ life apart. Often, though not always, one is suicidal to solve a problem. Many harmful or destructive behaviors are answers to a problem. Addiction? An answer to the problem of pain (broadly construed). We are all addicted to something, aren’t we? We may not drink until our livers fail, but we might be addicted to gambling, work, videogames, etc. Why? To fill a void. And nature abhors a vacuum and demands it to be filled. And drugs—be they literal or something else—fills that void. They provide relief from pain.
If you can understand that, then you can understand why suicide is an answer to pain. In the suicidal person’s mind, the oblivion of death is the ONLY way to end it. Make no mistake, these people are in a pain you can’t fathom (unless you’ve also been there). And nothing soothes it. It’s so deep in their marrow, they are so lost in the darkness of their own mind, to them, death is the only respite. If you still can’t appreciate this point, imagine the worst pain you’ve felt, now magnify it as far as your imagination allows, and remove coping mechanisms such a disassociation. Now, imagine this going on for months, and years, getting worse and worse. This is the place a suicidal person lives.
Returning to the point: Why will a suicidal person rip your life apart? Imagine this. Suppose you were shot and bleeding out, and as you were on the way to the ER, someone was blocking the door. You’re in severe pain, and someone is in the way. What do you do? You make them get out of the way, right? This is how a suicidal person—consciously or unconsciously—will view you. You’re in the way of them ending their pain. In that moment, you’re not their friend or relative. You’re an obstacle.
So, again, prepare to be utterly drained emotionally. They will say, and do, whatever it takes to get you out of their way. It’s nothing personal. In their mind, at that moment, or moments, you’re just in their way.
What can you do? Be a friend. That’s it. It’s simple, but far from simplistic. You can’t help them, but you can be with them. When I say be with them, I mean totally, utterly completely, be with them. Put away your cellphone. Be 100% present. And listen. I mean really listen. And don’t talk. Just be there. Sit with them in the dark. Let them lash out. Let them purge. Let them rip you apart (again, trust me, it’s not personal).
At this point, it’s worth saying: nothing can prepare you for what you’ll walk into. If this essay serves any purpose, it’s shitty bootcamp. You will witness shit you can’t unwitness. And it will be a shock to your system. And it will be ugly. And it might drag on for days.
Be comfortable being uncomfortable. If the person wants to sit on the couch beside you, silent, for 6 hours? You do that. If they want to yell and scream and break shit? Let them. Now, obviously you take measures to ensure they don’t follow through with the actual act of self murder. But besides that? Give them the message it’s perfectly ok to go ape shit.
Most importantly, don’t judge them. Please. As I said above, no two people live in the same world, since no two people’s brains are formed in the same environment. You live in a different world than they do. Realize this: they’ve been through so much it overrides the evolutionary instinct to survive. What you’re seeing unfold is the final psychic disintegration. The masks society makes us wear comes off.
You can’t help a person out of their hell. You can walk with them, but they have to be the one to claw their way back up. Whenever they’re ready.
To put this all very simply: Be a friend in the richest sense of the word.
Sebastian Vice is the founder of Outcast-Press, an indie publishing company specializing in transgressive fiction and dirty realism. His poetry and short fiction has, or will, appear in Punk Noir Magazine, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Close To The Bone, Terror House Magazine, and the anthology In Filth It Shall Be Found.