Today, Robin Williams’ death was ruled to be suicide.
I feel that this should qualify as a content warning, but just in case: Hey. Content warning.
Having recently returned to social media (for better or for worse), this meant a flood of mostly well-intentioned but largely not-helpful dialogue about suicide in general. So, here’s a thing: I am a trained, certified suicide intervention counselor, and spent 4 years at ContactLifeline as a volunteer. I have taken something like 200 suicide calls, and had 800 hours of shifts, not including my time as a rape crisis first responder. I was sometimes the last person to speak to someone while they lived. I was sometimes the person who tried to keep them fighting for their lives as EMT’s arrived. Most of the time, though, I was just a human being my callers didn’t know, and didn’t really need to know, who listened without injecting my own feelings and bullsh*t and needs into a conversation that really (really) needed to be about them, just then. I, myself, survived a suicide attempt that came after years of dangerous ideation about death, freedom, love, religion, shame, worthiness, and my place in the universe. I also struggled a lot with putting myself in high-risk situations following my sexual assault, nearly a decade ago, and would qualify those choices as passive, but suicidal. I made the choice to become a volunteer because I wanted there to be more calm, reasonable dialogue available for people along that spectrum of emotion that didn’t make them feel like attention-seeking nutjobs, immature teenagers, or selfish a-holes because seriously people that is way not helpful.
The other thing is, I’m a marshmallow princess. I have all the feelings, all the time, for everyone. If I’m talking to you (over e-mail, on the phone, in person [whoa in person], wherever/however) I am probably having at least the number and degree of feelings you are having in that moment, plus my own background marshmallow biz for lo, I am a benevolent and squooshy monarch who is always having marshmallow biz. In seriousness, I’m highly sensitive to emotional states and stimuli, both in my own self and in other people. One of the excellent fringe benefits to my ASIST training through ContactLifeline was that I learned to give myself the equivalent of a graham cracker foundation and some chocolate goo-glue. Yeah, whatever, I’m a s’more.
What I mean by that is, ASIST training focuses on your ability as a helper to put your shit away, and focus entirely on the needs (stated and tacit) of your client. One of the most damaging tendencies untrained helper-types have is to relate too closely to a client, and suddenly, the contact will end up being about you, the helper. This is damaging. When someone is in crisis that is so acute that they are considering, legit, ending their lives — you know, the source of all the joy and pain and wonder and excitement and dread and everything they could ever possibly access ever? That thing. They’re thinking of ending that. — what they typically need most is to be heard by someone who is calm, compassionate, and completely focused on them. Engaged, active, reflective listening typically results in nearly instant (but almost never total) de-escalation. Opinions and advice are what helpers might be most inclined to provide (me, too!) but that urge needs to be resisted.
The reason we might instinctively reach for opinions and advice is twofold: 1) we legit want to help; but also 2) focusing on concrete responses (and control) helps distance the (usually squooshy) helper from the feelings of their client. These feelings are often way intense, and for sensitive types, creating a buffer that is focused on the practical rushes through the unpleasantness of abiding beside someone in a state of despair that they feel they cannot share with anyone at all ever because apparently sadness, despair, and hopelessness are signs of moral weakness what the CRAP, and into the I AM HELPING AND HAVING AN IMPACT OH HELL TO THE YES Y’ALL, which, let’s be honest, feels way better (helper-wise) in the short-term.
Don’t do it. I’m serious, f*cking don’t, dudes.
What needs to happen, truly, is that more conversations need to happen that look like this:
Person A: I am seriously considering ending my life. I think talking about that is a good idea, but I’m scared that this is going to become about issues and not about me, and I sort of need this to be about me for a little while.
Person B: I’m so glad that you want to talk about this, and I’m honored that you would come to me with those feelings. I am going to do my best to put my own feelings aside while I listen to you. Please say whatever it is you’re feeling, and I’ll do my best to ask questions that will illuminate the conversation. If there is something that feels uncomfortable to share, tell me, and we can work around it together. I am with you, and I am here for you.
That right there is a paraphrased summary of basically every suicide call I have ever taken in my life. It happens differently, is about different stuff, and the callers have varying levels of introspective self-awareness and personal need assessment and expression capabilities, but that right there is basically the first 1-20 minutes of a suicide call. And most of the work on Person B’s end is not about knowing or doing jacksh*t. It’s about convincing a perfect stranger that you are On Their Team.
The fact of the matter remains that as helpers, we have to come to terms with the fact that control is not the answer, either for us or for our clients. We can reach out, we can support, we can care, listen, reflect, and suggest. But we cannot make a life that is unbearable bearable. This person will hang up, and they will go back to lives that truly, we cannot comprehend or inhabit. We are voices in the darkness that say, “You are valuable, irreplaceable.” But that is all. We can ask someone to contract for their own safety — essentially promising us that they will live one more day in the turmoil and pain that they feel is robbing them of hope, joy, and agency. We do so in the hopes that the clouds will part, that something… anything will change. We do so in the hopes that hearing from person whose hand you will never hold, whose arms will never encircle you, and who will disappear into anonymity after a four hour shift that the world will change and be different if you leave will spark the fires of self-preservation, and of rebellion in the face of what seem today like insurmountable odds.
But sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes life just ravages a person. Sometimes they face chronic pain, loss of agency, debilitating illness, irreparable loss. I understand, because it almost happened to me. And my survival was not strength of will or clarity of purpose. It wasn’t even overcoming adversity. It was chance. It was luck. It was odds that were stacked in favor of me living. Which is why I hate questions about selfishness, regret, and cries for help. Because lookit: THEY ARE CRIES. FOR HELP. Not for judgment, not for recrimination or blame, not for victimization or pity or speculation. This cry says only, “I am drowning.” And the first thing you have to do with a cry for help is listen. Without reservation. Even when it breaks your heart. Even when it shatters you. Even when you know that you are impotent and small in the face of their circumstances. It’s why I recommend we shy away from being an immediate responder to people we love in this particular circumstance. Because F*CK THAT I WILL SAVE YOU. Only, you know, I can’t. And I might be so invested in this that I could hurt you (or myself) if I try.
The Suicide Prevention Lifeline fills this gap where someone who is hurting deeply can speak to someone without the baggage of a real life relationship about the feelings no one wants to discuss. If you ever need the number it’s really easy: 1800SUICIDE. Calling that number alerts the helper on the phone (usually) that you’re at risk for self-harm, and allows them to prioritize your call.
I don’t know where to land. Maybe the answer is ‘nowhere, rabbit.’ Maybe these thoughts don’t have landing gear.