Ok, screw it. Let’s Talk About Suicidal Ideation
Tom Pollock

I’m another one who’s been living with suicide for a long time. I started having thoughts about killing myself when I was about 10 or 11. I’m 45 now. So that’s what, 34, 35 years? Still here.

What’s worked for me to keep me alive so long? Well, it’s a combination of things. Firstly, I have a rule about killing myself: I’m not allowed to harm anyone else when I do it. Which means I can’t go out and play in traffic (because what has the poor driver done to me that I should make them responsible for my death?) or lie on the train tracks. I also can’t leave my loved ones wondering whether they were responsible for my death, so I have to have effectively “cleared” it with them.

Secondly, I’m a wimp about pain. I don’t like hurting physically at all (when I’m suicidally depressed, I’m hurting badly enough mentally that physical pain on top of that seems like far too much). Which means I can’t cut myself. So that’s at least two methods off my list fairly quickly. (Plus, being Australian, I’m not in the same position as someone from say, the USA or Canada when it comes to access to firearms).

Thirdly, as I mentioned, my suicidal thoughts come in tandem with depression, and one of the more … interesting symptoms of depression is what’s called in the trade “anhedonia”. Basically, it means “lack of pleasure”, and it’s the thing which results in a lot of the other symptoms of depression, like the lack of motivation (our motivation systems are largely driven by anticipation of pleasure — when you’re not able to feel pleasure, you naturally wind up not being motivated to do anything) and the consequent sluggishness. I’ve learned to use this to good effect when I’m feeling low — if I put a few extra steps into the process of killing myself on my “good days” I can generally make the whole wretched process too difficult to contemplate on “bad days”. (Essentially it’s the hillbilly solution: on the days where I have the desire to kill myself I don’t have the energy; and on the days where I have the energy, I don’t want to do it in the first place[1]).

Finally, I wound up characterising and personalising the “voice” of my suicidal ideation in my head. I call it a sales-demon for suicide, and his name is Charlie. Charlie looks a bit like a cross between a Mormon missionary and a door-to-door salesman (all white shirt and clean-cut looks and suit jacket about a size and a half too big for him). I don’t like high-pressure sales at the best of times, so what characterising that “voice” this way did for me was gave me a way of resisting which played into my self-image (as a person who isn’t a good target for sales tactics). As I like to say, I dearly hope I’ve cost Charlie at least one or two promotions. (Not that I’m vindictive, or anything like that…)

There’s also the minor consideration that my ancestry consists of people who were firstly, depressed (one grandparent was actually hospitalised for depression in the 1940s; another had all the symptoms of chronic depression for most of their life; a third was medicated for it late in life, and while the fourth was never diagnosed, they also didn’t come across as the most cheerful person on the planet), and secondly, rather long-lived (three out of four of my grandparents lived past ninety, the fourth was in his seventies when he died; both of my parents have already passed their threescore-and-ten). So one of the lovely little things I’ve inherited was a cast-iron survival instinct; this means the few times I’ve been serious about actually killing myself, and set out to do something about it, I’ve never really carried it through. A sudden epiphany (which led to me quitting the job which was making me suicidal) derailed my one attempt to kill myself with pills; and the two times I’ve contemplated death by water, I’ve wound up just watching the waves instead of taking the expected long walk off a short jetty.

These days, I’ve learned to recognise the suicidal thoughts as something of a mental equivalent to the tendinitis in my wrist — essentially, when I start thinking thoughts along the lines of “ain’t it grand to be bloomin’ well dead” (or to be more elaborate: that life would be so much easier to deal with if I were dead and didn’t have to deal with it), it’s a sign I’ve been over-doing things a bit too much, and need to take it easier and step up my self-care for a few days, or maybe a few weeks, until the symptoms die down. As I said up above, I describe myself as “living with suicide”, in that there’s always going to be a part of my brain set on permanent memento mori — I am always aware that one day, I am going to die. But not today, thanks.

(One final thing which keeps me alive: curiosity. I want to see how it turns out. On the good days, I’m wanting to see whether everything goes right. On the less good days, I’m watching with a cynical curiosity about how it’s going to go wrong this time. But I figure I’ll at least be around long enough to resolve my bet with myself about whether or not the final volume of the “Game of Thrones” novels is going to be written by Brandon Sanderson…)

[1] The reference is to the tune “The Arkansas Traveller” and the story in the song.

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