The End of All Things, or, Notes from the Suicide Hotline
When I was in university, I spent a year working San Francisco Suicide Prevention's crisis hotline. I needed volunteer hours for a class and picked the hotline because at one point in my youth I'd found help through a similar resource. When I tell people about my experience, they expect it to have been depressing. While there were certainly very difficult, haunting moments, the work was largely heartwarming and entirely rewarding. Most of our callers were experiencing suicidal ideation but were not actively suicidal; they didn't have a plan, they were just lonely. They found comfort in the compassionate human connection they were met with on the line and expressed rich gratitude for it. I had callers who'd worked out my schedule and would check in with me weekly. It was an honor to be a safe, warm person for them.
Another bit people find surprising is that we were trained to never tell people not to kill themselves. We would ask people to agree to call if they were forming a plan to hurt themselves, but otherwise the tactic was to help them find something to do that was more interesting. Sometimes a conversation would go, "Have you read anything good lately? I was at the library the other day and picked up ____________. It's really great! The library is such a peaceful place. Have you been lately?" It wasn't always so simple and it may sound grossly flippant in the face of death, but it worked for people so many times. They needed someone to hear them and offer a new idea.
A few years later, I was in massage school and was asked to tutor a young woman. She was having trouble connecting with her clients; her quality of touch was cold, mechanical. As we worked together, as I listened to her speak, watched her move, it became apparent to my well trained senses that she was profoundly unwell. She was there but not there, her vitality a small, flickering candle. I expressed my concern to our school officials. I knew the sound and feel of the desire to die, and it had eaten up most of this human heart. Of course they couldn't disclose her personal details, but told me that people were taking care of her.
I met with her on Friday. By Monday she was dead.
This shook me badly, more so than any of my most difficult calls on the line. I had shared touch with her, I saw the consuming darkness in her. I knew. I knew and I warned people who might be able to help. I went through an exhaustive, professional training in Suicide Prevention & Crisis Management, and worked on one of the nation's biggest hotlines. I had helped countless people find a way back to Life, but none of that mattered. I couldn't help her.
This is one of the most important, humbling pieces of my training, though. No matter how much we might want to, we will never be able to save or control other people. Humans were equipped with freewill and will ultimately always do the thing they find the most compelling. Someone who truly wants to die will die. And this is the last surprising bit of my time on the line; while we were all there to help people choose to live, we also came to believe in a person's right to self-determination. I would never encourage it, but no one makes it to the point of suicide completion casually. This choice is found at the bottom of a very deep, dark well. It's hard to fathom how enveloping this feeling is unless you've lived it, or been with someone in this acute moment of pain. No other choice or reality exists for them.
If you're suicidal, I won't ask you not to kill yourself. Everyone must determine the course of their own lives. I can't make that choice for other people because I'm unable to bear a decision so weighty. However, I will ask you to make an agreement; if you're considering hurting yourself, please connect with a compassionate voice outside your own head before you do. You may find that they bring to light a compelling alternative that you'd yet to consider. If you don't feel comfortable talking with someone you know, there are trained, caring professionals (like I was!) who are there to hear you:
In the US: National Suicide Prevention Hotline
Outside the US: International Suicide Hotlines
There are no easy answers to this incredibly complex topic. My biggest takeaway from my time working with people in pain and in the learning I've done since is that the intimacy of being known is essential to human health. We must have connection and community. The natural human need to be seen, heard and loved has been derided as "needy" but this is the voice of those terrified of vulnerability. It is a vulnerable thing to be known, but we cannot be well without it. Please let other people see inside your heart. Please be curious about the state of other people's hearts. All we have is each other. We're in this together.
Have you read a good book lately? Have you watched an electric sunset or smelled the earth after a rainstorm? Have you eaten a delicious bowl of questionable meat soup on a Vietnamese street corner? Have you taken a walk around the block, and watched the way birds sail in defiance of gravity? Have you pet a good doggo? I don't know what lies on the other side of death, but I know that life is rich with wonder and mysterious potential. The longer I live the more hungry I become for the unveiling of that mystery. I invite you to join me in not being content to die until you've unfolded every secret clue, soaked in every pleasure and eaten everything.
Stay hungry. Keep moving. I love you.