I've been volunteering at a Suicide Hotline in Los Angeles for a few months. You would think that this opportunity would be incredibly depressing and eventually make me, by association, suicidal. However, not only have I had the pleasure of meeting some of the most compassionate and insightful individuals while volunteering, I have had the pleasure of being reminded by callers, on a weekly basis, how to take steps to live a better life.
Lessons of Suicide: To return the favor to these callers, I thought I would document a few of the lessons they continually remind me of:
We all have (or will have) pain. Whether you are struggling with being depressed, anxious, are insecure, don't have many friends or family, have doubts, have made mistakes, are experiencing loss or any number of other emotions or feelings; you are not alone. What is different is your level of pain, and how you respond to these feelings of pain.
Our personal relationships, work situations, developmental history, friends, family, and past traumatic experiences vary widely from individual to individual. However, it is my personal belief (and friends of mine) that life means suffering and suicide is seen as an option for dealing with such pain. In a situation where I'm feeling like my life is spinning out of control, it is understandable how someone would just "want the pain to end" and take control to end what they believe to be never-ending pain.
The problem with this way of thinking is two-fold: one, as Daniel Gilbert makes clear in his clarifying the limits of our imaginations, a concept called "Presentism", in Stumbling on Happiness: "Your mistake was not in imagining things you could not know—that is, after all, what imagination is for. Rather, your mistake was in unthinkingly treating what you imagined as though it were an accurate representation of the facts." When someone is depressed, they see a future through their feelings of sorrow. Not truly acknowledging the fact that these thoughts are inherently biased. Secondly, given the duress and bias that the individual is suffering from, life varies and is thus uncertain, suicide is not.
Desire self-improvement and personal growth. Given "life means pain", a satisfying life is one which requires a considerable amount of work and effort. This type of effort is not just a one-time investment, but continual reinvestment and re-dedication. Though this effort and energy is considerable, it is truly diminished when one of your options is suicide. A simple commitment to wanting to change your daily life, in its own right, can be tremendously powerful.
Begin to develop skills in being more positive. It is very easy to be negative. Negativity also has a number of profound effects on us and those around us. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that when we dwell in negativity we can feel like we've tried everything under the sun, we find few reasons to live, and everything sucks.
Like it should! It should come as little surprise that if our focus is, for the majority of the time, negative and we expend little effort in changing our circumstances -- how could we possibly be happy? Negativity is a habit, and habits can become part of who we are and how we feel. If you are to develop habits, I would cultivate the habits of understanding what you truly desire, what makes you happy, taking risk and making strides to achieve these desires. If nothing else, you are at least improving your likelihood of being happy. Know your passions, interests, values -- What are the five things which give you as much energy back as you give to them?
Create connections. If you have a loving family, friends, partner, cat and dog, and neighbors, GREAT! Consider yourself lucky. Most of us have few of these and as we age, connecting becomes more challenging. Why is this? For starters, some of us are not in situations where we have a likelihood of meeting others of a similar age and interest e.g. not like the days of high school, college, sports, etc. Secondly, as we age our schedules get busier and busier. Work schedules take up 40-60 hours a week, chores engulfing another 10 a week, family and friends hopefully getting 10 hours a week, if you're lucky you are sleeping 50 hours a week, and what is realistically left? Many find themselves spending less and less time with others outside of work environments.
Unfortunately, not being connected can really take a toll on the psyche. In my own life, I have been working especially hard to go the extra mile and talk with people I don't know, strike up conversations with people at events and parties, people I pass on the street, reach out to acquaintances and friends to schedule events, and be sure to connect to my good friends on a regular basis. This not only benefits your personal well-being, but can also positively impact your career and personal interests. Not a bad side effect.
Related to this, trusting someone enough to talk to them about your deepest and darkest thoughts, feelings and desires, and not feel like they are going to judge you. This can be incredibly important. When asked about her friends and family, I remember a caller telling me that she "prefers and would rather be alone." Prefers to be alone but yet driven to the point of suicide? That insight changed the course of our conversation.
Be realistic in your progress and celebrate the mundane. It can be a horrendous experience when someone is working toward improving their life but then experiences a set back. This set back can be in the form of a significant or minor trauma, or even can come in the form of self-doubt. In these situations, it is really important not to be overly hard on yourself and to be patient.
Another important thing to remember is to celebrate your milestones, even if they seen incredibly trivial. Rewarding yourself for successes, growth and change is integral in building toward a better and more fulfilling life. These are a few of the lessons I've learned from people I've spoken with on the Hotline or through my own experiences.
Mental Health and Therapy Writer. As featured on Huffington Post, Vox Media and elsewhere.