Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘suicide’

When You Don’t Want to Live, but You Don’t Want to Die

“I hope I don’t wake up tomorrow morning.”

That is the classic thought of someone suffering from passive suicidal ideation. It’s not really a desire to die by suicide. It’s just a way of expressing how much it hurts to be you.

It’s not active suicidal ideation, the kind where you make an actual plan to kill yourself, even if you never put it into practice. It’s passive, meaning that you’d like to be dead but don’t intend on doing anything about it. It’s like asking the universe to take over and do it for you.

I’ve certainly had passive suicidal thoughts. Once I was very stressed and depressed while coming home from a business conference. I clearly remember thinking, “Maybe the plane will go down and keep me from having to deal with all this.” I certainly had no plan to rush the cockpit with a box cutter or anything like that. I just wanted my pain to be over. I wanted the choice taken out of my hands.

Another time I was at a business meeting in a swanky hotel that had rooms surrounding the lobby on numerous floors. I remember being on the 16th floor, looking down at the atrium beneath with what felt like idle curiosity. Would it annoy the hotel more, I wondered, if I landed on the carpeted area, necessitating a thorough cleaning or total replacement? Or would they be more upset if I landed on the marble floor portion of the lobby, making a bigger mess and potentially chipping the surface? (And was it just a coincidence that business meetings made me contemplate my mortality or did they just come packed with a lot of stressful triggers?)

At neither time was I actively suicidal. I’ve been there once too, and this was completely different. When I was suicidal, I had actual plans and plenty of means to carry out any one of them. I’m not going to discuss what those plans were. (The difficulty of choosing among them may have been what kept me from actually doing it. By then my depression had lifted just enough for me to get help.)

It was easy enough later to make jokes about the passively suicidal occasions and most people took them as exactly that – jokes. It was even plausible that they were jokes. I used to talk about jumping out a window, adding that it wouldn’t work because I lived in a basement. It was only much later that I thought about it and realized that I needed help even on those occasions. After all, isn’t pain the source of much humor and the downfall of many comedians?

Passive suicidal ideation is asking yourself “what if?” What if my troubles were over? What if my pain was gone? What if all I had to do to accomplish this was to let that bus hit me instead of stepping out of the way?

The important thing to remember is that someone passively suicidal is in great psychological pain and wants not to feel that way anymore. In that respect, it’s similar to cutting or other self-harm. And like those acts, it doesn’t end the pain at all. It may be a temporary escape valve, but it’s not a solution.

Passive suicidal ideation is certainly a bad thing and an excellent reason to see your psychiatrist or therapist as soon as possible. If you hear a friend or loved one talking this way, encourage them as strongly as possible to seek help. Let a professional decide if the person has passive suicidal ideation or active suicidal ideation. It is entirely possible that passive suicidal ideation will lead to the more active kind and even to death if it is not dealt with.

The Fire and the Window

fire orange emergency burning

Photo by Little Visuals on

When Anthony Bourdain died by suicide and I told someone the news, he asked me, “Why?”

I was taken aback. “What do you mean, ‘why’?” I replied.

“You know,” he said. “Did he have money trouble? Break up with his girlfriend? Have some disease?”

That’s a common reaction to suicide and it’s uninformed. Real-life stressors can contribute to suicide, but they are almost never the whole story. People die by suicide when the pain of living seems greater than the pain of dying.

Gregory House, the misanthropic, genius title character of House, M.D., once said, “Living in misery sucks marginally less than dying in it.” People who kill themselves don’t believe that. They believe the opposite.

The best metaphor I ever heard for suicide was the plight of people in the World Trade Center’s upper floors on 9/11. There were the flames. There was the window. And that was the choice. Suicide happens when a person sees only two alternatives and both are equally horrible, or nearly so.

The bullied child does not take her own life because she was bullied. She was in pain, for a variety of reasons that included bullying. It was a factor, but it wasn’t the reason. She was hurt. She was isolated. She was depressed. She couldn’t believe that things would improve. She wanted the pain to stop. She believed she faced the choice between the fire and the window.

The politician who dies by suicide in the face of a major scandal does not kill himself because of the potential scandal. He dies because he sees his choices limited to shame, humiliation, despair, and ridicule. He believes that what happens to him will be as bad as dying. He is caught between what he sees as the fire and the window.

Mental illness can make it difficult to see that there are other choices. The distortions of thinking associated with serious mental illness can make us see only the fire and the window.

The one time that suicidal ideation got the better of me and I was close to making the choice, my thinking was just that twisted. I was faced with a choice that seemed to me would ruin someone I loved. I thought that I could not live with either choice. One was the fire and the other the window.

My thinking, of course, was severely distorted by my mental disorder. The thing that I thought might rain destruction on the other person was much smaller than I believed. There were ways out of the dilemma other than dropping a dime or killing myself. If we continue the metaphor, the fire was not that big, or that implacable, or that inevitable, but I couldn’t see that. In the end, I hung on long enough for my thinking to clear and for me to see other options.

I don’t actually know what was going on in the minds of the souls who were trapped in the Twin Towers. I don’t mean to lessen the horror of their deaths or wound their families by speaking of suicide this way. The reality of their choice is so far distant from the choices that other people who consider suicide face.

But that’s kind of the point. People who die by suicide don’t see any other way out. If they seem to be responding to what most people see as survivable hurts or solvable problems, people say they can’t understand how someone that rich, that successful, that beloved, that full of potential could have not seen that help was only a reach away.

The person who dies by suicide doesn’t see the hand reaching out. Only the fire and the window.


If you are considering suicide, call the National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.


If that title wasn’t enough of a trigger warning, well, here goes:


Recently a small discount store a couple of miles from my house was caught up in a furor because a “Princess Wand” toy they were selling (ominously named an “EvilStick”) would reveal a hidden image of a teenage girl cutting her arm with a knife. Here’s a link to a local news story about it, and the report verifying it. If you want to, you can easily search out a copy of the image, but I don’t recommend it.


The “toy” is in horrifically bad taste (so, for that matter, is the snopes article’s headline, “Wristcutters – A Toy Story”). But items that adults consider dreadful can attract kids (remember the Garbage Pail Kids trading cards?). The image of the teenage cutter looks like a macabre Halloween costume rather than anything realistic (I’ve seen it), but we don’t really know whether a mistake, an error in judgment, a misunderstanding, or a prank at the factory that went way over the line resulted in the image on the toy. I kind of hope so, because if it was intentional, that’s way worse.

But bad taste is the least of the problem. The toy and the reaction to it have introduced the subject of cutting to a wider audience, if they choose to look beyond the squick factor and think about what the image really means. Cutting is a reality that’s mostly hidden from view.

Of course, it’s not always cutting. Burning is popular too. But cutting is perhaps the most common name. There are websites devoted to it, some offering help, facts, and information on quitting (see below) – but others glorifying it as, I don’t know, a creative expression of teen angst or something.

The name does keep changing. The last I heard, the “approved” psychiatric term was “Non-Suicidal Self-Injury” (NSSI). Self-mutilation, deliberate self-harm, non-fatal self-harm, self-destructive acts, self-inflicted violence, parasuicide, and self-wounding are all names for the dangerous practice performed by desperate people. The subject still isn’t talked about much and carries a huge stigma. As if the mental and physical scars were not enough.

Some facts: Self-harm is not attempted suicide, though with some miscalculation it can lead to serious permanent injury or death. Most people associate it with teenage girls, but I’ve know at least one man in his 50s who cut himself fairly regularly. It is not a matter of attention-seeking, since most cutters hide their physical wounds.

As I understand it, the practice results from one of two phenomena: the build-up of painful pressure such as perfectionism, or a feeling of severe alienation to the point of numbness. Cutting is a coping mechanism, though a dangerous, dysfunctional, and unsuccessful one, to deal with pain.

In my case, it was probably the numbness. I was feeling a lot of psychological pain at the time (college age) and irrationally wondered if physical pain would lessen that, or increase it, or feel any different. Like I said, irrational. All this was before I was diagnosed bipolar, had a therapist, or was medicated.

I made a few small cuts on my wrist to watch the blood well up. (Ironically, they became mildly infected; I neglected to sterilize the knife.)

I wasn’t suicidal. They weren’t that kind of cuts. I do know the difference. (I didn’t realize that I could have damaged tendons or nerves in my hand or arm, perhaps permanently.) It was more like when you stand on a bridge or balcony and look over the edge. You walk away. But you know the bridge is always there.

All told, I cut myself maybe three or four times. The scars are very faint now, white against my pale inner wrist, almost invisible. The memories are vivid. A friend who’s a psychologist once asked me why I stopped. “Because I didn’t need to any more,” was the only answer I could give. I’ve only felt the urge once since, and it was easy enough to push aside. But I recognized it.

I hesitated to write and post this, though I knew I would have to sooner or later, if I meant this blog to share my experiences truthfully. One of my dearest friends once said that if he ever found out I was a cutter, I would never hear from him again. Except for his publicly mocking me for being so stupid.

Naturally, this sort of reaction, though common, is not helpful. I didn’t tell him (or practically anyone else). And I didn’t tell him that at least two other people he knew – one fairly intimately – were also cutters.

Anyway, Tom, if you’re reading this and still feel the same, I guess this is goodbye – just not the long goodbye. I would rather skip the public mocking, though. I’ll just assume you’ve done it while I wasn’t there, mm-kay?

Cutting isn’t going away if we ignore it. It won’t go away even if we do talk about it. (Or mock it, or gasp in horror.) But understanding self-injury is a big step.

If you’re a cutter, or know someone who is, here are some places you can go for information, hope, and help:

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