Suicide is not painless...not to me
May 27, 2011 2:23 PM   Subscribe

What is the best way to support a close friend that has suicidal tendencies and to handle the feelings I have about it?

My friend claims to plan on killing himself in a few years and says it's a rational choice. He wants people to respect that choice. He's not terminally ill.

He's my friend, therefore I would like him to live and be happy. I love life, and think he's wrong. I feel pre-grief when I think about his death.

How on earth should I handle this? Has anyone out there ever experienced this situation from either side and is there any hope of him changing his mind? Is there anything I can do for him?
posted by sucky_poppet to Human Relations (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
What is his reasoning?
posted by TheBones at 2:34 PM on May 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

If nothing else, suggest he reads The Myth of Sisyphus, if he hasn't.
posted by 3FLryan at 2:50 PM on May 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

If he's in so much pain now that he plans to end his life at any point down the line, treat it like you would if he said he was going to do it soon because there's no reason to believe that it won't overwhelm him much sooner than his stated goal.

It's suicidal ideation. If you know he has a therapist or psychiatrist, they should be contacted and informed.
posted by inturnaround at 3:01 PM on May 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

I'm going to go with what he says and suggest you simply respect his choice. You do't have to respect the actual choice itself, just his right to make it.
posted by sunshinesky at 3:27 PM on May 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

I had that plan too. Please don't let your friend remain as unhappy as I was. Tell someone, his family, or a therapist or counselor.

This is technically his choice. But nobody should make a choice that permanent without being of sound mind, which your friend is not.
posted by trogdole at 3:36 PM on May 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Firstly, recognise that you can't control another person's behaviour. If he chooses to do this or chooses not to do it, you can't control that. Don't take responsibility for his choices, whatever they may be, onto your own shoulders.

In his instance, it may well be a rational choice. It might not be a common choice, but that doesn't prevent it from being rational. It's also his right to make that choice, irrespective of his circumstances. You do not have the right to dictate what happens to someone else's body, painful though it might be for you to watch.

It's reasonable for you to ask him to speak to a therapist, once. Accept his decision about that, whatever it might be. Don't hector him about it.

Find yourself someone to talk to about this. There's also a lot of stuff out there on the internet that you can read up on that might help you understand the situation a little more. Your first priority should be looking out for yourself at all times. If you know that something painful is going to happen to you, it behooves you to prepare yourself for it.
posted by Solomon at 3:37 PM on May 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

He wants people to respect that choice.

He can want this all day long, but you are not required to respect this choice. I would be monumentally pissed if any of my friends did this to me and would treat them the way I would anyone who threatened suicide--get his family involved (if a good idea) or call the authorities.

I am so sorry you have been put in this position.
posted by murrey at 3:46 PM on May 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

This is a very controversial topic. I strongly believe that suicidal ideation and actions for non terminally ill people are a mental illness and public health issue, not a "rational choice" or anything you need to respect. At this time, what he's telling you would fall under suicidal ideation, which is relatively low risk behavior since he doesn't have a plan or means to commit suicide. If he ever presents information about a plan, timing, means, etc, call emergency services.

Also it sounds like you have some emotional fallout from this as well -- you might want to seek out theray for yourself. This is not something to be taken lightly, or a rational choice to be respected.
posted by sweetkid at 3:48 PM on May 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

*therapy, not theray.
posted by sweetkid at 3:57 PM on May 27, 2011


Everyone makes their own decisions. Even if this were to happen (and that's a very big IF - I've been waiting for my ex bf/now stalker to off himself for 18 years...) it is not in your control in any shape, way, or form.

Believe me when I tell you that this is not not not your decision or responsibility. It's a false choice you've been presented with. The unspoken demand is "Save (serve) me or Else."

Let this person and the Universe deal with these shenanigans.

posted by jbenben at 4:15 PM on May 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

The good folks at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK, are happy to talk to folks like you with friends who may be thinking about suicide. If you're not in the US, your country probably has a similar resource.

Is there anything I can do for him?

Yes. Listen. Let him talk about it, and reflect back what he's saying. The process is actually called "active listening" and it's easy to read about it or get training in it. It's one of the best tools around for helping folks sort through suicidal feelings, mostly just staying calm and allowing the person to express what they're feeling without seeing people they like "RUN" away in horror or try to shame them. But start with a call to the Lifeline; they're definitely there for you, too.
posted by mediareport at 4:45 PM on May 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

You haven't said how old you are, but I'd suggest he go to the wake of someone his own age who killed himself and see how many people are there who's lives are forever altered by a terrible decision by someone they cared about.

I went to a wake for an 18 year old kid who committed suicide just last year. We waited an hour just to get in the door. If he knew just how many people cared about him, I think he would have changed his mind. His parents and people close to him are shells of their old selves. And will be that way for a long time, maybe forever.

Suicide "might" be justified in two cases. Severe pain that can't be stopped with any drug, legal or not, or Masada. Just about every other case is a horrifically selfish act.
posted by JohntheContrarian at 6:03 PM on May 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

You haven't included the reason he wants to kill himself. I'm not sure if it's just an oversight or if you don't know. If you don't know, you should definitely ask him. Have a real conversation with him about it and try to understand his thought process.

I have a friend who also plans to kill himself in a few years. I have no idea if your friend is anything like my friend, but my friend, let's call him Adam, is an extremely rational person with no depression or any other sort of mental illness. A thoroughgoing materialist, Adam views life as inherently meaningless and spends his time engaging in various pleasurable activities trying to distract himself from the meaninglessness of life. His highest priority is avoiding pain and suffering. He is now young and healthy but recognizes that one day he will not be. He would rather kill himself while he is happy and able-bodied than suffer through any sort of protracted illness.

While I enjoy Adam's company and friendship, I understand that I certainly have no right to his existence, certainly no right that would outweigh his desire to avoid profound future suffering. You may view your friend's choice as deeply selfish, but I would imagine that he would view your attitude as even more selfish. Your views on life may not be his. Not every person who kills himself is necessarily insane, unless we define "insane" to include all persons who have killed themselves. There are people who are perfectly happy and sane who simply would rather not exist. This is not a particularly novel or hard to grasp concept if one views existence and being as in no way preferential to non-existence and non-being.

My point is that you should talk to your friend without judgment. Make a concerted effort to understand where he is coming from. Perhaps the best thing you can do for him is simply to listen and be a friend.
posted by -->NMN.80.418 at 6:04 PM on May 27, 2011 [9 favorites]

I recommend reading this parable, The Bridge, by Edwin Friedman.
posted by ainsley at 6:09 PM on May 27, 2011

There are people who are perfectly happy and sane who simply would rather not exist. This is not a particularly novel or hard to grasp concept if one views existence and being as in no way preferential to non-existence and non-being.

This isn't an existential/philosophical/rational issue. This is a medical issue. I'm only insisting on this because if you continue a relationship with this person, without getting them any kind of help, you are setting yourself up for enormous pain if this does go through ( like I said, ideation is low risk and it's possible he is going to change his mind on all this.) People who have attempted/committed suicide have often shown signs of trying to get themselves help, or regret, no matter how firmly they had wanted to die. The body fights to live.

I really think it's unfair that your friend did this to you. It's one of only a handful of scenarios:

1) He is being glib/sarcastic
2) He needs help but doesn't know how to ask for it and this is his way of reaching out
3) He is not serious about suicide but is trying to manipulate you in some other way

In the case of #1 and #3, run from this person fast. In the case of #2, try to talk to him about his feelings and encourage him to get help, but as I said above, contact authorities once it becomes a means/plan stage discussion, not just ideation. In any case, this isn't something that's fair to you and asking you to "respect" it in the same way you'd need to "respect," say, converting to another religion/deciding not to ever have children/any other rational choice is just not the same thing.
posted by sweetkid at 6:14 PM on May 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

If your friend tend towards rationalism, and can enjoy an excursion through the thickets of identity philosophy/psychology, get him to look into the idea of the relational theory of identity. The boiled-down version is that our identity is not a discrete thing that is with us from birth to death, but is rather a constantly shifting thing that is shaped by those around us, as we shape them. Without others, there would be no "you," essentially.

So while yes, in a very technical and amoral sense your friend does have the right to what happens to his own life and the termination of it, does he also have the right to irrevocably harm those who love him? Does he have the right to catastrophically alter the identities of his family and friends? Even now he's doing damage enough to you that you "pre-grieve," and frankly that's a dick move. Does his right to manage his life trump his obligation not to ruin his friends'?

It's a bit of backhanded logicplay, and there isn't universal agreement on it, but if it at least makes him think about what a selfish and cruel thing he's thinking of doing to everyone he knows, then it's worth a bit of semantic jujitsu. It might also be something to look into when choosing a therapist, which is a fantastic idea.

In the same situation, I would say that while I acknowledge that he has the right to this course of action, there is no way on God's green earth that I would respect it, support it, or not do everything in my power to see that it doesn't happen. Actually following through would not only contaminate my opinion of him post-mortem, but would likely utterly poison every single memory of our friendship, and he has no right to that kind of violation.
posted by MShades at 6:27 PM on May 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Isn't is also a 'dick move' to practically guilt someone into staying alive, for your own benefit? 

Do you disagree with your friend's reasoning, or just the fact that they desire to kill themself? If you are determined to get them to change, It could be more meaningful to your friend if you were able to refute (or at least counter) the reasoning behind the decision rather than the choice itself. 

Is this reasoning something they are willing to talk about? If not, perhaps that implies that their decision isn't as bound by logic as they imply and maybe they would find some help useful.

I disagree that the decision to move on cannot be made rationally, independently and that the terminal I'll have the sole right to this level of self determination. We all have to die someday, it could be in some accident today! Why should we not be able to clock out on our own terms?

Surely planning when and making arrangements, having the opportunity to say goodbye to those who you wish to say goodbye to and having the chance to get all of your ducks in a row before you shuffle off the mortal coil is easier on those around you than a sudden, unexpected death? 

In the end it's not an immutable decision (yet!). There is no obligation to go through with the death on the given date. Perhaps the best thing you can do to deal with your friend's decision is to show them why it is that you love life so. Do things, have fun.

Disclaimer: I too have chosen the date of my eventual demise.
posted by Five O'Clock at 7:55 PM on May 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

If he's open to reading them, these two books changed my life and pushed me out of my own head/obsessions/depression:

1. Man's Search for Meaning (Viktor Frankl)
2. The Brothers Karamozov (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

Other than that, you need to decide what you are able to handle emotionally, and make a choice whether or not you can stay involved with him. If you choose to get some distance, you'll have to fight against feeling guilty if he does end up going through with it. Obviously, it's not your fault, but it's a human tendency to think we could have done something different. As many others have said: You can't control him or his choices.
posted by guster4lovers at 10:47 PM on May 27, 2011

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK

It is not normal or rational to want to kill yourself.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:28 AM on May 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your friend was totally me. My friend was totally you.

He stuck around, thank god. He tried to talk me out of it, but let me know that he would forgive me if, after everything, I didn't make it through. That let me know that he cared about me, his friend, not me, a body that had to keep walking around and talking to him and dragging itself on no matter what. He drew my attention to the fact that the suicide stuff wasn't constant, it was more of a cyclical thing that bore some relation to what was going on in my life. He told me again and again, over several years, that he would respect my ultimate decision, but that I really should make sure I was fully informed before I took it, and that involved exposing myself to everything that might persuade me to stop - all the arguments that were out there about rational suicide, all the different ways of living I might try to find out if one might be tolerable. A couple of times when things were really bad, I rang him up and asked him to talk to me, distract me, something to keep me going on just a little bit longer, and he did. Eventually, he told me that one of the things I should really try out first was going to a doctor and getting treatment for depression, just so that we could both be absolutely sure that my 'rational' reasons really were completely, 100% rational. He went with me to the doctor's surgery, and when I panicked and clammed up he helped me to explain myself.

I thank him all the time, about as much as I can without making us both feel too awkward. Every year on my birthday. When he's feeling particularly bad about himself. Who saves a life, saves the world entire.
posted by Acheman at 5:13 AM on May 28, 2011 [20 favorites]

sweetkid gave you some excellent advice with the 1 2 3 list and so did mediareport.

One of the things about planning suicide is how alone you feel (which is why mediareport really nailed it with the active listening advice). When I was planning it I told no one but kept wishing I could talk about it with my therapist. I wanted her help explaining to the people I love why suicide was necessary.

I never mentioned it to my therapist as I likely would have been involuntarily committed, but my hope in sharing what my thinking was like during that time period is to give you insight into how distorted depression and/or PTSD can make your thinking.

I decided (and the right antidepressant helped) that I have to live with the pain. I can not commit suicide because to do so would be to inflict a similar kind of pain onto the people I love. And I can not imagine being the cause of that kind of pain.
posted by Scale 0 at 9:54 PM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

The boiled-down version is that our identity is not a discrete thing that is with us from birth to death, but is rather a constantly shifting thing that is shaped by those around us, as we shape them. Without others, there would be no "you," essentially.

But identity is formed during childhood, and those of us who have had certain experiences are said to have "identity damage". How does that fit within your interpretation of relational theory of identity?
posted by Scale 0 at 10:19 PM on May 30, 2011

But identity is formed during childhood, and those of us who have had certain experiences are said to have "identity damage". How does that fit within your interpretation of relational theory of identity?

It... fits perfectly, really. No one ever said that every influence is of an equal effect. The barista who screws up your latte order may make you grumpy for an afternoon, but ultimately his influence is nil. The father who beat you every night of your life will have an irrevocable effect. Those who hurt you had a hand in shaping who you are - without them, you would be someone different. Maybe better, maybe worse. You have no way of knowing.

In any case, while it is true that many of the foundations of identity are laid down in childhood, I think it's inaccurate to say that it's "formed" there. Are you the same person you were when you were ten? I know I'm not, and I'm thankful for it. In some cases I have changed dramatically, in others not so much. People have been horribly abused in childhood and gone on to horribly abuse in turn. Others suffered horrible childhood abuse and went on to be paragons of kindness. As they say in those investment ads, "Past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results."

And IANAP (I Am Not A Psychologist) but I have a semantic problem with the term "identity damage." It implies that there is a "correct" identity for you to have, which there isn't. Identity isn't like a car, which has an ideally designed form that you can check all other cars against. Sure, if you find your Toyota one day with a moose through the windshield, then it's "damaged" - you know what it's supposed to look like, and this ain't it.

There is no form that your identity is "supposed" to take. Unlike the moosified Toyota, there is no "undamaged self" to compare yourself to, and that's true for every human who has ever lived. Either we're all damaged to one degree or another and there exists some lucky perfect person to serve as our model, or identity is one of an infinite variations on a form, some more - or less - pleasant than others. For the sake of convenience, we draw a circle around the variations with the most similarities and say, "Everyone outside this circle is messed up," but that doesn't make everyone inside the circle "undamaged," which is implied in the term you used.

Some folk have scratches that can be buffed out, others need a major overhaul, but they all need work. And unlike your Toyota Alces alces, you can't just go out and get a new one because yours doesn't work well anymore.

To bring it back on topic, then - if this is the metric by which the decision to live or die is measured - i.e. "Everyone is normal but me," or "I'm broken and I can't be fixed" - then it's horribly flawed and short-sighted.
posted by MShades at 7:45 PM on June 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

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