by Renae Griggs
“Each suicide drama occurs in the mind of a unique individual.” ~Edwin Shneidman
Any carefully considered discussion about suicide must be carried out with the explicit understanding that the decision to end one’s life is filled with colossal complexities. The multidimensional aspects of completing suicide have been studied and theorized by great minds that do not categorically agree. No doubt in part because this is not an equation for which experts can develop a replicable mathematical or scientific formula to prove the validity of their hypothesis. There are simply far too many variables. People who carry out their own death take with them the unique characteristics of their own path to that choice, and we must respect that fact. Each with their own story…their own motivations…their own individual calculations and beliefs.
In a 2001 LA Times article, Edwin Shneidman, commonly referred to as the father of suicidology, was quoted as saying,
“Suicide is a complex malaise. Sociologists have shown that suicide rates vary with factors like war and unemployment; psychoanalysts argue that it is rage toward a loved one that is directed inward; psychiatrists see it as a biochemical imbalance. No one approach holds the answer: It’s all that and much more.”
With that in mind, considering the social taboo attached to suicide as well, we are often grossly misguided in our interpretations of death by suicide as well as our tendency to oversimplify conversations about it. All the while, tens of thousands die in this manner every year. A little perspective – in 2013, in the United States someone died by their own hand every 12.8 minutes.
One of the prevalent oversimplifications I’ve heard at nauseum over the past twenty plus years of my own investigations and studies of suicide is: “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Franklin Cook, Editor of Suicide Prevention News and Comment, shares my disdain for this neatly packaged synopsis that rings like a catchy but totally misleading marketing tagline for an ad campaign. I couldn’t agree more with what he said when explaining the need to cease and desist:
The statement violates the age-old principle that what we communicate ought to be designed specifically with a focus on the audience for whom the particular communication is intended.
“Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” might strike someone who is not suicidal as a clever statement, and it might be a helpful thing to hear from the point of view of someone who already believes (or is likely to be convinced) that his or her problem is temporary. But the audience for this anti-suicide ditty is, of course, people who are suicidal.
As Edwin Shneidman points out in his Ten Commonalities of Suicide, “The common purpose of suicide is to seek a solution.” So emphasizing to a suicidal person that suicide is a permanent solution is as likely to be unhelpful or even harmful or dangerous as it is to be helpful.
The point being, of course, if the person contemplating suicide saw their situation as temporary they would not be electing to override every self-preserving molecule of their DNA to self annihilate. We are hardwired to survive. So this does not come easily, or without an enormous strength of will and as some have described fearlessness. Which is why characterizing suicide as a cowardly act is…well, another indication of what little effort we put into truly understanding this complicated manner of death. The results of our lack of understanding are far-reaching. Not only do we tend to define a person’s life through a distorted lens focused almost exclusively on the manner in which he or she died, but we also alienate the individual’s loved ones and increase the gravity of their loss with the social shame associated with suicide.
So how then do we bring change to our misconceptions?
First, proceed with compassion and leave judgment behind. Before we can legitimately seek truth and understanding, it’s essential that we check rigidity at the door. When I led homicide investigations, a fundamental principle of operation had to be that I came into the situation with an open mind as free as possible of any predisposition. It was imperative to begin with a blank slate and follow the evidence wherever it took me, rather than try to shape the evidence around my beliefs. This is a good practice for anyone who really wants to learn anything. It is a nonnegotiable commitment in dissecting the dynamics of suicide.
Theoretically speaking, there are a few basic pieces of the puzzle as presented by those most notable in the study of suicide:
- Psychologist Edwin Shneidman, previously mentioned, built his theory around what he called, “psych-ache,” which can be described as intolerable psychological pain. He believed that looking into a person’s history, understanding their complete story, and identifying the emotional circumstances surrounding their decision was the way to understand how they reached it. Dr. Shneidman is credited with the term, “psychological autopsy” which captures those elements and defines the task for investigators and researchers.
- Psychiatrist Aaron Beck approached his theory from the perspective of hopelessness and depression. He created a measurement to determine the degree of despair resulting from a sense of being overwhelmed by life events as a predictor of suicide.
- Thomas Joiner, a psychologist, focused on capacity plus desire to complete suicide. His theory provides some explanation for high rates of suicide in certain populations such as soldiers and police officers. Joiner proffered that the capacity to conquer the survival instinct comes from the repeated exposure to pain and death, along with the practice of overcoming fear.
Of course there are more theoretical arguments and much greater intricacies to the ones I have listed, so I would encourage research beyond this brief synopsis. What I have offered here establishes the basic cornerstones of current understanding. What I can also tell you is that in my in the trenches experience as an investigator and later in conducting numerous interviews with those who survived attempts or seriously contemplated suicide, as well as my advanced academic studies, I have found validity in all of the theories I’ve mentioned here.
Still, regardless of how informative the research may be there is so much distance between most people and the realities of suicide. That’s why some years ago I decided to publicly talk about suicide from a first person, “been there and almost did that” perspective. It seemed important to the discussion. You know, providing an up close personal account of what “psych-ache” actually feels like, exactly how Joiner’s theory of developing the capacity for “fearlessness” allows the override of self-preservation, and perhaps most profoundly how hopelessness can make a person feel so dead inside it drives the decision to complete the task by releasing the empty flesh that remains.
It just seems like it helps us to be able to attach a face, a voice, a three dimensional tangible, touchable, and relatable being to elusive, abstract topics. Particularly those subjects that elicit the kind of feelings that suicide does. And not insignificantly being able to attach meaning to my experience by potentially helping even one other person by sharing it expands my own perspective exponentially.
Of course, my story like any other is unique in the telling and incorporates a lifetime of various shades of gray along with a rainbow of colors across the mosaic of experiences, beliefs, and behavioral characteristics that in some way influenced my decision to kill myself. That all encompassing discourse must be reserved for another format as it is far too dense and protracted for this venue. So I’ll be deliberately and pointedly focused on the bare bones here, open to elaborating in the future as opportunity avails and the need presents.
The day, as I recall, was like any other. Until it wasn’t. The specific circumstances that surrounded the change are not a part of my vivid memory of the rest. In fact, as far as that particular day is concerned the only portion of it I remember at all are the few moments that I teetered at the brink. Those ticks of the clock are indelibly impressed upon my mind’s recollection, as clear as if no time had passed between then and now. I was in my early thirties, so it’s been just shy of twenty years ago now. Interestingly, the distance has not lessened the metallic taste I get in my mouth whenever I handle a handgun.
It was a sunny Florida day, a mirror image of the one I wrote about last week when I worked the suicide of a woman close to my age at the time. I walked outside with my 9mm pistol, got into my pick up truck and closed the door. It was quiet in the cab. Parked in the parking lot right in front of the villa I was living in, the silence in the truck was a sharp contrast to all of the activity just outside the door. Exactly like it was in the woman’s home that day as she lie across her bed, pill bottles nearby, lifeless by choice amid the heaviness of a dark, quiet room.
I wasn’t thinking about her. I wasn’t thinking about anyone. I was instead consumed by the sense of relief I would feel from the excruciating pain I could no longer bear, and the soul crushing weight of hopelessness that convinced me this was the only way. In that moment I believed with every fiber of my being that the internal conflict I had been experiencing, and the debilitating psychological and emotional pain that filled my every waking hour would never go away. That it now defined me. Owned me. I was a prisoner of its power of persuasion. The message in my head repeated over and over and over again what I failure I was and how short I had fallen from what was expected of me. Worthless. Ashamed. And abandoned by a God who I had continued to believe in until then, despite witnessing the most unconscionable evil deeds, devastating destruction, and incomprehensible suffering of His creations.
I had been a walking shell of a human being for some time. Numb. Emotionally checked out. Wanting desperately to feel, but not. The capacity to face uncertain circumstances without fear had morphed into intentional risk taking to see how far I could push it…hoping that some sense of trepidation would emerge to let me know I was still human. That, combined with my lack of emotion, had been rewarded and positively reinforced by my job as a SWAT cop and Major Crimes detective. And now it had brought me to the tipping point. I was standing at the precipice of the loss of all sense of humanity. A trade off for the badge I so proudly wore. But that wasn’t all that led up to this moment. There was so much more I wouldn’t recognize until years later.
I wasn’t thinking of any of that either. It was just me and that 9mm. One trigger pull away from peace. That’s all there was. The incessant noise in my head, like static on a radio that distorts every piece of music, would finally cease. The nightmares every time I closed my eyes would give way to restful sleep. The constant fight to belong and to make a difference with the backdrop of guilt and shame of being gay and the struggle of being a woman battling the odds to measure up on merit while still maintaining some semblance of gender authenticity would forever be surrendered.
Finally, solace from feeling as though when it came to helping people find justice, I was instead revictimizing them by exposing them to a dysfunctional system where truth was not a valued commodity. Hard pressed to see anything good in the world, I was war torn and saw no hope of relief from the relentlessness of it all.
My one reliable that 9mm a conflict resolution tool I had been trained to use as a last resort.
And so I sat there calmly in the driver’s seat, aware of my own breathing as I raised it to my face. My mind was empty of thought. My only feeling resolve. This ends today. I gently placed the barrel between my teeth and put my finger on the trigger. Peace awaits. Just one final pull. I closed my eyes and began to apply pressure. I’m almost there. Wait. What’s that? I felt a strange sensation on my face. I froze. I sat perfectly still while a lonely tear trickled down my cheek, slowly making its way to my chin and finally dropping in my lap. Having not shed a tear for a few years, it was startling to me. I no longer believed I was capable. Shortly after the first tear, came another. And then another. I still sat there motionless with that 9mm clenched in my teeth.
I felt a soft but firm touch on my hand that held the gun. My eyes darted to the right to see what it was, but I didn’t notice anything. There was a gentle pressure taking my hand and the gun away from my face and down toward the seat. As I sat there watching, a cascade of tears began to pour out and I heard a distinct voice in my ear say,
“You are not dead. You’re still here. And there is much work yet to do. Don’t give up.”
My right hand resting on the seat by then, I let go of the gun and cried a river. So much of that pent up pain came running out when the floodgates opened. And yet, a great deal remained. The most important thing that happened in that instant, though, was the light of hope I believed had gone completely out peeked its way through the darkness of the tunnel. Just a tiny glimmer, but when it comes to hope that can be more than enough to stand between life and death.
And so….(deep breath).
As a framework to help close this with some clarity, I’m going to work off of a couple of statistics:
Generally, studies show that 24% who attempt suicide decide less than 5 minutes beforehand, while 70% decide within an hour of doing so. In addition, 90% of people who survive suicide attempts do not later kill themselves. These stats have caused some to conclude that suicide is an “impulsive act.”
But bare numbers often lack dimension and texture. So let’s examine this briefly using my experience to flesh this out just a little.
Consider the theoretical factors of personal history, emotional circumstance, psychological pain, hopelessness, depression, capacity to move past fear, exposure to pain and death, and desire. Let’s start with desire. Mine was not to die mine was to stop the pain. That is also true of the overwhelming majority of men, women, and children I have interviewed over the years as well.
This pain I speak of is almost impossible to describe. I’m sure that’s why Dr. Shneidman made up his own word for what people explained it felt like – psychache – because there really isn’t a single word in the English language that captures the essence of it. Imagine the worst physical pain you have ever felt. Internalize that, and contemplate living with it all day every day while trying to function normally, so as to hide it. For me, it was less of an ache and more like a constant stabbing into my psyche. Maddening at times, and impossible to appease.
Sleep was no friend, either. So I didn’t do much of that. Each time I would drift off, it was as if this pain was unleashed without any inhibitions or distractions. It was ruthless. The nightmares played out somewhat differently each time, but the theme was always the same. Someone was trying to kill me. I was on the run all night long.
Obviously there is much more to my experience than I’m able to cover in this post, but here is the final point I want to make about misconceptions and misinterpretations. The suggestion that suicide is an impulsive act implies that the decision arrives abruptly, absent context. In my experience, as with so many others, that is a distortion of the truth.
Little by little as my pain increased, hope decreased, and the fear of dying faded into the distance. This was a gradual process. For a long time the needle seemed to hover at barely manageable, but my resistance to the increasing pressure of the pain was waning and the tiny pinhole of hope that things would change was slowly closing. I was on this cliff for a good while, so close to the edge that it wouldn’t take much at all for my feet to slip. I would go as far to say that by that point the distance between surviving or not was so minuscule, it was indiscernible. So in my case, as I suspect it was in the case of the young woman whose body I stood over and asked what changed between yesterday and today, a puff of wind, a blink, a millisecond, a fraying of the thread, an ever so slight nudge just enough to snuff out that tiny pinhole of hope. And that’s when the decision turns into action.
I cannot overstate the power of a grain of hope. It literally saved my life.
About the Author: Renae Griggs is a former Major Crimes Detective and SWAT cop who left her law enforcement career after 13 years to supplement her expertise and advanced training in criminal behavior with academic pursuits focused on the mental health and well-being of police personnel and their families.
After graduating with distinction in 2000, with a B.S. in Psychology and Minors in Criminal Justice and Forensic Psychology, and upon being selected as a Truman Scholar, Renae went on to attend graduate school at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. While working on her M.A. in Forensic Psychology, specializing in violence and police psychology, Renae launched the first of its kind national nonprofit to stimulate a transformative dialogue around the increasing incidents of domestic violence and suicide in police families, which she believed could be decreased by influencing the police culture’s attitudes about mental health and by creating proactive strategies and policies reducing the stigma of help seeking.
Renae is an award winning social entrepreneur whose work has been recognized by some of the most prestigious global initiatives supporting social justice movements, and she is currently providing expert forensic consulting across the State of Florida.