Suicide, Trauma, the Hemispheres and Empathy – April 2014
This month’s teleseminar addresses the riddle of suicide, and the ways that empathy can support us, whatever our experience may be. I have written here that when I was in my early twenties I had the sense of being so exhausted that death seemed like the only possible rest that would be huge enough to make a difference. There was a never-ending weariness in my bones. That was the closest I came to thinking about suicide: a repeated image of driving my car off a cliff and soaring into what I thought would be absolute peace.
My exhaustion was the result of my toxic default network. The research of Matthew Lieberman shows that we, as humans, have an automatic thought pattern that takes over with as little as one second of undirected brain time. It tries to keep us socially oriented and aligned in our world. Depending on how we were raised, and on the tone of our parents’ own default networks, we will treat ourselves with warmth and respect, or, at the other end of the continuum, with scorn and self-hatred.
Disgust, self-revulsion and self-dislike are exhausting emotions to live with for even moments at a time, let alone day in and day out. Hopelessness and meaninglessness are close companions. All of these feelings take us away from our own life energy, leaving us moored without fuel in an ever-decreasing pool of resources.
The mystery of suicide includes this difficult relationship with self, but also includes the effects of traumatic brain injury, side-effects of medications, economic and employment difficulties, “suicide contagion,” and events of early trauma.
In the last year, several of my close friends have lost a family member to suicide, and a number of the women that I have worked with for multiple years in my prison volunteering have attempted to kill themselves. Worldwide, the economic downturn has increased rates of suicide across the board. The feelings of devastation, grief and bewilderment for those who are left behind are mind-numbing, incomprehensible, and go on and on. There is shock enough at just an attempt. When the effort is successful,
it almost seems like the earth has opened up and swallowed the missing person whole.
We can’t change anything that has already happened with empathy, but we can begin to acknowledge the enormity of the experience of loss for survivors, and we can learn to support everyone involved, no matter who they are.