Approaching suicidal thoughts as a catalyst for change
Written by Melissa Barsotti, LCSW, EMDR certified trauma therapist in San Diego, California
For some of us, suicidal thoughts are experienced as constant noise looming in the back or the front of the mind. For many of us, these thoughts are disturbing because the thoughts go against our values. This is considered an ego-dystonic experience, ego meaning your day-to-day self, the self that you know of.
My intent is not to die. I have so much to live for, and I also have such great responsibilities, mainly to mother my son, whom I love with all of my being.
If death is not imminent, meaning that I have no plans for ending my life, then it is safe for me to look at what is happening in my life or in my body or system, that is making part of me want to "kill itself."
The onset of my suicidal experiences may actually be an emotional flashback. At some point in time, I actually was helpless, overwhelmed beyond my capacity, and there may have been a desire to end something. Maybe not my life, but something in my life. I do not have the memories for this, but I certainly do feel it in my body.
Now, when my body is taxed beyond it's capacity, when I feel helpless, I not only feel the weight of that moment, but the weight of the past at the same time. This is an emotional flashback. Knowing this can be helpful in understanding the weight, the heaviness, the pain, the torture, the discomfort of having thoughts of suicide.
So, if it's safe to explore my thoughts, perhaps I could ask my system the following questions:
What is happening in my life that I want an end to?
What are the experiences I am having that feel so torturous?
What power do I perceive that I have or do not have?
What would I no longer have to deal with if I was "dead?"
The answers to these questions will provide my therapist and I so much to work with. Exploring these questions with my therapist is actually activating and inspiring me in this moment.
For therapists reading this, if your clients are not in imminent danger, and you have collaborated with them on how to manage a crisis, allow your client the space to explore and be curious about their suicidal thoughts. Perhaps you can use some of the questions I posed in this blog. Perhaps you could read this blog together and have an open discussion.
Thank you to my therapeutic community. This post was inspired by the feedback I received from my colleagues on the dissociative disorders listserv. Thank you for your support.
System: For most of us with developmental trauma, we are so busy surviving our childhood, that there is no space or encouragement to develop a self. We may have to take on the thinking patterns of our caretakers in order to anticipate threat. We anticipate catastrophes that are likely because we have experienced catastrophes in our young lives. Rather than a fully formed identity, we often experience a system within. There is also often no guidance and no encouragement to strengthen our intuition because we have to suppress our intuition, as we are at the time, minors; helpless, at the mercy of adults who have not done their own healing.
From NAMI: How to talk and listen to someone experiencing suicidal thoughts
American Association of Suicidology