Those who have not experienced suicidal thoughts, often wonder why someone has those types of thoughts, or what it feels like, and why the person experiencing those thoughts can’t just “turn it off,” as if it were as easy as flipping a switch.
What goes through one’s mind when one is feeling suicidal?
What does someone think, or feel, or experience, in the midst of an episode of depression deep enough that one feels suicidal?
I believe each person’s experience of suicidal thoughts is unique, but that many likely share common themes.
As someone who has experienced suicidal thoughts, I wrote the following poem, in an effort to share what was going on “in my head” during an episode. My hope is that this is educational to those who have not experienced suicidal thoughts, and helps to give a voice to the experience, to those who have.
I call this poem, “Mental Earthquakes” and after the poem, I include more about the thoughts that went into its writing.
This poem expresses my personal thoughts and feelings on the topic of suicidal ideation and, while I hope it can translate to how others experience these thoughts and emotions, I do not want to over-generalize, or trivialize the differences in experiences that I am sure exist. I hope you can receive the poem in the mindset in which it is offered — to honor and support understanding of one facet of the suicidal thought process.
by Alice Vo Edwards
Suicidal thoughts are not the problem.
They are a symptom.
What I have are mental earthquakes.
Times when opposing forces of thought
That seem as tough as tectonic plates
Crash against each other in my head.
Suicidal thoughts are the tsunami waves
That threaten to drown me.
Throw me a life raft!
Yesterday was not my first earthquake.
I’ve experienced them before.
Like a geologist, looking for seismic activity
I, now, know the score.
When I can feel my stress ramping up
On that internal Richter scale
Or sense small rumblings,
I have taught myself
To seek out which mental plates
Are in mortal opposition.
If I can find the source in time
Release a little tension
Perhaps a small volcano
Or a little shimmy or shift here or there,
I can avoid a Big One.
Don’t tell me I’m just depressed.
Medication might cover the symptoms for a while
But unless the tectonic plates of thought are shifted
The eventual eruption could be that much worse;
Avoidance might lead to a tsunami wave
So big that even your life raft
Cannot save me.
What I could use is another friendly scientist,
Working with me to seek out cues of seismic activity
Helping to raise the alarm
Can we not work together
On releasing the tension?
Let us share this life, today
So I don’t need a life raft tomorrow.
About This Poem
I know, for me, I often battle with depression when I am struggling with conflicting thoughts. It’s like an earthquake is happening in my brain: two strong, opposing forces are hitting each other, and neither wants to give way. The “force” of the conflict is so strong in my head, even if I am not fully able to verbalize what both sides of the conflict are yet, that the urge to kill myself is almost overpowering. Like an earthquake though, when I hold on through it, eventually the pain dies down and I can recover.
One example was when I dealt with suicidal thoughts and depression during my first marriage. I had made a decision that I did not ever want to get divorced, because it went against the tenants of my faith, and I was also afraid of being like my parents, who had each been married and divorced five times. I saw getting divorced, even once, as beginning that road towards being like my parents. Unfortunately, my first marriage was a train wreck. We had been to marriage counselors five times in less than five years. Somehow, even with premarital counseling, we had managed to pair up, two people with diametrically opposing views on how to live life at some fundamental levels. We were so unable to come to any common ground, that the last marriage counselor said we were at “octagonal planes” ie — there was no point of intersection on which he could find common ground for us to agree. I was unable to convince myself, mentally, to be able to be happy, when I was constantly in conflict with my own values and desires in my marriage on a daily basis.
The mental conflict between wanting a way out of this constant state of conflict, but barring myself mentally from the only exit point, divorce, caused recurring “earthquakes” during which I nearly attempted to commit suicide on multiple occasions (I have not made an attempt yet, I am so sure I will be successful if I do, that I have been able to keep myself from trying). I had missed my own mother, who could not be with me when I was a child because she had lost custody of me during my parent’s divorce. I thought about how much I missed her, when she was not with me, against her will. I imagined how much worse my daughters would feel, growing up without me, knowing that I had chosen to leave them. Imagining the harm that could do to their lives was enough to keep me from killing myself.
I am very stubborn. We were broke so I couldn’t afford therapy. I kept trying the different depression medications and counselors, and dealing with these mental earthquakes of suicidal thoughts for over a year. Finally, I realized, divorce was not the worst thing I could do; killing myself was. My children would much rather deal with parents who were divorced, then dealing with a dead mother. Sometimes we just have to come to a place in our own head, where we are able to unlock a door and move onto a new path to find relief and new hope. When I began the process of proceeding with extricating myself from that place of feeling that I had no choice, I began to heal. It wasn’t overnight because while depression is a mental illness, it has physical effects and causes changes to the body that make stress management difficult especially after such a prolonged period of high stress where my adrenal systems were totally exhausted.
Sometimes it has taken several bouts, or months of dealing with an issue before I am able to resolve whatever issue I was dealing with and go back to experiencing better mental health. While no one other than myself is measuring, and I have not been tracking it, with conscious effort at building better self-awareness and mental resiliency, I am experiencing less of them, and recovering faster. I know this doesn’t mean I am healed; I have to stay alert so that I can overcome them in the future.
When trying to work with family or friends, it is often challenging because they don’t “get” it. I can only imagine that they don’t experience the same type of mental earthquakes; perhaps their brains process these types of situations differently. My goal with writing this poem was to help express in a new way, what feeling suicidal feels like, to me, and the type of help that I personally think would be more helpful than a purely medication-based approach.
As a happiness advocate and researcher, I am strong supporter of education, building community, and supporting things that connect people and break down the barriers that keep people from communicating effectively in creating the necessary social support systems to minimize the number of people whose suicidal thoughts progress beyond ideation to successful attempts. I hope this poem adds another element to your understanding of the condition, in yourself, or in someone else, and can be used as a tool to aid in communicating thoughts and feelings in a less-self conscious way.
If you know someone who has suicidal thoughts, you can use this poem as a tool to ask them if they experience “Mental Earthquakes”, as the author does.
If you are someone who experiences “Mental Earthquakes” and have had difficulty expressing this to someone else, feel free to share this poem to help them understand what you are feeling.