I’ve heard the analogy that people who take their own lives are like the people who were jumping to their deaths to escape the heat and fire during 911. They didn’t really want to die; they just wanted to end the pain. This is actually true for many more people than who will admit it. The one time I had this feeling was during the worst part of my marriage. I was in so much pain that I found myself thinking that if I lived to be 80, I only had 50 more years to go. Death marked the end of my suffering. Just the fact that I was thinking this way scared me enough to take steps to drastically change my life by getting a divorce while having four small children. I’m glad I did.
This kind of thinking is a death wish. I read recently on a forum that a suicide survivor (whose loved one had died from suicide) had a death wish until she actually nearly died from sepsis. This death wish dissipated in the face of the risk of actual death. She then realized that she didn’t really want to die. So a death wish is not an actual real desire. It’s merely a coping mechanism to deal with difficulties and pain. The death wish is kind of like a fantasy of the pain ending.
It’s just one more step from a death wish to suicidal thoughts. The idea of death brings a feeling of relief, but it is not an actual desire to die. One cancer patient posted on a forum that he had had thoughts of taking his life until he was diagnosed with cancer, then he realized that he actually wanted to live. Another poster said that her son had died from suicide, and she thought that she wanted to join him until she was diagnosed with cancer and realized that she also actually wanted to live. Some can no longer entertain a fantasy about death bringing relief when death itself becomes real for them.
There is one part of the mind that creates a fantasy of relief through death that is in opposition to another part of the mind that is a true desire to live. For most people, the true desire to live keeps the fantasy of death at bay. The fantasy of death is not a true desire but an impulse.
The dichotomy between desires and impulses can be seen with dieting. The true desire is to eat healthy and lose weight. The impulse is the desire for a donut. With an impulse, there is a seduction where the conscious self is being tempted and tantalized by the pleasures that giving into the impulse would bring. The true desire influences the conscious self to resist the impulse. This can go back and forth for hours until a decision is finally reached to give in to the idea of eating the donut. As you walk to the kitchen, your mouth is watering and you are fixated on the enjoyment of the donut with all thoughts of sticking to your diet shut out of your mind. The moment you finish the donut, your true desire comes back to the surfaces and chastises you for giving in to your impulse.
This is a very similar process through which suicide attempters go. The true desire is to live. The impulse is to die because death will end their suffering. The impulse to die tempts and tantalizes the conscious mind to give in to the impulse and find relief for the suffering. Once the decision is made, the true desire to live is shut out as the attempter is fixated on the relief that death will bring. In 70% of cases, the decision to make the attempt is made less than one hour prior to the attempt, and in 24% of cases, it is made in less than 5 minutes prior. They don’t really want to die. They are giving in to an impulse.
Just as a diet cheater feels regret immediately after eating a donut, the suicide attempter often feels regret almost immediately after the attempt is made, depending on if the method chosen allows for this. People who have survived jumping to their deaths off of the Golden Gate Bridge have reported that they felt immediate regret as the were falling or even just milliseconds after letting go of the handrail. This sudden desire to live immediately after attempting to die can be explained by the difference between impulse and true desire. This also explains why more than 90% of first time suicide attempt survivors followed in one long term study eventually died from other causes besides suicide. They didn’t really want to die.
Understanding this now gives me an explanation for why my own mother would drive out to the desert, take her pills, “snap out of it,” drive back home and call 911. She was giving into an impulse. Her attempt to die was real and genuine in the moment. This was not merely a cry for help or ploy to get attention. She really tried to kill herself, but she then tried to save herself from her own suicide attempt because her true desire was to live. She didn’t really want to die.
Hopefully, this understanding can also help other suicide survivors understand how a loved one who seemed happy and gave no indication of suicidal thoughts would suddenly kill themselves. The act seemed out of the blue because the impulse may have been out of the blue. Other times, the person may have been able to resist the impulse, but in that moment, it became irresistible.
The big question is whether being equipped with this knowledge could actually make a difference for a potential suicide attempter in being able to resist this impulse. Does it make any difference to know that an impulse is not a true desire? Does it make the donut less irresistible to know that wanting it is merely an impulse and not a true desire? Suicide prevention will likely gain more ground by focusing on recognizing and reducing the underlying suffering that makes the impulse a relief in the first place than creating strategies for how to deal with people who are “already up on the ledge,” so to speak. There would be less people to talk down from the ledge if the attempters knew there were other effective means to reduce their suffering. No one wants anyone to die.