Existing for others is not enough

A frequent response to those contemplating suicide is to remember friends and loved ones, how much one is needed and how much one would be missed. Some people have a sense this statement is true and that the depressive emotions are inaccurate, so seeking therapy, medication, or riding out the episode will result in returning to whatever emotional mode is typical. Others don’t believe this sentiment, and they potentially live the remainder of their natural life in despair or decide to commit suicide. I imagine there are more responses to “don’t commit suicide because people love you,” but the above mentioned are the common ones I’ve encountered.

Prior to chronic pain, I was content to seek therapy, medication, and ride out suicidal thoughts. Having a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, in my experience, prompts mental health professionals to respond quickly to suicidal thinking. I’m personally okay with being sedated out of my mind because of an antipsychotic for a week or two until I can return to my usual self, but I’ve always been presented with that as a choice and it’s one I’ve made on more than one occasion. I love my family, and I figured one less death by suicide in our ranks was a good thing so I was going to do what worked for me to stay happy.

I have this way of gauging depression and mania, and it’s related to insight as defined by mental health professionals. It took almost ten years of mindfulness practice to learn to do it. If I can stop the wordy mental chatter for a few minutes and notice emotions and physiological processes that I experience when my mood is off-kilter, it might be time to call a psychiatrist. I have no idea if that makes sense, but I find it effective.

Then came a time when I wanted to die and those emotions and physiological processes weren’t there. I could still have fun doing activities I enjoyed, my appetite was okay, no weeping, no euphoria, no rage, nothing out of the ordinary. Except wanting to die. I had spent my late 20s in incessant pain, and I didn’t like the idea of potentially living decades with snapping ankles in my tendons and feeling as though I had taken a nice, long walk on a stones. Fingers that stung, elbows that had felt as though they had been bludgeoned, and a lower back muscles in constant spasm. I knew I was capable of living a productive life while in pain, people do, many of whom live in more discomfort than me.

I just didn’t want to live. Simple as that.

My mind went to the “don’t commit suicide because people love you” statement. I sent my therapist a rambling e-mail at three in the morning (I’m a night owl), listing all of the good things in my life and how I wouldn’t commit suicide because I didn’t want to hurt my husband and my daughter but somehow I just did not want to live like this for decade upon decade. To sum up her response, she suggested I create my own reasons for staying alive.

After reading her reply, I realized I felt as though I was living solely to avoid causing emotional harm. While it wasn’t a bad reason, it wasn’t enough. It was then I found myself tasked to determine what made my life meaningful. The most terrifying aspect of it was not that I didn’t see inherent meaning in life, which would unnerve a lot of people. It was that my existence was contingent on accepting what I have lost to chronic pain, and what I will never have because of it.

C. Elizabeth Modelewski is a graduate student.

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  • Ron Smith

    Hi, Elizabeth.

    I really wish I knew what to say. It sounds as though you are resigned to death.

    As I contemplated your logic it all seems to be weighed in the scales of you and everyone else? If it is that then it seems you’ve tipped it in your direction.

    But I wonder about the honesty in your statement ‘I love my family?’

    Maybe there is love, but of a kind different than I think about. Storge is the kind of love that draws a mother to her baby she’s nursing at her breast. Philia is the kind of love between friends. Eros is romantic love such as between a husband and wife.

    All these can be hijacked into self-serving motivations. A parents love for their child can degrade into a dominating and controlling energy which stifles growth and independence. Philia, though it starts well, can end up doubly self-serving, manipulative and especially self-aggrandizing, and become the antithesis of bullying. Eros which starts as romantic affection will quickly plow under one or both parties when the erotic part of romantic love comes to dominate.

    The truest kind of love, loves without expecting anything in return, but also from the desire to love which causes that love to flow out merely for the sake of loving. It is unselfish, without expectation, and cannot be harmed by its rejection.

    The Greek word for this kind of love is agape.

    Now it appears to me, though I perhaps am off the mark, that you love your family, but you aren’t getting something fulfilled in that relationship to make it worth your while to stick around for them?

    If that is so then maybe you have yet to really experience agape love, either in giving, receiving, or both?

    Might be worth a try perhaps before you conclude that final checkout?

    In my own case, Stacy and I had a little scare the other day. She is 14 years out of bilateral mastectomies for breast cancer, and the oncologist ordered a CT scan. We relived old anxiety as we did last year with her gall bladder that made us think more of the incidental liver cysts than we should have.

    Stacy, in a round about way asked me if I would be able to carry on. I just turned the double nickel you see. My Dad is 83 and I have other long-lived folks in my family. I’m thinking that I might have to live another 25 years without this bride of my youth. It was not a tasty thought.

    But there is courage to be found. Anyone can give up. Sure I have four great grandkids to enjoy for many years, but could I do that? I mean we just lost our 24 year old totally disabled daughter Laura in 2012, and we had cared for her at home all her life. Why face another quarter century of more challenges?

    But I believe that agape love is not only worth getting, but worth giving! If there is one thing that we puny humans have the capacity for, it is to love in that way, if we let ourselves. But it takes courage and only those willing to risk it all for agape will get to enjoy it.

    Maybe checking out might mean you’re missing out on the best part?

    With warmest regards,

    Ron Smith, MD
    www (adot) ronsmithmd (adot) com

    P.S. Elizabeth if you don’t think I’m soaking wet, feel free to email me. My wife and I would be happy to hear from you.

    • http://elizabethmodelewski.wordpress.com/ C. Elizabeth Modelewski

      As I’ve been meeting people with chronic conditions over the last two years, I’ve found many of them aren’t always forthright about their emotions. It’s socially acceptable to talk about “seeing the silver lining” and “never giving up” and so on, but it’s generally unacceptable to talk openly about grieving in response to losing functioning due to an illness. I think some feel pressure (or have been reinforced) to stay quiet about how they feel, which can/does extend to medical appointments – I’ve sure you’ve seen people do that in your professional work. It can be problematic, since effective treatment requires honest and subjective report.

      Since I’m only mildly concerned about what is and isn’t socially acceptable, I wrote about something I had to deal with in the past. I can’t speak for everyone who has had to live with disease, but I’m not the only one who has had some dark thoughts. I don’t think I was feeling depressed but I can’t say I was being rational, either. Chronic pain will do that.

  • DoubtfulGuest

    All the best to you, Ms. Modelewsky. You make some really important points here. A very worthwhile read.

    • http://elizabethmodelewski.wordpress.com/ C. Elizabeth Modelewski

      Thank you for reading and for the kind words! (Responding to Dr. Smith below)

  • Duncan Cross

    I feel you. I’ve lost myself to disease over and over, each time to trying to rise from the ashes and find new ways to create a meaningful life on a tinier and tinier foundation — and every time, that looming sense of ‘why I am doing this again?’ So far I’ve found reasons enough, but they get thinner each time. Some days the only reason I don’t is that I want very much to die for something, to have a meaningful death, and suicide wouldn’t get me that. I think the ‘remember your family’ idea is tied to a sense that suicide is somehow more hurtful for the bereaved — like it would be easier for my loved ones if my illness killed me. At this point, I think anybody who actually loved me would totally understand.

    • http://elizabethmodelewski.wordpress.com/ C. Elizabeth Modelewski

      I think most people have to evaluate their lives periodically and redefine meaning. Some of us do it more frequently, which can get exhausting.

      I don’t have any thoughts on what’s emotionally easier in terms of death from chronic disease (suicide vs natural course). Death isn’t…easy.

  • Sarah Smith

    Thanks so much for sharing these words of wisdom, JR.

  • Sarah Smith

    Thank you for your honesty about the emotions of living with Chronic Pain, coupled with a mental health disorder, C. Elizabeth Modelewski. People who don’t live with both don’t understand it can be a heavy load. Bless your heart.

    • http://elizabethmodelewski.wordpress.com/ C. Elizabeth Modelewski

      Thank you!

      (I have family in the South, and I sometimes say “Bless your little heart” because I’ve heard it so often. It doesn’t sound the same with my Northerner accent.

  • DoubtfulGuest

    Yes, thank you, JR. Debilitating fatigue can do that, too, as in “At least then, I’d be sleeping”.

  • christie

    Very insightful. Great response by the doctor, I’ve been in and out of counseling and never have I heard that, glad you shared this. Something to consider.

  • christie

    Thank you for sharing what has to be a very painful memory , your thoughts on suicide have touched me.

  • http://elizabethmodelewski.wordpress.com/ C. Elizabeth Modelewski

    Sometimes people who are contemplating suicide think their family will be better off without them. Thank you for sharing your story – you’re absolutely right, family doesn’t get over it.

  • http://elizabethmodelewski.wordpress.com/ C. Elizabeth Modelewski

    I saw this awhile back, and I think it explains suicidal thinking very well. It’s now in a .doc on my hard drive. Thanks for posting!

  • Sharon

    C. Elizabeth, thank you for this honest post.

    JR: Thank you, as well! Those who write off suicide as a “selfish act” just don’t get it (and should consider themselves fortunate they don’t ever have to find out). And, like someone else mentioned, the judgment and stigma attached just keeps those affected from even talking, contributing even further to their isolation and depression.

    S. Aumani, psych. RN

  • Suzi Q 38

    I too, am in chronic pain.
    The source of my pain stems from spinal stenosis in my cervical spine and a swollen lumbar spine.

    I feel pain all day and night long, even when I am trying to sleep.
    The symptoms I describe to my neurologists point to either a mechanical problem with my spine or MS. Since my doctors do not agree, what is a mere mortal to make of it all?

    I know that time will tell, and part of me does not want to endure a life of escalating pain and less motor ability as time goes on.
    Thankfully, suicide is a fleeting thought, tucked away in the back of my mind hopefully never to be brought forth to the forefront again.
    I asked my brother about someday making a trip out to the Netherlands. I know that most think this is wrong, agreed, but we do not allow our dogs or other animals to be in chronic pain…so why would we allow this for humans?

    When it hurts when you sit, lie down, stand, walk, and sleep, what kind of life is that?
    Coupled with physician concern about medication and the belief that the patient is lying when he/she wants more pain meds, who would enjoy life this way?

    At least for now, my pain is controlled. This too, may change.
    Until then, I will gladly stay with those I love and enjoy being with; including myself.