You know I love workshops and seminars.
So this one was about talking to people with thoughts of suicide. My alley, definitely.
Before the seminar officially started, just going through warning sign literature the jokes about me being at risk began. Red was simply looking at a warning sign, looking at me, nodding, and moving on the next warning sign, nodding, etc.
I feel like I’m currently safely far from suicidal and even I noticed I’m dripping in typical warning signs all the time.
We went around the room, said our names, our experiences with suicide, and what we would give a suicidal person. The third bit felt strange and no one responded confidently. Most people said they’d listen because it seemed like the ‘correctest’ answer. I said music.
The second piece of the question instantly got me thinking though. It crossed my mind to say that I’m suicidal all the time and planned on killing myself last October but it would have felt like a look-at-me-floodlighting-overshare so I didn’t.
Warning signs and invitations
Two things bothered me in the discussion about invitations, which is new-speak for warning signs.
One was a talk about change in behavior.
Because the seminar was suicide-centric it was easy for the audience to agree that a change in behaviour was a warning sign. Including someone shy becoming confrontational or someone who never takes time off saying they need to get away.
But behavioral change can be a sign of growth and a suicidal person may not change their behavior at all. It seemed tunnel-visioned, suicide-centric. If we’re taking about warning signs of suicide then you see them in everything and in a seminar setting where everything is hypothetical the response to the idea that maybe change isn’t a sign is simply maybe it is. And situations where no answer is wrong are situations where no answer is really interesting. Which bothers me. I like to be interested.
And I pointed out that someone who works really hard and never takes time off might simply need some time off, maybe it’s not suicide, and of course the correctest answer was but maybe it is.
The classroom setting where there’s such overt parameters to any question doesn’t help people in the real world. Everyone spots Waldo when they’re perusing a Where’s Waldo?. But if you’re watching a basketball practice you can miss a guerilla walking across the damn court.
Proud of our little Gateway corner for being able to laugh at the disastrous acting in these things without disengaging from the information.
So in the first videos we saw a conversation and were asked to count the invitations (which I agree is a much better word than warning sign because it does imply an open door to engage the person, it’s just awkward to use so far). Problem is everyone knows we’re in a suicide seminar and knows they’re being asked to tally something up. The urge to get a high score, to win, and the obvious intent of each statement lets people see invitations in everything.
I had the same problem with the sexual harassment seminars. Everything is sexual harassment in a sexual harassment seminar. It’s just the correctest answer and the audience, especially those who aren’t interested, know it.
Anyway there was a moment in a video that gave me chills so it’s worth mentioning. In response to the question “Are you thinking about suicide?” a character said “And if I am?” It’s the kind of thing I would say. I’ve hadn’t hid being suicidal since my teen years because I realized no one’s going to do anything anyway, you can throw it in their face if you want.
The previous character said “So you are suicidal.” not then we have to talk about it, or you should know I really care about you which I thought was great. It’s actually important not to put a bunch of feelings into the conversation and I’ve always been looking for a way to explain that.
There was a great, pivotal example as well. A woman siting at a park bench crying when a stranger asks her if she’s okay.
Now I should mention these video examples were split into before-and-after becoming suicide alert. So a ‘typical’ conversation where someone hints and someone misses, followed by a conversation where someone hints and the person responds with the trained, suicide alert, dialogue.
So the woman says she was overwhelmed, there had to be a simpler way. And when the stranger prompted her what that way might be she said she just needed a vacation somewhere nice with her husband.
The suicide-centric audience read this as a suicidal urge to escape (And Kiera whispered her husband is dead because she’s M. Night Shyamalan) which it wasn’t. In the suicide alert follow up video where the stranger asked the direct question she said no.
So he didn’t do anything wrong in the first video, there wouldn’t have been negative consequences. I felt vindicated. The larger point I won’t discount however is that it didn’t do any harm to ask. He would have walked away from the first conversation not knowing if she was suicidal and away from the second knowing (as best anyone can) that she wasn’t.
Of course this was a scripted video to make an explicit point and a real world, non suicide-centric reaction could be different. But it still stood out to me and I’m glad they included and example where the correctest answer wasn’t suicide.
Glossing over other forms of self harm
The difference between are you thinking about harming yourself and are you thinking about suicide was made clear to us. Harm is about wanting pain to go away for now while suicide is about wanting pain to go away forever. Odd though that we didn’t take a moment to talk about other forms of self-harm that are less total than suicide but really indicate a person needs help, or about how stutter cutting is possibly a precursor to suicide.
He also implied suicide contagion wasn’t real. He was talking about how suicide isn’t talked about in the media or just in-the-open very often and he really wanted to make the point that asking someone who isn’t suicidal about suicide won’t them suicidal but suicide contagion is real and we have to be very careful how we talk about people who have died by suicide (including saying died by suicide rather than committed suicide).
The one thing I philosophically disagree with was in a talk about calling the police.
The scenario is someone has who has said they plan to kill themselves with pills, who will not turn the pills over to you, and won’t discuss it any further. Someone said it’s easy to say that is the right thing to do but it’s a hard and scary step to take in real life. The instructor said yes but you have to ask yourself if you want them alive or if you want them dead. Which is an agenda problem.
Just because you want someone alive doesn’t mean they have to stay alive and you get to have them arrested for possibly disobeying you. If wanting someone to stay alive obligated them to do so then it would be as simple as telling them.
And further more it’s saying I know better than you, I don’t trust you, I’m not concerned with you finding reasons to get better for yourself just with you not dying on my watch.
I’m willing to say this because it’s what I’ve done for friends and they’ve done for me. I’ve told friends explicitly that I want to kill myself and the method I feel inspired to do it and they’ve talked to for as long as they could but ultimately respected my autonomy and simply said “I hope you don’t.”
Now that’s problematic and seems perhaps dismissive, it even seemed that way to me at the time, but it gave me the respect and the control that I needed. Whereas if someone had initiated a crisis by calling the cops it could have caused me to panic, flee, and feel like I had no choice but immediate suicide because coming home or talking to someone means humiliation, arrest, loss of control and respect.
When someone wants to die I’ll listen to everything they have to say and I’ll help get to the root of the desire in hope they’ll find other solutions or just vent and feel acknowledged but I’ll never humiliate someone for being suicidal. I’d rather they choose to live or die on their own than take away their human autonomy. The freedom to die is what let’s me live my life and I wouldn’t condescend to take that away from anyone.
But that’s me. I’m a nihilist.
I started wishing we’d have an informal round-table before the seminar was over. Especially with Kiera. But of course with the bar closed we all simply toddled off to other plans.
I started writing this around 5 on my way home and I’m going to hit publish at about 9. I wanted to capture the basics of it quickly while it was fresh and hopefully my further reflections and discussions with everybody will provide at least another post’s worth of material.
What I learned
Not to give advice to suicidal people. I actually knew this already but it’s great to have it in official doctrine. Giving advice to someone thinking of suicide just says “Do what I do and you’ll be as happy as me.” which is absolutely no help or comfort. It just shows the person with suicidal thoughts that you have an agenda, you want them to get better, you want them to be fixed and shut up. Plus it gives them something to argue against and can push them deeper into the suicide spiral. Because once you start giving advice on how and why to live you have turned the conversation into a debate and forced the person to take the pro suicide stance.
Which is still more helpful than the number of people who’ve responded to me talking about suicide by threatening to punch me.
To ask directly if someone is thinking of suicide. Say specifically what makes you think they might be and then ask them. If they’re not they’ll say so and you can move forward with what other problems they might be having. You don’t try to draw it out, you don’t have to build up to it.
Not to say I understand. I’ve actually been good about this in the past. When people are upset I learned not to say ‘I understand’ because if they think I don’t then it becomes a barrier but I’m always looking for ways to convey I understand. So two phrases that help are starting with ‘help me understand…’ and later in the conversation you can say ‘now I understand’ or more likely ‘now I think I’m beginning to understand’
One of the open questions from the seminar was ‘why might a person with thoughts of suicide give invitations?’ and we all know we have mixed motives for everything interesting we do. The correctest answer for seminar purposes is that they want to talk about not wanting to live. My answer however was ‘to lessen the shock’
When I was suicidal in my youth I would internally scold myself when I was showing signs, hinting at it, wanting to talk about it. As if my personality split in two and the suicidal half got to call the help-wanting half a pussy for not stoically marching toward the abyss. And I was surprised how no one ever picked up on it. The only times in my youth that people dealt with my suicidal tendencies was when I attempted suicide. Things that I thought were huge glaring admissions went unchecked.
As an adult I realized you can talk directly about planning to kill yourself and people won’t do anything. It will scare them, which feels like a little bit of power at times when I obviously feel pretty powerless, or they’ll debate you which entrenches the thoughts and makes suicide feel like the powerful choice.
The urge to give invitations though is still there and rather than be upset no one notices them I began to enjoy it. I thought of it like planting seeds, planting anti-jokes, that will only make sense after I’m dead. It tickled my mischievous fancy. But I also thought that if people could look back and see obvious signs then creeping determinism would help them cope with the shock. Eventually.
I find myself wishing everyone who took the seminar could re-live October because I sadly wager none of them would do anything different as I was macabrely sprinkling suicide into every aspect of my life. I spent a week writing jokes about suicide on the joke of the day board in big red letters. Everyone who spoke to me heard me say ‘Life is despair’ and got a whimsical rant about how everything is meaningless anyway so I just don’t care. No one noticed my usual high level of involvement in the running of the kitchen and the nurturing of the team turned to zero. I’d say no one noticed my drinking get worse but honestly can’t fault anyone for that – my drinking is a cacophony of alarm bells anyway and adding one more siren goes easily undetected. It was a shift in why I drink not how often I drink, that was a tough level of nuance even for me.
Ultimately – and this came up among us privately in the seminar – I’m 8 out of 10 on the warning signs all the time anyway. My philosophy, my humour, my appearance, are a matter of looking for a needle in a big stack of needles when it comes to suicide. And I think that’s true to a lesser degree of a lot of people, of everyone. The seminar kind of turned everyone into the suicide police where we’re expected to interrogate every sigh and parse every piece of fatigued sarcasm as if the person were about to have a bottle of pills for dinner.
No one has the radar strength for that. So if someone gets all suicidey in the immediate wake of the seminar fantastic luck for them but failing that everything will return to baseline for most people.
Sorry to end on a bummer.