by Michael Raitt -
SGN Contributing Writer
Dear Michael: Recently there was a death in our community - someone who had one foot in and one foot out of recovery. While I understand that we may never know the real reason a person may choose suicide, it still leaves a lot of sorrow for those of us who are still here and who loved them very much. It is even more shocking for new folks in recovery who tend to bond with each other in that early phase. So my question is, when we talk/text with each other and we say, 'I'm fine. I'm good. I'm OK,' are we really? -T.
I am sorry for your loss and for the loss that your community is experiencing over this tragic event. Loss implies importance and clearly this individual was very important to many. Not only has your community been impacted, so, too, has this person's family and friends. Suicide is such a shock and no one is ever prepared.
I do not know the specifics of your situation so let me give you some general thoughts. There are two parts to your comment/question.
First, there are many things that influence an individual's decision whether to disclose their real emotional state. One of the most powerful influencing forces is shame - particularly for those battling in recovery.
There is such a stigma and many misconceptions around addiction and relapse. In my opinion, one of the most hurtful mistaken beliefs is about strength and weakness. There are many implicit and explicit messages both in and out of the recovery community that say addiction and relapse are signs of weakness. They are NOT! One is not addicted because one is weak of character, and one does not relapse due to character flaws. (I've interjected relapse into this discussion because it is an issue for some, yet I have no idea whether this applies to the person you are referring to.) When an individual wants to disclose their struggles but fears judgment from those important to them, they may choose to say they are OK when they are not.
Recovery aside, if you doubt this, think of all the times you have done something or hid something from others because you were afraid of their reactions. We start this pattern very early in life. I'm guilty of it myself - we've all done it. When you add the social disgrace of addiction, it becomes even more complex.
Many of us have heard others say something like, 'No one really cares when someone asks how we are - they don't really want to know.' It is a common belief and one that leaves people feeling isolated. When that isolation is exacerbated by other negative feelings, and addiction, there is a potential for one to spiral into a dark hole that might lead to suicide.
Second, your comment clearly speaks to the huge impact that suicide has on the people who survive. For any person who is in such a dark spot that suicide seems like the only option, I would encourage them to hold the belief that what they are feeling reflects a mere moment in time, and that as awful as it may be, it will get better. As well, remember there is someone out there who loves you and, if nothing else for the moment, hold on to how important they are to you and how important you are to them. Even if you can't see it in the moment, know it is true and you will see it down the road.
For those who survive, there are always questions, sadness, and sometimes anger. Sometimes we make judgments. Often we are numb and don't know what to do or think. Anger is fueled by judgment and it keeps you away from the love and how important the person you lost was to you. Eventually, find the love and importance again and never forget them, even under these tragic circumstances.
How do we make space for people to open up to us so that if they really are in a dark place, they have someone to go to and will share how they really are? We build relationships over time where people are heard and accepted. We create relationships built on respect and loyalty. Most people know they are being judged - shit, most are judging themselves horribly. We don't need to add judgment that comes from our own fears, anger, or expectations.
I know this sounds airy-fairy but it is true. The act of listening and being there is very powerful. People who are struggling know they are struggling, and heaping more shame on them isn't helpful. The act of listening doesn't mean that listening is all we do. The act of listening means we provide honest feedback and we share our concerns, yet this feedback and these concerns aren't propelled by anger, hatred, or shame. They are sent with respect and positive regard. To do this, we have to constantly be checking within ourselves about our own feelings and motivations - our fearless moral inventory.
For those in recovery - for all of us - let it be a reminder that although suicide is a tremendous loss, what is gained is the knowledge that we need to continue to create relationships where one can speak their truth in the moment and another can make room for that. This is ongoing work. When it happens, one is more likely to feel that when someone asks, 'How are you?' that person is really interested, and one can open up with what is really going on for them.
Please accept my condolences for the loss of your friend and clearly an important part of your community.
Michael Raitt, M.A., L.M.H.C., is a therapist whose column appears bimonthly in SGN. If you would like to comment on this column, ask a question you'd like him to write about, or suggest another topic of interest, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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