Monday, July 18, 2011

False Assurances

I have had the incredibly unfortunate experience of assuring someone that she was stronger than she realized, only to have that person attempt suicide the following week.

I thought I was saying the right things. I really believed that she had, that we all have, inner resources we can draw upon in times of hardship. I was devastated to learn that I was wrong.

My mistake was in believing - and telling her - that she had inner resources to draw on.

It is dangerously wrong-headed thinking.

Since that wake-up call, I have thought twice about other oft-uttered assurances and admonitions:
You'll be fine.
It'll all be better in the morning.
Some day you'll look back on this, and it'll all be like a bad dream.
It could be worse.
Get over it already.
And my personal favourite:
God will never give you more than you can handle.
[Oooh, I grit my teeth when I hear or read that one!]

I think of survivors who have come through incredible inner pain:
  • Retired Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, who entered his personal nightmare via Rwanda and who said, "It's only that [that he was too drunk to complete his suicide attempts] and people checking up on me that prevented me from killing myself";
  • Kay Redfield Jamison, who has seen suicidal thinking from the inside, and has studied it as a psychologist;
  • Linda Sexton, whose mother, poet Anne Sexton, committed suicide and who inherited that legacy; or 
  • Heather Armstrong who writes the pants-pissingly funny blog Dooce and who has also shared her heartbreaking struggle with depression. (Her post, "Surrender," may be the bravest, most honest thing I've ever read.)
Not one of them survived to see dawn after their darkest nights without help from outside themselves. As I quoted in April, when I wrote about a military wife who attempted suicide,
"Suicidal thinking happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain."
The most important thing we can do is ensure that we add to those resources, not leave the person feeling like a failure because he or she feels overwhelmed.

If I were talking to that woman today, I would instead say, "You don't have to be strong. You are not alone. Let me be here for you." And I would add, though you may not, "Let God be here for you."


  1. Wynn Anne. We all do the best we can with what we have at the time. It drives me nuts when people say God never gives us more than we can handle. Apparently plenty of people through the years have had more than they could handle.

    Depression isn't weakness, or sin. It is illness like a cold or cancer. You hit the nail on the head saying: You are not alone, Let me be here for you.

    A little something to remind us that we are not as strong as we think we are...

  2. I was devastated to find out last night that one of my classmates (university) took her life very recently. Not one of us would have guessed that she struggled to this degree in her private hell (or struggled at all for that matter).

    Had I known, would I have been any help (or hindrance)? It is a difficult thing to come alongside someone who's thought processes have gone past all hope, and possibly all reason. A listening ear is a start I guess, but it requires so much more to be the much-needed support.

    Thank you W.A for your blogs that give positive airtime to anti-depressant, anti-anxiety meds. They are not the entire answer, but could help save a life.

  3. So sorry to hear that, Pat.

    Unfortunately, there is no magic recipe for keeping a depressed person from suicide. If the people in pain don't reach out or don't accept the offer of help, there is very little we can do but pray.

    A lot of my philosophy around depression (and fighting suicide) is simply "buying time." If, through talking or therapy or prayer or meds, we can get the person to hang in there for five more minutes, five more hours, five more days ... maybe something will help.


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