essays on suffering and awakening

What I learned from wanting to kill myself

Many of us think about killing ourselves at one point or another during our lives. I certainly did—on and off for years. When the walls are closing in and the weasels are banging on the door, it can seem like the only way forward.

Sometimes, the space inside just gets so small and the banging grows so loud.

If that’s where you are, bless you. I don’t know exactly what you’re going through, but I’ve almost certainly felt the feelings that you’re feeling. So many of us have. If you’re feeling desperate, afraid and ever so tired, and are looking to a gun or a knife to just make it stop, well, I’ve been there too.

For me, what that looked like was years of living with a pounding, crawling discomfort in my own skin, months of not leaving my room, a night spent sitting on a gurney in the emergency room talking with a weary-eyed social worker, and a trip to rehab. Your story may have different details, but I bet you can relate to the theme.

But what do we do once we’re in that desperate place? Killing ourselves is an option, but that really doesn’t fix anything. At best, all we’re doing is closing the door on more interesting solutions. Worse, my sense is that if we do kill ourselves, we just have to come back and try again.

We don’t ever really get to run away in life. Not for long. Why would death be any different?

So where does that leave us? Practically speaking, if you’re hanging on by a thread, talk to someone. Reach out to whomever you trust and open up as much as you can, even if that’s just a little. I’m often still wildly uncomfortable with doing that myself, but I’ve gotten better at it over the years, and it really does help. People might seem like they don’t care, but give them a chance and you’ll find that they almost certainly do. When we’re vulnerable with another person, their guard drops too.

If you can offer a kind ear and a helping hand to someone else in need, even better. That’s a surefire way to poke your head above the darkness for a while.

There are other practical steps we can take to feel better as well. If we’re eating a lot of crap, not moving around enough, working a job that isn’t a good fit or living with an abusive or unkind relationship, that all weighs heavy on our minds. If we’re regularly mistreating others, that weighs even heavier. There are a lot of pieces to consider, but they can almost always be be moved around.

Sometimes, whatever gets us through the day is good enough. Medication never did anything for me, but I’ve heard that it can give some people relief. Drugs and alcohol did help me for a while, keeping me going long enough to find something better.

But in my experience, such measures are a holding pattern, not a solution. I’ve been clean for the better part of a decade because in the long run, substances always take more than they give, up to and including our lives. Whatever gets us through the day is only good enough until it’s not.

So let’s go deeper and find something better. If you’re thinking about killing yourself, I want you to know that you’re not wrong in looking to death for answers. My sense is that if we find ourselves wanting to die, we should honor that instinct. Something does need to go—we just need to learn how to let it do so safely and skillfully.

Harming our bodies never helps because our bodies are never the problem. What is? My experience is that we’re usually stuck on something inside ourselves—trying to hold on to some sense of who we are that isn’t really true.

We might want to be who we thought we were before some brutal trauma broke us. We might want to be someone with a different personality or different life circumstances or a different history. We might just want to be who someone else wants us to be.

In other words, we want to be who we think we should be, and then feel deep despair because we are not that imaginary person. Who we think we should be is strangling who we actually are now.

So that imaginary person is who needs to die. Never our bodies, nor who we are in this moment, but who we think we should be. That’s the best way I have of describing what causes the sort of unrelenting pain that makes us looks to guns or knives or ropes—and that’s what we need to let go of to feel better.

We need to let life and death come for whatever we’re holding onto inside ourselves.

How do we do that? Practice letting the truth of who we are in this present moment penetrate us. Stab ourselves with honesty, not a blade or a bullet. As we do that, that imaginary person who is causing us so much pain naturally starts to break down, and we feel more at ease.

I’m still learning all this, but so far, it really has worked. I don’t think about killing myself anymore, because there is less of me here to get into that kind of pain. I’m not so hung up on who I think I should be, and so I get to be more comfortable where I am now. I’m okay.

Brother or sister, you can be too.


Ian Cooper