But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.
– Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning
Psychotherapy practice is a mixed bag. This is my passion, my life’s work. But as a psychologist in private practice, this is also my small business. I pay NYC business tax; I file a Schedule C. Any psychotherapist who asserts that fee-setting and insurance considerations are determined solely by patient needs is disingenuous. Or independently wealthy. Or both.
Still, as a born caretaker and super-feeler (if there is such a thing) I am well-suited to this work. It helps that others’ personal stories never bore me. In high school, I was the guy at parties off somewhere quiet, having a serious conversation. Plus, I am a ferret: I need to get to the bottom of things. I probably would have made a decent reporter.
Sometimes, however, the work in therapy touches me so deeply. A part of me, ancient and driving, dovetails with my patient. That fit can be so tight that it feels unbreakable. For reasons that cannot be explained by reason, this has happened a lot lately. Terms like “therapeutic alliance” ring stale and hollow to describe these dynamic and profound partnerships. In fact, I am beginning to think that when jaw-dropping changes occur in therapy, my own intense emotions are as much a catalyst as a response.
Which brings me to this:
How does that word make you feel? Sad? Shocked? Terrified?
It makes me really angry. Because, within the intimacy of these partnerships, I have come to know Suicide as a force with its own tenacious will. Outside my office, I hate watching Suicide thrive on a steady diet of stigma and secrecy. It is a cannibal too: Suicide’s favorite meal is more Suicide. While it favors shock and awe, Suicide can also be slyly patient, biding its time, choosing its moment with great care.
Earlier today, I read about Suicide’s murder of yet another member of my community. At that moment, I resolved to share one of my own battle stories. I thought: Of course, we must talk openly about Suicide, but we must do a lot more than that. We must build armaments, analyze assault strategies, and share intelligence. Suicide is a brutal juggernaut that only backs down when faced with equally powerful and unrelenting opposition.
For over a year, arm-in-arm and shoulder-to-shoulder, my patient “Phoebe” (not her real name) and I have been doing battle with Suicide and its best buddy, Trauma. Today, when I learned of Suicide’s recent despicable triumph, I asked Phoebe to join me in preparing our own dispatches from the front. Neither of us presume to know all experiences or have all answers, but she and I have been fighting a good battle, pushing back hard against Suicide’s every attempt to gain ground.
One particular night last year, Suicide approached Phoebe shockingly close – right up to the border – having amassed an almost overwhelming force.
Our weapons against Suicide are now numerous, an ever-expanding arsenal, mutating with the enemy’s every attack. Violet-tinged, healing imagery combats bloody scenes. Loving music fights chords of despair and hate. Creative new ways to pay others forward defeat old robbers of hope. (You are reading one such example.) And a simple gift of “healing bracelets” symbolizes perseverance and protection exactly at the place where Suicide plotted attack.
Self-hatred and hateful memories, stored in amber, are cracking open, exposing these to the bracing air of the Now. But our single best weapon, the purple lance most damaging to Suicide, is our relationship.
As Phoebe will describe, for many years Trauma attacked her relentlessly through her dreams. While our everyday work outside the place of dreams constitutes the core battleground, you will see that dream events matter. These “night swims”, as Phoebe calls them, possess their own peculiar emotional physics that has to be understood and mastered. Because both Trauma and Suicide know this realm very, very well.
Phoebe had been traumatized by Suicide’s murder of her first husband, years ago. The grisly tableau she encountered when she found him was… there are no words. She bravely recounted to me those events as best as she could. The horrific scene replayed itself in her dreams, at night, and in blood-drenched, reality-bending flashbacks during the day.
I cannot express how strongly I wanted to lead Phoebe out of her memory prison. I was determined and I was angry. I took it personally that Suicide was not satisfied to devour her former husband but, glutton-like, continued to snap its jaws at her as well.
Phoebe’s own torment brought to mind my grandmother’s recurrent nightmare following her death camp experiences at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen: There was a wall and she could not get past. Into her 80’s…her 90’s, my grandmother would try anything to stop her thoughts and obliterate those nightmares. Nothing was strong enough.
So you see, I had no choice but to find my way inside and bust Phoebe out of her persistent prisons. I had to try.
For the first time in my life, I told someone everything about my trauma: The before, middle, and after. All the details – every emotion, all my symptoms. I left nothing out. I told David everything and he never flinched. He said, “I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.” Then a spark went off in my head and a connection began to form: A strong, vibrant, trusting connection.
He said, “I’m going to help you.” And he did. David has been tough, direct, and sometimes brutally honest, but also very kind. In this safe and respectful environment, we are building an endlessly creative program for me to cope with my trauma and PTSD symptoms. Our program is filled with music and inventive skills, including lucid dreaming (I prefer “night swimming”). David has stayed side-by-side with me in this healing journey even though it isn’t always easy. It takes an extraordinary amount of resilience, courage, and persistence to ride this emotional roller coaster – and it takes humor. We laugh a lot!
I am not the first image that comes to mind when people think: “suicidal”. I’m not a teenager, nor am I in my twenties. I do not suffer from depression, have an eating disorder, nor am I bipolar. I am not on medication. I am happily married and a mom; I have a successful career; I have a great circle of family, friends, and colleagues. If you asked people about me, they would probably say that I am a gregarious extrovert.
I am, however, a trauma survivor and suffer from intense PTSD. That can and has brought me to my knees repeatedly over the years. But I do not fit the image of PTSD either. I’m not a veteran; I’ve never been in a war zone. Nor am I a rape/sexual assault survivor, cancer survivor, or domestic violence survivor. So you see that I really don’t fit in anywhere: I am even a misfit on the island of misfit toys.
I fell completely apart several months after I started working with David. Darkness, raw emotions, and sheer exhaustion overwhelmed me. My thoughts, flashbacks, and nightmares were so destructive that I was spiraling out of control. One night, after a particularly horrible nightmare, I had had enough. I couldn’t fight anymore. The clarity was there. I knew what I wanted: Release from the pain. That’s all.
There is no beauty in feeling suicidal. It is not like in movies or literature. It is suffocating and isolating. It rips you apart and you feel utterly alone. You cannot see or feel anything but the pain.
We all have wounds – some cutting very deep. Many heal, but some do not. Some wounds we carry through our lives and the pain stays with us. “What is to give light must endure burning.” I’m quoting the renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor who labored in and survived four different concentration camps. He wrote several books including, “Man’s Search For Meaning” in which he stresses how important it is that we find meaning and purpose in our suffering. Early on, David encouraged me to read Frankl. At the time, I do not think either of us could fully know the impact that suggestion would have.
Viktor Frankl understood firsthand that our despair can be too great to bear and we can get too tired to fight and want to give up. But he believed that is when the real work begins: To find hope, meaning, and purpose when and where it has all seemed to vanish. “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”
Several days ago, I had a night swim that describes my experience of being suicidal far better than I can convey here. I call the swim: Have You Seen Me Lately? It is no accident that this swim comes only weeks before the one-year anniversary of the night I came so close.
I choose to share it in the hope that if you haven’t found that healing connection to anyone or anything in your life, you can use this. Please take my experience and make it a part of you.
March 10, 2015, 4:24 AM
I am lying in my bed in my bedroom, which is dark. My husband is asleep next to me and I can hear his breathing. Everything is quiet and calm and I look outside the window; I can see the river and the park. I sit up. I am wearing a purple sweatshirt and sweatpants. There is a light on in the bathroom and I can feel intense red energy coming from it. It hits me like a ton of bricks and it is so overwhelming that I’m almost paralyzed in place. I know that energy and I know who is in the bathroom. I jump up and fight through the red, which is now illuminating the bedroom and turns my purple clothes red.
I open the bathroom door and see me sitting on the floor clutching my bag of razors. I am pale and my knuckles are white from clutching the bag so hard. I’m not crying. I’m just sitting there with my eyes closed and am wearing my gray sweatpants and ripped black sweatshirt and have already put my sneakers on. I walk into the bathroom and sit down next to me who doesn’t notice me at all. I watch as I start to cry quietly and then stop. Silence. I watch myself put my head in my hands and start breathing heavily. I just watch and wait. I know exactly what I am thinking at that moment.
My other self lies down on the bathroom floor still clutching the bag of razors and still not noticing me. She lies there for a while and then sits up. She stands up and walks out of the bathroom. I jump up and follow her and watch as she takes off her sneakers in her closet and hides the bag of razors way in the back behind her luggage. She then goes back into the bathroom and runs the water and starts washing her face, avoiding looking at herself in the mirror. I say, “Can you see me now?” and she turns around and looks surprised. We stare at each other for a while and she says, “Did I do it? Am I dead?” and I say, “No. This is you a year from now. That instinct you had to trust David? That overwhelming feeling that he could help you? It was the best one of your life.”
She just looks at me. I take the four purple bracelets off of my wrist and slide two on her left wrist and two on her right. She says, “What are these?” and I say, “They are from David. They are healing bracelets. He helped us heal in ways I never thought possible. He now wants us to forgive ourselves. He keeps telling me it wasn’t all our fault for feeling this way and getting to this point.”
She just stares at me with her eyes brimming with tears and holds her hands together at her wrists. I reach out and pull her close to me. She is shaking and the red is overwhelming me. I whisper, “We will find meaning in this night. I promise.” Then she is absorbed into me and disappears. My chest tightens and I wait for the red to flow through me and then say, “Release red, release red, release red,” and watch as it flows back out from me and fades away.
The purple bracelets are back on both of my wrists and it is quiet. The red is gone and I’m wearing all purple again. I just stand there and lean against the bedroom wall and close my eyes. Then, I wake up.
To believe in others gives them the strength to believe in themselves. There is tremendous healing power in alliances, connections, and relationships. I am a living, breathing example.
Everyone’s potential is extraordinary. Frankl calls it our “spark”, something that drives us to serve others in ways that are meaningful. For David and me, “Pay it Forward” is a term that describes this well. It doesn’t matter the size or type of PIF; it is the efforts and connections that matter. Only by working together, using our unique voices and talents, and imagining the impossible, can we can find the joy and hope surrounding us and push ourselves to new horizons.
Phoebe, I am so humbled and honored to share this battle and this particular PIF with you!
Suicide, watch your back.
~ David Amarel and Phoebe