Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A Matter Of Perspective

One day when I was about fourteen, I sat in the woods behind my house with nothing but a pocketknife and my fears of the world for company. In hindsight, my fears were not really any bigger or more substantial than those woods (I grew up in south Texas and would not see real woods until I left home for the army after high school), but they both seemed all-encompassing at the time. Funny how perspective works, isn’t it? I grew up thinking of the overgrown creek bed and the vacant lot behind my house as “the woods,” and then I went and spent time in and around Mark Twain National Forest. I remember looking up and up and up, and thinking, “So that’s what a forest looks like.” Perspective can make such an incredible difference.

During the time when my perspective was so still based on so much less experience, there was me, a knife, and some much smaller trees. I spent some time just staring at that knife, thinking about it, thinking about what it could do, and thinking about what that could mean. I placed it against my wrist and I drew blood. To this day, I couldn’t honestly tell you whether or not I had anything further in mind. It seems unlikely, looking back, that I had anything at all concrete in mind. I did consider ending everything. I know I got that far, but it was more like I was watching to see what would happen, rather than actively deciding one way or the other.

Obviously nothing further did happen. I threw away the knife, cleaned up the blood and hid the cut as well as I could (not a difficult task for someone who received cuts from playing outdoors rather often), and I never mentioned it again. Until now. I’m certain I didn’t make any brave decision to go on. I just didn’t make any decision to stop going on. Who I was that day was not very good at making decisions, but who I am today is grateful for the results, regardless.

People tend to believe that the truly suicidal want to end their lives, but this is not true. (I use the phrase “truly suicidal” because many people also believe that the suicidal are usually just looking for attention. This is also not true, but I want to be clear here that I am speaking of people for whom this isn’t even a question.) Generally speaking, suicidal people do not want to stop living any more than anyone else. Given a choice between living or dying, most people who are suicidal for emotional reasons would choose living every time, if they could only figure out how. That’s the problem. They don’t want to stop living. They want to stop living in pain, but have lost sight of how to do that.

Perspective.

People who commit suicide don’t want to stop living. They want to stop hurting. The distinction means everything, and understanding the distinction is the first step toward helping someone down from that ledge. If you approach such a situation believing that someone wants to die, you have very few options. How do you convince someone who prefers red over blue to instead choose blue over red? Most of the time you don’t, and the same principle applies. Changing someone’s preference is difficult under ideal circumstances, and there is nothing ideal about working through a suicidal situation. Helping someone to achieve their preference, though, is something that people do every day. That is an attainable goal, and choosing attainable goals is one of the secret weapons in working through a suicidal fixation. The trick then becomes not a matter of changing someone’s mind but, instead, a matter of changing someone’s perspective.

Even better, changing perspective doesn’t require a complete and total change. If you look slightly to the left or right, instead of straight ahead, you have changed your perspective. Whether or not that is enough change to make the difference you need depends on the situation, but you would be amazed how often small changes can lead to large results. I don’t believe that I experienced any major shift in perspective that day in the woods - that would be many years in the future yet - but I did experience enough of a shift to make the difference I needed at the time. I gained the breathing room which ultimately led us here.

If you or someone you know is struggling, see what you can do about adjusting the view. Sometimes changing your perspective can change the world, but, at the very least, you can usually put some distance between you and a decision you might not be in the right place emotionally to be making. Small steps can be perfect steps if they are moving in the right direction. For someone staring down that final decision, moving at all is often moving in the right direction.

It is not even necessary to end the pain to achieve this change in perspective. That would be fantastic, but it is not always realistic. There are many sources of pain that cannot be simply turned off like a switch. Most pain isn’t that easy, to be honest, and some of it can’t be simply turned off even with considerably more effort. No, don’t promise or expect an end to pain - Never promise a person in emotional distress anything you can’t absolutely guarantee you can deliver! - but instead find a way to achieve a new perspective about the pain. That way will be different for every situation, so it is difficult to offer any solid advice, but do understand that the way is almost always there. Identify solutions instead of problems. Address the finite duration of the source of the pain. Take comfort in a shared burden, knowing that other people have succeeded, and so knowing that success is possible. Sometimes just making the effort to look is enough. Movement. Activity. Small steps can be perfect steps.

According to the CDC, there are more than 40,000 deaths attributed to suicide in this country every year. That number is staggering. To put it into some perspective, the CDC gives the number of deaths attributed to suicide in 2011 as 41,149. For that same year, the number of deaths attributed to homicide was 16,121. Let the vast gulf between those two numbers sink in for a moment, while you consider how much public attention goes toward the American epidemic of homicide. As horrible as murder is, more than twice as many people die every year from suicide than from homicide.

The causes of suicide are diverse and complex, and there is no easy solution. There are, however, some relatively easy things that you can do to help.

If you are feeling suicidal, tell someone. Get help. That is the simplest step, and the one most often overlooked. If, for any reason at all, you don’t believe that there is someone you can talk to about this, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and someone will be there to talk with you. No pressure. No strings. Just talk. If you know that you struggle with suicidal issues and don’t believe that you have someone to call, put that number in your wallet or purse. Keep it with you. Someone is always available.

Take steps that will point you in the right direction. Be ready to talk. Set goals that you can achieve and at least temporarily avoid goals with a high chance of failure. The idea here is to reinforce success with the aim of changing perspective. The suicidal tend to believe that everything is hopeless, and nothing overcomes hopelessness better than success. Contrariwise, nothing reinforces hopelessness quite like continuing to fail, which is why attainable goals are so important to this strategy.

Don’t make things worse. Avoid alcohol and drugs. Avoid people who are not helpful. Avoid activities that are likely to fail. Avoid things that can be used for suicide. Avoid things that reinforce the negative.

Do make things better. Get exercise and plenty of sun. Be with people who will help you. Do things you can succeed at or that make you feel better in a healthy way. Do things that reinforce the positive.

If you know someone, or think you might know someone who is struggling with suicide, be kind. That is the single most helpful thing that you can ever do in such a situation. Don’t try to solve their problems. You can’t. Don’t try to change their mind. You can’t. Don’t try to take away their pain. You can’t. Just be kind.

Be present. Be attentive. Be aware. People who are suicidal often feel alone, even in a crowd. Knowing that you are there and that you care can mean more than any words you might say.

Listen way more than you speak. If the person you are trying to help isn’t saying anything, listen to that too. Silence can speak volumes if you pay attention.

Paying attention is critical to this situation. The suicidal person usually believes that no one is paying attention to him or her while, at the same time, the suicidal person is usually not paying attention to the things that could help.

Perspective.

So much of life is a matter of perspective. A person who is suicidal has often lost perspective on life, while the person who wants to help often lacks the perspective to do so effectively. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to change the way we view the world. That may seem terribly difficult, but it’s not. Not really. Turn your head to the left or right to see what is going past. Kneel down to smell a flower or play with a child. Look up and feel the sun on your face. Simple acts can change the world. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

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