Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part article. For Part 2, click here.
"How could she do this when she had everything going for her? It honestly makes no sense that she would end her life because she has a global empire and actually just launched her new clothing line today! Look here—I have 'Kate Spade' everything—sunglasses, wallet and even my school bag is her brand. You remember that she's the reason I want to go into fashion, right?"
These emotional words poured forth from the depths of her 17-year old broken and confused heart as we began our counseling session that Tuesday. Our appointment was only hours after she'd heard the news that her beloved icon hanged herself that morning in NYC. And though we were having this conversation 3000 miles away from the tragic epicenter, she felt the impact personally, as if she'd lost a close friend.
Beyond that, neither of us had any way of knowing that only three days later we would grieve another tragic suicide by hanging, that of Anthony Bourdain, internationally acclaimed celebrity chef and television host.
Then, as if these tragic deaths weren't devastating enough, the story took a heart-wrenching turn when I learned that both of these influencers left young daughters behind, 13-year old Francis Beatrix Spade and 11-year old Ariane Bourdain. One who will now be raised solely by her widower father while the other will grow up without the loving guidance of her adored dad.
All I can say is that two suicides in a row are two suicides too many.
As you can imagine, I've had similar raw conversations in my counseling office around this theme since these two individuals passed. One of my clients even expressed her fear that she now wonders whether she's strong enough to resist her own suicidal urges. She said that if celebrities still commit suicide despite having access to the best resources in the world, then how can she trust herself to withstand the emotional gale force winds that regularly pound within her?
Dr. Margo Maine captures it best: "statistics are people with the tears wiped away." Her poignant way of expressing the human reality behind the numbers is underscored by the shocking fact that suicide rates have increased in the U.S. by 25 percent in the past two decades, according to the CDC.
I've heard it said that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. True as that is, when someone has suffered for years, the enduring pain doesn't necessarily feel temporary.
Additionally, when someone has lived with physical or mental torment for a long period of time, it can significantly alter different areas of their brain. When the limbic system (our emotional center) is over-stimulated and "on fire," it releases substantial levels of stress hormones, which then flood the frontal lobe (where we make decisions and activate sound judgment), leading to that part of the brain being "offline."
Consequently, these individuals often find it hard to believe there will ever be an end to their agony, resulting in a genuine struggle to think clearly when it comes to problem solving and working through their distress. All they want is for the pain to end.
I haven't shared a lot publicly about my past mental health struggles (though God has opened more doors the past few years to tell my story), but the truth is that I've lived through years of internal distress that were locked inside me until my late 30s. In fact, I was in counseling for eight straight years, and it was an excruciating process of going back into my trauma history to face all the layers of impact from sexual and spiritual abuse.
Trust me when I say that I hated putting my time, money and energy into weekly therapy when all I wanted to do was spend my time, money and energy on anything but therapy.
But, as they say, hindsight is 20/20.
- I now look back and know that investing in counseling was my way of putting value on myself.
- I now look back and know that the costs on every level were necessary to my healing.
- I now look back and know that I had to feel to heal.
- I now look back and know that the only way out is through.
- I now look back and know that I am a survivor, not a victim.
The hope-filled reality is that our brains can heal. I'm living proof of that fact! (Here are two excellent articles that confirm this: 1. on neurogenesis and neuroplasticity and 2. on posttraumatic growth.)
More specifically with regard to my healing journey, I can honestly tell you that the torment I used to experience in my mind and emotions is no longer there, which translates to more calm and clarity. Of course I still have times of over-reacting, worrying and the like, but overall, there's a settledness and true peace. Now I have the freedom to passionately move in ways that are in line with my God-given calling after years of feeling like I was going in circles despite my best efforts.
Also, I can confidently assert that the dissociative wiring inside my brain has been rewired. Now I am grateful to experience an internally associated life without mental torment or division. What this also means is that I am fully present to what I think and feel, and I have consistent joy that actually stays and holds. (If that sounds too good to be true or seems like it could never happen to you, I want to encourage you by saying that if healing could happen for me, it can happen for you too. Yes, it's hard work, but it's worth it in the end!)
Now let's make this practical and personal.
What do you do as a dad if you have a daughter you suspect may be suicidal?
I'll tell you some truths that have guided my responses to this question. When I started grad school in 1995, I wasn't sure what to do or say if a counseling client admitted to being suicidal. But I can tell you that I was greatly comforted to learn key insights about navigating this complex topic, insights that still guide me as a clinician 21 years later:
- It's good to initiate the topic of suicide if you have even the slightest concern about someone, which will help that person know that it's safe to talk openly with you. (Asking about suicide won't plant the idea in their minds about it, but instead gives them permission to talk because "the cat's out of the bag," and they weren't the one to initiate the conversation).
- It's good to disclose that you would be devastated if that person ever took their own life, including why it would matter to you. (I've teared up many times when disclosing my heart to suicidal clients, and typically this helps them release their tears while feeling that someone genuinely cares. Experts say that sometimes the individual will stay alive more for someone else than for themselves, and because I want to do everything possible to communicate compassionate care, I always remember this fact).
- It's good to ask whether they feel like they want to die or if they have a suicide plan---because those are two different things. If there is a plan in place, you must take immediate action to contract regarding their safety, call their support network or discuss hospitalization. (By asking the straight-forward question, "Are you suicidal?" you are encouraging honesty. You also want to watch their body language, because it also will significantly reveal what's going on inside. Remember: It's worth risking their anger at you for intervening in order to get them the help they truly need).
Dr. Michelle Watson is a national speaker, author, professional counselor of 21 years and founder of The Abba Project, a ministry to dads with daughters in their teens and 20's. She writes guest articles regularly for journals and magazines (online and print), as well as her own bi-monthly Dad-Daughter Friday blog. In 2014 she released her first book titled Dad, Here's What I Really Need From You: A Guide for Connecting With Your Daughter's Heart and hosts a weekly radio program in her hometown of Portland, Oregon called "The Dad Whisperer." You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit drmichellewatson.com for more information.
This article originally appeared at drmichellewatson.com.
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