By Julie A. Fast
Sometimes, people die from suicide and we are able to make some sense of why it happened. It’s scary and upsets our world, but on a basic level we think we understand. Robin William's suicide comes to mind. He had a history of depression and his health was failing. Oh, how we all wish he could have found more help, but I don’t think it was as much surprising as it was devastating and sad for the millions who loved him when he died.
Then there are suicides that make no sense. The behavior doesn't fit with how we see the individual's personal life or fit with how they describe their life in public. The partner or other loved ones are usually shocked and usually vehemently deny that the person was acting suicidal. Society likes to look for something deeper when they hear that the person wasn’t outwardly suicidal. A possible secret life or maybe the person was lying to everyone.
I have a different opinion based on very personal experience that I would like to share.
There are many kinds of suicides. Some are societal or culturally based and accepted such as seppuku, part of the Japanese samurai bushido code of honor. For some, suicide is an act of loneliness and despair that fits with what is actually happening in life. This is suicide in reaction to life events.
Then there is suicide from an ill brain. I call this brain chemical suicide. These are the people who ‘have it all.’ Who are getting their jobs done and sharing their lives with the public. People like Chris Cornell.
How can people who seem to have it all possibly take their lives?
In order to answer this question, we need to better understand suicide as a symptom of an illness as well as a symptom that can be quickly triggered. Instead of thinking of suicide as a conscious choice that happens when someone doesn’t want to live anymore, we need to see the other side of suicide. The kind of suicidal life I experience.
You can easily read about me online. I’m one of the top bipolar disorder writers in the world with over 450,000 books sold. I teach bipolar disorder management. I’m incredibly open about my daily struggles with this illness. By any standard, I’ve got my bipolar act together. My relationships are stable. I teach the people around me to help me. I get on with life despite many physical health obstacles. I help others who are suicidal. I know what affect my suicide would have on my family and readers. You would think this would keep me immune from suicidal episodes.
Last year I moved to the South of France to reach a dream. I did it! I started school and began balancing my work and school life. It was going well. One day, I was sitting in my room in Cannes. I could literally hear the waves of the Mediterranean sea outside my window. I saw gorgeous orange and yellow buildings with clay tiles. I heard the amazing sound of trains traveling from Paris going by my window. It was heaven. I had been a bit depressed for a few days, but just assumed it was from the big change I had in life. Overall, I knew I had made the right decision.
And then, I heard a overly persuasive voice say, “Julie, jump out of your window. Jump out now.” In the same moment, I had an intense feeling and belief that all would be better in my life if I just killed myself. It felt as real and normal as having an inclination to go to the beach. There was nothing and I do mean nothing personal in my life to justify this kind of feeling. If you looked at my life, it made NO sense that I was suicidal.
But there is something in my brain that makes sense of the situation. My mood disorder comes with suicidal depression. It gets triggered. I don’t have to be down or upset. It just happens when it gets triggered. It feels as real as breathing. I hear the voice, have the thought and in my case see a movie of myself jumping all at once. Something in me simply yells, “Do it Julie! Do it!”
It’s visceral. It’s magnetic and hypnotic and REAL. Brain chemicals are far more powerful than any drug and when mine go off, I get suicidal. I’ve come close to dying many times. A few minutes later, the suicide plan I created for myself 20 years ago allowed me to see through this chemical episode and I got immediate help. Not everyone has a plan to counteract chemical suicidal thoughts, but I do.
When you don’t have a plan that helps these sudden and inexplicable suicidal thoughts, the resulting suicide can never be explained by what is going on in life. The chemicals win in these situations. The illness wins. It’s not about killing ourselves. It’s about an illness killing us.
That is a different kind of suicide.
I am not a likely suicidal candidate if you look at my life. But I am a likely suicidal candidate if you look at my illness. There was nothing going on in that room last year to in any way explain the thought of jumping out my window, except illness.
I remember sitting there alone, after I had the thought that I was going to jump out of my window. I started to cry and I said to myself, “Oh my God. I’m a lot sicker than I thought I was.” It took me a few days to figure out that I was having a chemical brain reaction to a new sleep medication. I stopped the medication and the suicidal thoughts were completely gone in two days. I was very suicidal for a week and could easily have died at one of the happiest times of my life.
Chris Cornell talked openly about depression. It’s an illness that never really goes away. We can perform through it. Have kids and write books and songs and make millions happy with our work, but it’s always there for some of us. We understand this about diabetes and heart problems and some cancers. Why can’t we understand this about depression?
You may read about Chris Cornell and ask yourself, “How could someone who is married with three beautiful children, in one of the biggest bands in the world, who had literally just finished an incredibly successful live show go to his room and kill himself?”
If he has a brain like mine, he has an illness and his brain was triggered by something that resulted in a suicidal episode. It may have had nothing to do with his amazing life. Sometimes an illness is simply stronger than the person. Sometimes medications mess with our sensitive brain chemicals.
The idea that suicidal ideation leaves people alone when they create a good life is an absolute lie.
The idea that being in love and having beautiful kids you would die for is going to prevent suicidal thoughts is a lie.
Sometimes this illness is too strong and it kills someone just as if that person had died of a heart attack.
I didn’t know Chris Cornell, but I do know why some people who seem to have everything take their own lives. I have no idea what was going on in his relationships, but I do know what was going on in his brain.
I’m often overwhelmed with the doom and gloom surrounding the topic of suicide. The hushed tones and the shame are misplaced. When we understand and treat suicidal behavior as a physical illness, we will truly end our suicide epidemic.
When we talk openly about the chemical side of suicidal thoughts, we teach people in the deepest moment of suicidal ideation to step back, just as if they were having the signs of a stroke and say, “Wait! This is not me and it is not what I want. I need immediate help.”
I didn’t listen to the voice telling me to jump out of the window, not because I am stronger than others. I have no more strength than anyone. I didn’t listen because I had taught myself that this is what happens when my depressed bipolar brain gets sick. We can teach others to do the same.
Chris Cornell. You will always be in my memory. You came out on stage in black leather pants with a white shirt and a camel colored jacket. You were fly. The bomb! And then you sang and my brother and I went to another world. You are loved.
Julie A. Fast is a leading bipolar disorder specialist and a critically acclaimed national speaker, family coach, and sought-after media source. She blogs at www.juliefast.com and is coauthor of Loving Someone With Bipolar.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.