I have the opportunity of hearing things from people that they have never told anyone else. This is a tremendous privilege that we therapists have. Close family members, good friends, pastors, doctors, and bartenders often hear private things from people, but there is something almost sacred about the therapy office, especially after trust is established between therapist and patient, that allows for someone to say, “I never told anyone this…” and finish that statement with a story, a fear, a hope, or some kind of grief. I always listen such statements with admiration for the person who has found the courage to say out loud what he or she has thought privately for a long time.
Yesterday I heard an out loud statement from four of the six people I saw in my clinical day, and felt the same statement being said by the other two: I don’t want to live. Two of these individuals said unequivocally that they didn’t want to live, while the others needed a bit of help to admit to that feeling. Today I heard a 14-year old boy tells me that he wished he could just disappear, or that he hadn’t been born, a statement that is tantamount to “I don’t want to live.” Most of the time when I sense this “not wanting to live” feeling with someone, I need to help the individual (usually men) to admit to it. I get some resistance to admitting to this not wanting to live, understandably because it sounds so dreadful. I suggest that they feel one thing, think another, and have a third statement regarding what they might do. Thus, the three elements of human existence, thinking, feeling, and doing, show themselves in different statements:
I don’t want to live.
I don’t want to die, meaning I don’t want to go through the dying process.
I certainly don’t want to kill myself.
I have found it profitable for people in some circumstances to find the courage to say these three things. People who are very depressed, those who have one or more debilitating physical illnesses, and people who are in some seemingly hopeless situation often feel this “I don’t want to live” feeling. Importantly, this statement represents a feeling, not a thought, and certainly not an act. When someone (usually a man) finds the trust, willingness, and courage to admit to this feeling, he finds a certain freedom. Indeed, for such people life has become intolerable in some way, perhaps physically, emotionally, or relationally. So I find myself in the odd place of helping say something that sounds suicidal. I have to remind the people who say such things that they have every reason to not want to live any longer. “Feelings are never wrong,” I say, but feelings are not thoughts and they are not actions. In fact, I think that I may very well have prevented some people’s suicidal thoughts or actions by helping them say that they didn’t want to live…even though they didn’t want to die and certainly didn’t want to suicide.
One of the reasons that people need a bit of help to admit to this feeling of not wanting to live is that it sounds suicidal. It isn’t. I think everyone has had such feelings at one time or another in their lives even though they might not have used these words. In most cases this not-wanting-to-live feeling comes out of some kind of long-term difficulty, whether emotional, relational, or physical. The other reason it is difficult to admit to this feeling is that no one can hear it. What family member is going to be able to affirm their loved one’s statement, “I don’t want to live”? Everyone would want to reassure the person that he or she should want to live for some reason. Family and friends would say something like, “You have your family to live for,” “You have a lot of reasons to live,” “It is a sin to kill yourself,” or “What would your children think if you killed yourself.” This theoretical interchange misses the point. We call the people who make such statements “friendly enemies,” meaning that they might very well dearly loved the desperate person, but they are not helping the person admit to the feeling that he or she has. Remember, “I don’t want to live” is a feeling, not a fact, not a thought, and not a desired action. The reasons friendly enemies have for their “you should want to live because…” are reasons. “I don’t want to live is not reasonable; it is emotional.
Yesterday was a painful day for me having heard, directly and indirectly, from so many people who didn’t want to live because life had become so intolerable. I had the opportunity to share this terrible feeling, this terribly private feeling, with these folks. And it is this sharing of such deeply personal things that makes my job both rewarding and painful. If I can help people say their feelings, however they come out, and give them a wide berth in their emotional expressions, they can then think clearly, and act reasonably. Unfortunately, at least in our Western society, it is difficult to make emotional statements because we live in such an emotionally undeveloped society. When people repress their emotions, they later blurt out in some kind of irrational thought or irrational action, and very often in some kind of irrational anger or explosion.
Kids are much better at this than adults are. They have the privilege, or should have the privilege, of just feeling, just expressing these feelings, and then usually getting over these feelings about as quickly as they came. I wonder how many kids might say, “I don’t want to live” when their parents refuse to buy them the ice cream cone they so dearly want. When my older daughter was five, we had shopped together for a few minutes and she wanted me to buy something for her. I didn’t, and she didn’t like it. On the way home in the car, she falteringly said, “I want a new daddy!” What a reasonable statement for a five-year old to say. It was the way she temporarily figured out the universe. And five minutes later when we were playing on the floor of the living room, she didn’t remember what she said. The beauty of the emotion that children express is that it is not expressed in thoughts or actions; emotion is expressed in actions or utterances, not all of which are words. We do well to teach our children. We could do well to learn from them as well.