Imagining Suicide

Photo: Golden Gate Bridge.
View of Golden Gate Bridge from Lands End.

Twice weekly, I commute across the Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve taken this route for over a year, yet the view still consumes me. Whether marveling at the Bridge, seeing the sun (or fog) mingle with the Pacific Ocean, or eyeing the cramped San Francisco skyline that signals the end of my workday, I feel part of the grandeur, one small being contributing to a greater meaning.

Symbolically, bridges represent connection as well as transformation. They end separations and mark transitions. J. E. Cirlot wrote in A Dictionary of Symbols, “The bridge is always symbolic of a transition from one state to another — of change or the desire for change.” According to the Penguin Dictionary of Symbols a bridge is sometimes represented by a sword, highlighting that transitions are also sometimes dangerous.

Perhaps the sublime beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge, along with the symbolism associated with bridges in general, is why this landmark has become the world’s number one suicide destination. More people take their lives at the Golden Gate Bridge than any other place in the world.

Dealing with suicidal thoughts and feelings is the shadowy work of psychotherapy. And like most dark and scary places, few ever wish to visit. But as a psychotherapist, facing suicide is not a matter of choice, but rather a matter of when. And if you are prudent, you stay mindful that during times of crises, anyone can get consumed by darkness.

Part of basic training as a psychotherapist involves learning how to deal with suicide — establishing if a person has a plan, a means to carry out the plan, a history of suicide attempts or suicidal ideation, a precipitating crisis, and equally important, a reason to live. However, gathering all this information is never enough to save a soul, although it can keep the heart beating a bit longer. Such information helps decide if emergency intervention is necessary, and can also point to deeper conflicts beyond the precipitating crisis. For some, thoughts of suicide can actually give a sense of safety — much like an emergency escape if suffering becomes unbearable.

I recently watched The Bridge, a documentary about suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge (preview below). Although the film came out in 2006, it is still relevant. In the United States, more people die from suicide than homicide, which has been true for some time now. In San Francisco, we’re still waiting for funding to put up a suicide-barrier on the Bridge. Furthermore, the act of suicide, and the impact it has on people, remains the same: feelings of confusion, anger, shame, guilt, longing, helplessness, loneliness, and even sometimes relief — what I imagine are similar to the feelings of the people they knew who committed suicide.

My gut ached after watching the documentary, which includes footage of people falling to their deaths. I have come to look at such strong somatic responses as indicators of both the impact of an event and the incapacity to make meaning of what transpired. I could not imagine what was going on in their minds when they jumped — or rather, I would not let myself imagine; it would have overwhelmed me. Watching footage of people committing suicide was traumatizing.

It wasn’t until I thought of the symbolism of bridges, and the cycles of integration and de-integration that are an inevitable part of growth, that I began to open to what I had watched. Falling apart is an aspect of growth and change (which I wrote about last week). Although necessary, it’s rarely easy to go through. Furthermore, most of us at some point will have to reconcile how we perceive ourselves with how we are perceived and treated by others, and decide if what is witnessed actually matches what is felt inside. Such comparisons can cause acute states of aloneness.

Feeling unwelcome, unseen, unheard, confused about what direction to take, sick of the effort, exhausted by longing, and angry at the injustices of life can create a downward spiral that is profoundly isolating. A history of adverse childhood experiences or mental illness increases the likelihood of such feelings, but anyone can have them. I think our postmodern world aggravates and amplifies the suffering. Collectively, we are unmoored from recent eras and their sense of humanity. We are still trying to figure out what it means to be human in this latest round of globalization. And our current society does not foster the deep, reliable connections that can buoy our spirits during times of distress.

From trainings in sensorimotor psychotherapy, I learned to perceive suicide as a fight response, which differs from traditional thinking of suicide as a response to hopelessness and acute depression (which may also be present). This seems right to me, especially after watching footage of people jumping off the Bridge. Suicide is a fight. It’s an attempt to break through feeling trapped in one’s life, mind, and sometimes relationships. It’s a fight against perceived limits on growth and change. It’s a fight against suffering.

Suicide may also be a fight with overwhelming feelings. Or a fight with a perpetually critical inner voice. Or a fight with painful memories. Or a fight with the obsessive looping of one’s mind. Or a fight with circumstances. Sometimes it’s a fight with others, and then it’s often a fight against feeling oppressed or controlled. The list of reasons for suicide may be endless. But whatever the reason, suicide is a failure of the imagination, since only one solution is perceived: death.

Perhaps the appeal of the Golden Gate Bridge is that it symbolizes transforming suffering into something meaningful  — that the Bridge is somehow grand enough to both contain and transform the vast sense of aloneness within. And perhaps in every suicide attempt there is an unconscious wish for transformation, although channeled into a losing battle.

In self-defense training, I learned to get in the “donut” when in a fight, and physically close to the assailant. This is not easy to do. The instinct is to run from what is threatening and dangerous. But getting close gives the opportunity for greatest impact. The same principle applies when the assailant is suicide: you have to get really close to the person who is contemplating suicide. It’s not a time for polite distance or hesitation. You’ve got to get inside the imaginal “donut” that separates the person from humankind, as well as her or his desired sense of self, and try to stop the isolating spiral. Click here for a good resource on how to support someone who may be suicidal. And of course, it’s always a good idea to call 911 if a suicide attempt seems imminent.

I’ve put the Suicide Prevention Lifeline number below. Studies show phone therapy works. I’ve also volunteered on crisis lines, and saw firsthand the impact that a phone call with a trained counselor can make. It’s good to have this number around, kind of like knowing CPR. Human connection can save lives.

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Cirlot, J. E. 1971/2002. A dictionary of symbols. Translated by Jack Sage. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.

Chevalier, Jean, and Alain Gheerbrant. 1996/1969. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols. Translated by John Buchanan-Brown. London, UK: Penguin Books.

© 2013 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).

  • Jane

    Thanks for this article Laura. We lost a dear member of our community a couple of weeks ago to suicide. He jumped off the Golden Gate bridge. It is hard to be left behind. Frustrating to be left wishing we could have done something more to help him.
    In my own struggles with suicidal thoughts I was helped by James Hillman’s book Suicide and the Soul. He speaks so well of suicide as a metaphor for inner transformation, a soul’s longing that sometimes we mix up the “inner” need to transform with the “outer”. I don’t know if I am explaining myself well, but maybe you can understand the idea.

    • Laura K Kerr

      I am so sorry for your loss. It’s heartbreaking. I haven’t read Hillman’s book, but it is on my reading list. I attended Pacifica Graduate Institute, and Hillman was often around — a bit of an icon. I learned at Pacifica to view suicide as “literalizing” internal conflicts and wishes. Unfortunately, knowing this can only help so much after you have lost someone to suicide. I hope you are finding support and time to grieve.

  • Eve Wartenberg Condon

    Thanks for articulating the different meanings and motives pertaining to suicide–so right on and helpful. I also relate to the difficulty of overcoming one’s natural response to flee, on several levels. Love this.

    • Laura K Kerr

      Thanks so much for your feedback, Eve.