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Depression —
and Thoughts of Suicide

 

 

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Page Contents: Background / The Rest of the Story / Repressed Anger / Shame and Guilt / Child Abuse / A Subtle Deception / The Real Cure

 

Background

HE WAS about 7 years old. It was after dinner, and the evening sun of midsummer still hung low in the sky. Suddenly, he ran into the house and threw himself onto his bed, crying, saying, over and over through his tears, “I wish I were dead.”

 


 

The
 
Rest
 
Of
 
The
 
Story

As a result of psychotherapy, he could recall the rest of the story. His mother had denied him something he wanted (though what it was is long forgotten), he felt unrecognized and unloved, and he was angry at her. In his mind, he began to wish she were dead—but only for a split second, because on the edge of consciousness it occurred to him that if she were to die, he would have no mother and that he would be left all alone in the world with no one to take care of him. So his mind quickly turned away from that wish for her death, with all of it’s lonely implications, and, feeling quite guilty about the whole thing, he began to wish for his own death. After all, what kind of a person could be so dependent on someone else, so helpless and afraid? A no good piece of nothing, that’s who, and he deserves to die.

 


 

Repressed
 
Anger

In psychological terms, he repressed his anger for his mother and ended up turning his frustration against himself. The proverb “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” sums this up nicely. It’s a terrible bind for a child. And, if it happens often enough, it can prevent the child from being able to express emotions appropriately—because with every angry thought comes the fear of losing someone’s love or protection.

In my own life, beginning with my psychoanalysis as a student, I, too, have had to come to terms with similar events and how they have affected my life. I, like many of my own patients, have been forced as an adult to learn how to come to terms honestly with feelings of insult and hurt.

 


  

Shame
 
and
 
Guilt

Now, the fleeting suicidal fantasy that this child encountered in that moment of childhood frustration was not a clinical case of suicidal depression. Nevertheless, in my professional experience I have seen the dynamic of suppressed anger as a major motive behind clinical depression, and ultimately, as the unconscious motive for serious suicidal thoughts.

This can be explained by common, human experiences—shame and guilt—as they first manifest in early childhood.

It all begins because, in all reality, most parents do not sacrifice the time and effort to listen carefully to their children, so as to discover a child’s true needs and to explain patiently to the child the emotional reactions he or she is having. Instead, parents manipulate children to get them to do whatever makes life easier for the parents. This manipulation is not real love. And make no mistake here: children know it is not love. Children know precisely what is happening, and they know something is “missing.”

To a young child, though, it can be absolutely terrifying to admit, “My parents do not love me.” That admission brings with it the threat of death and extinction, and most children cannot bear the existential agony of that reality. Thus they will feel intense shame for feeling unloved. Moreover, their irritation at the parents’ failures will lead to angry thoughts of hate, and those thoughts will provoke feelings of guilt.

  

Note that whereas shame derives from a belief that there is something “wrong” with you for having certain feelings (such as feeling unloved), guilt derives from something you have done or thought (such as thoughts of hatred). 

  

So, in order to ward off the guilt-provoking thoughts, children will unconsciously push any hints of them away before they attain conscious awareness. To do this, they use a subtle defense strategy: they flip the shame inside out. That is, they take the terrifying thought (“My parents do not love me”) and turn it around into the belief that because something must be wrong with them, they really do not deserve the love they so desperately need.[1] Thus they will tell themselves negative thoughts such as

 •

I don’t deserve it.

I don’t belong.

I’m not good enough.

I’m a loser.

These thoughts, repeated over and over in the hidden darkness of a child’s loneliness, become so built up over time that they become a self-confirmed depressing reality.

  

Note that the effect of shame is to draw your attention away from the true external source of your emotional pain and to focus your attention on the illusion that you are defective. The unconscious motive here is to free yourself from the anguish of feeling irritated with someone you need. But, in its actual effects, this defense only drives the irritation further into the darkness of your heart where it becomes unconscious anger turned against yourself.

  

If you ever reach this point, you then seemingly become a “partner” in your own destruction.

In fact, some persons will even kill themselves to avoid admitting that their parents did not love them. It’s as if they say to themselves, “I would rather die than admit that I’m angry at my parents!”

  

Has anyone ever pushed you away when you wanted to be comforted? Has anyone ever given more attention to a bottle of alcohol than to you? Has anyone ever laughed at you when you were hurt? Has anyone ever told you that you were too dumb to succeed? Has anyone ever refused you help when you asked for it? Do you get the idea? No one may have actually told you to kill yourself, but all these sorts of behavioral cues give a clear impression: “You are of no importance to me.” “I have no concern for you.” “You’re not special.” “You don’t deserve to be alive.” “You are garbage.”

So, to the “Other,” you (and all of us, for that matter) are just an object to be manipulated to satisfy someone else. It’s a losing game to try to make the “Other” love you. It’s a losing game to make the “Other” say you’re special. Sure, you can try to do all the right things, like drink the right brand of cola, eat at the right fast-food place, wear the right jeans, expose all the right pieces of flesh, pierce and tattoo yourself in the right places, use the right lingo, work for the right company—but once you slip up, then it’s the garbage can for you.

Thus you can “tune in” to the resentment of others subliminally, and, if you’re not psychologically aware, you can come to believe that these perceptions you receive from others are truth and reality about your personal value—or lack of it.

I’m not trying to tell you here that no one feels affection for you. You can argue all you want that your mother and father care about you somehow, and I won’t object, because on some level they do care about you. The real point is that many persons who claim to care about you also give indications, through behaviors and things they say and think, that their affection for you is mixed with resentment. Thus, instead of teaching you how to love by the example of true love, they “infect” you emotionally with a fear of love. It’s not pretty to see this directly, so that’s why you have defenses that blind you to it. But it’s real. At the core, that’s where suicidal feelings originate. Not that anyone is necessarily literally wishing you to die, but that the feeling of resentment that they project can get so strong that you end up feeling like garbage. And from there it is only one small step to make yourself garbage.

So, once your psychotherapy drags you through the pain of this realization about human nature—and you accept it all without defense and resistance—you will then have the strength to “see through” the illusions of the “Other” and claim your own right to exist.

  

Now, the point here is not to give you an excuse to dodge responsibility for your own actions. We all do and say things that hurt others, and when we are called to correction, we should accept the rebuke honestly and non-defensively. But a rebuke is no reason for feeling depressed. If you do feel depressed, then you have good evidence that the present rebuke has activated unconscious shame and guilt. To deal with the present situation, then, turn back to remedying the emotional wounds of your childhood.

  

I have had clients walk into a session saying, “I’m feeling really depressed this week. I’m sure it’s biochemical. Maybe I need medication.”

When I ask what has happened during the week, they reply with a shrug of the shoulders, “Nothing special. It’s just me.”

So then I patiently explore with them the events of the week and their emotional reactions to those events. Invariably, we discover some interpersonal conflict that activated old feelings of shame and guilt and that had a direct connection to the depressed mood. At the end of the session they say, “I’m feeling much better. I never would have discovered that connection on my own.”

So, were they lying to me at the beginning of the session? Well, no, not in the sense of deliberately telling a lie. But were they lying to themselves? Sadly, yes.

Therefore, I will say it again. Once your psychotherapy drags you through the pain of this realization about human nature—and you accept it all without defense and resistance—you will then have the strength to “see through” the illusions of the “Other” and claim your own right to exist.

  

In sum, all of this shame and guilt points to one unconscious fact about parental love being missing from your life: the urge to suicide is based in the false belief that you can hide the truth of your parents’ missing love by making yourself into a missing object.

 


 

Child
 
Abuse

Not everyone who feels, or has felt, depressed or suicidal has been abused as a child. The dynamic of ordinary suppressed anger can be quite sufficient on its own to engender feelings of depression, and, out of a sense of weariness with one’s own emotional pain in a callous world, thoughts of suicide can become a seemingly viable option. 

Clinical experience and research [2] tell us that child abuse, however, can intensify ordinary existential feelings in several ways.

Sexual abuse essentially amplifies feelings of worthlessness. When an adult sexually abuses a child, the adult is really using the child as an object of pleasure, a mere commodity to be used and then discarded afterwards. Needless to say, being treated like a piece of garbage can leave you believing that you are a piece of garbage. And in feeling that you have lost your humanity, especially if you lack any social support from others, suicide can begin to appear like a fitting conclusion to—and self-inflicted punishment for—a worthless existence.

Emotional abuse essentially amplifies feelings of cynicism, a contemptuous disbelief in human goodness and sincerity. And if you become cynical because you have been belittled so often, not only can you become a bully or a terrorist, but also you can eventually become so weary of the constant fighting against the world and its prejudices that suicide seems like a final revenge.

Physical abuse essentially amplifies feelings of hostility toward—and disrespect for—authority. This simmering animosity can actually harden you to the point that you become cold and calculating in your interactions with others. But if anything ever happens to make you feel that your control of people or events is jeopardized, then, like a soldier in disgrace or a stockbroker gone bankrupt, suicide will seem like your only escape.

 


 

A
 
Subtle
 
Deception
 

Hearing that suicide is really a veiled attempt to hurt others, many persons who have made attempts at suicide will object. “I just want to reiterate that I didn’t want to hurt others—I just felt invisible and wanted to disappear.” Yes, that’s how it seems to them, on the surface, but the truth lurks under the surface. Wanting to disappear, to sleep, to just float in the calm peace of a fluffy cloud aren’t as benign as it might seem. And, oddly enough, the proof of this fact has been dramatically expressed in a story that would seem to have no place in it for the psychology of depression and suicide.

The story is the Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Moreover, as I say on another page of this website, Death and the Seduction of Despair, it cannot be taken for granted that authors really understand the deep psychological truths they express in their writing. After all, truth has a way of making itself known unconsciously.

 
The Background Story

Tolkien tells the story of a group of dwarves, assisted by a hobbit and, at times, by a wizard, who seek to recover a treasure stolen from them by a dragon generations ago. They embark on a long journey from the hobbit’s home, across mountains, though a dark forest, and on to the Lonely Mountain under which the dragon has made its home in the ancient halls of the dwarf king.

During their trek through the forest, the dwarves and hobbit, tired and weary from having run out of food, encounter a stream that must be crossed. Previously, they had been warned to neither drink of nor bathe in the waters of the stream, because the stream carried an enchantment of great drowsiness and forgetfulness.

Well, as they were crossing the stream in a small boat, one of the dwarves fell into the water. Almost immediately, he fell asleep. The others were forced to carry him in order to continue the journey.

 
The Psychological Point

Now, at this point we need to ask an important question with psychological implications: Which dwarf fell into the water?

The answer is revealing: of the thirteen dwarves, it was the fat one who fell into the water. And why is this revealing? Well, as Tolkien made clear in previous episodes, the fat dwarf was often ridiculed for being fat and was the one who always came last. In fact, he was the last one to cross the stream, and, while just about to climb up the opposite shore, he was surprised by a bolting deer, lost his balance, and fell into the water.

Psychologically, though, the important point isn’t just that the dwarf was fat; the important point is that he resented being ridiculed, and resented always being last, but, like most persons, never said anything about it; he just felt invisible and kept his emotional wounds quiet and hidden under his breath. 

And there, in that silent resentment, we can locate the reason why he fell into the water. By falling into the water and falling asleep, he forced the others to carry him. Remember, he was heavy, and it took four other dwarves to carry him on a sling between two poles. It was a real burden. And thus we can see the ultimate psychological point [3] of this episode in the story: the one who carries resentment forces others to carry him. Even though he did not intend any of this to happen, he still managed to fulfill his unconscious desire to get revenge for his mistreatment. The others, tired and hungry, had to carry him while he slept and dreamed of delightful feasts in the woods.

 
The Implications for Depression and Suicide

The desire to sleep and be carried, just like psychological addictions (e.g., drugs, alcohol, food, gambling, eroticism, video games, TV, movies and on and on), reflects, in one way or another, a yearning to escape from the emotional pain of life and to experience the infantile bliss of a mother’s comfort. It could be an escape into the secure darkness of her womb or the floating peace of her arms, but it all hinges on some way to “tune out” of painful reality.

  

For persons who have been abused as children, the desire for a mother’s comfort may not be a desire for something lost, but rather a desire for something never experienced.

  

However the ultimate results may be manifested, the desire to escape from reality—to sleep, to disappear—carries with it the desire to be carried. It’s fundamentally an attempt to escape from responsibility. It’s never just a benign wish for peace. The one who carries resentment always manages to hurt others—to disturb their peace—by making them carry him. That’s the subtle deception of suicide and depression. That soft fluffy cloud may seem restful and curative, but it’s filled with turbulence and, quite often, thunder and lightning as well.

 


 

The
 
Real
 
Cure

The real cure? Start by shattering the illusion that you’re a “partner” in your own destruction. Yes, one “part” of your personality may be unconsciously seeking your destruction, but other parts of you do have the authority to listen to and heal this despair.

You feel despised because you despise yourself for hiding your fear and pain.

The irony about depression is that it actually disavows your deepest pain and tries to hide it all with a thick smokescreen of victimization and self-loathing. But if you listen to your pain and vulnerability with curiosity and understanding—that is, with the love that your parents did not give you—then you give yourself the respect and recognition that you may never get from the world, and you take the first step toward your own healing.

Even children who are belittled—through no fault of their own—by their own parents, and who couldn’t defend themselves as children, can learn to reclaim their self-esteem as adults by “standing up” for themselves in asserting their human dignity with every person they encounter.

  

For example, if your parents became impatient and critical when you made a mistake in childhood you probably sank down into silent shame; but now, as an adult, you can say to them or to anyone else who is critical rather than helpful, “What are you being so mean to me for? Cursing a stalled car won’t make it start running again.”

  

You may be surprised to find that this process doesn’t involve hostility or violence, and that those who master it end up having so much confidence in the value of their lives that they are able to respond to hurt and insults with a feeling of true compassion.

So try realizing that you don’t need to destroy your “self,” but that you really do want to put an end to a dependent hiding-behind-your-own-fears-way-of-life while learning how to live honestly, and passionately, and independently in the world. It takes courage to work this out.

  

Suicidal fantasies, when spoken in a therapeutic setting, can actually be quite helpful in getting to some painful emotions that have been suppressed through the years. It can be difficult and frightening work to voice these feelings because one of the symptoms of depression is a deadening of emotions. This just points to the fact that it’s not life itself that’s unbearable—as some desperate persons claim—but it’s the thought of facing up to one’s own inner emotional pain that seems unbearable.

Any actual suicide attempt is really a disavowal of love and forgiveness, because in effect you’re denying yourself the very things you so desperately need: suicide cuts you off from any healing you might attain because of psychological change; it cuts you off from all the good that you could do, for the rest of your life, as true payment for your past mistakes; and it is, in essence, an act of hatred, by which you throw evidence of your failure into the faces of those who failed you, as proof of their failures.

  

Some people, as a way to “prove” to an uncaring world how despised they feel, and to drown the dishonesty without actually putting an end to it, “gamble” on drugs, alcohol, sex, or even gambling itself to do the job.

But addictions have no payoff except death. The real gamble is with yourself. Will you allow yourself to realize there was nothing wrong with you for wishing your mother or father to be dead? That there was nothing wrong with you for being afraid of your own helplessness? After all, you were just an innocent child in a cruel and frightening world, a world that taught you primarily to fear love.

So who knows what unknown talents you will find in yourself if you face life in a world that is still dangerous, frightening, and cruel.

The world will always be cruel—that’s reality.

The illusion is that the world despises you. The world—that is, the social world—is simply looking for its own satisfaction; it’s not really out to “get you.” Even if you were abused as a child—or simply felt neglected—because someone somehow resented you (for example, perhaps you were conceived accidentally, perhaps you weren’t the “right” gender, perhaps your siblings were jealous of you for being a new child, or perhaps you were jealous of a new sibling for being a threat to your security) your current mistake is to be deceived by your own pain and end up despising yourself, making self-loathing into a sort of identity.

So remember, to despise yourself is to hide your anger at the world and to run from mercy and forgiveness. If, however, you stop running in fear and learn to live an emotionally honest life, you can then, in mercy, call others into honesty and out of their own illusory social identifications as well. And that’s important, because when you reject forgiveness for others, you reject it for yourself, but when you call others to accept accountability for their lives, you discover real love for yourself as well.

 


 

The
 
Book
 

Anger and Forgiveness
(3rd edition)

Shows how to turn the emotional wounds of daily life into psychological growth. Available as a paperback book or as an e-book.

More information

 


 

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Notes:

1. Another strategy to ward off guilt-provoking thoughts is the use of compulsive rituals. This defense, instead of leading to depression, leads to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
 
2. Esposito, C. L., & Clum, G. A. (2002). Social support and problem-solving as moderators of the relationship between childhood abuse and suicidality: Applications to a delinquent population. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 15, 137–146.
 
3. In the general psychological sense of the entire story, the dwarves represent our human tendency to covet natural resources we have refined and shaped with our own efforts; the hobbit represents our human tendency toward complacent, comfortable lives but that can be inspired to noble acts of courage; the wizard represents wisdom that transcends ordinary knowledge; the treasure represents our human talents; and the dragon represents psychological defenses that can steal and defile our talents.

 
Additional Resources
 
Crisis Counseling:
Crisis Counseling - Non-Profit Information, Guidance and Referral Assistance
Knowledge Exchange Network (KEN): Crisis Counseling  from the Center for Mental Health Services.
 
Depression/Bipolar Disorder:
Internet Depression Resources List  is a compilation of depression-related resources.
Depression Alliance is a British charity run by and for sufferers of depression.
Dr. Ivan’s Depression Central  is a “central clearinghouse for information on all types of depressive disorders and on the most effective treatments for individuals suffering from Major Depression, Manic-Depression (Bipolar Disorder), Cyclothymia, Dysthymia and other mood disorders.”
Mood Disorders  from THE MERCK MANUAL, Sec. 15, Ch. 189.
NIMH - Depression  from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Screening for Depression Across the Lifespan  from American Family Physician.
WalkersWeb  provides information on mood disorders and their treatment; medications; news; books; chat and discussion.
 
Suicide Evaluation:
Evaluation and Treatment of Patients with Suicidal Ideation  from American Family Physician.
Principles of suicide risk assessment  from Postgraduate Medicine.
Suicide and Suicide Attempts in Adolescents  from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
 
Vitamin D Therapy:
Vitamin D Council  provides information about the role of vitamin D3 deficiency in physical and mental illness, including depression.
 
Related pages within A Guide to Psychology and its Practice:
Anger
Death—and the Seduction of Despair
Fear
Forgiveness
Identity and Loneliness
Questions and Answers about Psychotherapy
Reasons to Consult a Psychologist
Spiritual Healing
The Unconscious
Treatment Philosophy
 
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