Is suicide illogical?

I know our culture says it's wrong to kill yourself, but it seems like the only reasonable thing to do


Cary Tennis
October 21, 2010 4:01AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

Is suicide ever the logical choice?

I know that in our culture the answer is always a reflexive "no"; I know that in other cultures and other times that hasn't always been the case. Neither of those data points are useful to me.

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My situation, in a nutshell: Untreated mental illness has destroyed my life. I've known since I was an adolescent that I had a problem, but I never sought help until it was far too late. I was too ashamed, I didn't think I could be helped, I thought I could control it, I thought it was normal. At various times each of those, sometimes in various combinations, have been my excuse.

And as a result, after 30-some years of merely making myself unhappy, I started losing control of my behavior. I have caused grave hurt and injury to family members. I destroyed my marriage. I betrayed some of my closest friends. I now live far, far away from where I used to live because I fear arrest and incarceration if I return home.

Once it was far too late, I tried therapy. I got a lot of insight into why I have behaved in such destructive ways, and tools to finally stop it -- but nothing I've learned helps me live with myself.

The damage I've caused can't be undone, although time has healed some of it in my absence. But I simply don't think I can live with the guilt. And I know that if I kill myself it will cause great pain to those few whom I haven't yet driven away, and that would be one more thing to feel guilty about, but at least there would be no me left to feel it.

I don't believe in an afterlife or reincarnation or anything like that. If I did I would be that much more eager to get a second chance, to try again. But as far as I know you get one chance at life, and I have screwed mine up beyond retrieval.

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I can't judge whether the world would be better off without me in it; most likely it would make no appreciable difference at all. But more and more I feel I would be better off if I could just set this burden down.

So, I guess my question is: Is there any way I can be wrong?

Suicidal

Dear Suicidal,

In thinking about your letter, I realized it had been some time since I had read from the book that changed my life so dramatically. So I got it down off the shelf. On page 389 of my old paperback copy of "Feeling Good -- The New Mood Therapy," by Dr. David Burns, is a chapter called "The Illogic of Suicide."

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"Nearly all suicidal patients have in common an illogical sense of hopelessness and the conviction they are facing an insoluble dilemma," Burns writes. "Once you expose the distortions in your thinking, you will experience considerable emotional relief. This can give you a basis for hope and help you avert a dangerous suicide attempt."

Burns devotes a good bit of that chapter to explaining, with some urgency, why suicide is an illogical choice.

Rather than paraphrase what he says, I would urge you to get a copy of this book. You can buy one at a store or online, or you can download a free digital copy of the text on the Internet.

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I hope you do this.

I have been depressed and at times felt suicidal. I was helped greatly by cognitive therapy. It really did work in my case. I found that I was having many irrational thoughts that were in fact causing my moods. That is the basis of the thing: That our thoughts cause our moods, and that many of these thoughts we are having are erroneous. They are illogical. They are factually wrong.

I don't want to appear to argue with you, but, well, to be frank, yes, I do want to argue with you. I do want to argue with you because I sense that you are in danger of committing suicide when you don't have to and there is no reason to.

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So I will quote Dr. Burns again:

"Because your suffering feels unbearable and appears unending, you may erroneously conclude that suicide is your only way of escape. If you have had such thoughts in the past, or if you are seriously thinking this way at present, let me state the message of this chapter loud and clear:

"You Are Wrong in Your Belief That Suicide Is the Only Solution or the Best Solution to Your Problem.

"Let me repeat that. You are wrong!"

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I love the way he argues with people. He really gets in your face.

I don't want to pretend that I know a great deal about this, other than it worked for me. But here is one example, in my own language, of how you might work with some of the beliefs that have brought you to this point.

Let's evaluate the statement, "Untreated mental illness has destroyed my life."

While this statement indicates how you feel, it is exaggerated. Your life has not literally been destroyed. So your task in using cognitive therapy to improve your outlook would be to identify that statement as dysfunctional and replace it with something rooted in observable reality. You might say, for instance, that you have the disease of depression and as a consequence of that illness you feel profoundly hopeless. That is something a cognitive therapist could work with you on.

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The reason for working with such thoughts is that they have been found to result in how we feel. By changing our thoughts, we can change how we feel. That isn't the same thing as saying we create reality. There are some people who claim that by thinking things we make them happen. I'm not sure that can be demonstrated. But it can be demonstrated that our thoughts affect how we feel. We don't create reality. We do create how we feel about reality.

I feel pretty hopeful about your prospects for recovery because you have the ability to think.

Oh, there is one other thing I wanted to say. I want to question the notion that because therapy has not worked in the past, it will not work in the future. I do not think that is logical. It seems to me just the opposite would be true: that if one approach doesn't work, it makes it more likely that that's not the right approach and that some other approach is the right one. It sounds like saying that because one treatment hasn't worked on your cancer, a different treatment can't work either. There's no causal link between the ineffectiveness of a past treatment and the effectiveness of a new treatment.

So do me a favor. Acquire a copy of that book, read it, do what it suggests, and see if it doesn't help. Give it an honest tryout. See if you can find a cognitive therapist to work with.

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Let me know how it goes.

Thanks.



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Cary Tennis

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