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June 3, 2024

Book Review-Secrets of Suicide

It’s not multiple personality disorder (now called “dissociative identity disorder”), but it’s odd when the author of the book refers to the pen name from previous books in the third person.  In Secrets of Suicide, Dr. Ken Tullis reveals that he’s also written books under the pen name of Dr. Kevin Taylor.  He acknowledges that his current book is in “collaboration” with Kevin Taylor.  It’s deeper when you recognize that Ken Tullis was a founder of Suicide Anonymous, a group modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous that seeks to create a space for people who are living with suicidal thoughts.  It makes sense that a professional would want to obscure his identity when revealing his suicidal ideation.

Perfectionism

Tullis recounts an early childhood experience and his response to it: “No way I can beat that, I thought, no matter how much I work at it. No way I can jump over a bar that high. Why even to live. No matter what I ever do, I’ll fail.”  Obviously, this is a fatalist attitude that would characterize his life going forward.  He expands the experience with, “I’m going to fail; therefore, I’ll get out by killing myself.”  At an early age, he had decided that suicide was not only an option but the natural course of events.

There’s also an element of perfectionism.  If there’s no way to win, then there’s no reason to play.  (See Perfectionism for more.)  If your father is perfect in your eyes, then you must be, too.  If he got a perfect score, you know you can’t beat him – so what’s the point?

Of course, the answer is that not everything is wrapped up in one aspect of someone’s life, and we’re our own creatures who will be better at some things than others.  We don’t have to compete on every aspect – or even the same aspects.  It’s too bad this wouldn’t be a lesson that he was taught as a child.

Secrets of Booze, Sex, and Suicide

Like many who are believe they’re not good enough and are seeking to numb these feelings, Tullis turned to booze and sex.  (See The Globalization of Addiction and Chasing the Scream for more.)  Booze numbs for a while.  Sex elevates endorphins to fight off despair – for a while.  The secret of suicidal thinking  is different and less widely used.  Though research seems to indicate that somewhere between one-in-three and one-in-six people will seriously consider suicide at some point in their lives, it appears as a less frequent coping tool.

Suicide as a secret was always an option.  If things got bad enough, if there seemed to be no other way out, then it was an option that could be pulled out.  Like the other secret coping mechanisms, it was designed to make things good enough for now – and to relieve the pressure of unrelenting failure to be perfect.

Twelve-step groups say that “you’re only as sick as your secrets,” and Tullis had developed a trifecta.  (See Neurodharma for more.)

Trauma

Many people’s first suicidal thoughts are rooted in trauma.  Something traumatic happens, and they think that it’s an option for them to end the game of life.  To be clear, trauma – psychological trauma – is temporarily being overwhelmed by a situation.  It relies on the intersection of the person and the event.  Things that are trauma for one may or may not be for another.  It’s important to accept that being told he couldn’t beat his father was, for Tullis, a trauma.

One of the natural defenses in the presence of trauma is dissociation, where the event is made “not me.”  However, when dissociation fades, we cannot help but accept that the event did happen, and it impacted us in some way.  Sometimes, the dissociation sticks, and we wall off parts of our personality, as No Bad Parts explains.

The Narrowing

Years ago, I was taking a comedy course.  (See I am a Comedian for more.)  At that time, I had been speaking in front of crowds for decades.  I was, at times, underpreparing for talks to get a spark of adrenaline when I’d hit the stage.  It was routine.  As a part of the course, I walked on stage in front of a real audience on an open-mic night.  It was at that point that I experienced a massive stress response.  The entire room went dark for me, except for my friend in the front row.  I couldn’t see anyone else – including my instructor, who I knew was standing in the back of the room.  My psychological defenses kicked in and narrowed my vision.

I made it through my set – but I’m not sure how.  I didn’t think anyone laughed at any of my material.  Listening to the recording afterwards helped me realize that wasn’t true.  I just had no capacity to hear it.  While I’ve only experienced this once, many people who fight suicidal thoughts are challenged with these experiences frequently.

Among the most traumatic experiences are the loss of a sibling, spouse, parent, or child.  These events are consistently traumatic for most people.  Often, the narrowing comes after these experiences; disproportionally that narrowing leads to suicide.  I didn’t experience this when I lost my brother, nor when we lost our son.  However, I made decisions fixed in stone for each.  When my brother died, I committed to support his wife and his daughters.  When Alex died, I resolved to learn how he could die by suicide.

Frustrating Attempts

With the persistently suicidal, there are often multiple attempts.  While it would seem like the failure to die would be greeted with love and appreciation, it isn’t always.  The family must live in constant fear that their loved one will decide to attempt suicide again, and that stress can be painful to live with.  It leads to the thought – that isn’t always verbalized – that the person should just “die and get it over with.”  The challenging bit of this is that the person often feels the same way themselves.

As Thomas Joiner explains, burdensomeness is a factor in suicide.  (See Why People Die by Suicide.)  The person who has made an attempt becomes aware of the strain they’re putting on their families.  They realize that, despite their value, they are at least in some ways a burden.

Based on Beliefs

Our lives are not built on reality and facts but are instead built on our beliefs – correct or not.  If someone believes that they’re not worthy of love, then they’ll fail to accept it when it comes.  If they feel as if they’re not good, they’ll resist being told they are.  Most of the time, our beliefs approximate reality enough that there’s no problem.  However, from time to time, we found that our beliefs drift from reality, and rectifying them can be challenging.

I’m not talking about the kind of disconnect from reality that schizophrenics encounter.  (See How Emotions Are Made.)  Rather, I’m talking about the everyday type of distortions that we all have.  (See How We Know What Isn’t So.)  I’m talking about a view of ourselves that is too good or too bad to match reality.

One belief that can be limiting is that emotions are bad or uncontrollable.  This belief prevents the sharing and expression of emotions, and this creates a problem, as they build up internally until they can no longer be contained.  This suppression of emotions can create psychotic breaks that are disturbing to see.

Hopefully, you can find the path to exposing Secrets of Suicide.

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