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Broken Promises

....but he promised he wouldn't take his own life.  How could he break a promise?

By Wm. "Bill" Schmitz Jr., Psy.D.,Clinical Psychologist, Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System

The title of this page is but one of the many “if only” thoughts that are left to linger in the hearts and minds of survivors, whether the survivor be a family member, loved one, or the deceased’s therapist or clinician if he/she was being treated by a mental health professional. The reality is, there are countless, individual reasons that people may go forward with a suicide attempt even if they have recently, or remotely, promised to “never do that” in reference to suicide. In my clinical practice, there have been a minority of suicidal individuals who view the breaking such a promise as being done “in the best interest” of those who are left behind. While this is the experience for a minority of suicidal individuals, the sad reality is that most of those who are in the midst of a suicidal crisis have zero insight into the true impact that their death may or may not have on those around them. All too often they believe that their death will bring comfort, ease, and respite to those who, in their opinion, are being or have been “sucked down” with them.

While researchers and clinicians have yet to comprehensively understand how to treat and change the suicidal state of mind, there are some aspects of the suicidal state that are known. The concept of cognitive constriction is an incredibly important aspect of suicidal crises. Cognitive constriction is a state of intense focus whereby the suicidal individual cannot see anything beyond the immense pain, misery, and hopelessness of their current emotion. While many have described this state as having really dark blinders on with a single, microscopic focal point, I think a different analogy may help facilitate understanding for those who have never experienced a suicidal crisis or entered “the suicidal zone.”

Think of yourself standing outside in the fields of Oklahoma on a rapidly darkening late-summer afternoon. Torrential rains have just begun with hail the size of golf balls seeming to emerge out of fast approaching, ominous, black clouds that block out the sky, and all other life forms go entirely silent as winds howl, whip, and rip at your clothes. At this moment, with ice chunks pummeling your skin and rattling off nearby structures, could you step back and reflect on what a beautiful and sunny afternoon it is 400 feet above you, above the howling tornado that seems to be destined to rip you off the solid dirt field that you have known to be stable and omnipresent?

When all you can focus on is the chaos and immensely overwhelming immediate moment (the tornado in the above example) the suicidal crisis, which some have referred to as being in the “suicidal zone,” it is impossible to consider what other people may/may not be thinking, experiencing or what you may have “promised” to somebody.

Remember that not all promises are truly lived up to, whether it be the toddler who promises they “really do have to go potty ‘this time’” or the neighbor who, with the best of intentions promises to water your plants when you are out of town. Sometimes the child experiences yet another “false alarm” and the neighbor gets “distracted” by other events. The reality is, even though I strive diligently to be a man of my word, there are times that I, too, have fallen short and failed to live up to a promise that may have been made in the heat of a moment. Unfortunately, when the promise pertains to life and death, we have no recourse or outlet for our anger, frustration, sadness, dejection. Please know that you are not alone in confronting these challenging questions, issues, arguments. There are great resources in the survivor and mental health communities that may be able to provide a little light, encouragement, and support to you as you make way on this journey.


09/23/2011 at 12:00 PM
i lost my best friend the 19th of this month..im at a loss and just dont understand. for someone to be so bubbly and full of life..but after reading this segment, it gave me a bit a sense as well
09/22/2011 at 11:02 AM
Thank you for this...my brother recently took his life...just two days ago. He was my best friend...reading your analogy regarding Cognitive constriction helped make a tiny bit of sense to me as to "why."
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