Charlie was in my office yesterday. He was all smiles. So was I. It was a joy to be in his presence. I commended him on the quick and amazing transformation he was able to make in his relationship with Melinda. Even though his job had been extremely stressful lately, and he was also experiencing a flare-up of symptoms from a chronic illness, he was content and hopeful. Melinda and their two children, James and Alissa were doing well and settling into the “back to school” routines of basketball practice and music lessons.
“It seems like a long time ago,” he said, referring to the suicide attempt he had made two years earlier. We had just spent a long time processing something he’d once been reluctant to look back on. This had been his second close brush with the possibility of taking his own life.
The numbness and depression that had been his familiar companions through adolescence and young adulthood, layered with the lack of parental nurture and constant emotional chaos from his parents’ fighting, had left him with few internal emotional resources. He was familiar with a hollow ache inside that could not seem to be filled. He’d had no modeling in his life about how to really notice his feelings or interpret what they meant, so he was not in touch with his true and legitimate needs for loving connection, validation, security and support. As an athlete, he had learned to be tough and push through difficult circumstances with a silent veneer, and this was how he’d coped during his early adulthood. He’d floundered often, and yet had pushed through college challenges, professional development, early marriage and parenting responsibilities, relationship struggles with Melinda, as well death in his extended family.
He had learned to temporarily feed the inner hungers with easy fixes – “innocent” flirtations with female friends, alcohol, pornography and the friendly, yet detached aloofness that led others to assume he was always fine, and so leave him alone. Melinda’s own heart, however, was anything but numb and detached. She was on high alert. While she had a supportive family, she was also unequipped to deal with the more painful aspects of life, having her own set of coping skills that involved minimizing issues, denying feelings and pushing through. But Charlie’s stone cold silences and betrayals had pushed her panic buttons.
Our work together in couple therapy and our inner healing work on Charlie’s early childhood neglect and trauma combined with Melinda’s loving reassurance in continuing to turn toward him, had quickly softened Charlie’s rigid exterior.
One conversation in particular seemed to resonate with Charlie and help him change his mindset. As a person who works in an industry dependent upon electrical circuitry, he deeply understood the significance of “staying plugged in” and “connected.”
He completely grasped the concept that “integration or connection equals health,” and a lack of connection will always yield disintegration in any system – particularly a relationship.
When he recognized that his lifelong coping mechanism of disconnecting from painful feelings seemed to help when he was alone and powerless as a child, but was not useful at all in his present circumstances (in fact, he always needed just the opposite) he was able to have a swift change of mindset. Instead of his usual “turning away” behaviors, for the first time, he turned toward Melinda, repaired “blundered” attempts at communicating and most importantly, turned toward himself – by looking inward to acknowledge painful emotions and actively pursue, in healthy ways, the needs they were flagging. With this new self-awareness, he now had something to share with Melinda when she asked how his day went or how he was feeling. And he found she was eager to listen and connect with him in these more vulnerable ways.
“I can’t get over how much more I enjoy everything!” He commented. As someone who once could identify with depression, I agreed. Indeed, life itself is sweeter, even during difficulties, when we are anchored in loving connection.
“Charlie,” I remarked, “you are my hero! The hardest thing for anyone is to soften when toughness has been our only “go-to.” It takes such great courage to let down your armor, and willingly connect again with the person you may have hurt the most. What made the difference?” I asked.
“I was just so tired of it.” He said. “Tired of pushing through. Tired of the constant emptiness inside and feeling myself about to collapse. When I understood that connection was the key – like fuel; like electricity – that changed everything, I learned to see that I could have that flow of positive energy with Melinda. It brought so much relief and peace!”
Charlie was no longer suicidal. If he had been, we would have created a Crisis Response Plan for him to follow. (See below.) I also would have asked him to download one of these apps for his phone: MY3 or Safety Plan.
We would have worked closely with his doctor and Melinda to de-stress his life, so he could loosen the grip on the suicidal thoughts and feelings and find his way. Suicidal impulses and the trauma around them are now in his past, and he has made the so that they need not accompany him now or into the future. And he will tell you – the hardest part – opening up, turning toward Melinda and the love that he needed, has been the best part! And has made all the difference.
Crisis Response Plan Example:
If you or someone you know is thinking or talking about suicide, please contact your local Crisis Response Unit, or your mental health professional.
- Identify Personal Warning Signs: -Thoughts of suicide, an argument with a spouse, urge to drink
2. Self-management strategies: -Deliberate breathing, exercise, watch a movie
3. Social settings – Go to a movie; sit at a mall
4. Social Support: -Mom: xxx-xxxx -Husband: xxx-xxxx
5. Professional/crisis support -Therapist: 000-000-000 -Local Hospital: Regions Hospital- 640 Jackson St. St. Paul, MN -Suicide Prevention TALK line:http:// 1-800-273-TALK
6. Environmental Safety – Remove weapons, lock up pills, etc.
7. A Statement Reminding of His Reasons To Live: My kids are important enough to me that I want to stay alive.
Where are you going to keep it? What’s the level of your commitment to following it?
Safety Plan template, manual and other resources: http://www.suicidesafetyplan.com
Safety planning: A quick guide for clinicians
Safety Plan Treatment Manual to Reduce Suicide Risk: Veteran Version http://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/docs/VA_Safety _planning_manual.pdf
Published on Gottman Relationship blog September 25, 2018 https://www.gottman.com/blog/connecting-with-your-pain-could-save-your-life/