Why Suicide?

by Nathan Chua

Not sure about the statistics, but it seems quite often that we hear about suicides (sadly of the successful variety) lately.  Numbers aside though, it’s probably not as surprising to most of us how often it happens as, why it happens at all.  Frankly, most, if not all of us have had times when it felt better if we could just end it all.  All this, while we see all over us the constant search for the fountain of youth, the profuse number of ways that life can be prolonged with breakthroughs in medicine, and our inherent desire for immortality, as seen in statues and places that bear our names.

We often ascribe suicidal behavior to a need for escaping from the suffering that life inevitably presents to us.  It could be an escape from reality, or a messy and difficult situation.  Taking it a step further, it could be a reaction to indescribable shame or guilt, because of tragic life events like the loss of a loved one, or a much-publicized failure.  In fact, such shame and guilt would normally come together with a need for the comfort zone that isolation provides.  Guilt and shame drives us to isolation that results in loneliness, the type which can curtail any attempts at connecting with others, who can help prevent self-harming behavior.

If this last one is what you guessed, then you are starting to get why people make the ultimate decision of ending their lives prematurely.  As counseling is a means to alleviate emotional suffering, people in the practice know how our emotions play such a crucial role in the decisions that we make.  In fact, we often hear people say that we should not make emotional decisions, as these can ultimately result in unwise choices.

Why do we kill ourselves?  Because the mind plays tricks on us.  According to a source, the part of the brain that tells us about our emotional pain, is the same part that tells us that we are in actual physical pain.  We all know that any amount of emotions cannot, and will not, do us actual and immediate physical harm.  However, because the parts of the brain that are activated by emotional stress are the same parts that react to physical pain, emotional pain can feel just like a ghastly broken bone, or a knife stabbed into our body.

Hence, we say the pain is too much to bear.  The only escape will be to not feel anything at all.  We do this through many ways, one of which is suicide.  Death is the ultimate pain-ender and stopper.  The other ways are through drugs, alcohol, and even sex.

Maybe we can also learn something about us through this understanding of where the urge to quit life comes from.  As we all carry in us the same anatomy, we must understand that no one is immune from wanting to end it all.  You and I have gone through moments in life wanting the ultimate back door, and it is in these times, that we need each other more than ever.

Is there such a thing as valueless therapy?

by Nathan Chua

As I work with different people who have varied backgrounds and views about the world, I am compelled to show respect to each one’s “values” and culture.  By respect I mean, an approach that neither judges my client’s values nor imposes my own on them.  This reminds me of the age-old debate about the possibility, or impossibility of a valueless approach to therapy.  The familiar argument against those who believe that it is possible, is that the mere use of a valueless approach is itself, a value.

Of course, I am not here to speak as one who has done in-depth research on this difficult question.  I am simply now presenting what my years of work and my continuing studies have taught me.  I think part of the answer lies in our ability to distinguish between what is a value, and what is a social convention.

As people, we necessarily hold certain “values” about the sanctity of human life, and the importance of human dignity (Unless of course, one is stricken with a sociopathic disorder), as inviolable and inherent.  We have the gift of empathy towards others and a desire to alleviate suffering among our fellow creatures.  I say creatures because our empathy is not just directed to our own species.

In this post, I would like to offer a place where we can partly rest our spirits, in our quest for the best approaches available to the helping therapist who, faces a variegated set of cultures and backgrounds in every meeting with a client, or clients.  A good approach to this problem would be to consider the difference between what are human values, as against what are human social conventions.

I for one, am a strong advocate of the need for us in the helping profession, to make the alleviation of suffering as our paramount concern.  For it is due to their emotional suffering, that our clients seek our help.  Allow me to use an example to elucidate this point.  Although having a gay relationship may, by the current conventions in our country, be accepted by a smaller proportion of the population, the value I have for minimizing human suffering, will make it necessary for me to assist such members of society, without hesitation, and with as much fervor as I would show with any heterosexual couple.  To illustrate with an analogy, if I were a surgeon, it will be the least of my concerns if my patient were gay or straight, trans or not trans.

I hope this short post on this complicated issue, makes us more aware of the decisions we make every day in our relationships.  As many of our misgivings and tribulations in our relationships, can be traced to a lack of awareness, of what truly can be considered values that we share.  For in the end counseling is really about a human-to-human encounter, at its core and deepest levels.

Is mindfulness the answer to emptiness?

by Nathan Chua

All of us have had that feeling of being sad, despairing, lonely or empty. These are moments when we don’t seem to have any purpose and meaning to go on with our brief experience of being alive. It can be frustrating, making us feel that we are left alone in our “quiet desperation,” as Thoreau had described. We have always longed and searched for that one key to lasting happiness that will take us to an elevated sense of being. It is something we seem to always just see in others, but not in ourselves.

I for one, am no exception. It has been a lifelong search. Until I stumbled upon what has now become somewhat of a craze: mindfulness. Ronald Siegel is an expert on mindfulness. It was wonderful to hear him point out one big reason for our feelings of emptiness. He used the metaphor of the sine wave to drive his point.

Most of our struggles stem from keeping the low points of the sine wave up. Like other experts that have found the reasons for our neuroses, it is not just the feeling bad that gives us trouble, but it is feeling bad about feeling bad. Siegel explains that like the sine wave, it is when we fight the lows that our highs become lower. The wave turns flatter; hence we experience that feeling of being flat or empty. Mindfulness tells us to fully accept those emotions as our friend, who tells us there’s indeed something to be concerned about. It helps us acknowledge the emotions and experience them in parts of our body. We resist the temptation to interpret these emotions with irrational statements. Thoughts like, we are failures for feeling sad, or that we should always be liked by everyone, every time, or that we should be happy all the time.

Here’s how one source defines what mindfulness is:

“[Mindfulness] changes your stance from being actively involved in the drama to being an impartial observer. It encourages you to become a witness to the unfolding of your thoughts and emotions – less critical, more accepting.”

I have a couple of instances in my life that I am fond of relating to my clients. One experience was when I was forced to stop work for three weeks by a former employer, right at Christmas time. Since it was a contractual arrangement, it meant no income for three weeks, just when everyone was celebrating for the holidays. I stopped making interpretations to my feelings, and just started to stay with them, and see in which parts of my body is this sad and worried emotion manifesting. Slowly, like a leaf coming down the river, the emotion goes away. I also used my feelings of sadness and hurt to reach out to friends and seek company.

The second and perhaps one of my favorite things to do, happens when I come home. I have two small potted shrubs in front of my house that bloom what probably are some of the most fragrant flowers I have ever smelled in my life. These blooms do not last very long and appear just a few times a year. You can say I stay in the moment, to stop and smell the flowers. This is probably what Marilyn Peterson referred to when she wrote, “Spirituality has nothing to do with organized religion. Instead, I view it as our reverence for life and our activities in behalf of all that is life affirming.”

Yes, mindfulness has taught me to affirm life, both in its worst and best moments. The key to leaving that emptiness is in living, laughing and crying each moment with acceptance and affirmation. Life is short, stay mindful of each moment, and witness the real colors of living.

You Can Be Good and Yet Fail

Some of the greatest people who walked the earth, were in the eyes of the world, failures.

Nathan Chua