Tuesday, August 6, 2013

"Suicidal Trance"

This appeared on the Alliance for Hope site today.

I share it because I am spending some time with new suicide survivors these days and because I have been reminded repeatedly recently via comments of others that they have NO IDEA what it is we live with; that they don't know that we know the following about people we loved more than life itself, that we have had to absorb this knowledge about their lonely suffering into our beings and into our lives, and that we know this, all the time.

And no -- the reality of my child's suicide does not control my life -- but only because I have learned how to carry this around along with everything else.

From AFH:

"Richard Heckler on 'The Suicidal Trance'


Richard A. Heckler, Ph.D. made a fascinating study of individuals who survived suicide attempts.  In his book, Waking up, Alive, he has described the decline toward suicide.

'As these stories unfold, we can identify critical components of the decline toward suicide.  The stages of the descent are these:  Pain and suffering remain unaddressed ….  The person then withdraws behind a façade designed to protect himself or herself from further hurt and to cloak the suffering underneath.  However, the façade only intensifies the slide toward a suicidal trance.  Ultimately the trance narrows the person’s perspective until the only inner voices that can be heard are those that enjoin him or her to die.

… Early in the withdrawal phase, people still make some effort to stay in touch with the world and hope for at lease some promise of better things.  But when hope finally dies, people no longer see or hear anything outside their own minds --- the tight spiral of thought that tells them to die.  While this shift may occur just moments before a suicide attempt, it can be months or years in the making.  A colleague of mine from Louisiana, an experienced therapist for many years, contemplated suicide for over a decade.  She describes this mental state as 'an almost totally separate reality, in which your world may not look or feel so limited and painful to anyone else, but it does to you.  You enter a very powerful trance.'

During the latter stages of the descent, people lose faith that their predicament will ever change.  Their strength is depleted and they are deeply stressed.  Some people are never able to leave their chronically destructive surroundings.  In other cases, there is just no one able or willing to push past their facades.  In yet other instances, people are no longer able to recognize support when it is in fact available.

… The trance is a state of mind and body that receives only the kind of input that reinforces the pain and corroborates the person’s conviction that the only way out is through death.  The trance marks the moment at which the world becomes devoid of all possibilities except one: suicide.

…Despite differences in detail, everyone who attempts suicide enters the suicidal trance.  …

Suicidal trances can be identified by certain common characteristics.
  • They appear extremely logical, with a premise and a rational series of arguments that encourage suicide as a reasonable response to pain.  These arguments are powerful, especially when created by someone who has become emotionally deadened --- whose reservoirs of faith, trust, and hope have run dry.
  • Suicidal trances appear as resignation, in which a person stops caring at all about the state of his or her life.  They are frustrating and frightening to family and friends:  it seems as if there is no force strong enough to persuade the person to act on his or her own behalf.
  • Suicidal trances 'beckon.'  As the trance intensifies, it becomes more insistent that the person finally complete the act.  These urgings most often take the form of voices entreating him or her to take the final step, or of images presenting a picture of the final act.
  • Finally, this type of trance includes a particular vision of the future:  an illusion of eternity in which the future is projected as an endless repetition of the present pain and disappointment, never-ending and hopeless.'  "

Richard A. Heckler, Ph.D. is the Director of the Hakomi Institute of San Francisco, and a trainer for the institute throughout the U.S. He is an Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology at JFK University (Orinda, CA) and is on faculty at CIIS (SF, CA) and the Union Graduate School. Richard is the author of Waking Up, Alive! and Crossings: A New Psychology of the Unexpected.



  1. I really appreciate this info. It does validate my own experience with my dear friend. It was like watching someone circle their way down a drain, but we had no idea she was so hopeless, so close to no return. It is devastating to be one of people surrounding one of these broken hearts, and hating that you couldn't say or do anything to stop it because you didn't know the razor's edge they walked. If I could replay it, I would have locked her up somewhere till the fever passed. It is frustrating to the extreme. I am so sorry, Robin, for me and you. It is such a deep grief, and no doubt all the more for a loving bereaved mother. There are just no words of comfort deep enough. But knowledge is power and I thank you for the important information you are imparting to your readers. Another small victory for suicide prevention...

    1. Yes, if only we had known what we were seeing.

  2. I have no problem believing this. A few years ago, I asked my mother if she still felt suicidal, and her answer was unforgettable-- that suicide "no longer held the same glamour" for her. In light of this piece, the second definition of glamour-- a spell cast over someone-- seems fitting.

    1. Di, with your experiences of the past year, I am sure that you will understand my bewilderment - after a summer of watching dozens of people resist death with everything they had to give - really, really, sick people, many with little to look forward to if they did survive, which they mostly didn't - to survive the death of a boy with everything ahead of him and everything to live for -- and yet I know that, somehow, death romanced him

  3. I want to thank you for your blog. I am 27 and have a rare biological form of depression that has crippled me throughout my life. Although I have a wonderful career and many friends, I still suffer a lot. After a recent loss, I have been wondering if I'm too psychologically damaged to continue. I am currently at home with my parents, who are trying so hard to take care of me, and it's a struggle to push past the perception that they would just be so much better off without me. Your blog has given me a lot of insight into how my parents (one of whom is. Stephen minister) might really feel. Thank you.

  4. Dear Anon,

    I know that it's common for suicidal people to feel that their loved ones would be better off without them, but that is not in fact the case. Your parents would be completely undone.

    I hope that you are wringing every ounce out of whatever help is available to you. As long as you continue to choose life, there is hope. Someday peace to you.

    1. I just worry that it's inevitable at some point---if not now, then when? What will happen to finally push me over the edge? Do I have to wait until they're both gone? Why wait when I know some other crisis will come someday?

      I don't want to go on since I know your personal blog isn't a place for strangers to complain. But I want to try to explain this terrifying sense that I have to go, that I'm not strong enough for anything. I want to feel peace and happiness but all I have is guilt and humiliation and self-loathing and shame. I want to be stronger and I can't. People who die of suicide don't ever want to hurt their loved ones, they only feel that they're somehow preventing further pain.

  5. Dear Anon,

    Do you have a counselor or therapist? It's fine if you write here, but you need someone who can guide and help you in person. I so hope that you value yourself enough to seek help Ans to persist in caring for yourself.

    I wrote something about this on my Desert Year blog - link above. It's called something like To You, Contemplating Suicide. Hopeful for you.

  6. So basically this acknowledges that life is quite irrational (faith, hope, trust) while casting doubt on the reasoning of the suicidal. Either an argument is logical or it isn't: if one assumes death is the end of all consciousness (the alternative would be unsubstantiated hopes and dreams which form the basis of religion or the abdication of reason itself) then obviously it means the end of all pain. In mathematics any number multiplied by 0 will yield 0 so if someone's life holds a negative value (more suffering than joy) then of course for that individual returning to a neutral state (0) would be beneficial. Given that death holds great terrors for most mortals it stands to reason that decision will not easily be made.

    "No man ever threw away life while it was worth keeping for such is our natural horror of death that small motives will never be able to reconcile us to it" (Hume).

    "Suicidal trances appear as resignation, in which a person stops caring at all about the state of his or her life."

    If one no longer cares there's no more suffering, right? Or at least no more false hopes and dreams which seems to drive so many even though life often dissapoints and death shows how little our lives mean in the end.

    "For everything that exists is worth that it is destroyed. Therefore it would be better that nothing ever existed." (Goethe, Faust)

    I'd like to counterpose the quote taken from your post by the following:

    "Hope is the worst of all evils for it prolongs the suffering of man" (Nietzsche).

    When we reason with ourselves of course it could be explained as hearing a voice or voices but imo this characterizes every internal monologue. If someone wants to buy a certain item don't they also hear an inner voice that tells them to buy it? Is he/she therefore crazy?

    I distrust so called scientific research that is based on unquestioned premises and with a preconceived goal in mind.