Saturday, May 26 , 2018, 5:51 am | Fair 55º

 
 
 

Russell Collins: Troubled Times Need Not Breed Suicidal Thoughts

The personal despair that may lead some to thoughts of suicide can be eased by examining how our brains process stress

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, ignited a firestorm last week when he said that the corporate chieftains who created the financial mess should “resign or commit suicide.’’ Is a banker-suicide epidemic imminent? I don’t think so, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that we know more about suicidal shame than we did in the past, including the kind that accompanies high-profile financial disaster.

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

“Cliff” (who requested anonymity for this story*) was a retirement-aged guy who’d made a lot of money as an investment adviser to wealthy out-of-town clients. He began therapy just as the economy started to unravel, and he was anxious; his clients were counting on him to produce the same high returns, no matter what the markets did. In our first session together, Cliff told me he wouldn’t be able to bear it if he had steered them down the wrong path. I pointed out that that this could easily happen, since no one has a crystal ball. Cliff didn’t answer; he just buried his face in his hands and sat in silence for awhile. “I’m scared,” he said.

Things did get worse, of course. The markets continued down. His clients forgot about the money he had made for them over the years. They blamed Cliff as their losses piled up. Some of them left. Cliff’s own finances took a nosedive, too. A tipping point came when he decided to sell his treasured silver Mercedes-Benz in order to meet the monthly bills. The loss of the car triggered something deep in Cliff: a shift from anxiety into panic and despair.

In my office one day, Cliff said he just couldn’t go on in the face of these failures. I asked him if he had thought about killing himself. I’d been checking in with Cliff about suicide since the beginning, but he had been holding onto some optimism about the economy. “It’s got to turn around soon, doesn’t it?” Now, it was pretty clear the downward spiral was accelerating. Feeling hopeless and exhausted, Cliff confessed he had thought about suicide as an escape from the failures of his life. “Fortunately, or unfortunately,” he added, “I’ve got a wife and three kids I just can’t abandon.”

Cliff was echoing a somewhat common theme among high-status men who consider suicide: the intense drive to escape humiliation after a high-visibility failure. The Japanese seppuku practice that Grassley referred to is an institutionalized expression of the same drive. While Grassley was probably ill-informed about seppuku in present-day Japan, there is some good research supporting the idea that high-status people who experience a loss of job, income or marriage have a somewhat higher risk of committing suicide; the public failure is so shameful that it makes life not worth living.

Obviously, this extreme level of shame is not related to the actual danger in someone’s environment. Instead, it’s often grounded in memories of childhood dangers that just don’t apply anymore. Cliff worked mostly with wealthy clients who still had plenty left to pay the mortgage, despite taking a loss with Cliff. And Cliff’s own family wasn’t in danger of starving either, or even losing the house. There was no real survival threat to Cliff or his family.  As we talked about these things in therapy, it became clear that something else stirring beneath the surface was causing the terror.

Early in our work together, Cliff had talked of the financial devastation visited upon his parents when he was in second grade. Then one day he came to his session with the missing link: a distinct memory of waking one morning to find the car missing from the driveway. It had been repossessed, with devastating effects on his parents. Cliff remembered his mother’s frenzy and his father’s tears at the discovery, and the family’s upheaval soon after, as they moved from their home to a small apartment across town. And the cruelty of his schoolmates who had heard of the repossession and teased him mercilessly.

Working through these old memories and fears, Cliff came to understand the source of his terror. More important, he began to feel there was something fundamentally wrong with a system — a personal value system or a social system — that treasured success and its symbols over the moment-to-moment experience of life and family: the ordinary pleasures of the sunset, a steaming cup of coffee with his wife in the morning, a game of basketball with his three boys.

This discovery was more than a cliché for Cliff; it was a fundamental restructuring of his thinking and his experience. It turned his focus from future to present; from the external locus of others’ opinions and judgments, to the internal experience of his body and his emotional life. Even his embarrassment and shame became an object of focus: by tuning-in to the experience of shame in his body, and his automatic, self-critical mantras of “should of,” “would of” and “could of,’’ Cliff illuminated the whole neurotic illusion that happiness could be achieved by whipping himself into a narcissistic frenzy of work and overachieving and success. He learned to relax a little, and just let life unfold.

Cliff still works hard at his investment business — but not quite so hard. He finds time for his kids. He still sometimes wakes up at night in a panic over his clients, but he has ways to soothe this fear, and he’s working on seeing the judgment of clients as something survivable. He’s also learned to temper his clients’ expectations for his results. He has no serious thoughts of suicide, because it is no longer relevant to his experience of life. He’s returned to a place of relative sanity, and he can now laugh in our sessions when he asks, “It’s got to turn around soon, doesn’t it?”

A final caveat for anyone with a relative or friend who talks about suicide: take them seriously. Even threats made for impact or to elicit sympathy can result in disaster. Santa Barbara has a 24-hour helpline that can be reached by dialing 2-1-1. If you’re ever in doubt, dial it ... that’s why it’s there.

*Names and some details have been changed to protect confidentiality.

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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