Tim Hannan explores how an ancient Greek myth can help us reflect on a contemporary approach to working with suicide in the community.
Through the thinning autumn foliage it is just possible to make out the shape of a bare white cross above the deep hole where my 24 year old neighbour drowned on Good Friday. It rests on an island in the Liffey, “his island” for he prided himself on being an island man, a loner, a lumberjack and a tough fighter. Over the years he had fallen out with his family, many of his neighbours and was sleeping rough in the vicinity. He had been hospitalised at least once following a nervous collapse. I knew him casually as a fellow fisherman, who could occasionally be persuaded to take a break from his incessant beavering to chat about the salmon fishing. He would boast defiantly of his open conflict with the villagers before heading back to his island retreat, chain-saw in hand, wading like a giant heron.
It is unlikely that his remains would have been discovered were it not for a neighbour’s gun dog that he had befriended. The dog’s unearthly wailing and frantic splashing in the water alerted us to some terrible happening. After a brief search, his waterlogged remains were retrieved, clad in five heavy woollen sweaters and rubber boots. A stack of empty beer cans could be seen among the last remaining logs. It became clear later that he had recently given away his chain-saw and logging winch to a neighbour. It was difficult not to imagine the worst. The Coroner’s report returned a verdict of accidental death and considered the possibility of sign-posting the dangerous crossing to the islands.
One could sense the confusion his death brought to the community. This psycho logically unstable, rebellious and sometimes violent young man with his hobo lifestyle was very much at odds with the ethos of a settled, suburban, working class village. Projections could be seen visibly rattling as people tried to come to terms with his passing. After the funeral the local fishermen were divided on whether he could have slipped after a hard night or if he had fatally succumbed to the icy charms of Anna Livia’s watery embrace. Nobody knew him well enough to speak for his troubled soul. Their conversation soon returned to less philosophical matters. Another tragic death last month of a young man, this time by hanging, now preoccupies the village, leaving us to wonder if there was something the community or individuals could have done, something we could have foreseen.
It is likely that our plight is shared by many communities each year. Statistics show the number of suicides increasing consistently from a total of 81 in 1971 to 383 in 1995. Both young males (15-24) and elderly men (65-74) show a far greater incidence of suicide than do other sub groups.¹ It is estimated that this figure represents only 10-15% of those who tried to take their life and failed, whether by intent or good fortune.²
Some would undoubtedly have preferred to have had no second chance. The decision to leave life prematurely is seldom taken lightly and often carefully planned. “However great a man’s fear of life….suicide remains the courageous act, the clear- headed act of a mathematician. The suicide has judged by the laws of chance – so many odds against one that to live will be more miserable than to die. His sense of mathematics is greater than his sense of survival.”³
Will to Live
In cases of anorexia and a variety of other illnesses the choice to let go of life is sometimes unconscious and not apparent to the sufferer or to others. The fragile will to live has tragically all but expired in many individuals who still resentfully retain their bodily habit. The courageous few who seek treatment (20% in the case of young men (15-24) who succeed in committing suicide as against 80% of women) (4) provide the therapist with an unenviable task: to re-light an all-but-extinguished life force demands uncommon courage, perseverance, cunning and love. It is a battle royal with the heavily-charged unconscious of the client who, like the mythological Persephone has eaten the forbidden pomegranate and must remain with the Lord of Death, Hades. The myth, however, does allow her to return to the upper world for four months of the year. It would seem that a certain window of opportunity, a two-to-one chance, is open to anyone assisting in such soul retrieval work. In the myth Hermes, the guide of souls, is the only one who can make con tact with the distraught Persephone.
I am proposing in this article that an intervention which draws on the hermetic imagination can prove useful in dealing with those w ho contemplate suicide. As their world stretches, tears and breaks apart, a therapist accompanying a client into a deepening depression “can identify critical elements in the decline towards suicide. The stages of the descent are these – pain and suffering remain unaddressed by compassionate others. The person then withdraws behind a facade designed to protect himself or herself from further hurt and to cloak the suffering underneath. However, the facade only intensities the slide towards 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.”(5)
This tragic sequence of unrecognised suffering, creation of a facade, trance and total preoccupation with one’s inner figures, leading ultimately to suicide, form the jagged ledges on the descent to the abyss of Hades. Suffering increases as the loss of human contact becomes total. Some may survive by psychotic identification with the inner drama, harrowing hell in a lithium-induced oblivion. Those who retain at least borderline defences are more likely to contemplate suicide to lessen the pain. In their extreme vulnerability they have either moved behind the facade or are in danger of becoming entranced by the charms of the deep unconscious. In fairy tales or dreams this might be symbolised by the maiden who has pricked her finger, fallen asleep and is laid out in a glass coffin. Often the person doesn’t know where their problem lies and can find no way of working around it. Their survival mechanism has fallen foul of fate and they have let go of whatever tenuous connections of trust and social contact that may have kept them connected to reality. Going through life in a daze, numb and shut down, the reality of the original hurt is denied or unrealised.
“The severity of the pain may have its origins in the sudden death of a parent, the unexpected or unwanted dissolution of a family or a relationship or the loss of one’s physical health. Also included here are the cases of extreme family dysfunction such as spousal or child abuse. For others, the loss may be less identifiable at the time, resulting from parental or spousal neglect and the consequent ruin of deep cherished hopes or dreams. Loss can also be progressive, leading to a chronic state of alienation and a lack of belonging to the world.”(6)
This schizoid withdrawal rejects all relationships on the basis that future contact will be as precarious and hurtful as their original experience. The transpersonal psychology of Grof and Lake would see this propensity for withdrawal originating in perinatal life. A foetus traumatized in the early stages of pregnancy (Lake) (7) or in a difficult delivery (Grof) (8) may carry lifelong aversion to the contact of human flesh or warmth, while at the same time being deeply needy of life-giving contact. This ambiguous foundation can be further weakened by subsequent dereliction and ambivalent nurturance, resulting in the loss of well-being or even of being itself. The resultant separation anxiety causes the child to slide towards the abyss of dread. This may temporarily be warded off at this stage by rage reactions, libidinal fantasies or guilt and self-injury.
In later life, difficult circumstances, or an upsurge of psychosomatic trauma may threaten these defences, and may trigger a reactivation of the original slide towards death and dread. Depending on the character of the individual, they may respond passively or aggressively. The enormous panic produced by the schizoid depressive reaction leads the person greatly to desire death in the event of no one coming to relieve the horrific separation anxiety. Their sense of being itself is annihilated.
Those caught on these lower ledges of the Dantesque chasm of dread may use other defences such as dissociation, depersonalisation, an “ivory tower” detached autistic stance, hysteria or phobias. One flight above are those whose trauma is relieved by the return of a source person before being itself is destroyed. They may, however, lose a sense of well-being if the source person is inadequate in providing regular supplies. They tend to use defences of hatred, envy, jealousy against those who with- hold expected experiences of well-being. They may also experience unbearable fear, often recoiling from the source person and their subsequent offerings.
In preparing such clients to meet their depression in a constructive manner it is helpful to block off all escape routes, for example, suspending use of suppressive medication, making conscious sexual fantasies, limiting the acting out of rage and self-hurt and other addictive behaviour. This will form the hermetic vessel within which the client’s process converges. Body awareness exercises, relaxation, meditation, reflection, abreaction of anger and grief all help to deepen the client’s process in a gradual manner. The therapist’s role includes using interpersonal relationship, supportive encouragement and embodied empathy to lead the client at the appropriate moment to contemplate their descent into the pit of Dionysian dissolution and crucifixion. There are no other creative solutions to a lifetime of depression or attempted suicide. Hades bows only to Zeus. This self-sacrifice can then become an adult meditation rather than an unsupported, fragmented child being devoured by the demons of dread. It is a leap of faith. One cannot foretell the ability of one’s psyche to withstand and contain the dissolution and re-birth mysteries that one now enters. It is a matter of intention.
A therapist who has made this journey himself or herself can help push the tumbrel on the way to a death where one does not perish but is born anew. It requires a Job- like resilience and patience to sit through this entombment and transformation process, helping the client in silence to carry their mental and physical pain.
For those not able to make this sacrifice, who cannot trust either their accompanist or their process, fate decrees the endless rounds that Dante describes so vividly in The Inferno. Once the turning point is reached, however, and the crisis negotiated, a new centre of the personality emerges. The client, with this gift of a new found sense of being must then make the return to the upper world of consensus reality and integrate the experience in a new approach to life. On this long night’s journey into day, the client may yet be at risk from suicidal ideation as the power of Self may threaten to burst through and overpower the ego as it tries to re-structure itself around the Self.
Homer’s Odyssey spells out the many dangers of regression, inflation, seduction and indolence that beset the returning soul before they establish an ability to live, love, forgive and work to their full potential.
The decision to commit suicide is undoubtedly influenced by an accumulation of factors such as poor social conditions, the decline in church authority, mid-life crises, the redundancy of retirement, unemployment, alcohol and substance abuse and many other family and societal pressures. In the case of adolescents the non-perception of their adult roles and lack of suitable initiation rituals to contain and direct their burgeoning creative energies can also be a factor.
Yet it is debatable whether any of the above, taken singly, will produce a fatality if the individual possesses the sure self-knowledge that they do, in fact, exist in someone’s eyes, and that they have been cared for adequately at crucial points in their lives. This knowledge must surely reduce the possibility of fatal alienation. Problems can be seen as transient and surmountable through action and with the help of others.
Working at Depth
However, when it is necessary to work at depth with severely traumatised individuals, it may well be beneficial to enter their world with an hermetic vision that is at home on the twilight borders of the collective unconscious. A closer look at the myth shows Hermes wearing a cap stolen from Hades, giving him the gift of invisibility as he leads souls into Hades. A subterranean god, he was the inventor of fire, a merchant, robber, gambler, trickster and shape-shifter. The most loving of men, he was a shepherd, dog-throttler, law giver, light bringer and door keeper. As well as being lord of boundaries, he was a notorious boundary breaker, yet guardian and servant of the sacred areas. A messenger of Zeus, he could be loquacious, devious-minded and a crafty spy.
As one can imagine, he was not by any means a politically-correct deity, so many of his characteristics will not meet with universal approval from an orthodox stand point. But, in the extremes of suicidal behaviour, these qualities may be vital in second-guessing a canny but depressed client who is intent upon making suicide a very private affair. This may entail a series of interventions with doctors, psychiatric ser vices, chemists, family, often challenging the norms of confidentiality, the preparation and renewal of suicide contracts, setting of rules and boundaries, horse-trading being accessible around the clock, communicating, persuading and guiding the client beyond their darkest night, becoming an invisible but ever-present member of the client’s inner world, modelling and activating their own inner survival mechanism. It is probable that much of this work needs to be carried out in a residential facility to ensure the appropriate vigilance and safety. But a great deal can be done by providing warmth, attention, contact, support and perseverance in the conviction that there is no such thing as a hopeless case. By being open, caring and available to an often unappreciative client, we may gain enough trust to reverse the worrying increase in suicide rates and help fashion a more caring society.
Tim Hannan is a therapist working in private practice in Dublin. He lectures and gives workshops in dream work and mythology.
1 National Task Force on Suicide. Interim Report p.33. Department of Health, Dublin 1996
2 Kelleher M.J. Suicide and the Irish p.80. Mercier Press, Cork 1996
3 Greene G. The Comedians
4 Kelleher M.J. Ibid p.47
5 Heckler R.A. Waking up Alive p.29. Piatkus, London 1995
6 Lake F. The Dynamic life Cycle. Clinical Theology Assoc., Oxford 1986.
7 Grof S. Beyond the Brain. Suny, New York. 1985