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Escape The Prison Of Hopelessness With The Power Of Choice

Posted in Mindfulness, and Psychology

Feeling hopeless.
Choices alleviate feelings of hopelessness.

One summer’s evening in Budapest, I shared my battle with depression and anxiety with a close friend. “There’s always a choice,” he responded, his matter-of-fact assurance a thin veil covering his brotherly concern. These words stuck with me, enough for me to recollect seven years later, not least because I respect his guidance.

Truth is, it was only recently I came to appreciate the resonance of this phrase. There’s always a choice, yet depression deceives us. It makes us believe there are no choices, no escape from suffering, and leads to feeling hopeless. Hopelessness is one of the most damaging aspects of depression, with the potential to move us towards a dark destination — suicide.

I shiver recollecting this destructive feeling. Weighed down by suffering, I’ve contemplated suicide as a futile and self-destructive attempt to find a solution. I’m a firm believer those who contemplate, or unfortunately act upon, ending their own lives don’t want their life to end. They want an escape from pain, and suicide appears the only choice.

There’s always a choice. Yet when our rational minds do what they do best, and search for an explanation or and answer and come up short, our synapses can be diverted to the extreme. It can feel like we have no choices left to us. We feel powerless. We feel we’ll never experience happiness again. Worse still, we feel we’ll never experience any feeling other than the void of nothingness.

Here’s the thing — hopelessness is a symptom of depression. It isn’t truth.

An inability to imagine a worthwhile future when feeling hopeless

You could view feeling hopeless as failing to imagine a future where suffering has ended, and peace or contentment has taken its place. But the future is imagination, it’s not real. And mental projections are filtered by our current state. When filtered through a depressed state, future projections are grim. It’s an illusion mistaken as reality.

I was inspired to cover this topic when an impending life decision triggered suicidal thoughts. You may be alarmed reading this, but to reassure you — this is familiar terrain. Meditation has helped me cultivate distance from such thoughts, and spiritual practice and self-awareness allow me to accept the transient nature of their presence.

Essentially, I now have the resources to experience such thoughts without fearful resistance, undue attention, or allowing them lead to feeling hopeless.

The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.

Regardless, I’m faced with major upheaval, as returning to the UK has become a possibility. I was struggling to discern my options when contemplating this big life decision. Strangely, I relate to Nietzche’s words: “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.” My egoic mind has romanticised suicide as some maladjusted attempt to solve problems.

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“Hey, Ricky mate, looks like you’re out of options. Ah well, you could always kill yourself.” Such is the puzzling nature of despair, imagine this inner-dialogue presented in a jovial tone, in clear defiance of the seriousness of its implication. I’m certainly not alone in suicidal ideation — a staggering 10 million Americans seriously contemplated suicide in 2015.

A cessation to suicidal thoughts by adding options

Before we go on, I want to distinguish fleeting thoughts from other “levels” of suicidal tendencies. A 2008 study defined suicidal behaviours into three definitions:

  • Suicidal ideation: thoughts of engaging in activity to end one’s life.
  • Suicide plan: the formulation of a method through which one intends to die.
  • Suicide attempt: engaging in behaviour leading to self-injury with some intent to die.

The scope of this article isn’t to hypothosize when the leap from Nietzche-esque macabre escapism turns into something more life threatening. Either way, I’ve noticed a very clear correlation to the times when I feel hopeless and suicidal thoughts popping into my conscious mind.

This time, something very interesting occurred, causing me to meditate deeply on the source of such thoughts: when I opened myself up to the option of leaving Berlin, and returning home to Bristol, the suicidal thoughts disappeared. It’s as if having another conscious option created a path for the problem solving brain to arrive at a healthier destination.

Do we deny challenging options from our conscious mind?

I regret it when I suppress my feelings too long and they burst forth in ways that are distorted or attacking or hurtful.” — Carl Rogers

What’s going on here? I speculate this process is linked to the unconscious. Sigmund Freud identified denial as a key psychological defence mechanism. Was I denying the possibility of leaving Berlin from my consciousness because I was afraid of the significance of change involved? Did this suppression lead to suicide ideation as a bizarre and maladjusted attempt at problem solving, like a neurological short circuit?

Applying this theory to another example, let’s say your relationship is going through a challenging period. It’s fraught with pain and heartbreak. After an argument, you notice suicidal thoughts appear. Could this be a result of one possibility — the very real possibility of breaking up — being denied from existence?

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There are numerous reasons why, in this example, someone may be inclined to deny a breakup is imminent. Believing in the myth of romantic love, a fear you won’t cope alone, framing the breakdown of a relationship as failure. Oh, I’ve fallen for all of these!

Our choices can be internal or external

It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” — Epictetus

What about suicidal thoughts arising in times of emotional distress without an obvious cause? Initially I defined choice as existing in the external; choice is quitting my job, going on holiday, dumping my girlfriend, getting a new girlfriend. My choice was changing something external to change the way I felt.

I’ve since learned choices come in many forms. For example, we don’t choose which thoughts enter our minds, but we can choose how to respond to them. We can choose to change our perspective. We can choose to take action. Deciding to find an answer to “what is causing me this much pain” is a choice. Sometimes, staying alive is a choice.

Remember, there’s always a choice.

Opening up to choice, allowing space for faith

Once open to the richness of choice, we need to discern which choices serve our wellbeing and create positive possibilities. Getting shitfaced and sniffing multiple lines of coke is a choice. Having an affair in an attempt to find intimacy during a dry spell in a relationship is a choice. But such choices lead us to extra suffering, exacerbating hopelessness.

This is a theory I’m going to continue to meditate on, but intuitively, it explains experiences I’ve had. One of the biggest preventions of suicide is normalising suicidal thoughts, not from a place of detachment, but from a place of curiosity and acceptance. The more we understand the mechanics of suicidal thinking, the more we can offer solutions, provide space for people to discuss their experiences without fear of judgement.

To conclude, a word on faith. There will be periods when choices aren’t obvious. This doesn’t mean there are no choices — there’s always a choice. You just haven’t discovered them yet. And this is the time to choose faith. Faith these choices will soon arise, which they will. Faith that opening up to new possibilities sets the framework for them to present themselves, which they will.

This is the time to choose patience.


 

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