This publication admirably takes on hard subjects; thus, this article about emotional health and suicide. Being a licensed, practicing counselor, I could easily fire off a research-informed, heavily footnoted, clinical-sounding piece. But the Adventist Review specifically asked me to write something “experiential” and “nonclinical.”
So I began scanning my memory for suicide-related stories involving
other people. As I sorted through these secondary memories, a conviction overcame me; I needn’t look that far. I have my own memory, my own story of facing the suicide specter.1 Consider this article a display of irony, then, as a professional psychotherapist admits she got pretty close to the edge.
I try to balance authentic with redemptive. I want to confess my struggles, but I also want to show the way forward, down the road to Calvary, where Jesus told us unmistakably the value of a soul. Then to the empty tomb, where He rose again, leading captivity captive to hope.
My story occurred after I became a Christian. In fact, I was married, a mother of two, and a Seventh-day Adventist with an active public ministry. This effectively shows the nature of the beast that strikes the apparently unlikely, thriving in the private quarters of lives that look OK—even good—on the outside. It also reveals the limitations of a theology of hope; if it is to truly heal, it must become an
experience of hope as it trickles down from head to heart, a process often blocked by subconscious, deeply entrenched lies.
There I was with my heavenly profession and my private hell, my triumphant script and a defeated heart. I remember hearing health lectures promising I would live “six years longer” and thinking,
When did I say I wanted to live longer? I ate my vegan meals and abstained from all drugs and alcohol, even while contemplating how long an overdose would take to kill me. It was a tragedy unfolding in sweet sunlight, a devil behind a white picket fence. And the incongruity made finding help almost impossible, because I didn’t really have permission to admit I needed it.
This ought not to be. Adventists need a shift in culture away from fear of psychology toward a biblically grounded, scientifically informed embrace of the psyche as part of human nature. Nor should we overspiritualize psychology; let’s connect psyche and spirit, but not conflate them. A complex mix of genetics, developmental factors, trauma history, and present circumstances can make one who is a committed follower of Jesus struggle with life-altering panic attacks, while another has peace. Should the peaceful one turn to the panicked one and say, “Brother, there’s something wrong with your spiritual life”? No, but historically this has occurred far too often.
The suicide specter stole upon me as I rolled past the 30-year mark. Just after the birth of my second child I developed persistent respiratory problems that put me in and out of surgery and on and off antibiotics for a number of years. These problems crippled my singing voice, which I felt to be my sole contribution to the world. Writing, performing, and recording songs gave me an emotional release and a sense of purpose; now these things seemed swept away by the cruel hand of providence.
I personalized and spiritualized the misfortune, perceiving God as neglecting my needs and ignoring my prayers. Walling off the One who could have steadied me through the storm, I found myself adrift on a sea of churning, random emotions. If I felt it, it was so. Now I was disjoined from objectivity, and the enemy whispered to me terrorizing lies. One of his favorites was “You’d be better off dead.” The thought would come out of nowhere, a serpent strike, simultaneously paralyzing my forebrain impulse-control and heightening my desire to end my distress. I remember walking to the medicine cabinet and staring at a bottle of painkillers left over from a recent surgery. I hadn’t taken any—tough as nails to the physical pain; now faltering with emotional pain, I wanted to down the whole bottle. But I didn’t. I lived and got well.
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Often we heal by doing for others what we need done for us.
Years after facing down the suicide specter I regularly help other people face it. I use an acronym-based assessment and develop safety plans for people to put several walls between them and the unthinkable. By God’s grace I have prevented suicides and helped people enjoy life again. And, truthfully, I have at times failed. The son of a client took his life. The wife of another client did the same. These events rankle my soul as they do everyone’s, with survivor’s guilt and questions of what more could have been done. One of the realities of this corporeal existence is that our bodies are vulnerable to destruction, even self-destruction. Ultimately, then, our choice to live is just that—our choice. But as a counselor, a Christian, and, most important, a survivor, I’ll do all I can to persuade people to make that choice.
I must give credit to my brothers and sisters who helped persuade me. One friend followed me out to the car after church, saying, “Jen, I’ve been worried about you.” I recall her pretty eyes looking sky-blue against red rims as tears spilled down her cheeks, speaking eloquently what she lacked in words. Another pastor-friend told me to stand up during church and request prayer from the congregation. “I’m so emotional,” I said, “that I’ll become a demoniac on the spot.”
“Then be a demoniac,” he said, willing for me to break propriety codes that I might be heard.
Another friend, upon learning I was having suicidal thoughts, called to give me a very stern lecture. He could have used more finesse, but even his tirade meant something.
I desperately needed a counselor who understood clinical depression, but several roadblocks prevented this. First, I couldn’t find a counselor who would support my belief system. As an Adventist, I feared laying my problems open to someone who might blame them on beliefs I held more dear than life itself. I feared (mostly out of ignorance) that even Christian counselors might criticize distinctive Adventist teachings and standards.
But even if I had found the perfect counselor, I could never have afforded the cost. I finally scheduled one session with a professional that a friend recommended; the counselor prescribed months of weekly sessions at $90 each, adding up to thousands of dollars I didn’t have. As a result of these experiences I’m doing all I can as a professional counselor to make affordable, biblically based counseling and coaching available to Adventists and others.
2 My purpose is to create a helping culture in the church. We spend far too much time fighting among ourselves and far too little time helping one another battle the real enemy.
Maybe God allowed me to face the specter of suicide to increase my effectiveness. Perhaps the confluence of multiple circumstances, genetic predispositions, unresolved childhood traumas, and faulty processing brewed up the perfect storm to destabilize me, and God let it happen so I could help someone else. As uncomfortable as I am with the thought that this very personal story will be circulating in print, I’m glad. Let my ego go up in flames; maybe the fire will light a wanderer’s path.
Jennifer Jill Schwirzer, L.P.C., N.C.C., is director of ABIDE Counseling (www.abidecounseling.com) as well as an author, speaker, and musician.