Encounters with Suicide: A Psychotherapist Remembers Not to Forget

Encounters with Suicide: A Psychotherapist Remembers Not to Forget

by Catherine Ambrose
A psychotherapist treating a suicidal client struggles with memories--and forgetting--of suicide in her own family.


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Forgetting Begins

Back when phones had cords and I was sixteen, my mother’s friend called our house one afternoon and told me that she had a shotgun across her lap and asked me if I could give her one good reason why she shouldn’t blow her head off with it. I was alone in the house because I had not joined my family that year on our annual summer vacation in Maine. Instead, I was flirting with an eating disorder by trying to live on iceberg lettuce with low-fat blue cheese dressing and getting up each morning at 4:30 to ride my bike two miles to the Holiday Inn just outside town where I was working as a waitress on the breakfast shift. So there I was, all by myself, trying really hard to think of the right good reason. Already I was imagining the explosion roaring through the headset, the result of my inadequate and faulty answer.

I am quite certain that I did not give her one good reason, but I must have said something that furthered the conversation, because I remember her saying, “Do you know what it is like to live with a man who hasn’t touched you in years?”

Well, no.

I think we talked for a while. I tried to imagine what a compassionate adult would say to her, and tried saying it. I offered her my mother’s phone number in Maine. There was not a telephone in the cabin, but the owners could deliver a message. My mother’s friend refused. “Oh no, I couldn’t bother her on vacation.” I was thinking that bothering my mother on vacation was the best possible idea under the circumstances, but clearly it was not going to happen. My mother’s friend told me that she was feeling desperately lonely now that her youngest child had gone to college. She told me her husband of thirty years was having an affair with a woman in her twenties. I did not want to know any of this, at least not first hand.

Gradually she came out of herself and seemed to remember that I was the kid her daughter used to babysit for. “I shouldn’t be saying all this to you,” she said. I couldn’t disagree. I made her promise that she would not shoot herself.

“You don’t need to worry,” she reassured me. “I’ll be fine. It has been a really bad couple of weeks, but I’ll be fine. My neighbor will be home from work soon. I’ll go see her.” I felt a lack of sincerity in this.
It is quite a distance from blowing your head off to visiting a neighbor, and I was quite sure our conversation had not traversed it.
It is quite a distance from blowing your head off to visiting a neighbor, and I was quite sure our conversation had not traversed it. But there was nothing I could do, so I said, “I’ll tell my mother to call you when she gets home.”

“Don’t call her,” she said. “Don’t bother your mother. I’ll be fine.”

I hung up the phone and put this conversation so thoroughly out of my mind that I nearly forgot to mention it to my mother when she returned from vacation, and when I did tell her I found myself experiencing a sort of delicacy and shame that precluded any mention of the shotgun. I suspect I did not even mention the threat of suicide. I can’t quite remember, but I imagine myself saying that her friend seemed unhappy.

Forgetting Returns

I remembered this incident only recently when I was sitting in session with a client who was telling me about how she was going to buy a gun in order to shoot herself. This client, now in midlife, has been suicidal to varying degrees since she was sixteen, so her thoughts were not new, but the method she was proposing was far more likely to be lethal than anything she had considered before. At one level, I was working hard to assess her immediate safety and devise a plan. At another I was aware that I was feeling oddly wooden, disconnected, and ashamed. I knew I was irritated with her, as well as anxious. She is coy, deceitful, challenging—there is a way in which she teases me with the drama of her death, a drama she has been crafting with loving care for decades, a narrative in which her final explosive act of rage sears all of us who know her. It is a story she caresses like a beloved, spoiled pet, but also one that frightens her, and I have found over the years that she is readily diverted by small gestures of empathy on my part, or that she inserts her own delaying tactics, such as the need for a pretty death dress, or her plan to be honest on the permit application for the gun regarding the purpose of her purchase.

What she will not do is explore how this story serves her, what its purposes are in her life, what it helps her to avoid. I struggle to find some way toward this conversation, but as often happens, my own thinking is muddled by anger, anxiety, and that odd sense of shame. The only question I seem to be able to articulate clearly to myself is, “Will she kill herself now?” I believe she would not, and extract a promise to that effect. The promise comes easily, almost too easily, and prompts a new discomfort: I worry she is lying because, after many years of experience, she knows what would happen if she acknowledges an active plan. In the end, we contact her husband together, and afterward I let her leave.

And when she leaves, I forget completely—not about her, but about her thoughts of suicide. At our next session, fortunately before I have a chance to reveal my forgetfulness, she reminds me, but I forget again anyway. Or maybe forgetting is not quite the right word. It just seems to fall out of my mind. I start having defensive little conversations with myself about this forgetfulness. Maybe, I tell myself, it is because I am not really worried. After all, I am as confident as I can be when she leaves that she will not kill herself. She has been doing this for over 30 years. She can’t live in a hospital. But then I worry that I should be more worried. And then it falls out of my mind again, until our next session.

Of course it is hard for all of us who are clinicians to think about suicidal clients. It is frightening. It is a sad, hostile, violent act, in which we stand to lose a great deal at many levels: most importantly our client, but also self-esteem, self-trust, and professional reputation. We fear losing our livelihood if we fail these clients. We fear blame from ourselves and others. We choose not to think about it in many ways, including by resorting immediately to hospitalization as a way of ensuring not only our client’s physical safety but our own emotional safety. We insist on safety contracts before exploring deeply with the client. We find excuses and the means to get rid of them.
We rush to make repairs before we have the courage to examine the injury, slapping bandages on wounds so deep we are afraid to see them.
We rush to make repairs before we have the courage to examine the injury, slapping bandages on wounds so deep we are afraid to see them. We increase medications, we loosen boundaries, we are afraid to ask questions, we demand answers we want to hear. With those who make chronic threats, we can become impatient and irritated. Some of these actions are of course sometimes necessary and desirable. But often what we are feeling first and foremost is a need to put a lot of distance between ourselves and the thought of a client’s suicide. These intense feelings and avoidances are common in one way or another at one time or another to all of us as clinicians, and certainly in this case they were part of mine, but I was beginning to suspect that for me, there might be something else coming up as well.

The Roots of Forgetting

On the surface, it seemed obvious. My father’s family worked very hard to forget my grandfather’s suicide. This dramatic issue, however, seemed so far from my direct experience I wasn’t sure if I could legitimately connect it in any way to what I was noticing about my feelings and behavior with my client. On the other hand, it seemed risky to assume my own even indirect personal experience with suicide was irrelevant, so I gave it some thought.

My grandfather hanged himself when my father was four, and my grandmother did all she could to erase every memory of him.
My grandfather hanged himself when my father was four, and my grandmother did all she could to erase every memory of him. I know a couple of things about my grandfather that I am pretty sure are true. He was a rumrunner in Pennsylvania during Prohibition, and he brought big bands like the Dorsey brothers to local hotels and night clubs. I have seen only one photograph. He is a broad-shouldered, dark-haired man standing next to a three-year-old version of my father on a merry-go-round horse. Once after my grandmother died I went on a search of her house for evidence of his life. I thought I had hit the jackpot with a pile of photo albums in the closet of an extra bedroom. It turned out that in each of the scalloped-edged photos from the 1930s, every one held carefully in place with little black corner pockets glued to the page, she had ripped out the images of my grandfather, leaving the others standing and laughing and smiling in front of buildings and cars, unaware of the torn edges framing the emptiness where he had been.

My grandmother lied about her husband’s death for more than 30 years, claiming he had died of a variety of unlikely ailments, including back problems. Nonetheless, her feelings of abandonment, rage, and shame were palpable to everyone who knew her. Even once she had admitted the real cause of his death, her explanations were dislocated and strange, and for me, always at least secondhand. In one version my grandfather was in a mental hospital and had what we now call bipolar disorder. In another, less likely but still my preferred version, he was also in a hospital, but possibly hiding from mob associates who murdered him.

There is no one left now who knows what really happened to my grandfather, or who can really even guess why. Like in the children’s game of telephone, the stories I have heard are probably distorted beyond recognition from their original source as they have been whispered down an almost century’s long lane. Even my own memory is confused by odd and inexplicable distortions and images. I remember with crystal clarity, for example, driving with my father and hearing him tell me that my grandfather probably had an affair with one of my grandmother’s many older sisters. I remember seeing the colors out the passenger side window, rural New York in the fall: the fields yellowing, bark darkened with rain, leaves brown and drifting, hints of lavender and red, the steady green of conifers. There was only a little gray in my father’s beard. I remember not just envisioning but knowing, remembering, the dark-haired older sister I never met, more settled than the younger, more beautiful red-haired one my grandfather married. I imagined her specifically. I could see her hanging laundry on a warm day in her flower-patterned dress. I could see the intense sexiness of the seam of her stockings drawn along her slim calves from the fall of her skirt to her square-heeled shoes.

But my father is bewildered by my memory of this conversation and has no recollection of any such affair. Why have I imagined it? Why has he forgotten? I am reminded of another children’s game, where one child draws a head and folds the paper over so the drawing can’t be seen, another draws the arms and folds her part in turn, another the legs, another the feet. Once unfolded, a figure is revealed, a crazy patchwork of imaginings. This is my portrait of my grandfather.

He is for me essentially fictional, his only reality in my life the shadow he cast on those he chose to leave behind. There is no pain in his release of any claim on me, although the long, slow-burning coals of the suppressed rage that were his legacy have in their way come down to me. Yet I think that in these odd moments—with my mother’s friend, with my client—I become aware of something else my grandfather has left with me. He lives with me in my unreasonable, inherited loyalty to my cranky little gnome of a grandmother, who demanded that my father never remember, never even try to remember, his father. He lives with me when my client’s words obediently fall out of my mind. In my father’s family, it is an act of loyalty to erase my memory and bury my anger and fear. Even though he died 20 years before I was born, my own memory of my grandfather is in its way constant and precise:
I remember him by forgetting.
I remember him by forgetting.

Awareness and Remembering

As so often happens in therapy, it is hard to be certain that this subtle, internal shift in awareness that I experienced thinking about my inability to hold my client’s suicidality in mind produced a change in my client. The role of therapist self-knowledge and self-awareness in the course of therapy is really immeasurable, in both senses of the word—certainly not readily quantified, but equally certainly a source of lasting, profound growth for ourselves and for our clients. I know it has become easier to get past my anger, fear, and denial when my client is suicidal, and this has created a change in the quality of our conversations about it. We are less focused on management and more focused on meaning. Usually by the time we wrap up with a safety plan it has become unnecessary, more of an addendum than a centerpiece of our conversation. Between sessions, I do not forget how she has been feeling. I know I will feel deeply angry, sad, betrayed and, yes, guilty, if she kills herself one day, but whatever happens, it will not be because I have allowed that possibility to fall out of my mind. She still holds on to her fantasy of killing herself, but for some time now speaks of it not as a plan, but as a feeling. “I am feeling suicidal” for her is no longer a threat of immediate action, but a description of despair. Like partners in a dance, we have both taken steps away from the concrete and into the symbolic, for I have replaced the concrete act of forgetting with engagement and curiosity.

© 2012, Psychotherapy.net LLC.
Catherine Ambrose is a psychodynamically oriented psychotherapist with 20 years of experience in private practice, mostly at The Temenos Center for Psychotherapy and Personal Growth. She specializes in treating women with eating disorders and couples with relationship problems. She recently graduated from New Directions: Writing with a Psychological Edge, a 3-year program in writing and psychoanalysis sponsored by the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis. Her work has been published in Voices: The Art and Science of Psychotherapy.