You have seen my troubles, and you care about the anguish of my soul. Psalm 31:7 (NLT)
by Steven Gledhill for FREEdom from MEdom Project
At the conclusion of this article are dozens of confidential 24/7 contact resources for those in crisis.
I am a counselor in a hospital psychiatric ward. I have opportunity to speak truth and life into the minds of my teenage patients considering suicide as a means to a remedy for a burden so overwhelming they feel they’re being crushed under its weight. Call it the temple of failure and fear. Many of them are unbelievers; skeptics cynical of dysfunctional (and perhaps abusive) parents professing religious beliefs. These kids trend toward wanting nothing to do with faith in the God of their parents many of them believe to be hypocrites.
What God has allowed me to do is use whatever talent and skill he has afforded me to break through the barriers erected by religious dogma and emotional resistance to faith by targeting the rational sensibilities in the frontal regions of their brains. I often see the light flickering in the eyes of my patients when their argument for science becomes more tenuous to wrap their heads around than the sensibility of faith in a creator who made them and loves them like his son or daughter.
Children and teenagers, desperate to feel loved, are encouraged. It’s pretty cool seeing the light in their eyes begin to flicker. When the light comes on and shines brightly it is awesome to experience with them. It then makes the most sense to take suicide off the table as the lone intervention for their pain and consider more rational strategies to manage their anxiety and depression empowered by the renewing of their minds.
These patients of mine don’t believe in Santa Claus either, but if Santa landed on the roof again and again and blessed them every time, they would certainly believe.
I wrote Hopeless to Helpless… Pain to Peace from my experience working daily with teenagers and adults struggling with anxiety, depression and their reality that suicide is for them a viable remedy for their pain and struggle. What I found and continue to find is that what gets twisted is that real helplessness from overwhelming stress becomes distorted emotionally, to the point of these young people feel hopeless sucked into the vacuum of despair. When that happens, these individuals do not feel like giving up and crying out for help. They feel that there is no help. Therefore, there is no hope; that happy isn’t possible. So they feel like giving up and ending what they believe is the futility of their lives.
The reality is that, according to the Center for Disease Control, suicide has been the second leading cause of death (2011-2014) in the United States for young people, age 10 through 34. That suicide is documented as the second-leading cause of death for fifth through eighth grade children is particularly alarming. I will go in depth into this most tragic of crises among our youth.
Young people, having attempted suicide, usually report to me a feeling of panic and a change of mind due to a profound sense of the unknown outcome once “crossing over” to the “other side.” Almost every time, these kids tell me that they don’t know they would just cease to exist… no more than a pile of bones in a box that doesn’t feel anything anymore. They become frightened they might be wrong about that. It’s not necessairly a religious thing. It’s far deeper than that. It isn’t something they typically comprehend. But its reality scares them to death (pun intended). And in that moment they’re not sure that dying is the solution for remedying their pain.
Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.
Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:12-13 (NLT)
The most famous person to ever walk on planet earth said…
“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow—crushed with grief—to the point of death.” —Jesus of Nazareth
The way we view self is through the lens of our life experiences. When the lens is fogged up by our experiences, we’ll struggle to see things clearly, which in turn impacts beliefs that distort our values and self-esteem. Distorted beliefs and twisted values fuel feelings and thoughts that drive choices and behavior; even though we may know better on a reasonable, intellectual level.
When emotion betrays reasonable sensibility, that’s when the problems get bigger, conflicts intensify, and confrontations lapse into hostility. When emotion betrays reasonable sensibility, healthy guilt, instead of being a platform for motivating constructive change and growth, morphs into that bottomless pit of shame, and profound feelings of disappointment and failure. When emotion betrays reasonable sensibility, relationships are perceived to be a threat, rather than an opportunity to experience love.
The emotional mind of a person has been and continues to be a killer when betraying the rational sensibilities of the intellectual mind. Feelings will commit treason against rational thought and emote hopelessness and the notion of giving up. What is warranted here is the conversion from an emotionally fed hopeless state to a rationally sound helpless state (meaning what, exactly?). This will make complete sense if you’re willing to go on a little journey to learn about how the brain works and what that it means for anyone considering doing something radical to escape the pain and struggle of lost hope.
“I cannot continue to live this way… It’s too overwhelming… The burden is way too heavy and it’s crushing me…”
“I am a burden to everyone around me… If I can’t take care of myself, how can I take care of anyone else? Who’s taking care of me?”
“Why do my parents hit each other? Why do they hit me? Why do my parents call me names?”
“Why don’t my parents care about me? Why don’t they love me? Come to think of it, I’m not sure what love is…”
“I don’t have any friends… The only attention I get from other kids is when they bully me.”
“I’m so ugly… No one loves me… I’m worthless… I hate myself.”
“What I’ve done is unforgivable! How can anyone love me?”
“What am I missing that my wife found in someone else?”
“Why does my husband hate me so much?”
“Why do my children despise me?”
“I am a failure as a parent.”
“I’m no good to anyone… I feel like such a failure.”
“Everyone I know hurts me or I hurt them. I’m no good to anyone! You would all be better off without me.”
“Why am I here? What is there in my life to live for? I have no purpose.”
“What’s the point, anymore? I can never be happy. I feel so hopeless. I give up.”
Scars are, in actuality, healed wounds that have left their mark as evidence of harm done. Scars tend to fade over time. Scabs, on the other hand, are wounds in the process of healing. It may not require a whole lot of stress or conflict against the healing wound to rip wide open the scab and there is once again and open wound ripe for contamination and infection.
Emotional wounds are very much like that. Until they are completely healed, which can take more than a lifetime, they are easily reopened, gagging the healing process. Defenses go up, walls are erected, feelings are repressed, and the search is on for an effective remedy. What will it take to escape the pain? What will it take to finally be free?
Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Romans 12:2
The human brain has so many facets in how it works. The limbic system is an operating system generally seen as the emotional center within the systemic perplexities of one’s process of what to do with experiences. The brain also has within the cerebral cortex it’s more intellectual processors along a region known as the frontal lobes. It is there where most rational thought occurs regarding decisions, problem solving, judgment, planning and other higher forms of intellectual process.
Messages are relayed throughout the activity of the brain through a vast network of neurons relaying messages via neurotransmitters. Neurons are the messengers in the brain transmitting electrical impulses (nuerotransmissions) from neuron (nerve cell) to neuron—some trillion of them—throughout the central nervous system. When neurotransmitters are in balance, intellectual and emotional processes in the brain are operating well together.
The limbic system (emotional mind) involves neurotransmitters associated with the emotional part of the brain having to do with regulating mood and energy, pleasure and reward, anger management, pain modulation, relief and relaxation, contentment and satisfaction, excitement, and so on. It is a critical region of the human anatomy sensitive to trauma and stress; and in particular, sudden stress.
The cerebral frontal cortex (rational mind) involves neurotransmitters relaying signals having to do with thoughtful concern and caution, intellectual (cognitive) function, processing information, memory and recall for learning. When the neurotransmissions from these frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex are in balance with the neurotransmissions from the limbic system, motivation is healthiest and energy is most congruent with temperate emotional health (psychiatric stability).
“The frontal lobes are particularly important in our sense of willfulness and have even been attributed as the seat of the will. And the limbic system is typically regarded as the emotional value areas of the brain.” —Dr. Andrew Newberg, Neuroscientist
So when you hear talk of someone not being wired right or getting their wires crossed, it may be facetious but it’s actually the case. People are not electronic machines or robots. We are wonderfully and fearfully (carefully) made by God. God created the science of the human make up and the systemic process within the human brain and central nervous system. He created us to be special beings in the universe.
We were made to live in this world free of disturbance and distortion. But since neither you or I are God, we’ve taken this amazing instrument of his creation and made some choices that the intentional glitch of free will allow us to make. These choices are independent from the way the system is intended to operate. The result of these flaws written into the program, made by human error, have resulted in the network crashing, leading to disorder and imbalance.
Imbalance in these transmissions between neurons contribute to the experience of anxiety, unmanaged anger and stress, depression, and an overall sense of psychological disarray. Disappointment can decline into a sense of inadequacy and sadness. Sadness can sink into a deeper sense of worthlessness and sorrow. Worthlessness and sorrow can drown into an irrational sense of failure and hopelessness. What can be mystifying is when someone experiencing symptoms of neurochemical imbalance cannot identify stressors that are triggering symptoms.
These two systems of brain functioning need to work really well together in a symbiotic relationship. It needs to be a collaborative effort for healthy daily living for quality of life to be enjoyed. Unfortunately, the accumulation of life experiences can really do damage to the relationship between what is often referred to as the rational mind and that of the emotional mind, resulting in irrational behavioral decisions.
Abuse, neglect, and trauma on any level, within any range of acuity and intensity, can have debilitating impact on the cerebral functioning of anyone, but especially young people; most specifically, children. Those children grow up to be emotionally vulnerable and susceptible to cerebral effects. Each and every experience of a person’s life is processed into the accumulation of stored information. Everything that is seen, heard, and felt is considered automatically as it comes to each and every behavioral decision; whether it be spontaneous or thought out over time.
Add to that the reality that the human brain may have clinical breakdowns within its ability to process information within one’s experience. Behavioral health issues and mental illness add significantly to the overall scope of the breaking down of rational process and impulse control.
What’s wrong with my kid?
I work primarily with children—teens and preteens—as a mental health counselor in the behavioral health wing of a Chicago-area hospital; what some might consider to be the psychiatric ward.
Most of these kids deal with the issue of suicide or have been escalating in their aggressive behavior to the point where their parents and/or social authority types have run out of viable options other than to get them necessary help, including hospitalization.
Some of these kids have attempted suicide. While most may overdose on pills, others have tried to hang themselves or cut themselves. Some have walked into busy streets, and others have have walked along a bridge. Most of our patients have told someone they feel suicidal since losing hope that life can ever be better than what it is.
I mentioned the matter of abuse, neglect, and trauma. These conditions are most prevalent in the cases of the individuals I work with, including the adults and substance abusers I work with from time to time.
(Notice I did not mention that anyone I have worked with has jumped off a bridge or a roof, since those who have attempted suicide that way are generally successful.)
Children who have been bullied can be traumatized emotionally from those experiences. As soon as I use the term “bully,” does your mind go to children’s experiences with other children… particularly at school? What about the bullying that happens in the homes of these kids? More specifically than that, what about children being bullied by their parents? What about children seeing one parent bullying another parent? Bullying can occur between siblings. Bullying is more than physical. Bullying can be verbal. The outcome of bullying is emotional and can be debilitating.
Bullying is abusive and potentially traumatizing to these children; children that are growing up, like it or not.
Regardless of how subtle or intense these experiences are, the minds of children are processing all of it into the accumulation of information that is stored as the brains of these kids are programmed over time. The outcome lies in thinking and behavioral choices that render a verdict for what happens today and into their future.
There lies the problem. As children accumulate information from each and every experience, their minds are labeling those experiences, according to feelings they readily understand that translate into boundless insecurities. The most meaningful include feeling betrayed, rejected, unforgiven, unloved, and unwanted. While they might not have any idea what a giving, loving relationship looks like or feels like, something from within the core of their rational sensibilities has an idea of what they are supposed to look like and feel like.
Many of these young people may not have experienced something in their most important and meaningful relationships they know as unconditional love and support, but they do have an idea of what they are missing. They have innate expectations for those who are supposed to love and care for them, and when those expectations are not met, there is a void; a vacuum left that will absorb whatever it can from wherever it can get it.
For the sake of this discussion, I would like to suggest that as a lifetime’s worth of experiences have impacted and infected the way we see ourselves, how we see the world, and how we see ourselves in the world, distorting values and twisting beliefs, the entangled chaos in our network of emotional development and process becomes ’emotional dysfunction.’
What’s wrong with my kid, my spouse, my friend, or perhaps with me, is that the emotional process within the systemic networks of the brain is led to believe what our feelings tell us, according to the collected information from our experiences. So then everything to be experienced from that point forward is through the lens of our emotional dysfunction.
In other words, there is what I know in my deepest intellectual sensibilities to be rational. Then, according to my experiences, there is how what I know to be rational is altered by how I feel about it. How I feel about it can be intense; even extreme. My response to a new experience can be an immediate reaction before I ever deliberately process the thought. It’s what the cognitive-behavioral experts refer to as automatic thinking.
The emotional center of the brain—the limbic system—translates experiences into sudden responses without having filtered the experience through the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex. When feelings are filtered through rational thinking—judgement—we have more opportunity to actually think before we react. When the emotional systems go rogue and take over, we’ll have the tendency to lose control of our impulses, leading to automatic thinking and behavioral choices, followed by their logical/natural consequences.
When driving an automobile, most of us drive with one foot, switching between the accelerator and the brake. If we still had the foot on the accelerator while simultaneously applying the break, it would be very difficult for the vehicle to discontinue moving forward at the pace it was moving. There is definite potential for disaster and tragedy.
This limbic system of the brain’s process acts like an accelerator when it comes to driving behavior. The frontal cerebral cortex serves as the brake pedal for the purpose governing behavior. However, this function of this accelerator escalating one’s emotional temperature can make it especially difficult for the brake to be applied in time or to have the desired cautionary response.
It would be like driving a hundred miles an hour on a road with a fifty mile an hour speed limit full of twists and turns. You come around the turn at excessive speeds and there a cars in front of you. You see their tail lights and attempt to slow down. But when your escalated feelings affect your judgment, you come up on the traffic in front of you at too high a speed and do not realize that what appeared to be tail lights are not that at all. They are brake lights and you are driving so fast that a high-speed collision is inevitable.
The frontal lobes of the brain, where logic and rational thought occur acts as the brake pedal, execute caution through inhibitory transmissions to form rational resistance against a careless emotional reaction to something. When these two systems of the brain that drive behavioral choices are functioning in harmony, the rational brain serves as protector and defender, able to present willful resistance against potential harm. The more someone is harmed and beaten down through the accumulation of negative experience, the more the rational function of the brain is weakened and vulnerable to further harm. Then, more emotional defenses are built up not in tandem with sound intellectual recognition since rational thinking has been tricked by emotion. Walls are erected and barriers emboldened, resulting in increased fear.
Love inspires confidence and healthy motivation. The opposite or absence of love begets fear and gives it life. Fear can be rational and healthy, enabling thoughtful objection; and fear can be irrational, disabling thoughtful objection while subject to unfounded defenses not in one’s best interest. I have the following acronym for irrational fear.
The opposite of love is fear. Increased fear can affect the fight or flight response of the brain (the amygdala) resulting in an intense or extreme response to something because fear is present and driving the impulsive response. The amygdala in the lower region of the brain, you might say, offers a logically emotional response in the heat of the moment.
“Love generally activates the positive emotional and social areas of the brain. The primary area involved in fear is the amygdala. This area lights up in our brain when we are afraid. Other areas of the brain such as the frontal lobe helps to regulate the fear response. So your quote is probably fairly accurate as far as the brain goes. When we focus on love, the activity in the frontal lobe actually can suppress the fear responses in the amygdala. So the more we focus on love and compassion, the less fear we will feel.” —Dr. Newberg
This is the case when any of us make behavioral choices in the heat of the moment, or on impulse. It is an emotional reaction to an experiential event that precedes rational thought. The ensuing behavior is then followed by a logical outcome that bears personal responsibility and is so often painful. What is meant by logical outcome, or consequence, is the event or feeling that is most likely to follow as if this thing and the next thing are connected. Two plus two adds up to four every single time, without exception. So often, behavior works that way. This plus this adds up to that every time with little exception.
Experiences of trauma will heighten the acuity of this kind of emotionally reactive response that may come off as extreme when recipients on the other end happen to get in the way, unaware of the places the behavior is emanating from. The dam collapses under the weight of insurmountable force and those hit by the surge are then hurt; perhaps severely and then experience trauma.
When we interpret events through the emotional lens of our cumulative experience, our behavior tends to respond according to what we believe about those events. We then behave according to what we believe. The behavior is followed by logical outcomes that trigger emotional consequences in response to the logical outcomes.
For awhile, the logical outcome might be something that we feel good about, which reinforces the behavior. So we continue to engage in the behavior. But when the cumulative effects of the behavior build up to the point that is causes discomfort and pain, (at least theoretically) the same behavior is extinguished.
So what happens when behavior that leads to increasing discomfort and pain is not extinguished (or is reinforced, for that matter) and continues?
That’s often the case when it pertains to addiction and other patterns of behavior that persist, despite being painful. Behavior that has been so normalized is hardest to change.
“Even though you’ve discovered false beliefs, uncovered the lies and know a new truth, there is a time lag between what your limbic system believes and what your neocortex has learned… It will get shorter as you continue to challenge the false beliefs (traumatic memories) and risk trusting people… You will be able to make a good choice rather than overreacting with a “fight or flight” response.
Old automatic habits aren’t changed quickly or easily, and are stronger when we’re tired… Change happens one decision at a time. No matter what your emotions tell you would feel good to do (drugs, alcohol, sex, food), listen to what your mind knows, and do what is best or right.” —Michael Dye and Patricia Fancher, Relapse and the Brain
Hopeless or Helpless?
I will explain why the answer to this matter of feeling hopeless is so influenced by the emotional realities of how the brain works at the expense of rational thought (rational thought being that which is persuaded my intellectual sensibility). Then I will tell you my anecdotal treadmill story to illustrate the point.
There are all of these life experiences and memories that have generated feelings of the highest impact over time. The way the brain works is that present experiences are viewed through the lens of those emotional memories. Feelings about present experiences and circumstances are then filtered through our emotional lens. Expectations are deliberated through our emotional lens. Self-esteem is mitigated through our emotional lens. Hope and fear are litigated through our emotional lens. Strength and confidence are validated through our emotional lens.
So when the emotional lens is foggy and obstructed the result is rational thoughts are apprehended by feelings of disappointment, failure, shame, regret, rejection, worthlessness, insecurity, fear, weakness, hopelessness, and ultimately despair. Believing one is stuck and hopeless swiftly drifts into despair. Hopeless feelings of giving up through by way of suicide are very real by this point and must be taken seriously for exactly what they are. It does not matter how accomplished someone may appear to be, hopeless despair is a killer if permitted to sustain while continually evolving into something of a monster from the inside.
The first intervention is the conversion from hopeless to helpless. How does that make sense?
“Caterpillars are easy to catch because of their slow movement and attractive, bright colors.” —Reference.com
People are like caterpillars, in a way. Colorful in who they are but so limited in what they can do because of the burden they’re lugging around. It stifles their movement. They feel stuck in their tracks. Even though they need nourishment, they’re so bloated and miserable in their circumstances, they don’t have an appetite for the things they enjoy that are good for them. Instead, they settle for junk food to gratify the hunger because of the mess that has settled into their system; walking away from their favorite meal.
Escalating, even overwhelming, distress is a burden so heavy that it fosters an intensely helpless reality. The weight is crushing and demands the need for help. The pursuit of needed support is a rational choice that is breeds hope once help is anticipated. Therefore, the conversion from hopeless to helpless is the difference between losing the will to try anything anymore—rather, settling to give up and die—and recognizing that help is needed to be able to do more than crawl around at a caterpillar’s pace.
Feeling helpless does not believe the irrational conclusion that life is no longer worth living, no matter how awful it feels. There is still hope. The rational, thoughtful conclusion is that with sufficient help and support, there is still a chance. This realization is the first step of empowerment toward a realistic solution in the hope of lifting the burden; even if it’s easing the burden just enough.
Hopeless despair is driven by the emotional center of the brain, while helpless distress is realized in the rational thought component of how the brain relates to circumstances through the lens of life experiences. When rational thought can be persuaded intellectually to sensibly contextualize life experiences, it is an opportunity to employ present circumstances as a motivation to seek out help.
What does it mean to contextualize life experiences? Anger, for example, isn’t always a negative feeling. Anger can be a motivator to construct a solution. Resentment on the other hand can feel inescapable and be a far more arduous path toward destruction. Desperation can be a motivator toward a productive response, or in a darker context can sink into feelings of despair until drowning in hopelessness. The right kind of help and support allows for the opportunity to reframe the context of collective experiences.
The Treadmill Story
I have told the treadmill story to adults, to teenagers, and to children as young as eight years old. It is the story of an experience I had around 2010 that illustrates quite effectively the difference between hopeless and helpless. The objective when sharing this experience I had is to help those I counsel to reconsider whether or not they are feeling hopeless or helpless.
Alright, so here it is…
For nine hours it felt as if something was squeezing my heart. I went to work and went through the entire day with chest pains and tight pressure in my chest. My wife, a nurse, was working the second shift until almost midnight so I chose not to bother her with it. I didn’t tell anybody.
My wife has often warned me that lack of exercise and not the healthiest of diets could do me in. She would remind me that God’s calling is on my life for my sons, my grandsons, and the hundreds of patients with whom I have influence.
After self-diagnosing online, I concluded it was time to venture on over to the emergency room at the local hospital. Once getting attention at the ER, I was given a three-part medication, what the doctor called a drug cocktail. The tightness and pain in my chest went away in right around ten minutes or so. It turns out is was a gastrointestinal thing; Something I was told was due to stress my body was experiencing that mimicked a heart attack. I didn’t at the time recall feeling overly stressed but I was going through some things that were definitely stressful. I just thought I was handling it well.
However, I had another problem. When initially interviewed by medical personnel, I disclosed that my father died from an apparent heart attack several years ago. This meant that they would have to stress my heart enough to diagnose it is as healthy enough to release me.
The clinical staff told me that, per protocol, they needed to get my heart beating at or above 160 beats per minute. So they put me through some exercises to get my heart to race a bit and then put me on the treadmill. As they gradually sped up the treadmill to the point where I was running at a pretty brisk pace, my heart was beating in the neighborhood of 110-120 beats per minute. Not even close to the criteria that needed to be met. So they set the treadmill at a faster pace, and when that only brought my heart rate up slightly, they set the treadmill on an incline so that I was now galloping uphill.
After a couple of minutes of this, I began to really labor. My feet were flopping and felt quite heavy. The temperature in the room was chilly, yet I was sweating buckets. Sweat was dripping from everywhere and I had soaked through my scrubs. I felt my heart beating through my chest. I was to the point where I was completely drained of energy. I could not continue to do this. I was so gassed that I felt I was going to collapse. I kept telling them, “I’m not kidding; I am going to fall.”
Can you remember riding your bicycle up a hill until you couldn’t pedal anymore, having lost the energy to keep pedaling. What did you do? Did you give up and fall to the ground? Or, did you get off your bike and walk it the rest of the way up the hill? Falling would be painful. I would probably fall on my face; the treadmill ripping against my flesh.
By now, I no longer had the energy to even hold onto the handles anymore. I could also see the monitor that indicated my heart rate ranging from 150-155 beats per minute. I could no longer stand it and I called out again, “I’m gonna fall!”
I screamed at them, “Turn it off!”
Good thing they slowed it down by gradually or I would have run through the wall in front of me. I slumped helplessly over the handles.
The treadmill was off and the staff helped me to a chair where I felt a tremendous sense of relief. My heart was still stressed and beating out of my chest but the worst of it was over.
I had felt absolutely overwhelmed and consumed by the stress of that experience, which lasted only a few minutes but felt like an eternity. I was utterly helpless and overcome to the point that I would have given up by what felt like was no choice of my own. I may have like I was dying but I did not want to die, and remained hopeful that if someone turned the treadmill off, I stood a chance. My life would be better.
I called out for help and received the help that I needed to manage what was clearly unmanageable.
I have shared this story with almost all of my teenage patients and many of the preteen children I have worked with. I then ask the following question.
“When you you’re feeling overwhelmed and considering suicide (and in many cases have attempted suicide), did you want to die, or did you need for someone to turn off the treadmill?”