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Talking therapy

Self-inquiry: a key to self-liberation

Imaginary Interview with David Webb, suicide Attempter and Suicidologist

In 2002, David Webb addressed the Suicide Prevention Australia Conference in Sydney. Dr Carla devised an interview format as the best way of presenting the insights he shared.

Dr C: Describe some of the feelings you experienced when you were suicidal.

DW: I used to sometimes feel invisible. Despite the joys and wonders of this extraordinary gift of life, I was thinking that it’s not worth it. The psychache is unbearable. It was not a case of having a problem because as far as I was concerned, my problem was my life. This struggle lasted for four years.

Dr C: where do you think the medical profession might be getting it wrong in the treatment of the suicidal?

DW: they want to give you a pill to fix your broken brain. By viewing it as an illness of depression, it pathologises our most human qualities so that we suppress symptoms without addressing the causes. Also, the scholars want to put you into categories of suicide contemplators, attempters and completers when in fact the boundaries between these categories, from my experience, were not that significant.

Dr C: Having survived a suicide attempt, what is life like for you now?

DW: I struggled with knowing what to call myself because a’suicide survivor’ in the strict sense refers to someone bereaved by suicide. There was no way of reaching out to my fellow survivors without a name for us.

Dr C: you have said that suicide is studied from all these various perspectives – biological, psychiatric, psychological, sociological. What perspective do you bring to it as a suicidologist?

DW: I see it as a crisis of the self – the self killing the self. Psychology provides no unified agreement on what constitutes the self. It is assumed that the mind is the essence of our being. Descartes famously stated “I think therefore I am”.

Dr C: what were some of the spiritual insights you gained which helped in your recovery?

DW: I realised that my hopeless ness arose from an absence of meaningfulness. I felt my life was without any meaning and purpose, and there was no hope of it ever being otherwise. I thought, why put up with this pain, when there is absolutely no point? It was a combination of hopeless ness and helplessness. Spiritual self-inquiry is what saved my life. I asked myself the question – “who am I?”. I came to recognise that Descartes dictum was flawed and that in fact it is the opposite, “I am therefore I think”. I am a human being first not a human doing or thinking.

Dr C: What is the way forward in the study of suicide?

DW: the self and self-inquiry need to have a seat at the table of suicidology alongside these other fields of study which rely on the scientific method. You can never know another person’s pain and no scientific instrument can measure the severity of my pain against yours. It is not physical, objective or even rational. Spiritual wisdom, spiritual ways of knowing and spiritual practices need to be included in the conversation.

Dr C: what are some final thoughts you would like to share for all those who may be struggling with suicide as you struggled?

DW: Healing and recovery begins with telling your story. This helps to overcome the shame, stigma, denial, self-doubt and fear which combine to create a very real and powerful taboo against talking of our suicidality. Stories of survival and recovery will also help you to feel less lonely and spark a light of hope at the end of the tunnel of hopelessness. But to tell our stories we need a safe place where we can speak up and truly be heard. This space needs to allow all of that person to be present without fear of negative judgements.

*Psychache is defined by Edwin S. Scheidman as psychological pain arising from frustrated or thwarted psychological needs [The Suicidal Mind (Oxford University Press, 1996)]