My friend had suicidal thoughts, here’s what we did
It had been the third time in 14 months I have had to figuratively walk(or talk) friends off the depression ledge. This third time, it was Lynne. I had only met Lynne twice and she seemed very bubbly so I was caught off guard when she told me she had frequent suicidal thoughts and was referred by a mutual friend to talk to me, being a licensed hypnotherapist.
We agreed to meet up at the Jacksonville Beach to talk. But I had instructed her not to eat anything that morning because I had a surprise. I couldn’t divulge the surprise but it was supposed to be mind-blowing. Only it would be ruined if she took anything apart from water, coffee or tea. Little did she know that all of these were a part of the entire setup to examine the nature of the condition she was facing.
If you’ve ever been to Jacksonville Beach around mid-day, mid-winter, you would easily affirm that the beach is only crowded by avocets, sandpipers and sometimes shorebirds. Less human traffic and enough space to be slightly goofy.
“What’s this surprise you said you were going to show me because I’m so hungry”, Lynne asked.
I was quite not expecting the question just yet. I thought I was going to have had ‘the talk’ with her before telling her what this surprise was. But straight to business, it would seem.
The Reticular Activating System and the anticipation neurotransmitter
“Lynne”, I said quite abruptly meaning to be stern, “do you know why going to the beach is so relaxing?”
“It’s quite and peaceful”, she replied with a hint of uncertainty in her voice.
I was quite hoping she wouldn’t immediately conclude that I only asked for her to come to the beach to give a bullshit talk about how peaceful the beach was. But I was going to explain the neurochemical of why our conversation about depression was best had at the beach.
“You see, Lynne, when primates were built with these really complex eyes that helped them focus and lockdown on a target. That way, everything else wouldn’t matter until the goal is achieved. Look for instance at the lion, if it saw a prey, it would focus so intently its pupils are constricted. It no longer sees its surroundings or aware of it. It has to nail that deer down.
To support that, the amygdala becomes active. Acetylcholine and norepinephrine get secreted. These tense the muscles and prepare the animal for a chase. And then…”
I noticed she was looking at me with a question mark bubble floating over her head.
“The spelling of Acetylcholine?”
“No! I am not a lion”, she replied.
With a loud laugh I acknowledged that I could get very meta sometimes. So I promised to cut to the chase(with the pun intended this time).
“You see, Lynne, when these neurotransmitters get released somehow we enter this stress response. We feel uneasy. We feel stressed. What can cut this circuit is if we can get our pupils to dilate by looking into the far distance.
“Look over there”, I pointed to the really ship that looked so tiny in the horizon.
“This is the first time I am seeing a ship on this beach. So, Lynne, how do you feel?”.
“A little better, I guess”.
“Well, I don't expect you to feel like a million bucks just yet. I just want you to understand a few things that may be happening to you internally. When we look into the horizon, we cut the attention and vigilance centers. Suddenly, your body forgets it’s supposed to chase something. Instead it feels one with everything. You get lost in the vastness of everything. Suddenly, you feel small and then you slowly but surely begin to feel centered. Now, that works for a quick fix! But this fix lasts a couple of minutes before you spiral. But you can make this part of your daily routine! You can call it a ‘look-into-the-vastness-of-space routine’ or whatever. But you want to practice doing that every day. Take a walk and when you walk, don’t look into your phone. Just look around you with a relaxed gaze. Also, did you know that the consistent ebbing and flowing you hear of the beach waves, they de-stimulate your brain and activate your parasympathetic nervous system, allowing us to relax.
I stopped to read her mind. I was beginning to wonder if I was in any way getting it. I could see her eyes begin to light up, at the same time she seemed a little relaxed. I was watching out for her breathing too. Something I learned during my training as a Neurolinguistic Programming practitioner. She seemed to be taking mental notes.
We, the mind, or the body
“Lynne, I want to tell you something I wish I knew earlier. Something I wish we were taught in school but before I do, I want to say this…taking walks like we are doing right now helps you to relax a tiny little bit because while you take the walks you begin to notice things…the trash at the side of the road, the little doggy that’s togging on its walker’s hands, the construction worker right there calling out to Sammie, the other construction worker.”
At this point, a small wave hit our feet as we move further away from the shorelines.
“Sometimes, I actually like taking walks. I don’t do it as often as I should but I like walks…”
I interrupted quickly, “so if you know you like taking walks why don’t you do more of what you like?” I myself was interrupted by a young boy on a beach bike who almost ran into me. I gave him a gentle nod as he rode off.
“Have you ever noticed the thoughts running through your head? Those thoughts that say ‘you’re doing it all wrong’ or ‘you look fat’ or ‘i am so bored’”
“You mean the one that’s asking why Seye said to come here without eating?”, she added while we both laughed.
“We will get something really good to eat but I will just say this real quick”. I stopped walking and waited till she noticed and faced me. “Who notices those thoughts?
“Me, I guess”, Lynne replied.
“You guess? There’s something that notices that thought. There’s something that notices the constant probing of your state. The thing that nags you about how you feel. The thing that tells you how everything sucks. What’s the thing that notices those thoughts?
“Hmnnnn…I don’t know. I never thought about it. My mind? No?”
“Well, so who notices your mind? I mean, don’t you say ‘my mind’? YOUR mind. So who owns the mind?”
“Me?”, Lynne responded a little bit confused.
“Okay, so who is ‘you’”, I replied.
“Seye, I don’t know!”. At this point, it looked like I was causing more damage rather than helping repair anything. I could see the tears welling in her eyes.
I knew to interrupt the emotions temporarily. “Did you know the bills of sandpipers are capable of cranial kinesis”?
“Seye, what the fuck is sandpipers or cranial kinesis?”
Interrupt succeeded. I ignored the question and continued to my previous point.
“You see, Lynne, whenever we realize there’s a separation between what we perceive to be our mind and the body, we are able to see clearly. Think about that! If you refer to it as ‘your mind’, you cannot be the mind. If you say ‘my body’, you cannot be the body. So therefore, it is easy to say you’re not the mind or the body. If you lose a leg, you don’t say I am removed. You just say my leg is off. If you burned your tongue, you don’t say I am burned. You say ‘my tongue is burned’. The rather weird thing we do with our minds is we often identify with the mind. We say ‘I am sad’ or ‘I am depressed’ rather than ‘I feel sad’ or ‘I feel depressed’. When we see the clear distance between us and how we feel, we are able to apply a little bit of rationality into how we decide to proceed. So tell me, Lynne, how do you feel?’
“I don’t know, really, Seye. I don’t know why I am here. Nothing works. I don’t feel anything. I feel like shit. I am not happy. I just wish things would change. I am ughhhhh”.
“That’s a lot of things you feel and don’t feel, don’t you think?”
Lynne ignored my question and seemed to be probing inwardly. I embraced the silence, getting my phone out to take a picture of something that looked picturesque. I attempted to get her to listen to my voice
“You know I have a friend, Janeé. She literally picked up all the shells here in Jacksonville for export to Denver”
“Lynne, did you notice there was a little bit of excitement when I told you not to eat before coming?
Achievement of tiny goals
“Yes, a little bit. Why?”
We walked toward Dockside Seafood. I had already placed an order so we picked up our food, sat out on the patio. We both didn’t have our masks so it just made sense to be outside.
“I don’t mean to go all technical on you again, but you’d love this. Ever heard of dopamine? It’s the rewards neurotransmitter we get when we achieve something. These days people talk about dopamine when they talk about picking up your phone and scrolling through Instagram. I will say this without going too deep into the biochemistry of this, dopamine is released when you have a goal and you are slowing tending toward the goal. You feel good not because you have achieved the goal, but because you are heading in the direction of that goal. So when I told you not to eat, there was an anticipation! That’s already setting the stage for dopamine! When we ordered the food, that was some release of dopamine. This discussion is also helping you to release tiny bits of dopamine as we head toward a conclusion.
“Also, fasting…intermittent fasting will stimulate the release of norepinephrine which will slightly increase the release of dopamine. That way you begin to feel good. And that’s pure, validated science.
“I would really recommend you set out goals for yourself. They can start really small. Lay your bed every morning… take a walk at 8.30am every morning… check up on your sister. Whatever you do, create a goal and achieve those goals. It would give you a sense of fulfillment. Not only that, it would increase your confidence around these new states you want to generate. At the same time, the pushing of yourself towards an ideal creates a sense of happiness. That’s where the dopamine hides”.
I ate my Mayport Shrimp spilling some of the sauce on my sleeve while she wrapped up on the something something dockside cheese something something she ordered. I had promised to talk with her and give her a few things for her to do that would guarantee that she would find herself in a better place in a week. We talked about all of them
- Make it a point to come out in the morning. Spend a few minutes just gazing into the horizon, eyes relaxed
- Add to that a small goal. Make sure you are specific about that goal. It could be laying your bed, watering your plants ever morning. Whatever it is, make it clear and go for them every single day.
- Exercise your attention. Spend time meditating. The time you spend meditating gives you the opportunity to see the distance between who you are and your mind.
- Find ways to be here, now. With your walks or whatever, take time to exercise. It is not just the exercise that makes you feel better. It’s the movement. It’s not just even the movement, it is the fact that you are constantly being brought to the present through those exercises. That’s why yoga, stretches, pilates etc they really do help your mind.
- Music! That’s a good tool! You want to listen to music that uplifts you. Of course you have to be intentional about this! The moment you realize it’s putting you in that spiral, get something else to listen to. My suggestion would be something with binaural sounds. They have no lyrics or immediate emotional pull but they affect brain frequency by pacing and leading the waves in your brain.
Before we headed our separate ways, I talked to her about how easy it was for me to talk about all the things she could do, like I was some master of happy states. I mentioned how not every day is a happy day for me. But my aim was to make the sad days less frequent and I was doing a good job of it.
I introduced her to the concept of playbooks. I keep a ‘playbook’ within my journal. There I write things that helped me to feel better. Whenever my mind played its trick on me and I started feeling ‘down’ I would refer to my playbook. It has a record of what I did the last time to get me out. Sometimes they don’t work. When I find what worked better, I journaled that, updating my playbook. One that has worked recently was taking a shower at the early stages of feeling funky. I noted in my journal, ‘it seems that the mindful awareness placed on the water droplets as it washes off my body brings me to center and I’m able to mindfully get myself out of the funk’.
“Lynne”, I said, “I want you to rest assured that our biggest struggles are present only as illusions of the mind. It’s really hard to see it that way. But each day we choose to live, we honor our bodies and we show our minds how strong we are. But we are not the mind. We transcend the mind. We transcend the body. We transcend all things. We only need to spend time resting and observing the mind, in order to see this simple but powerful truth.
We said our goodbyes as I promised to check in on her from time to time. It has been interesting seeing how this ~ 60-minute conversation created interesting seeds over the last three months since the meeting.