Sometimes I think I should kill myself while people still think I’m a good and kind and loving person. At such times it feels like it is only a matter of time (and probably not a lot of time) before my life falls apart entirely and I let down all of those who are closest to me (my children, my partner, others who love me or rely on me) in utterly devastating ways. Thus, the voice I sometimes hear in my head – the one that has long been enamoured with the idea of my own death – says to me, “It is better that you die now while people love you, while they will remember you fondly, while you will be remembered as a positive influence in their lives rather than being the harmful, selfish, broken failure you are about to become.”
I grew up alongside of this voice. My father beat it into me. For a long time, I thought it was my own voice, my own thoughts, my own ideas. During the final years of the collapse of my marriage, it was a constant companion to me and very nearly accomplished the death that it desired. It was only after I began to get my legs underneath myself as a single parent – wherein I also began to rediscover the joy and wonder and beauty and sacredness of life – that I began to distance myself from this voice. This took quite some time. For several years after the worst was over, I carried the idea of my suicide around in my back pocket like a “get out of jail free” card. I took comfort in knowing, “hey, if things ever get to be too much for me again, I can always remove myself from this situation altogether. But today they are not too much so I will keep living.” However, as I came back to life and felt my heart knit back together and burst from the ash and cinders that had encrusted it, I began to be increasingly troubled by the frequency and ease with which my mind would jump to thoughts like, “I wish I was dead.” I realized that I often told myself that I wished I was dead when I did not, in fact, wish to be dead. Therefore, I deployed a strategy of distancing and repetition in order to overcome this voice (a tool I learned from studying narrative therapy). Whenever I found myself thinking, “I was I was dead” I responded to that thought by saying, “I don’t know whose voice this is because I do not wish to be dead. I am very happy to be alive. So get out of my head, this is not my thought or my desire.” I trained myself to flag this kind of thinking every time it arose (because it happened so frequently I hardly noticed it at first) and I trained myself to respond to it in this way and, after engaging in this exercise for quite some time, I succeeded in driving that thought out of my head.
I have often found the repetition of mantras like this to be useful in transforming how I engage with myself and others. For example, when my marriage fell apart and when my kids’ mom was acting in certain ways towards me, I found it very hard not to think about her with anger that produced very strong and enduring negative emotions within me. I was concerned about how this was affecting me as a person and in my relationships with others, and so I struck upon the following mantra which I repeated every time I felt myself getting angry with her: “I hope you become so happy in your life that you never think about me at all.” I liked the way this mantra expressed my desire to be free from her while also wishing her well, thereby not giving way to anger, resentment or hatred. By repeating it over and over (and over and over and over), I was able to eventually let go of my anger and not be triggered by her actions.
Of course, the transformation of one’s character or subject via this kind of repetition is also what is contained in a lot of religious practices related to liturgies, prayers, and meditation. When I was younger, I frequently repeated and meditated upon the Lord’s Prayer, the Jesus Prayer, the fruit of the Spirit and the definition of love provided in 1 Corinthians 13, and I believe that this was a very character-forming experience for me. Now, I am doing the same with Nishnaabeg words and concepts in order to try and understand how to be in right relations with the land I occupy and with the people who belong to this land. I have also started to recite some Nishnaabeg thanksgiving prayers because, by saying them, I am being transformed into a person who is thankful and who approaches the world from the perspective of gratitude. Regardless of what I can or cannot think about god or gods or the great mystery, this is a good transformation for me to undergo.
I’iw nama’ewinan, maaba asemaa, miinwaa n’ode’winaanin gda-bagidinimaagom.
Miigwech gda-igom n’mishomissinaanig miinwa n’ookomisinaanig jiinaago gaa-iyaajig, noongom e-iyaajig miinwaa waabang ge-iyaajig.
Miigwech manidoog iyaajig noodinong, iyaajig nibiing, iyaajig shkodeng miinwa iyaajig akiing.
Miigwech manidoog iyaajig giiwedinong, waabanong, zhaawanong miinwa epangishimok.
Daga bi-wiidokawishinaang wii mino bimaadiziyaang.
Persistent negative self-talk (“you can’t keep this up, your life is about to fall apart and you are going to hurt the people who rely upon you and love you the most”) or suicidal ideation (“I wish I was dead”) are also mantras that shape and form who we are. What people who question the efficacy of using mantras to transform how one thinks and feels tend to miss is that new mantras only take some time and effort to internalize because we have already internalized all kinds of other mantras (“you’re not pretty enough,” “you’re not successful enough, “you’ll never be man enough,” “you’re only valuable because you’re a good fuck,” and so on). Furthermore, the problem for many of us who experienced abuse, neglect, or violence when we were children and first finding our way in the world, is that these harmful mantras become our default way of speaking to ourselves about ourselves. And they are conclusions that are reinforced by the violence we experience from abusers who are able to impose a narrative onto our experiences that justifies or exculpates their actions – at our expense. They and we have repeated those mantras to ourselves for years and years and, by doing so, they have become naturalized and their influence on how we view the world has become as invisible as the lenses on a pair of glasses. So new mantras feel unnatural or forced because of this but, if we persist in saying them, they will eventually become naturalized.
But there is more to it than this. Because persistent negative self-talk and suicidal ideation actually become an addictive or seductive thought pattern. Thus, when I began to distance myself from the voice in my head that told me I wanted to die, I found half the challenge was cutting off that way of thinking as soon as it appeared. For some reason, I wanted to continue to dwell on the idea of my own death. Dwelling on the idea of my own death seemed to give me some pleasure because, in the midst of feeling rather overwhelmed or hurt, it offered me some comfort. It was, in other words, a form of self-soothing behaviour even though it was toxic to me. Therefore, at the core of my response (“I don’t know whose voice this is but I don’t actually want to die; in fact I’m happier now than I have ever been, so get out of my head”) lay a refusal to self-sooth in this way. Refusing to self-sooth in this way, required me to cut things off quickly before my thinking could spiral further in that direction. For me, this was made possible because of changes in my life that made it easier for me to reject this means of comforting myself.
Self-soothing in ways that are generally considered to be harmful to one’s self or to others is often at the core of what we call “addictions.” This is as true of the so-called “workaholic” who neglects his family in order to advance his career by working an eighty hour work week, as it is of the fellow who can’t seem to stop banging meth and who then has his children apprehended by the State. However, when it comes to addictions to various drugs (opioids, crystal meth) most of the harms arise because that use takes place in the context of criminalization. As other countries and a multitude of studies have demonstrated, if you remove that barrier, self-soothing via the use of meth or heroin needn’t be any more harmful than self-soothing via Prozac or Celexa. Still, as the cases of the workaholic or of my own negative self-talk demonstrate, there are many harmful forms of self-soothing that exist within the bounds of the Law. In fact, in the territories occupied by Canada, the rule of Law is, itself, structured in such a way as to encourage a form of racism that is soothing and comforting to settlers occupying stolen land in a system premised upon the ongoing genocide of Indigenous peoples. A lot of Canadians are willing to encourage, celebrate, and engage in violence against Indigenous people because they find participation in that violence to be more comforting than believing difficult or unsettling things about themselves. Thus, when a white man named Gerald Stanley shot Colten Boushie, a young Indigenous man, in the back of his head and killed him and then calmly went to drink coffee with his family while Boushie’s body was left unattended in the driveway, an RCMP officer – a member of the Canadian paramilitary group long tasked with subjecting and terrorizing Indigenous populations – remarked that Boushie “got what he deserved.” And white Canadians everywhere celebrated when Gerald Stanley was found not guilty in a Court of Law (the Crown has decided not to appeal this decision just like it also decided not to appeal the not guilty verdict that was delivered in the case against Raymond Cormier, who was accused of murdering Tina Fontaine, a fifteen year old Indigenous girl, whose body was found in the Red River – and, in other news, Bradley Barton, the white man who murdered Cindy Gladue, an Indigenous woman and mother and auntie and daughter and friend, also won the chance to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada to uphold his not guilty verdict so that the Crown cannot try him again). The celebration of these verdicts – and, make no mistake, white Canadians have been celebrating these verdicts – is one example of a harmful form of self-soothing. And, given its ubiquity and its long, unrelenting history, it is a form of self-soothing that is far more harmful and death-dealing than any kind of self-soothing related to drug use.
However, negative self-talk paired with suicidal ideation is a form of harmful self-soothing that often arises amongst those who have been on the receiving end of this violence (and suicide rates amongst Indigenous youth in Canadian-occupied territories are some of the highest in the world). It is a symptom of being a subjectivity subjected to the ideologies of the abusers. People who are especially loving, gracious, gentle, and kind, people who are slow to find fault in others and who want to wish the best of them – people like children – are especially vulnerable to being subjected in this way and, once this subjugation is accomplished, the pattern of thinking can persist into adulthood. And that is how you can arrive at a man with a wonderful partner, two awe-inspiring children, a comfortable home and a peaceful life, who takes comfort in the idea of his own death.
These things have been on my mind again lately because, when I went off work last October, I experienced a significant spike in suicidal ideation and I found that old thoughts, like the ones I mentioned at the beginning of this post returned to me and that old patterns (of self-soothing with suicidal ideation) also returned. So I had to get a little more focused on thanksgiving again (and seeking out environments that make it easy for me to feel thankful has been a part of that) and I had to start saying mantras I hadn’t repeated in a while. And, once again, this has been highly effective for me. However, as I was thinking about this, I was struck by how many of the systems of organized violence that we encounter today are rooted in a mode of self-soothing that is harmful to others. Thus, fascism is white people engaging in a harmful form of self-soothing. Poor-bashing is rich people engaging in a harmful form of self-soothing. Men’s Rights Activists are engaging in a harmful form of male self-soothing. Of course, all of these people – white people, rich people, and men – are positioned in society in such a way that they have the ability or power to sooth themselves by harming others. Oppressed peoples – people of colour, poor people, women – who are not positioned to be able to self-sooth in this way, frequently self-sooth in ways that inflict damage upon themselves (be that through lateral violence or self-harming behaviours). However, what this highlights is that the absence of comfort is an overwhelmingly common feature of how we have gone about structuring our communal life together. Therefore, if we are going to go about rectifying this, we have to rediscover and re-member non-harmful ways of comforting ourselves and each other.
However, this observation is immediately problematized when we observe that white people, rich people, Canadians, and men justify their violent participation in fascism, poor-bashing, rascism, and Men’s Rights activism, precisely because the people whom they have targeted have refused to comfort them in the ways they wanted to be comforted. Thus, Men’s Rights Activists bash women who refuse to see meeting the emotional and sexual needs of men as their primary role in life. And Canadians bash Indigenous people who refuse to be reconciled to the genocidal structures of colonialism. And rich people bash poor people who refuse to ever only greet the rich with songs of praise and thanksgiving because of the alms they give to charity. And white people bash people of colour who won’t embrace colour-blindness or accept a subordinate role (like the all black staff members found at all-inclusive resorts white people flock to in the Caribbean or the South Pacific) but who, instead, talk about reparations, incarceration rates, and killer cops. Therefore, if things are to truly change, it’s not enough to suggest that we need to find ways to have comfort become a priority in how we go about sharing life together. We also need to redefine comfort and where and how we experience it.
Here are some things that I have found that comfort me: hugging trees, smelling rocks, touching grasses, listening to the wind, talking to the river, looking out over a body of water, saying thank you, recovering a sense of wonder, feeling the interconnectedness and diversity and magnitude and unshakeable persistence of Life. And these too: reading a book, walking to and from school with my children, listening to them play with each other, rubbing their backs and brows and as they fall asleep at night, being in love together with Jessica, holding her hand on a hike, enjoying a moment of quiet on the couch and practicing the kind of contentment I felt emanating from the Waabshkaabkaag when I was in Killarney. These are everyday things. They are not very big or very spectacular. And that is as it should be. If we need our comfort to be very big or very spectacular, we may never find it.
These things also do not change the past. They do not stop me from being abused as a child. To do not stop everything that went wrong in my marriage from going wrong. They do eradicate the ways in which I have soothed myself in the past in a way that has harmed others and myself. To do not fill up empty places that various losses and traumas have placed inside of me. But this is not what comfort is about and if we are looking to be comforted in ways that make us brand new, as if we have never been hurt, as if we have never hurt others, as if we don’t have empty places inside of us, we will never find what we are looking for (and, alas, I feel that many of the harmful models of self-soothing are driving by precisely this desire). Comfort, rather, is that which makes us feel okay in the midst of our emptinesses and even after everything we have done or had done to us.
However, for as long as people engage in practices that are harmful to others, feeling okay will be an elusive goal likely requiring a fair bit of dissimulation and medication to even become something that might be possible. If people want to be comforted, they need to stop hurting others – and themselves. Therefore, if we want the kind of world where comfort is more present, then we need to structure our life together in a way that makes it harder to hurt people. Currently, it’s just so easy for men to hurt women, for Canadians to hurt Indigenous people, for rich people to hurt poor people, and for white people to hurt everyone else. If we want to finally be comforted and comforting, we need to change that.