By Carlton Brown, M.Sc., M.Div., RMFT
A man in Austin, Texas, today flew his small plane into an IRS building, killing himself and possibly one person on the ground, damaging the building, sending people to hospital, and traumatizing hundreds of spectators by conjuring images of a repeat of 9/11. Air force jets were scrambled, and the president was notified. Everyone quickly calmed down when they realized it was “only” a suicide.
The one thing this man made clear before he died was his belief that the world had not treated him fairly. He was mad at the tax department, specifically, as well as “big business” and the government in general. At 53, he must have felt like a failure, having lost two previous businesses and at least one previous marriage. Believing that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”, he twisted this usually helpful aphorism into the conclusion that this would be “something different” to try with his life. Feeling that he had explored all the options, he concluded that “violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer”. At some level, he must have believed that he was “answering” the unfairness of the tax department by making people who worked for the tax department suffer. He was being unfair to them as he had felt that they had been unfair to him.
A good study on suicide is Kay Redfield Jamison’s Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, available here. A professor of psychiatry, Jamison also suffers from bipolar affective disorder, a mental illness associated with a higher risk of suicide. She knows whereof she speaks.
Suicide has been called “a permanent solution to a temporary problem”. When people contemplate suicide, they feel hopeless and
helpless. Without resources and without a future, people on the verge of completing suicide reportedly feel a sense of calm, as if they have “solved” their problem with this very narrow and final solution.
People who contemplate suicide are usually depressed. Depression can be part of bipolar disorder as well as an illness unto itself, and is associated with defective thinking. Depressed people make three errors in their thinking: first, they think that they are worthless; second, they think that the world is unfairly punishing them; third, they don’t think that things will ever get better. This man probably had all three of these faulty thoughts, writing most clearly about the second, that he felt that he had been treated unfairly. He certainly didn’t seem to believe that things were going to improve. And he counted his own life as worthless in his plan to right the wrongs that had been done to him.
It is not unusual for people to have suicidal thoughts. Depression in and of itself may even be part of a normal life, a time of lying fallow and resting, perhaps to recover from a trauma or a loss. Matthew Fox called it one of the four roads that we follow from time to time in the course of life. But it isn’t meant to be the main road that we take - not the main course. After a period of depression it is indeed helpful to “do something different” - but not to fly your plane into the government office of your choice. Distraction has been shown to help people recover from depression. Forcing yourself to do a normal routine also helps: “fake it til you make it” is a good mantra to follow. Because if you do manage to distract yourself from your thoughts, if you do “fake it” and go on about life “as if” it is worth living, it will become so again.
It is not unusual to have such thoughts. The time to worry, however, is when you find yourself (or someone you know) beginning to develop plans. Suicidal thoughts + plans = risk, especially if the plan is within the person’s ability to be carried out in the near future. This constitutes an emergency: it’s time to call 911 and get the person to hospital, where someone can distract them until they are able to distract themselves.
Before it becomes an emergency, however, if you find your life becoming a knotted problem from which there seems to be no escape, find a good therapist. Therapists are trained to “open space” and generate additional options - solutions to your problems that perhaps you never thought of. Certainly for this man, there were options besides exacting an eye for an eye from the tax department, in a permanent and fatal solution. It was tragic that he couldn’t see these options.
A great online resource for preventing suicide is here.