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Suicide and Faith: My Story

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Eileen Wittig - published on 09/18/14

A Catholic co-ed's journey from suicidal depression to hope.

“Man cannot live without hope,” said Dr. Aaron Kheriaty. The Benedictine College Gregorian Fellows invited Kheriaty to [speak about] suicide and hope. He is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Program in Medical Ethics at the University of California-Irvine School of Medicine, and his lecture drew a crowd that filled the room.

“Man is the only animal who takes his own life,” he said, and cited research that named the one factor suicide victims have in common: hopelessness.

There has been a lot of coverage of depression and suicide in the news recently, largely due to Robin Williams. By now it is common knowledge that he had Parkinson’s and that depression is an effect of the disease. People have been writing and speaking on depression as a physical illness, highlighting the fact that it needs to be treated as such.

As someone whose depression is caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain, it is relieving to me to see that people are starting to understand depression as a physical issue rather than a purely psychological one, one that people should perhaps be able to voluntarily fix. As someone who has faced and fought the potentially fatal effects of having depression, it’s nerve-wracking to hear about the topic so often. As a Catholic, it’s even more complicated.

The Catholic Church has always condemned suicide. For the first millennium, before science showed that depression —and thus suicide—could often be [related to] physical illnesses, the Church also condemned those who committed suicide. In response to the severity of the sin, the Church would refuse Christian burial for anyone who had died by suicide. Everyone thought that every suicide was a conscious act of extreme contempt against God and against the self.

The Church continues to teach that suicide is a mortal sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church’s section on suicide says that suicide goes against love of self, love of neighbor, and love of God. However, it now also teaches that in situations of extreme psychological or physical “disturbances” or “suffering,” a person’s culpability is reduced.

Culpability depends on conscience, which can only be heard if a person is “sufficiently present to himself.” Speaking from as much experience as I could have, people are not usually present to themselves when they are considering suicide.

As a college student, I don’t sleep very much. Sleep became an annoying necessity that was sacrificed in the name of productivity. I realized that I could not only function but think on very few hours of sleep, so that is what I did. For the first year or so the only effects I had were dizziness, which I learned to hide. But after months of running on as little sleep as I could, the chemicals in my brain became imbalanced.

I began to feel anxious, overburdened by a life that seemed impossible, threatened by a world that seemed to want me, personally, to fail. Part of me honestly saw everything as a dark personal attack by the world itself. But part of me also knew that it was my brain that was making me think that; that it was my brain that was giving me those thoughts and emotions. And knowing that my brain, the part of us we rely on most, was turning against me, was worse.

To save myself from my perceived threats, I thought of escaping the world by escaping my body through death. Not to evade responsibility or duty, but to survive. I saw my body as something that would destroy me by keeping me in the world that was closing in on me. If I escaped my body, I would be free. I would be safe.

In suicidal moments, there is a strong removal of self from body. The body, other people, and the physical world seem strange, almost as if you had been watching it out of focus and it had suddenly become sharp, but with the colors darkened and the shadows lengthened. The self takes on a very strong identity that is completely independent of all things physical. The body becomes disassociated from the self, and thus unimportant and irrelevant.

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Mental Health
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