This Just In: There’s An Awesome Alternative to Suicide
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This Just In: There’s An Awesome Alternative to Suicide


This post was originally published on June 30, 2014.

I’ve found myself thinking a lot about suicide lately.

Not my own (thank God), but about the role that wanting to die plays in so many of us actually becoming desperate enough to want to get clean and sober. The problem is that an awful lot of us do the former before we get the chance to do the latter.

The reason it’s been on my mind lately is that four years ago this June, a friend of mine committed suicide. (Like a lot of other alkies and addicts, I love morbid anniversaries.) He did it in one of the ugliest ways imaginable—by walking in front of an oncoming tractor trailer truck. While most people couldn’t imagine the kind of pain he must have been in to take his own life in such a violent fashion, I think quite a few of us know it all too well.

Steve was drinking about a half-gallon of rot-gut vodka a day at the end of his drinking, was unemployable and had cut himself off from the world (he spent the last few days of his life drinking in a crummy motel after his roommate reported him missing). I’m guessing that Steve probably thought he had destroyed his world beyond repair.

For those of us who have been there and know that 3 am loneliness and abject hopelessness, suicide feels like a very logical solution. Unfortunately, it’s also a very permanent solution to what we in recovery know to be a temporary problem. At the end of my drinking—say, the last four years—I wanted to die but I didn’t want to kill myself (a refrain I’ve heard often in AA). I said this while sharing at a meeting one day before naively adding, “But I was never suicidal.” An old timer turned to me and said, “What do you think suicidal means? You just hadn’t come up with a plan yet.”

And he was right. Every day when I woke up—generally with a case of the shakes, since I’d started having withdrawal instead of hangovers—I didn’t think I could go on anymore, and my desire for it all to just end got stronger and stronger. I wasn’t actually thinking of ways to kill myself, but I began fantasizing about ways that I could die where people would feel sorry for me and forget that I was a loser drunk. (Being killed by terrorists or getting hit by a car while changing an old lady’s tire were my favorites.) Luckily, I got sober before my fantasies were replaced by an actual plan, but I’ve learned by listening to thousands of drunkalogues that suicidal ideation is one of the dominant themes in a lot of alcoholic and addict stories.

While this is often the turning point where people finally find the willingness to get sober, suicide is also one of the leading causes of death among alcoholics and addicts. I’d love to cite a conclusive study to give you some numbers, but there are so many variables in the alcoholic suicide equation that the clinical research studies vary wildly, other than to uniformly agree that alcoholics are somewhere between 60-120 and 5,080 times more likely than the rest of the population to snuff themselves, depending on what study you read. One unscientific research trick that I’ve used is to Google the name of a celebrity who commits suicide along with “alcohol, drug addiction, and rehab.” It probably doesn’t take a mathematician to conclude that I always get an awful lot of matches. (As I said, I still have morbid habits at times.)

I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard of people on the verge of some really violent plans that they either attempted or were close to executing before either coming to their senses or having the “psychic change” that many of us experience. The number of people in AA who have had guns in their mouths, jumped off bridges, or intentionally crashed their cars into trees or bridge abutments (and lived) is staggering. And we all know those well-known alcoholics and addicts that succeeded (Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Cobain and, most recently, Mindy McCready all took the gunshot-to-the-head route).

There was a time when I wouldn’t have identified with this. In a psych class I took in college, we were given a multiple-choice question about who was least likely to commit suicide out of the various mental illnesses listed (alcoholism being one of the choices). I immediately (and incorrectly) selected alcoholism, because even though I was drinking alcoholically at the age of 20, I could not fathom people killing themselves because of a drinking problem. The pluses way outnumbered the minuses for me at that stage. But that was before the disease progressed and booze’s long-term beat-down made suicide more and more palatable.

If you’re addicted to a central nervous system depressant (and especially if you’ve been doing it for a long time), common sense alone dictates that there’s a pretty strong possibility that you’re going to be in for a major depressive episode along the way—the kind of depressive episode that leads to suicide. In a February, 2013 Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs article, the author writes about how many assume that people drink heavily because they’re depressed and while that’s certainly the case for some, researcher Dr. Marc A. Shuckit determined that there wasn’t any evidence that clinical depression meant an increased risk for developing alcohol problems. “If you’re an alcoholic, you’re going to have a lot of mood problems,” Schuckit said. “And you may be tempted to say, ‘Well, I drink a lot because I’m depressed.’ You may be right, but it’s even more likely that you’re depressed because you drink heavily.”

This doesn’t mean, of course, that once you put down the booze, your depression goes away. Most alcoholics I know suffer from varying degrees of depression, and I’ve got low-grade depression myself—despite the fact I’m relatively happy most of the time. And though depressed alcoholics kill themselves a hell of lot less than would if they were still drinking, they of course still do kill themselves.

One of the not-often written-about benefits of AA and other 12-step programs is that they have an off-label use as well. In addition to treating alcoholism and various addictions, they—along with therapy, medication and a number of other options—can be very helpful in warding off depression. Turns out that talking to other people, belonging to a group and being of service help those who “work it” ward of the isolationism of depression that leads to suicide.

At the end of my drinking (and in early sobriety), I always had that feeling of impending doom. Now that I’m sober, I rarely feel that way, even though life has delivered a ton of blows, including being fired, having a life-altering injury, going through a divorce and having members of my family die. But at those times, not only did I not want to drink or use but I didn’t want to kill myself either. Thinking about the topics of suicide and thinking about it for myself are, thankfully, entirely different.

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About Author

Johnny Plankton is the pseudonym for a freelance business and comedy writer/editor (and recovering alcoholic) who lives in Boston. He is also a grateful member of America’s largest alcohol recovery “cult” as well as Al-Anon.