Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

Four crisis questions

After hearing hundreds of people talk through their suicidal thoughts, I will tell you the main questions that have helped the most – the ones that dig the deepest for a lot of people. These big four questions are:

  • Who are you?
  • Who hurt you?
  • What do you feel?
  • What is your quest?

When we are in a suicide crisis, it is not just because of one thing that happened recently or because of a few isolated problems; the questions span from the distant past to the distant future and relate to the whole arc of life. We are all here to grow into our unique selves and fulfill a unique purpose. I visualize this arc as a person between earth and the sky. The earth is our past; energy flows from the ground into us, and the earth life force is a supporting springboard. The sky is our future and our options and ideals; its life force is pulling and opening.

When we are inclined to suicide, the life force is broken somewhere between earth and sky; there is no thread connecting the two poles of the life force. People in crisis usually report a feeling of being trapped, drowning, and consumed by earth or water, or alternately they are floating with no ground and consumed by sky. Among other reasons, we can get this way because the robotic pressures of uniformity in our schools, families, and everywhere in the culture can crush the spirit and cut those threads. When the threads are weak and then we are suddenly victimized by a traumatic thing like rape, or lose a special person, there may not be enough resilience to reconnect the threads.

“Who are you” is a question that hurting people need to hear because it opens the non-judgmental topic of being an individual in the first place, and is a gateway question to the life force. Many people are living as a number on a scale – their grades or their income or some rating of success, or they are living as a tool for someone else’s boasting or manipulation. If I ask people if they are introverted, they might say they are too introverted and they have been working on being more social. But the question is not “what is wrong with you”; it is “who are you”. Knowing that you are introverted without saying it is the problem can be part of differentiating and honoring that the way of being is fine; also it starts to point to what you might be inclined to do with your life. Play the hand with the cards you were dealt since you can’t re-deal.

Some of the most commonly vilified human qualities are sensitivity, thrill seeking, and broad focusing. Sensitive children are so often told to get tougher and not to take things so hard. But these are the people who love universally and create harmony in the world, so it is a tragedy that our culture teaches sensitive people to hide.

Thrill-seeking children are told to stop, stop, stop – stop doing everything in your nature to do. “Be safe, don’t be you.” But we need people to take risks and push limits. It’s true that a thrill seeker could die while parachuting or some other risky thing, but it a bigger tragedy if they can never live as themselves in the first place.

Broad focusing people are told to stay “on task” all the time and achieve pre-determined goals – other people’s tasks and goals, not theirs. But to be truly alive, these people need to see connections between everything, and to create.

Other identifying questions can reveal logic versus feeling, independence versus family, creative versus receptive, and many other things. Just asking the question shifts away from right and wrong (a robotic question) towards being a unique human.

Along with being vilified, people who are a step away from the normal can get labels like borderline, autistic, or ADHD and be given medications which help in some ways but also may be geared towards making them less themselves. Medications like that sometimes “work” by making people less in some way – less scattered, energetic or receptive, so they fit society better but are less able to be in the earth and sky energy flow.

“Who hurt you” is a question that helps separate a person from what happened to them. It is important to name abusers and parents and others who applied pressure, and know that those things happened to us, but we didn’t do them. It is important to list both the big victimizing things like rape along with the ongoing patterns of minimizing that often are legal or even celebrated. For example, parents who “want the best” for their children and take it out on them by constant nagging and judging might be hurting them.

Some people in suicide crisis believe that they were themselves responsible for everything that happened to them. In the extreme “I had to be hit because I misbehaved”. Anger is often absent, in the sense that the faculty for anger has been pried away from the person so that they won’t have the power to retaliate. Part of getting out of that belief is asking the “who are you” question about the parents or partner. What kind of person are they? Knowing the qualities of the others (also without judgment) helps to see how they could do what they did, and that it wasn’t the fault of the victim.

“How do you feel” is a question that our culture does not like to ask. We ask “how are you” but usually only want to hear one answer. It is important to ask and dig for nuanced descriptions because feelings are a gateway to needs; they illuminate what we need to do next. The more descriptive and accurate we can be, and the more a listener can understand feelings in detail, the more clear the needed actions become. While there are really only a few basic emotions (sadness, anger, fear and a few others), they are made more complex in three main ways that I have seen, The first way is by being layered. Only the top feeling is easily accessible, while the ones underneath can be working without our knowing. For example, a person can be sad and not feel any anger but then after expressing the sadness and letting it be as big as it needs to, it releases enough to see anger or some other feeling that was underneath.

A second complexity is how feelings are connected to thoughts and beliefs. Someone might say “I feel like I want to die” or “I feel he might leave” and the way of saying that highlights the thinking more than the feeling. The first one could be feelings of despair, grief, or being overburdened, while the second one is a fear. Nudging the language towards more direct feeling words helps release the feelings more than is possible with the indirect language. It also opens connections to other things – for example, if we open up fear as part of our experience, we might realize we are afraid of more than what we originally were thinking about.

A third complexity is in nuance. Some people want to die and others want to be dead, and others want to not be born. Those are very different. Likewise, the pain people experience is all different and just saying “pain” in not enough. It could be crushing or lonely or dull or sharp or sudden. One way to access the nuance of feelings when we don’t find the words is to make a picture or story of it. For example: like a boat drifting in a wild current, or like a dry desert with no one for miles.

“What is your quest” is a question that I never ask in those words, but it is important to try to reconnect the thread to the sky force. Often a hurting person has to go way back to remember the future. “What did 10-year old Marcie want for her future” is a question I could ask 20-year old Marcie. Quests cannot be suggested or argued; they just arise from who we are, who hurt us, and what we feel. If a person is inclined to die, it almost always means she has no options; everything is blocked. It is important to center on the kind of quest that she actually has the power do and does not involve changing other people.

Working with people in crisis is great for so many reasons, and a big one for me is how they are willing to put everything on the table, and quickly explore dark places that more stable people are likely to wall off. Change has to be fast and often they are willing to change, so having these questions in mind can help them make a significant pivot in a single conversation.