The problems of suicide, and how Freud helps us think about depression.

I was featured today on a podcast with my colleague Rebecca Wong, where we journeyed together through a beautiful and winding conversation about politics, good-enough parents, historical and cultural trauma, loss, and the infancy of the internet. It was one of those conversations that felt like sitting in a cozy chair chatting with an old friend over a glass of strong whiskey in front of a crackling, warm fire. (If you’d like to listen, here is the link:

As is often the case when listening back on a conversation that’s been recorded, when the episode aired today I had a chance to hear the person I was a month ago: what was on my mind, where both our minds took us, what was happening in the cultural milieu, and the ideas we were shaping together in that organic space and time. But today, I am a different person, of course; I have had new experiences, thought new thoughts, made new links, and have had time to let our conversation percolate. At the time, and today, our conversation about suicide left me with a strange feeling. I will try to articulate that feeling well enough here today.

I will say, suicide is a complicated thing. To understand it, I turn to Freud’s beautiful paper Mourning and Melancholia. In this paper, Freud describes the melancholic as someone who cannot let go of a lost object. To Freud, an “object” is not necessarily a thing, like, say, the computer you’re reading this article from. An object, in psychoanalysis, generally refers to a person in your life who holds a significant place in your development. Your mother is an object, as is your father (or other mother, or grandparent, or whomever raised you). That “object” is taken in by you when you are developing and growing a “self”. We assemble our sense of self in part based on the objects we can take in around us. Those objects, like all people, will die. They will change. They will expose themselves to be not what (or who) you thought them to be. When we cannot mourn or grieve the loss of a person, or the loss of who we thought that person was, either because they’ve died or because of a change in our own awareness or life circumstance, then we can become melancholic and depressed. We hold on to something we wish could still exist because the pain of letting go would be too shattering to our idea of ourselves and our world.

It is often the melancholic, or in more present-day terms, the person who is depressed, who has a tendency toward suicide. Freud compared the narcissist to the melancholic by saying that for both types of people, there exists a deep and intense self-absorption. This is not a judgment; it is more of a descriptor, that in both cases, the person cannot really engage fully with the outside world. The difference between someone who is narcissistic and someone who is depressed, though, has to do with this “object” that they have internalized. For a depressed person, the object is so important to them that it has become the same as themselves. That’s how badly a person does not want to (is not able to) let go of that object and wants to hold on tight: They overlay the object onto themselves, as though they in fact are that object. This way, in an unconscious fantasy, the object (person) will never die. (Keep in mind that the object does not actually have to die, it simply has to betray you.)

In particular, when that object is someone who has hurt you, and yet you have taken it in as though that object were actually yourself, this can cause major harm to you. Because, if that object is hurtful, and yet that object and you are one and the same, then how do you get rid of the bad object? Freud suggests that the melancholic may believe that in order to kill off that object once and for all, they must in fact kill themselves.

Suicide, then, can happen when that object which the person is unable to let go of is also the target of hostility, anger, rage, and aggression. Killing oneself is such an aggressive act. Suicidal thoughts themselves are a fantasy of trying to control an overwhelming process, or even of making someone else pay for something they did (“If I die, they’ll be sorry they ever said that to me!”). I think we can see a deep aggression and rage in that kind of thinking. 

When a person is trapped in self-punishing thoughts like I’ve described above, they have confused themselves with the person they hate. When that person tries to kill their own self, they are actually trying to kill the object (that person they hate), even though they may not consciously know of their own rage and aggression toward that person. Clearly, that hatred is not able to be expressed to the object, otherwise it would go where it is intended. Instead, it is lashed back at oneself.

Think about this, please, if you have ever had suicidal thoughts: It is not yourself you want to kill. Who is it that you have murderous, angry thoughts towards? Who has betrayed you? And, can you find a therapist to talk to about this, so that it can be worked through instead of acted out?

As someone who finds herself in touch with death and its proximity on a daily basis, I find myself thinking how fortunate I am to embrace the unexpected each day I am alive. Those people who have completed a suicide are people I will never run into at the market and share a laugh with. They are people I will never sit next to on the train. They are people I will never get to know, get to merge in traffic with, who I will never have the privilege of being impacted by. I mourn the people I will never get to know because they were not able to separate the object they hate from themselves. I also feel tender and painful empathy for the people I know who struggle with this so often.

To circle back to my conversation with Rebecca, I wish I had had a chance to speak with her more in-depth about this. We did speak of end-of-life euthanasia and assisted suicide for people in chronic pain who have made the choice that this is the best move for them. But in cases of melancholia or depression, how can one truly make a choice when one has not had the chance to really think with another person in order to tease out the difference between the object and the self? You are not the people who have hurt you, and you are not responsible to them. But for survival’s sake you may have convinced yourself, or been convinced, otherwise. I just hope that if you find yourself thinking in this way that you give yourself, and those whom you have not yet met, the chance to help you create a differential between the circumstances and people who have caused you pain, and your own sweet and beautiful mind. 

If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States at 1-800-273-8255